Watch Hill: An Edible Itinerary
Exploring L’il Rhody’s Westernmost Corner
Watch Hill got its name from its strategic position, on a peninsula in southwestern Rhode Island, during the 18th century French and Indian War and the Revolutionary War. During the Gilded Age of the late 19th century, it became a wealthy enclave of Victorian “cottages,” many of which survived the disastrous Hurricane of ’38, and during the 1940s, it was a haven for such Hollywood personalities as Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. and Jr., Groucho Marx, Jean Harlow and even Clark Gable.
The lasting damage of the hurricane was to leave Napatree Point as a wildlife refuge (40 homes were swept away), and the lasting impact of its Hollywood days is that celebrities such as Conan O’Brien and Taylor Swift still seek refuge here. Fascination with Swift runs high in the village, with a poster in the gelato shop, her name dropped in a lunch conversation at the Olympia Tea Room and discreet residents neither confirming nor denying that you can see her house from the Watch Hill Lighthouse (you can).
But though the magic of Watch Hill touches on both the large seaside estates and the natural beauty of Napatree’s strand, you also feel it in the winding mazelike country roads that lead to the village and in the continuous views of water—barrier beach lagoons, secluded coves, kettle ponds or a sheltered harbor—along those roads and from the summit of Watch Hill’s hills. When the sun catches the spray on the breakers or the ripples in a lagoon or the still surface of a pond, you feel soothed in your soul.
Sunsets Are Complimentary
And that same sun has another trick up her sleeve: Watch Hill is the only spot in Rhode Island where you can see the sun set over the water. As they say at the Olympia Tea Room, “sunsets are complimentary."
The Olympia is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, with pop-up events throughout the summer—a fire juggler appeared on opening night, April 29. The restaurant got a major facelift when Jack and Marcia Felber bought it 36 years ago. They converted the soda fountain to a bar, put in black and white floor tiles—in keeping with the period feel of the dark wood booths and wainscoting—painted the walls and ceiling “sunset pink” and added outdoor seating (and heaters!).
During these last four decades, they’ve kept some items on the menu and added others. Felber still gets the freshest local fish and seafood he can find, they’ve maintained an award-winning wine list (40 wines by the glass) and the Olympia still serves up house-made dessert favorites, such as rum-soaked gingerbread and an ice-cream-filled cream puff called “The Avondale Swan” (a cream puff neck and whipped cream feathers).
The venerable and revitalized Ocean House, a Victorian boardinghouse turned upscale Relais & Chateaux hotel and restaurant, can claim even more years in Watch Hill (first built in 1868), though there was an interruption of several years while the original structure was torn down (in 2005) and rebuilt, bit by bit, to match the exterior of the boardinghouse, along with some interior details, such as the original beach stone fireplace in one of the front lounge rooms (the hotel was reopened in 2010).
As a day guest at the Ocean House (dress code is “resort casual”), you might gather some friends for a round of croquet on their championship lawn or ask for a tour of the inn’s collection of amusing and lively sketches and paintings by Ludwig Bemelmans, the creator of the beloved Madeline books.
Or you might just sip and sup, with wide water views in three directions. In addition to the Seasons dinner restaurant and the Bistro for lighter fare, the Ocean House has two outdoor eating locations: the Verandah, the lovely round porch on the side of the building, and the Seaside Terrace, overlooking the inn’s herb gardens and the wide Atlantic (or rather Block Island Sound, with the island often visible on the horizon). The Verandah has sandwiches, salads and soups, plus a raw bar and signature cocktails, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic; the Terrace serves breakfast, lunch, drinks and a light “sunset menu."
One more sunset activity not to miss are the Watch Hill Sunset Concerts, in the park on Bay Street near the modest statue of Ninigret, chief of the Niantics. There are five Tuesday night concerts this summer, wrapping up with the Duke Robillard Band on August 23.
Beaches, Bells and Bobbing Boats
With ocean waters lapping at the feet of Watch Hill, it’s only natural there would also be beautiful beaches. There are two free public beaches—East Beach and Napatree Point—plus Watch Hill Beach, with a daily fee that covers changing rooms, showers, toilets and a lifeguard. Those services are not available at the other two, but they are considerably less crowded. The problem is the parking (see box) and finding the access to East Beach. Look down a narrow sandy path at the top of Larkin Street and you’ll see the sign for East Beach.
As a wildlife refuge, Napatree is favored by birders and beachcombers alike. If you walk the inner circle, around the harbor, you can watch the boats tacking in and out. But hiking the outer crescent (more than a mile and a half ), you’ll have the pounding surf, the skittering sandpipers and the alternating sounds of the mournful lighthouse horn and the peaceful bell clanging in the channel buoy. When you get to the end of Napatree, you can clamber up the dunes to observe: a few graffiti-covered walls of the old Fort Mansfield (built in 1891 and demolished in 1928); the path through the brush to the other side of the point; the silhouette of nearby Fishers Island, NY; the lighthouse on far-off Montauk Point, Long Island (on a clear day); and the sailboats bobbing in Little Narragansett Bay.
Locals call that small bay “the Kitchen Sink,” because the Hurricane of ’38 left “everything but the kitchen sink” at the bottom of the bay. Sailors and fishermen still haul up intriguing artifacts, and residents still tell stories of hurricane survivors who floated atop their houses from Napatree to the Connecticut shore.
Cool Off With a Cone
After some sand and sun on the beach, an ice cream cone is always welcome. Nestled among the many boutiques in the village are two choices: St. Clair Annex and Gramma’s Gelato. Gramma’s will celebrate its third season in Watch Hill but already has very faithful fans of its 24 flavors, including six that are dairy-free. Made at Gelato Giuliana in New Haven, with less fat and less air than most ice creams, the gelato at Gramma’s has deep, dense tastes, such as La Giuliana (espresso with mascarpone and chocolate) or the Tuscan Extra-Dark (dark chocolate). Gramma’s also has coffee and Rhodymade Bellichi biscotti.
St. Clair has been owned by the Nicholas family since 1887, and the “Annex” refers to when the ice cream was made next door to the family’s candy store. Residents love the breakfasts at St. Clair: tourists gravitate toward the lunchtime lobster rolls; everyone screams for the ice cream: 24 flavors, plus 27 more “seasonal specials."
Next door to St. Clair is the iconic Flying Horse Carousel for kids under 12. Built in 1876 and now a National Historic Landmark, it was originally powered by one horse and a hand-cranked organ. Today’s electric power has not changed the basic design of the wooden carved horses hanging from chains in the ceiling instead of being attached to poles—thus, the “flying” effect.
Just up the hill from the carousel is the entrance to a walkway out to the Watch Hill Lighthouse and Museum (first signal light in 1745, lighthouse rebuilt in 1807). As you stroll this paved path, you’ll get close-up views of several dormered, cupola-ed and gingerbread-trimmed houses. And don’t miss the garden fence made of woven vines that hold beach stones in their limbs.
More to Munch
Adjacent to Watch Hill are the small areas of Avondale and Misquamicut. Avondale is home to the bird-trilled trails of the Avondale Farm Preserve, maintained by the Westerly Land Trust. Avondale also hosts one of the best brunch spots in the state: The Cooked Goose. A breakfast must-have is the truffled eggs with asparagus and fontina cheese, plus their addictive flakey and tender scones. For lunch, The Goose sandwich of Italian tuna and Bel Paese cheese; there are also numerous take-out items.
Up the road from The Cooked Goose is Watch Hill Farms, recognizable by the beautiful farm stand that’s a miniature house, with Victorian details over the mullioned windows, in the carved cornice and in the pale green painted trim work. Plus ... the interior has been designed to make you feel you’ve stepped inside a beehive! Eric and Marsha Fiske are honey suppliers to several Rhode Island restaurants and long-time preservers of their historic piece of farmland (first farmed in 1648). You can purchase their honey, honeycomb, fresh eggs and veggies at the stand. To visit the farm, contact them ahead: email@example.com.
Just east of Watch Hill village is the long state beach of Misquamicut and toward the end of Atlantic Avenue sits a terrific Italian restaurant, Maria’s Seaside Café, returning after four years away, with original chef Rafael Rosas in tow. Local seafood (think linguine and clams), local veggies and house-made gelato. This is the real deal. As is the Misquamicut Sandwich Company, a new enterprise for Bill Beattie, formerly at the original Ocean House (his family owned it from 1938 to 2004). Beattie strives for the “meatiest” sandwiches for carnivores and the “veggiest” for vegetarians and for “slow food” at its best.
So, for a summer treat (or retreat), set off for Watch Hill for a day of stepping back in time, staring at surf, soaking up sea air, sipping something refreshing and watching the sun set into a pink glow. That glow will linger inside and out to remind you of your trip to Rhody’s westernmost corner.
Parking in Watch Hill
There is one tricky thing about Watch Hill: Parking is limited and parking tickets are expensive. If you plan to stay the whole day, it’s worth the fees in one of the two small lots (get there early). Parking is available at Misquamicut State Beach so bring your bicycle and ride into Watch Hill. Or you can visit the Ocean House as a day guest, enjoy a meal on The Verandah or The Seaside Terrace (parking $3) and combine that with a two-hour spot on Bay Street. Be advised: Don’t try to move from one twohour spot to another; marked tires will give you away.
Places to eat or snack:
(Use the town of Westerly for mapping the locations below.)
The Cooked Goose
92 Watch Hill Rd. • 401.348.9888; TheCookedGoose.com
12 Fort Rd. • 401.617.9289; GrammasGelatoCafe.com
Maria’s Seaside Café
132 Atlantic Ave. • 401.596-6886; MariasSeasideCafe.com
Misquamicut Sandwich Company
57 Shore Rd. • 401.637.4910; MisquamicutSandwichCo.com
1 Bluff Ave. • 401.584.7000; OceanHouseRI.com
Olympia Tea Room
74 Bay St. • 401.348.8211; OlympiaTeaRoom.com
St. Clair Annex
141 Bay St. • 401.348-8407; StClairAnnexRestaurant.com
Things to do:
Avondale Farm Preserve
Walking and birding • WesterlyLandTrust.org
Park/enter on Grassland Way or Quail Run
Croquet at Ocean House
1 Bluff Ave. • 401.584.7000; OceanHouseRI.com • Proper attire
Flying Horse Carousel
WatchHillBeachAndCarousel.com • Children under 12
East Beach • Napatree Point • Watch Hill Beach
Watch Hill Farms
55 Watch Hill Rd., Westerly • 401.596.9027; WatchHillFarms.com
Farm stand open; visits by appointment
Watch Hill Lighthouse
Open Tu–Th, 1–3 pm through Labor Day
Watch Hill Sunset Concerts
On Facebook at Watch-Hill-Sunset-Concerts • Select Thursdays