"Great beaches and Victorian charm" prompted Money magazine to tap this area of southwestern Rhode Island as one of the top twelve vacation spots in North America. Beaches the area has aplenty, especially Misquamicut State Beach, the largest in Rhode Island, with seven miles of sand and surf. The Victorian charm is sometimes upstaged by fishing villages and honky-tonk that time has passed by.
Formally named Washington County but popularly called South County, the area stretches from fabled Watch Hill, a moneyed, Victorian-era resort of the old school, up to Narragansett, an early rival to Newport, and historic Wickford, an ideal seaside village in busy North Kingstown.
Westerly on the Connecticut border is the area's largest city, but visitors are generally more interested in the beach communities of Watch Hill and Misquamicut.
Staid, storied Watch Hill has enjoyed better days, its faded beach hotels throwbacks to a gentler era. But the large brown shingled "cottages" remain lived in, the shops fashionable and the atmosphere clubby. Very much a seasonal resort, it occupies a point at the southwesternmost tip of Rhode Island. Sheltered Long Island Sound gives way here to Block Island Sound and the Atlantic, opening up the surf beaches for which Rhode Island's South County is known.
Except for an updated menu, Watch Hill's famed Olympia Tea Room on Bay Street looks much as it did upon opening in 1916. The still-operating Flying Horse Carousel (1867), a National Historic Landmark, is thought to be the oldest merry-go-round in the country. Beachcombers like to hike out a sandy spit to the ruins of a Spanish-American War fort at the far end of Napatree Point, a conservation area.
>> Westerly / Watch Hill Lodging and Dining Suggestions
Shelter Harbor Inn, 10 Wagner Road, Westerly. (401) 322-8883 or (800) 468-8883.
>> Westerly / Watch Hill Lodging Suggestions
Woody Hill B&B, 149 South Woody Hill Road, Westerly. (401) 322-0452.
>> Westerly / Watch Hill Dining Suggestions
The Up River Cafe, 37 Main St., Westerly. (401) 348-9700.
Venice Restaurant & Lounge, 165 Shore Road (Route 1-A), Westerly. (401) 348-8350.
>> Weekapaug Lodging and Dining Suggestions
Weekapaug Inn, 25 Spray Rock Road, Weekapaug. (401) 322-0301.
>> Misquamicut Lodging Suggestions
Breezeway Resort, 70 Winnapaug Road, Misquamicut. (401) 348-8953 or (800) 462-8872.
>> Misquamicut Dining Suggestions
Maria's Seaside Café, 132 Atlantic Ave., Misquamicut. (401) 596-6886.
>> Wakefield Lodging Suggestions
Brookside Manor, 380-B Post Road, Wakefield.(401) 788-3527.
The ocean beaches and inland forests turned Narragansett into a society resort rivaling Newport more than a century ago. Affluent Victorians built summer "cottages" almost as large as Newport's and flocked to ten major hotels and the Stanford White-designed 1883 Narragansett Casino. They enjoyed what they considered a simplicity and lack of pretension, as opposed to the more opulent Newport visible across Narragansett Bay.
Fires, hurricanes and changing travel patterns have left few reminders of the resort's colorful past. The landmark granite Towers spanning Ocean Road at the entrance to the old Casino and the high-rent districts along Ocean Road and Gibson Avenue remain. So does the Narragansett Indian Monument, a 23-foot-high sculpture carved from a single Douglas fir tree by artist Peter Toth, one of a series throughout the country honoring Native Americans. But Narragansett now generally draws Rhode Islanders who cherish its beaches, boating and fishing and the kinds of tourism that accompany them.
South County Museum, Boston Neck Road (Scenic Route 1-A), Narragansett.
Nearly 20,000 items relating to early Rhode Island life are on display on Canonchet Farm, across from the Narragansett town beach. Here is a 174-acre working mini-farm from the 19th century with a wildflower garden, nature trails and several farm buildings. A cemetery with graves dating to 1700, a one-room schoolhouse, a country kitchen and a general store are of interest. The museum has an extensive collection of tools, farm implements, utensils, toys, vehicles and mechanical devices depicting life a century ago. An old print shop shows how newspapers were produced at the turn of the last century.(401) 783-5400. Open May-October, daily except Tuesday, 10 to 5. Adults $3.50, children $1.75.
>> Narragansett Lodging Suggestions
The Richards, 144 Gibson Ave., Narragansett. (401) 789-7746.
Stone Lea, 40 Newton Ave., Narragansett. (401) 783-9546.
Ocean Rose Inn, 113 Ocean Road, Narragansett. (401) 783-4704.
Scarborough Beach Motel, 901 Ocean Road, Narragansett. (401) 783-2063.
>> Narragansett Dining Suggestions
Trieste Café & Trattoria, 944 Boston Neck Rd. (Route 1A), Narragansett. (401) 783-9944.
Spain of Narragansett, 1144 Ocean Road. Narragansett. (401) 783-9770.
1200 Ocean Grill, 1200 Ocean Road, Narragansett. (401) 782-1777.
Woody's, 21 Pier Market Place, Narragansett.(401) 789-9500.
Basil's, 22 Kingstown Road, Narragansett. (401) 789-3743.
Turtle Soup, 113 Ocean Road, Narragansett.(401) 792-8683.
Gilbert Stuart Birthplace, 815 Gilbert Stuart Road, Saunderstown.
Born here in 1755, Gilbert Stuart was the foremost portraitist in early America, best known for his portrait of George Washington. His dark red, Dutch Colonial-style house is turned away from the road to face a mirror-like millpond reached by a footbridge. The National Historic Landmark house, which contains few of his art works, is maintained more as a Colonial house museum than an art gallery. An operating snuff mill with water wheel, the first in America (1751), is on the lower level of the house.(401) 294-3001. Open April-October, Thursday-Monday, 11 to 4:30. Adults $5, children $2.
Casey Farm, 2325 Boston Neck Road (Route 1-A), Saunderstown.
A 300-acre working farm that was the site of Revolutionary War activity, this is one of the original plantation farms of the Colonial era. Still functioning as a community-supported farm, it has a fine collection of barns, organic gardens and an assortment of animals. The 1750 Casey Homestead overlooks Narragansett Bay and Conanicut Island. The house museum displays memorabilia interpreting several generations of the Casey family who were leaders in the U.S. military and Army Corps of Engineers. Now owned by the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, the house contains original furniture, family paintings, prints, china, and military and political documents over a span of more than 200 years from the 18th through the 20th centuries.(401) 295-1030. Open June to mid-October, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday 1 to 5. Adults $3, children $1.50.
Founded in 1641, the bayside village of Wickford is one of New England's most picturesque. Historic houses, old churches, beautiful gardens and a quaint downtown convey the look and feel of a seaside village little changed over the years except for an array of upscale shops. Wickford Cove may be glimpsed here and there between one of the richest concentrations of original late Revolutionary and Federal period houses in New England.
The Old Narragansett Church (1707) on Church Lane is the oldest Episcopal Church standing north of Virginia. Its organ, the oldest in America, dates to 1660. The wineglass pulpit, box pews and slave gallery are shown on free guided tours in summer, Friday-Sunday 11 to 4.
>> Wickford Dining Suggestions
Seaport Tavern Restaurant, 16 West Main St., Wickford. (401) 294-5771.