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Rhode Island's Secret Coast

Boats at the Newport Harbor in Rhode Island.

Photo: Emiliano Granado

And skinny-dipping. A little further on is Moonstone Beach, which my sister, who escaped Brown as often as she could, told me was a nude beach favored by students. Today the long, sandy stretch is accompanied by signs reminding visitors that this is a family friendly beach where there is to be no nudity. Still, it’s worth the walk.

Onward to Watch Hill, the last coastal town in Rhode Island before crossing the state border into Connecticut. This grande dame of a village once vied with Newport as the toniest resort in the state, but its turn-of-the-20th-century shingled “cottages” were much less pretentious. Indeed, when I started visiting Watch Hill with my then-two-year-old son, it was a rambling, fraying, lost place; the large old houses were considered white elephants, hard to maintain, constantly battered by ocean wind and salt water.

We used to stay in the ramshackle Ocean House, built in 1868, with its huge stone hearth and communal dining room. The place always felt thrillingly, frighteningly as if it were about to slide into the ocean. We would head down toward the beach to ride the colorful wooden creatures of the Flying Horse Carousel. The wind caught their real tails and manes and we suspected we might soon spin off into the air. Residents claim that the carousel, built in 1879, is the oldest in the country.

But that was in the mid 1980’s, before the go-go years of the last boom economy. In the nineties, a new generation of money began to renovate the old houses. The Ocean House was rescued by Chuck Royce, a Wall Street financier with a passion for architecture. He spent an astonishing $146 million over five years to tear down the building and rebuild it, replicating the old exterior and its sunny color. Inside, there is little left of the old place, except for the handsome stone hearth—and the stunning views over a long, dramatic, sandy beach and the open ocean.

Where the old hotel had 159 guest rooms, the new one has 49. Each room is large and the bathrooms are spalike, with Edwardian-style fixtures. Art from the local Lily Pad Gallery (for sale) lines the hallways. There’s a seriously long indoor pool and a spa that features seasonal ingredients, such as pumpkins in the fall and strawberries in the spring, in its scrubs and oils. At the restaurant, Seasons, all the produce is fresh and locally harvested whenever possible, and the bread alone is worth the price of admission. You have to be an investment banker to afford to stay here—or to buy one of the lovely residences on offer. But, hey, that’s probably in keeping with the original spirit of the place.

Leaving Seasons one night, it struck me, as only someone staggering away from a deliciously indulgent meal can be struck, gazing out over the starlight twinkling in the ragged surf, that coastal Rhode Island is a delicious, old-fashioned ice cream sandwich of a place. On either end are the rich, luxurious bits. The fun stuff is in the middle, and you have to catch it fast before it disappears—only to be replaced by something quite similar, in another delicious flavor. But at its heart, and in spite of the encroachment of real estate developers, the true coastal experience, the one that leaves a trace on the soul, hasn’t actually changed that much in 200 years. Its riches remain quietly hidden among coves and crannies, tucked in under the scrubby pines and behind the dunes, available to anyone curious enough to slow down and find them.

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