Easy Fall Getaway: Rhode Island Coast

The Rhode Island Coast surprised me. It probably shouldn’t have. I grew up in New England where you can discern the differences between summer towns by their white picket fences and clapboard ship captain’s houses, gingerbread cottages, ice cream flavors, rosa rugosa and beach plum bushes—and the way the wind blows in from the southwest. From Edgartown to Gay Head, Nantucket to Osterville, Duxbury to Marblehead, Sagaponack to Shelter Island, I have listened to the crashing and lapping of the sea and bicycled the patchwork of cobblestone streets, brick sidewalks and sandy paths, past giant periwinkle hydrangeas and charming shingled “cottages.” (I once got whiplash on a motor boat that hit the shallow sands on the wrong side of a marker at sunset in Chatham while staying in one.) I also grew up sailing the coasts of Maine, Massachusetts and Connecticut. And I have toured some of the glorious mansions of Newport to catch a glimpse of a bygone era. But perhaps because Rhode Island is only 37 miles wide and 48 miles long, somehow, I had managed to skirt around most of the long, fingerling-shaped peninsulas of the Ocean State. In a way, it seems fitting that I have traveled to all of these other places in order to finally find my way to the quieter enclaves of Watch Hill and Weekapaug and their many charms (no matter the season). Here’s where to stay and what to see and do to make the most of both.

Lay of the Land

With a population of just 224 year-round residents, the village of Watch Hill spans just under one square mile and is part of the town of Westerly. It’s surrounded by water on three sides, so wherever you are, ocean views of the Atlantic on one side and Little Narragansett Bay and the Pawcatuck River on the other are hard to miss. The harbor itself is small, but offers protection, a seawall and safe haven for sailors or “yachtsmen,” as they are still called here. On a clear day, you can see Fisher’s Island and Long Island south of Napatree Point. The tiny town gets its name because it was used as a watch point in the French and Indian War and the Revolutionary War by Europeans. Before that, in the 1600s, it was occupied by a part of the Narragansett Native American tribe known as the Nianticks, and Napatree Point once served as a military post. Now, the view from the lighthouse is still worth the trip for that same panoramic view.

Like some other quintessential New England summer places, it leans to preppy, classic and all-American, but a touch more low-key, with no discernible “see-and-be-seen” scene to speak of (perhaps, because it’s all happening behind the scenes—or the hedges). In mid-July, the main drag—Bay Street, just a few blocks of grey shingled shops and cafés with blue canopies (and names like Coco & Lala, Lolo, Coppola’s, St. Clair, The Candy Box, Gramma’s Gelato Café, High Point Home)—buzzes with shoppers and restaurant-goers. At the far end of the road sits the Flying Horses carousel, the country’s oldest merry-go-round, which also marks the entrance to one of the town’s main beaches. Summer people stroll by with folding chairs, boogie boards and children in tow, and straw totes packed with striped towels, headed for the sand or the yacht club on the waterfront. It’s a Vineyard Vines catalog come to life. 

Similarly, just a few miles away, Weekapaug (the Native American Narragansett Indian meaning is “at the end of the pond”) is a little over one square mile enclave just six or seven miles from Watch Hill, depending on the road you choose. If seclusion and a bit of privacy is what you’re after, you can find places to hide away here on the barrier beach that separates the Atlantic from Quonochontaug (a.k.a. Quonnie) Pond, a shallow saltwater lagoon. It’s the kind of place where in the summer kids (and adults) will go looking for horseshoe crabs, dig for clams (“Quahogs”), jump off the dock and learn how to row a boat, kayak, paddleboard or sail, all in the same day. It’s also the kind of place where you might catch a glimpse of an egret or a heron or a piping plover or an osprey as you are sitting at lunch. (Though you probably won’t catch a glimpse of the elusive Taylor Swift.) Although both destinations are thriving during summer months, fall and spring are also gorgeous times to be here, when the light is different and the air is crisp, the beach feels more rugged and the fireplaces (in the hotel or many of the rooms) can actually be used to romantic effect. 

Where to Stay

– Jen Barr on September 16, 2022

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