I begin my tour of the coast by heading away from the water and into town. The main road, Route 77, takes me past grazing cows, meadows tumbling into the Sakonnet River and countless old swamp maples. Little Compton had a long reputation as an artists’ colony in the middle of the last century. I still see bands of plein air painters every summer, stationed in cow pastures overlooking the river, or on the beach, trying to capture waves crashing against boulders. On the walls of the unassuming Little Compton library hangs a surprising trove of paintings by the incomparable Molly Luce, who painted scenes all over Sakonnet from the 1930’s on and was once called “the American Breughel” by a New York art critic.
Any visit to Little Compton Commons should include a lobster roll at Commons Lunch and a trip to the ancient graveyard, where someone is always taking a rubbing off a fine headstone. I also love the feel of the historic Wilbor House, part of which dates from 1690; it is filled with historical furnishings. When I wander through its rooms, I am overcome by a sense of the quality of 17th-century daily life under those low ceilings, the milky light coming in through small panes of glass, embers glowing in the hearth well into the cool summer nights.
Just 10 minutes up the road lies the historic town of Tiverton Four Corners, which has been around nearly as long as Plymouth Colony. Painters continue to be drawn to the lambent light here, even if affordable real estate is harder to find. But the tradition of unpretentious galleries thrives, and a small cluster of shops, among the best in the state, feature charming artisanal work.
I have become a bit of a weaving nut. (Does it go with a love of granola?) There’s something about rich texture, odd colors, and the knowledge that every string of warp and weft was knotted into place by an artist’s hand. Amy Lund creates gorgeous, nubbly woolen blankets and throws, and smart linen tea towels, place mats, and napkins on huge looms right in her shop. Down the street, Tiffany Peay makes exquisite, delicately wrought gold jewelry with pearls and gemstones, perfect for catching the soft evening light at the beach, while the potters at Roseberry-Winn Pottery produce low-relief patterned vases, tiles, and lamps in soft jewel tones. And designer Anne Page at Nankeen makes unusual and handsome hand-printed indigo cotton bags and fabrics—everything is blue and white, and feels just right by the sea.
There’s also wonderful pastry at Provender and cheese and all the fixings for a picnic across the street at Milk & Honey Bazaar. Gray’s Ice Cream is one of the few independent ice cream makers left in a state that used to be full of dairies; it has been operating since 1922. I have a fond memory of standing in a long summer line with my small sons, watching the cows chew their cud out back, explaining to them where milk comes from, and watching the horror on their faces as they made the connection to their ice cream cones. It didn’t stop them, though.
Next stop is Aquidneck Island; no one can claim to have explored the coast without a stay in Newport. In high summer, the city is jammed with visitors to the justifiably famous mansions, the “summer cottages” of the nouveaux riches at the turn of the 19th century. If, like Henry James, you find such extravagant heaps “grotesque,” you can make short work of Newport.
But you’d be making a mistake. Who can resist a visit to Marble House, where Alva Vanderbilt appeared as the Empress of China at a lavish costume party in her (real) gold ballroom?
My favorite of the mansions, and probably the least well-known among them, is Kingscote, a wooden Gothic Revival completed in 1841. It has an extensive collection of early Rhode Island furniture. The Elms, completed in 1901, is interesting for its wine cellar, coal tunnel, and servants’ quarters. The back quarters are always fascinating in large houses, because of questions that spring to mind: How did they ever take care of a place this size? Who did the cooking? The ironing of all those starched napkins?
Beyond the mansions, there’s the handsome Touro Synagogue, the oldest house of Jewish worship in America, which broke ground in 1759. (Jews and Quakers were among the earliest settlers in the religiously tolerant colony.) Some claim that its elegant lines influenced Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. The Palladian-style Redwood Library & Athenaeum, with a priceless collection of rare books and early American paintings, is the oldest lending library in continuous service in the United States. Henry James was a frequent visitor, no doubt taking respite from the frenzied gaiety of the cottage crowd.