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Little Rhody's big secret: Miles of beautiful beaches and more

By Becky Krystal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 11, 2010; F01

An orange-and-blue baseball cap is not the most subtle beachwear.

I came to that seemingly obvious realization one recent Wednesday afternoon, when I caught my reflection in a shop window in Watch Hill, R.I. It practically screamed at me how out of place I looked in this laid-back coastal village of yachts and mansions painted pale shades of gray, blue and yellow.

I had to shop. About 25 miles away in Narragansett Pier, a hat display in one store caught my attention. But I wanted to check out the rest of the beach town's strip before doling out any cash.

The shopkeeper agreed. "You have to see what else is out there," she said.

It was as if she had just summed up my entire trip. I had three days to sample coastal living in Rhode Island, and while I'd already been charmed by what I'd seen in a half a day of the longstanding resort villages of Watch Hill and Narragansett Pier, there was still much more to explore.

Rhode Island was going to be my playground for surveying beach life up North, far from oil spill concerns, where peak season was only beginning in late June. The aptly named Ocean State has 400 miles of coastline, yet its beaches have a lower profile than their Massachusetts brethren. Cape Cod with fewer people? Count me in.

* * *

Like Martha's Vineyard without the hordes or development: That's how I'd seen Block Island described. Almost half of the 11 square miles that make up this pork-chop-shaped island 12 miles off the coast are preserved, and only about 1,000 people call it home year-round, though the population can swell to several times that number during the summer.

A modest portion of the visitors who make that happen joined me aboard the ferry departing from Point Judith in Narragansett on Thursday morning. The swath of humanity included people toting items from enormous suitcases to hanging plants and black Labs. Some zonked out in booths in the cabin for the hour-long trip; others braved the powerful whipping wind to claim a prime viewing spot at the front of the boat.

The island slowly appeared on the horizon, presenting a stretch of picturesque cliffs that was soon joined by the classically New England streetscape of Old Harbor. Then I witnessed what surely must have been the hamlet's quaint version of rush hour, as cars and people streamed off the boat and dispersed just as quickly.

Block Island wasn't always so accessible. The breakwater that brought Old Harbor into existence wasn't completed until the 1870s. Native Americans had lived on the island, which they called Manisses ("Island of the Little God"), for thousands of years before Dutch explorer Adriaen Block came along in 1614. Colonists permanently settled there about 50 years later. Like the surrounding ocean, the island's history as a tourist draw has experienced ebb and flow, with a high after the Civil War and a drop with the Great Depression. It rebounded about 40 years ago and has kept steady since.

Old Harbor evinces a mix of those eras. I ambled past grand hotels, fudge and knickknacks stores and rows of mopeds. Soon I settled on a bike rental. My steed: a bright pink beach cruiser, complete with handlebar basket.

Unsure how long I could count on my non-bicycle-accustomed legs, I pedaled straight for the Mohegan Bluffs, the steep cliffs on the south end of the island named after the Native Americans who were forced over the edge to their death in a battle with another tribe about 500 years ago. I glided along, the ocean to my left. On my right were green fields veined with stone walls. (The island claims 300 to 400 miles of them, built by black, Native American and Scottish indentured servants to clear the land for farming, according to Pam Gasner of the Block Island Historical Society.) The similarities to other places began to run through my mind. What was this like? Prince Edward Island? Ireland? Although meant as compliments, the comparisons aren't entirely fair to Block Island, which possesses a tranquil beauty all its own.

Those pleasant ruminations came to an abrupt halt at the first hill. I hesitated too long while adjusting the gears, and rather than topple over, I dismounted to, um, admire the stone walls. Yes, look at that craftsmanship!

Shame set aside, I walked my bike up the incline before a quick detour to the brick Southeast Light, the lighthouse completed in 1875 that was moved back 245 feet in 1993 because of the erosion of the Mohegan Bluffs. From the small parking lot at the bluffs, a vegetation-lined path led to the top of the cliffs, where I saw fellow visitors paused at various points on the more than 100 steps leading down along the embankment to the beach below.

The stairs are the easy part. The problem arises when they end at what feels like a premature spot, leaving the intrepid to scramble over the rocks to the shore. I came out relatively unscathed, except for a mild raspberry on my left hand.

The payoff, though, could not have been better. Dramatic cliffs rose along the shoreline. Underfoot was not soft sand but an even less stable layer of smooth rocks rounded by time and waves. Larger stones, fuzzy with green sea vegetation, freckled the shallow water. The setting exuded an end-of-the-earth aura. My hope had been to have the bluffs to myself, but the air of camaraderie that existed between the happy few who had ventured there was equally appealing.

Ellen and Alan Dowgewicz of Windsor, Conn., were among the sightseers spreading out on the beach the afternoon I visited. The couple had come for an overnight visit to celebrate their 20th anniversary. They'd previously brought their children to Block Island, Ellen said, but they decided to keep future trips to themselves. "This is our special place," she explained.

Beverly Isacco had driven from San Diego with her husband, Ed, for his 50th high school reunion in Warwick, R.I. They'd come to the island for a day trip.

"We have different beaches" in San Diego, Beverly said. "We don't have rugged beaches like this. It's very beautiful."

Rather than continue around the west side of the island, which the bike shop employee had advised might be too hilly for me, I backtracked to pick up a smoothie in Old Harbor. I knew that basket would come in handy.

Meandering out of town, I passed more shops and a number of freshwater ponds (there are 365 on the island). I wanted to visit the island's other lighthouse, the 1868 North Light, next. On the road, I called out to a fellow cyclist headed in the opposite direction: "Is this the way to the north lighthouse?"

"Yes, but watch the weather!" he warned.

Wise man. The skies were turning gray, and once I started compulsively identifying the various porches I could hide under, I knew it was time to turn around. Sure enough, the second I jumped off my bike at the town beach bathhouse, the storm rolled in. It was quick to pass, however, and the prospect of a chunk of fudge propelled me back to Old Harbor.

* * *

That night, I did a little more sightseeing in Narragansett Pier, an unincorporated village of about 4,000 in the town of Narragansett (est. 1901). The landmark remains of the Narragansett Pier Casino beckoned to me in the purple twilight. Designed by the famed firm of McKim, Mead and White (as in the infamously murdered architect Stanford White), the attraction fell victim to a fire in 1900 and then several more in the 1960s. All that's left of the casino -- not a place to gamble but a social hub -- are the signature towers that arch across the main drag, Ocean Road, like the gateway to a medieval town.

I paused in the plaza next to the Towers, my eyes drawn to the twinkly lights peeking from the high windows open to the sea breeze. Jazzy tunes provided a soundtrack to the silhouettes of the dancers who seemed to flit across the decades.

The scene was not a spontaneous throwback to the Pier's heyday. The Towers has been holding weekly music and dancing events for 11 years, coordinator Kate Vivian said. It was a tantalizing taste of the past.

Narragansett Pier "used to be a playground for the rich and famous," said Mary Beth Kreger, my host with her husband, Chris, at the Tower House B&B. "It rivaled Newport as far as its popularity back in the day. . . . I would love for it to become that again."

Today, the village is not the mega-resort area it was a century ago. "There's a strong local mentality, especially for the town beach," said Sara Grimsley, a former Bethesda resident attending the University of Rhode Island and waitressing at PJ's Pub in Narragansett Pier.

Like a lot of the state's coastal towns, Narragansett has its own stretch of sand with bathrooms, showers and other facilities. It's open to the public, although only residents are eligible for seasonal parking passes. Those without passes pay a daily parking fee that also applies to non-residents. In other places, the daily parking rate is different for residents and non-residents, as it is at the state beaches, where spots are more plentiful.

Out-of-towners tend to frequent the state beaches more, Grimsley said. Sure enough, the next day, though there were plenty of Rhode Island plates in the parking lot at Misquamicut State Beach, about 25 miles from Narragansett Pier, there were nearly as many from Connecticut, with some from New York thrown in as well.

Richard Stone of Patchogue, N.Y., was working on a sand castle he'd started with his niece. He has been coming to Misquamicut since he was a kid in Connecticut. "It's very family-friendly," he said. His relatives around the Northeast also find it a convenient place to meet.

With bathrooms, concession stands, a playground and a long stretch of wide beach, Misquamicut is understandably attractive to families. A couple of hours hopscotching around people on the crowded sand was enough for me, though. I fled back to where I'd started my journey: Watch Hill, a village in the southwest corner of the state that grew into a resort community in the late 19th century (sensing a pattern here).

Seeking more of the old-school glamour I'd come across the previous evening, I took a walk along the appropriately named Bluff Avenue, admiring the grand homes and their equally grand views of the water. Then I came to the grandest one of all, the Ocean House hotel, a sprawling yellow Victorian complete with rambling porches and a croquet court.

It felt somewhat illicit to walk into the lobby as a non-guest, but I couldn't help myself. A wall of windows left the hardwood floors, the armchairs and the columns awash in sunlight. Employees buzzed about greeting guests and curious interlopers. The hotel had just reopened after a reconstruction based on the original building from 1868. I could smell the new paint. And the nearly $500 nightly rate. Thankfully, I had neither the time nor the cash to be tempted into postponing my departure.

But then, on the walk back to my car, I sidled down to East Beach, along a rough-hewn path lined with greenery. To the right was the Watch Hill lighthouse; to the left, in the distance, the crowds at Misquamicut; and straight ahead, just feet away, blue topaz waves.

That, I could have stayed for.

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