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Sunday, August 20 Living

Watch Hill, R.I.: Charming coastal village and white sand beaches captivate visitors

Long Island Sound is Connecticut’s largest playground, but if you occasionally yearn for walks on long stretches of white sand, the roar of ocean breakers or strolls along the main street of an old seaside resort, then you must discover Rhode Island’s Watch Hill.

It’s easy to get to (assuming you consider Interstate 95 a delight). Take the North Stonington exit 91 and make a right. Or if you are sailing or powering a yacht, set a heading for Fishers Island, leave it to starboard and consult your chart. It is no more than a two-hour drive from anywhere in Fairfield County; by yacht, well, that depends on you and your boat.

Most stories about this idyllic southwestern corner of Rhode Island begin with the Ocean House and mega pop star Taylor Swift. So there, I’ve checked those two boxes and we’ll move on, returning a bit later.

Watch Hill Road and Wauwinnet Avenue are the last legs of your approach to the Watch Hill peninsula. It is lined with large, beautiful houses of different New England styles: from ranch to American Four Square, from colonial to shingle style. In the last 30 years of the 20th century, Watch Hill went through a period of decline. Since 2000 or so, however, money has come back in a big way and the homes are once again beautifully detailed and landscaped.

Bay Street marks your official entrance to Watch Hill, a coastal village in Westerly, R.I., and though wealth has restaked its claim here, it has not diminished its patina and charm. Leave your car behind as quickly as you can (there are several parking areas); the Watch Hill Historic District is best seen by foot. The entire loop starting at Bay Road is less than a mile long.

Start down Bay Street with the quaint storefronts to the left and Watch Hill Cove on the right. Some classic wooden boats may be docked at one of two street-side marinas, and there are many beautiful yachts moored in the well-protected cove. Standing out among the storefronts is a classic beach-side bistro, the Olympia Tea Room, which last year celebrated its 100th anniversary.

Proprietors Jack and Marcia Felber took ownership of what was already a well-established local institution in 1980. They made significant aesthetic changes to the dining area, replacing fluorescent light with glass bead and crystal chandeliers, and adding a floor of black and white square tiles. The wall space above the beautiful dark-stained wood paneling got a coat or two of cotton-candy pink paint. It is a marvelously warm and welcoming space that leads to a long wooden bar in the back, separated from the dining area by a half wall. Three shelves of bottles line the mirrored back of the bar, and the view to the west is spectacular. Many a time people have dropped in for a quick post-beach drink and stayed the evening. Best to make the Olympia Tea Room the last stop of the day, and enjoy the sunset from its large outdoor seating area.

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Just past the tea room, where Bay Street curls left and begins its uphill climb to the appropriately named Bluff Avenue, sits the Flying Horse Carousel, sometimes called the Watch Hill Merry-Go-Round. It is the oldest operating carousel in the country, and is still good fun in the digital age. As the carousel starts to spin, centrifugal force pushes the horses outward, hence the flying horses. At the carousel is the entrance to one of Watch Hill’s three beach areas, which charges day or seasonal admission rates.

Our tour will continue up Bay Street, but if you have to leave us here you can branch off to the Napatree Point Conservation Area that offers a long sandy beach on both sides of its narrow point of land, as well as hiking areas and bird (and people) watching. If nature trails or beaches aren’t your thing, visit Small Axe Productions, a little shop that takes you back to the tie-dyed and batik days.

Reaching Bluff Avenue is a relatively steep but short climb from Bay Street, and once there the view east across Block Island Sound is breathtaking. It is home to several Newport-style mansions, including one purchased for $17 million several years ago by the aforementioned Swift that towers over East Beach and is protected from slipping into the sea by a fortress of enormous boulders.

Just down Bluff Avenue from the Swift mansion sits the Ocean House, which Forbes Magazine identifies as one of only 11 “Forbes triple five-star hotels in the world.” Obviously, it is the type of hotel where if you have to ask about rates you can’t afford it. But that was not always the case.

The original Ocean House was a sprawling wooden inn that stood guard over East Beach, the most popular of the Watch Hill beaches. Starting in 1970 or so, it fell into disrepair and barely managed to stay in business. People who stayed there describe it as part haunted house, part old New England inn and all part firetrap. But it was affordable for most, and all were welcome at the bar. Now it is open to guests only, and has even taken over the part of Each Beach directly below the hotel, which is roped off to keep out the unwanted. One can still walk the beach below the high tide line, but don’t dare step foot on Ocean House property.

East Beach provides the best body surfing and ocean swimming, and the sand extends for miles, so a walk along the water’s edge can last for hours. The main public access is half a mile or so east from the Ocean House, but there is a hack if you don’t feel like walking that far. Drive along Bluff Avenue and make a right onto Westerly Road, just past the Ocean House entrance. Several hundred yards down the road is a public access path to the beach marked by a sign that reads “No Beach Drop-off.” Those in the know come equipped for a quick escape from the car, dropping off passengers carrying beach chairs and umbrellas before someone tells them to stop. The driver then returns to a parking lot in town and makes the 10-minute walk back to the path.

Watch Hill is a perfect spot for a weekend escape. While the Ocean House is beyond most people’s reach, Bay Street offers several inns and motels, including the Watch Hill and Bayside inns and the Harbor House. For those who come by boat, you can set anchor in the cove or rent a space at one of several marinas. Best to search the web for the most appropriate spot for your particular craft.

Bob Horton is a columnist for the Greenwich Time and a regular contributor to Sunday Arts & Style.

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