Thinking back on growing up in Rhode Island, I always turn to those August days when the thermometer stubbornly stuck in the nineties and my father would yield to our pleadings to "please take us to the beach."

The beach. It sounds as though my siblings and I had some special strip of sand in mind as we wheedled and cajoled our way into a day trip. But anywhere in the breezy vicinity of the clean, refreshing Atlantic would do.

As we trundled along in the red Studebaker, half the fun was wondering where we would end up. If we were headed north from Providence, toward the Mount Hope Bridge, our likely destination was Newport's Second Beach or Goosewing Beach in Little Compton. South offered more possibilities. Would it be Scarborough State Beach or Sand Hill Cove in Narragansett, or farther south still, where Green Hill, Matunuck, Quonochontaug or Misquamicut beckoned invitingly?

Those were the family favorites, places where we could leave our house at noon, dive into the surf a half-hour later and feast on quahogs (hard-shell clams), chowder and clam cakes at dusk with only the gulls and crashing waves for company.

There were crowds then, but manageable ones. You didn't have to lie elbow-to-elbow with a stranger to soak up the sun's rays -- and you still don't.

Although it's the smallest state, Rhode Island has 400 miles of shoreline and hundreds of clean white beaches along lower Narragansett Bay and Block Island and Rhode Island sounds. Most are open to the public, making the state's saltwater and freshwater seashore one of the most accessible in the Northeast.

Natives refer to the five major seashore towns (Narragansett, Westerley, Charlestown, North Kingstown and South Kingstown) on the west side of Narragansett Bay as "South County," although you won't find that designation on an official map. Along with Block Island (officially named New Shoreham), Jamestown Island (historically known as Conanicut) and Aquidneck Island (popularly called Newport), the region is also known generally as "The Beach."

The Beach is a compact area spanning wilderness and dunes, dotted with genuine historic sites from the American Revolution and Federal and Victorian eras, and few artificially created tourist attractions. There's a lot more to do here than just swim.

In fact, to do Rhode Island's seashore justice, take at least a week to explore, preferably two. The logical way to approach the beaches from Washington is from the south, starting in the southwest corner of the state and working your way northeast along the coast.

Rhode Island is about a 380-mile drive from Washington. Follow I-95 north to Westerly, R.I., and take scenic Rte. 1A south to Watch Hill. This 19th-century, seaside resort on Little Narragansett Bay has as its focal point the "cottages" of the wealthy who made this their summer colony in the 1840s. A vintage carousel, the Flying Horse, still spins its multicolored wooden steeds. It's a matter of much local debate whether the Flying Horse is the oldest operating carousel in the country.

The ruins of a colonial fort are perched on Napatree Point, a cape-like strip of sand graced on one end by the granite Watch Hill lighthouse. You can wander the grounds of the 1885 structure, but the current tenants, members of the U.S. Coast Guard, don't allow visitors inside.

A short drive east from here, you'll find massive ocean beaches bearing the Indian names: Misquamicut, Weekapaug and Quonochontaug. Misquamicut has a honky-tonk ambiance, featuring amusements such as a roller rink, carousel and other rides, in addition to night clubs, discotheques and windsurfing on its soft white sand. Quonochontaug has a breachway, a spit of land where it is said even amateur fishermen rarely come up empty-handed.

Farther north on Rte. 1A is the sleepiest of the shore towns, Charlestown. It is home to Burlingame State Park, which has 750 campsites, many on Watchaug Pond. Nearby Ninigret Pond, a former naval airfield, offers a wildlife refuge, nature center and freshwater swimming. It also sets aside space to go soaring in ultralights.

Although expansive, the Charlestown town beach is not easy to find from the main road. Take a right off Rte. 1A at the fire station onto Schoolhouse Road, then the third right onto Charlestown Beach Road, which you follow to the municipal beach parking lot. East Beach, another stretch of sand, is about 2 1/2 miles off East Beach Road.

From Charlestown, Rte. 1A takes you to Green Hill and Matunuck beaches and Moonstone Beach, where nude bathing is tolerated if not officially sanctioned. Matunuck is home to the Theatre-by-the-Sea, which produces summer stock in a historic barn. From here, it's a quick ride to Point Judith, a fishing village, near a port called Galilee, which describes itself as the tuna capital of the world. Each August, fishermen from all over the region gather to weigh their enormous yellow and bluefin tuna on giant scales on the pier.

Galilee, and Jerusalem on the opposite side of Snug Harbor, are the places to go if you wish to charter a boat and cast your line. Cod (April-May), pollock (mid-May through July) and bluefish (from early summer through November) are among the specialties. But skilled fishermen departing from here can also hunt sharks, white marlin and broadbill swordfish in the deep waters of the continental shelf.

If briny air is not to your liking, this is not the place to be. The pungent smell of centuries of catches seems to have permanently overtaken the place, mingled with the greasy-sweet aroma of the local delicacy, clam cakes. Some of the best family restaurants in the area are found in Galilee, including George's and Aunt Carrie's.

On Saturdays in summer, free band concerts are held in Fishermen's Memorial State Park.

From Point Judith, you can hop a ferry to Block Island. Twelve miles out to sea, this is a vintage gingerbread Victorian resort less than 12 square miles in area.

The natives work diligently to keep the island as unspoiled and unhurried as it was a century ago. Few people use cars, most preferring to get around by bicycle or moped. the accommodations are mostly small inns, guest houses and cottages, and there isn't a chain hotel or fast-food outlet anywhere. The National Hotel, a mammoth turn-of-the-century structure, was recently restored to its original charm. (No matter where you want to stay, it is wise to make reservations ahead of time; the lodgings are almost always booked up in the summer months.)

Shaped like a pork chop, the island attracts yachtsmen from near and far, and bathers flock to its abundant beaches. Hundreds of freshwater ponds dot its rolling landscape, which is outlined by 400 miles of stone walls. Nature lovers will delight in the five wildlife preserves, especially The Maze -- 11 miles of paths cut through pine forests that end in a spectacular view at the cliffs on the northeast corner of the island. Mohegan Bluffs, on the southern tip, offers a soaring view of four states: Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York and Massachusetts.

Although most visitors arrive by ferry, many also come by private boats or air. One of the favorite pastimes that natives love to show tourists is quahoging -- digging for hard-shell clams, which are known by their Indian name throughout the state. Block Island is well worth a few days' stay before you head back to the mainland and Narragansett Pier in Narragansett.

The only vestiges of the society gathering-place that Narragansett Pier (a crescent-shaped beach) was in the 1880s are The Towers, the remains of the famous Stanford White billiards casino. Aristocrats are less likely to be found here nowadays than surfers with their brightly hued boards. It is said that the pier is one of the best surfing spots on the East Coast. The Eastern Surfers Board Contest, sponsored by the town recreation department, takes place this year on July 5. Surfing lessons are given free every Wednesday at 10 a.m. from June 19 to Labor Day.

As elsewhere in the state, beaches here officially open June 14 -- that's when lifeguards go on duty -- but hardy souls in their wetsuits can be seen riding the waves for months before that date.

Recently, the pier has been the site of large-scale development, with a massive condominium and inn-restaurant complex opened for business. The complex has been built on the scale of the grand old hotels that once dotted Ocean Avenue. Only a few of these remain open, and one, the Atlantic House, has been converted to a modern motel.

From Narragansett Pier, drive up Rte. 1A to Rte. 138 and head east across two bridges to Newport. This famous resort needs no introduction. Although it has been commercialized in the past decade, its most attractive features are better than ever.

Everyone wants to tour the palatial summer residences along Bellevue Avenue, which harken back to the "Gilded Age" of the turn of the century: Marble House (completed in 1892 for William K. Vanderbilt); the Breakers (built for another Vanderbilt, Cornelius, in 1893-95); Rosecliff (modeled by Stanford White after Marie Antoinette's Trianon at Versailles), and Belcourt Castle (a replica of the king's palace at Versailles). The mansions are open to the public from May through October; some are open weekends only during the winter. (More information is available from the Preservation Society of Newport County, 118 Mill St., Newport, R.I. 02840, 401-847-1000.)

Another view of the mansions is from the historic Cliff Walk, which begins at Memorial Boulevard. The walk is hazardous in spots, however, so wear sturdy shoes and watch your step.

Recently, another estate has been opened to public viewing -- Hammersmith Farm, where Jacqueline and John F. Kennedy's wedding reception was held. The 50-acre farm, the only working farm in Newport today, served as a summer White House during the Kennedy administration. Its spacious gardens were designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of New York's Central Park.

Another splendid cottage that is on the tourist list but is not open to the public is Clarendon Court, the home where socialites Claus and Sunny von Bu low lived in happier days.

Other "must-sees" in Newport are Touro Synagogue, the oldest in America; the International Tennis Hall of Fame; the Naval War College Museum and Bowen's Wharf, a restored waterfront cobblestone street lined with 18th- and 19th-century wharf buildings.

Newport's beaches are not as finely grained as those on the western side of the bay, but they are as plentiful. The city also has two state parks -- Fort Adams, where the famous Newport Jazz Festival will be held Aug. 23-24, and Brenton Point, the starting port for the Newport-to-Bermuda race June 13. The major public beach is Newport Beach on Memorial Boulevard, which features a carousel.

Sailing is Newport's premier sport and the America's Cup Race was held here until 1983, when the Australians captured the cup and moved the next race Down Under. The Tall Ships are scheduled to make a stop in Newport harbor June 27-July 1 on their way to the Statue of Liberty centennial celebration in New York.

If you prefer more solitude than Newport offers, drive even farther east to the sleepy hamlet of Little Compton, where peace and quiet are available to beachgoers. Take Rte. 138 north from Newport through Portsmouth, where the Green Animals Topiary Gardens have 80 shrubs sculpted like animals, including a giraffe, an elephant and a lion, and a children's Victorian toy museum. Rte. 138 crosses the Newport Bridge and then Rte. 77 goes south to Little Compton, in the far southeastern section of the state bordering Massachusetts. Except for a few small, exclusive beach developments, the area beyond Little Compton, along the coast, is primarily rural.

On your way back, you will cross into Jamestown, where the lighthouse at Beavertail Point offers a spectacular panorama of Rhode Island's Atlantic coastline -- a sight well worth savoring.