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

Map of Rhode Island
Laris Karklis/The Washington Post
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 11, 2010

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.

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