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Rhode Island's Secret Coast

Boats at the Newport Harbor in Rhode Island.

Photo: Emiliano Granado

I cross over Narragansett Bay, the second largest estuary on the East Coast, to head into Jamestown, a sailor’s dream if there ever were one. No one would mistake Jamestown for a shopper’s paradise, but I linger in the Conanicut Marine shop; like hardware stores, marine supply shops have infinite appeal, particularly if you do not own a sailboat and are in no danger of doing so. The windows are covered with pictures of yachts for sale; there is an excellent selection of boat shoes and sun hats, and I’m sure the creative DIY types find infinite uses for the colorful ropes and floats. Jamestown has managed to avoid the cuteness that mars Newport—perhaps because, for many years, there was no bridge connecting it to the island. Sadly, though, a plague of McMansions has befallen every coastal town. Old-timers simply avert their eyes, muttering about who needs so much space, what about the heating bills, and do residents phone each other to make plans to meet in the kitchen?

Several years ago, farmers in Rhode Island were having trouble selling their wool; they joined together, along with the farmers at Watson, a 265-acre working farmstead just outside town, to produce blankets made entirely from local—and undyed—fleece. They call their business Rhody Warm. (If you notice a wool theme here, I must gently remind you we spend much of winter huddled under blankets here.) Watson Farm sells the blankets, woven in a new pattern every year, as well as thick, beautiful, undyed yarns in soft gray and taupe tones.

Leaving Jamestown by the bridge, I catch funky Route 1A to drive along the coast to the town of Narragansett. Here, again, I must avert my eyes; enormous and ugly condo and shopping complexes are crowded around the Narragansett Pier area. I admire what’s left of the Stanford White–designed Towers Casino from 1883; most of it burned down in 1900, but the big stone towers and an arch were saved. And I drive on. There are intriguing glimpses of older mansions from a more genteel age, their lawns spilling down to the sea.

Things get livelier in Galilee; it is crowded and kitschy and fun. There’s Iggy’s Doughboys & Chowder House, serving a great fish-and-chips, and all manner of clam shacks. (If you can, read John Casey’s superb novel Spartina before you make this road trip. It gives a vivid picture of how dangerous life was for working fishermen around Point Judith, and how fiercely determined they were to hold on to their old ways.)

Then I keep hugging the coast, taking all roads off Route 1, including 1A and the Matunuck School House Road. This is the only way to stumble upon some of the weirder manifestations of little old Rhode Island’s famousness, including the Worm Ladies of Charleston, who have occasional open houses to teach people how to create a worm bin and make worm tea for fertilizer.

In all the years I have made this drive, it wasn’t until last summer that I finally found the famous (and at one time, infamous) hippie hangout the Umbrella Factory Gardens, tucked in a bit east of Ninigret National Wildlife Refuge. The Umbrella Factory is a series of shops set in a 19th-century farmyard, but with a decidedly 1960’s feel. I have to confess to a soft spot for this head shop, crammed with silver earrings, vintage clothing, Indian bedspreads, and the best collection of vintage eyeglasses I have ever seen. The weirder the better, as far as I’m concerned. The garden shop features an astonishing assortment of plants, including, drum roll, please, patchouli, which is a tender thing, but I managed to coax mine through the fall, and enjoyed rubbing its fragrant leaves and having Proustian moments that involved beaded headbands and fringed boots.

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