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
Choosing which hotel to make your base in the area depends what you’re after: The Ocean House, a Relais & Châteaux property in Watch Hill, sets the bar high; from June to September, its 49 guestrooms, 20 Signature Suites and eight cottage residences—with sky-blue walls, navy and neutral Scalamandré floral and striped fabrics—are not easy to come by, thanks to the hotel’s location, classic appeal and creature comforts. It’s impossible to miss the enormous fresh butter-yellow Ocean House, built in 1868 as a Stick Style summer hotel at One Bluff Avenue in Watch Hill: a Victorian grande dame, with its gabled roofs, towers and a wraparound verandah that’s one of its best assets. At night, guests dress for dinner and this glorious building fairly glows in its own halo and its crow’s nest and widow’s walk high above it all. By day, the bold yellow building stands tall against the sky and sea and the massive croquet lawn, a carpet of green, a flag flying high overhead: the great American hotel is still here. In an epic $140-million, seven-year-long renovation that began in 2003, the entire building was taken down and rebuilt from scratch, a project overseen by owner Chuck Royce (a bowtie-wearing hedge fund founder from Greenwich, who is known as a kind of mayor-figure for all things Watch Hill), his wife and book author Deborah, and architect Jefferson B. Riley. They ensured that more than 5,000 architectural elements were preserved from the original building and reused in the restoration, including the Palladian windows, the reception desk and the fireplace, which was remade stone by stone.
The hotel is set apart from the town of Watch Hill and dominates amid the mansions that share the same shore, including Taylor Swift’s “High Watch,” formerly known as Holiday House, which she famously memorialized on her 2020 album Folklore with the song “The Last Great American Dynasty.” (The song offers a back story of philanthropist Rebekah Harkness, wife of the heir to the Standard Oil Fortune and is the perfect anthem for the town). Watch Hill, as the song notes, is for certain, a place where old houses (or hotels) have stories full of characters—and character to boot. Guests staying in Signature Suites or cottages are invited to dine in the Club room and deck, plus have access to a private area at the beach, based on availability. Sitting in the lobby sipping a cappuccino or a cup of tea or a cocktail, you can listen to the piano player and imagine what it might have been like a century ago. In rooms and suites, historical tinted photos from the 1930s and 40s (or earlier) tell stories of a time where guests strolled these beaches in full dress, with straw hats, parasols and boaters, on holiday from New York and Boston. Throughout the hotel the Royces’ extensive art collection, featuring European artists, marine art and a collection of more than 50 pieces by Ludwig Bemelmans, including original illustrations from his famous Madeline children’s books, are on display.
Who It’s Right For
Ocean House is a good choice for couples or girlfriend groups looking for a little extra pampering, two restaurants to choose from (including the standout, Coast, with a separate tasting menu), as well as the 12,000-square-foot spa (it’s best to book treatments well in advance) and wine and cooking classes. There’s also an indoor pool, squash courts, yoga and fitness, if you intend to stay active. And in spring, summer or fall, guests wanting time on the beach are still rewarded with the salt air, crashing waves just a short walk away and spectacular views overlooking the grassy dunes to the sea.
A few miles away, on the bay side, the Weekapaug Inn, overlooking Quonnie Pond, was rebuilt after the 1938 hurricane by the Buffum family, whose original idea was to create an inn as an extension of their own home. Like the Ocean House, the hotel fell into disrepair and was acquired by Chuck Royce and Lang Wheeler, founder of the investment firm Numerics, who restored it and reopened the property in 2012 as a Relais & Châteaux. The hotel is the friendly and more diminutive, casually stylish sister property to the grand dame Ocean House. It has 31 rooms and the three Fenway suites, set apart from the main building, which feature large private terraces that are ideal for entertaining groups, and come with complimentary wet bars and kitchens. Guests can make use of bikes during their stay and are encouraged to explore the area on walks and boating and fishing expeditions. The resort also has an easygoing and attentive staff, including affable naturalist, Teddy Beahm, who leads nature walks, birding and star-gazing excursions and just about any activity you can dream up. Beyond the pond-side pool, there is also a well-equipped gym, and while the inn doesn’t have a spa, guests can book treatments at the Ocean House. To help reduce the inn’s carbon footprint, a state-of-the-art geothermal heating and cooling system has been installed, along with channeling wastewater for irrigation, composting food to repurpose it back into the soil for local farmers, eliminating single-use plastics and monthly beach cleanups which support The Weekapaug Foundation for Conservation and the Audubon Society of Rhode Island.
Who It’s Right For
Couples and families looking to kick back and relax and need a little time away. But there’s no reason to leave, since everything is within reach, including kayaking, paddle boarding, the pool or time on the resort’s private beach, accessible by walking or by golf cart or a quick van ride with the friendly staffers. Guests can also bring their four-legged friends along thanks to the inn’s new Pooch Program.
What to Do
Cooking & Wine
Fall and spring are also wonderful times to enjoy either property and explore the area through cooking classes at the Ocean House’s Center for Wine & Culinary Arts. Offerings include (seasonally appropriate or private) classes with expert chefs on oysters, pasta, and all things farm-to-table and head-to-tail, with a focus on fresh local produce. The hotel has extensive offerings for oenophiles with regular wine tastings led by the resort’s sommeliers, featuring Napa Valley wines; private tastings, classes or visits to local vineyards can also be arranged (with spots to know including Saltwater Farm and Jonathan Edwards Winery in Stonington, or Langworthy Farm Winery and Tapped Apple Winery & Cidery, both in Westerly).
Art & Lectures
Guests can also take part in the Weekapaug Inn’s Cork & Canvas events, and enjoy an afternoon of painting, led by the Director of Art, at Quonnie Pond. Painting materials, light refreshments, and wine and cheese are supplied. At Ocean House, author Deborah Goodrich Royce also leads regular author series with conversations, book signings and panels co-sponsored by Savoy Bookshop of Rhode Island in Westerly, which is a good spot for bookworms. In October, author Jane Green will discuss her new book Sister Stardust, about Talitha Getty and the swinging 60s.
Dining In or Out
Long, leisurely lunches on- or off-property are also recommended. Between the two hotels, in fall there are four restaurants to choose from and guests go to both. Reservations are strongly suggested a couple of weeks in advance. Explore the hotel’s events (oceanhouseevents.com) for interesting dinners with exclusive wines and other culinary or wine events. Off-property, local favorites include Matunuck Oyster Bar, Olympia Tea Room (opened seasonally) and the Cooked Goose (for breakfast and lunch).
Hiking, Birding & More
Weather is mild through mid-October (the Ocean House croquet lawn is open until October 10 and reopens in May), making outdoor activities enjoyable. Hike the three-mile loop trail to Napatree Point, which doubles as a wildlife preserve, (great for birders!) or walk through the Avondale Farm Preserve or bike ride along the shore. Both hotels can lend you one of the Mercedes Benz (Ocean House) or Volvos (Weekapaug Inn) house cars if you’re looking to explore Newport or Mystic, Connecticut.
You don’t have to leave either hotel to enjoy the charms of this part of coastal Rhode Island. While I know there’s still lots more to be discovered—Tiverton and Little Compton, and further exploration of Newport—now I know what I have been missing, and I plan to be back soon.
This article was created in collaboration with Ocean House and Weekapaug Inn.