Narragansett & the Beaches
Following Route 1A south, the pace quickens, at least from late spring to foliage season. After crossing the Narrow River Inlet, the road bends around toward Narragansett Pier. Along here and several miles on south to Port Judith and Jerusalem are some of the most desirable beaches in New England, with swaths of fine sand, relatively clean waters, and summer water temperatures that average about 70°F (21°C). When there are storms down south, the water kicks up enough to justify getting out the surfboard, and this is thought to be the best place in the state to catch the waves.
After a few blocks, Route 1A makes a sharp right turn (west), but stick to the shore, proceeding south on Ocean Road. Straight ahead is the Towers, a massive stone structure that spans the road between cylindrical towers with conical roofs. It is all that remains of the Gilded Age Narragansett Casino, designed by McKim, Mead & White, but lost in a 1900 fire. In the seaward tower is the Narragansett tourist information office.
From Narragansett to Point Judith
Follow scenic Ocean Road south from the Towers, soon arriving at Scarborough State Beach (tel. 401/789-2324; www.riparks.com). Noticeably well kept, with a row of pavilions for picnicking and changing, it has ample parking and surroundings unsullied by brash commercial enterprises. The beach is largely hard-packed sand. While the mild surf makes this a good option for families with young children, sections are often also jammed with teenagers and college students.
Continuing on Ocean Road to the end, you'll reach the Point Judith Lighthouse, 1460 Ocean Rd. (tel. 401/789-0444). Built in 1816, the brick beacon is a photo op that can be approached but not entered.
Backtrack along Ocean Road, turning left on Route 108, then left again on Sand Hill Cove Road, past the dock of the only year-round ferries to Block Island, and into the Port of Galilee. At the end, past a cluster of restaurants beside the channel connecting Point Judith Pond with the ocean, is the redundantly named Salty Brine State Beach. Protected by a breakwater, it is a good choice for families with younger children, but popular with teenagers as well. On the opposite side of the channel is popular East Matunuck State Beach, where waves break upon the sand at an angle, producing enough action to permit decent surfing on some summer days.
To get a better sense of the area from the water, consider the 1 3/4-hour tour on the Southland (tel. 401/783-2954; www.southlandcruises.com), which departs from State Pier in Galilee. Daily departures from mid-June to Labor Day; weekends only from Labor Day to mid-October. Prices are $15 to $18 for adults, $13 to $16 for seniors, $10 for children 4 to 12, free for ages 3 and under.
Numerous party and charter boats leave for fishing expeditions from Point Judith. Another possible excursion is a whale-watching cruise with the Frances Fleet, 2 State St., Point Judith (tel. 800/662-2824 or 401/783-4988; www.francesfleet.com). Cruises launch from late June August Monday through Saturday from 1 to about 5:30pm. It isn't cheap, at $40 for adults and $25 for children under 12, but the sight of a monster humpback leaping from the water is unforgettable.
Although much of Westerly township remains peacefully semirural, it contains more than a dozen villages, notably the peninsular resort of Watch Hill, and several contiguous public beaches on slender barrier islands enclosing large saltwater ponds.
A pretty land's-end village that achieved its resort status during the post-Civil War period, Watch Hill has retained it ever since. It helped that it is the closest of South County's beach towns to New York. Many grand summer mansions and Queen Anne gingerbread houses remain from that time. The north side of the point occupied by the village is the harbor, packed with pleasure boats. Stretching from the eastern edge of Westerly township to the southwesternmost tip of the state at Watch Hill are Dunes Park Beach and Atlantic Beach, followed by Misquamicut State Beach, a gathering place for large numbers of adolescents, and Napatree Point Barrier Beach, a wildlife preserve notable for its white crescent beach. While you can enter the Napatree preserve for free, there are no facilities, a reason for its generally sparser crowds. All the beaches are noted for their fine-grained sand and gentle surf with gradual drop-offs.
South of town on Watch Hill Road is the picturesque 1856 Watch Hill Lighthouse, open from 1 to 3pm Tuesday and Thursday. Back in town at the small Watch Hill Beach, younger children get a kick out of the nearby Flying Horse Carousel, which dates to 1867. Only kids are allowed to ride; tickets are 50¢. The carousel is open daily from mid-June to early September. Parents will have to settle for the more than 50 shops that fill the commercial blocks.
To get to Watch Hill from Providence and points north, take exit 1 off I-95, south on Route 3, which passes through Westerly and continues to Watch Hill. From Connecticut, take exit 92 from I-95, going south briefly on Route 2, picking up Route 78 (the Westerly Bypass) down along Airport Road into Watch Hill. Free parking is extremely limited, so if you arrive after 8am, expect to pay up to $15 in the commercial lot behind the main street.
Amtrak trains traveling between Boston and New York stop in Westerly several times daily. There is a pull-over information office on I-95 near the Connecticut border, and a Chamber of Commerce office at 74 Post Rd. in Westerly (tel. 800/732-7636; www.westerlychamber.org).