Drive to the South County Coast of Rhode Island

Route Details Length: About 40 miles. When to go: Popular year-round, but best in summer because of water activities. Not

Route Details

Length: About 40 miles.

When to go: Popular year-round, but best in summer because of water activities.

Not to be missed: The Flying Horse Carousel, Watch Hill.

Nearby attraction: Block Island (take ferries from Galilee, RI, and New London, CT).

Further information: Rhode Island Tourism Division, 1 W. Exchange St., Providence, RI 02903; tel. 800-566-2484, www.visitrhodeisland.com. South County Tourism Council, 4808 Tower Hill Rd., Wakefield, RI, 02879; tel. 800-548-4662.

Star Route

Ocean Drive

A drive over the Jamestown Bridge leads to the celebrated city of Newport, playground for the rich and famous. Many of their turn-of-the-century mansions and modern multimillion-dollar yachts can be seen along Ocean Drive, a 10-mile seaside loop. Though not marked, the route consists of Harrison Avenue, Ridge Road, Ocean Avenue, and Bellevue Avenue. The best views are from Cliff Walk, a 31/2-mile trail that begins at Easton’s Beach near Bellevue Avenue and runs along the bluffs

Take one look at a map of Rhode Island and you will quickly see why this pint-size package is nicknamed the Ocean State. Despite its modest size—only 48 miles long and 37 miles wide—this New England nugget has 400 miles of coastline. Though officially named Washington County, the southern fringe of the state is known to locals as South County. No matter what you call it, though, the area is replete with scenic Rhode Island riches.

1. Watch Hill
Traveling south from Westerly, take Rte. 1A toward Watch Hill, one of the prettiest seaside resorts in South County. Built on a series of bluffs, the town has hills galore, many of them with handsome Victorian-style summer homes nestled into their slopes.

Castle Hill lighthouse
Castle Hill lighthouse

For one of the best beach walks in Rhode Island, follow the path at the end of Fort Road to Napatree Point. Situated at the westernmost tip of the state, this long peninsula is a good spot to watch migrating hawks and waterfowl. The Watch Hill Coast Guard Station (on Light House Road) offers a sensational panoramic vista.

2. Misquamicut State Beach
At Winnapaug Road head south to Misquamicut State Beach, the state’s largest. Misquamicut, which is flanked by Winnapaug Pond and the ocean, is one of more than a dozen public beaches that dot the coast of Rhode Island. Continuing east on Atlantic Avenue, the road passes through the quaint oceanside community of Weekapaug, where gingerbread-style homes punctuate the rocky shoreline.

3. Burlingame State Park
Back on Rte. 1A, the drive leads to one of Rhode Island’s most popular camping sites, Burlingame State Park. This 2,100-acre park, located in a wooded area beside Watchaug Pond, offers freshwater swimming, boating, and fishing. On the pond’s south side is Kimball Wildlife Refuge, a 29-acre preserve with several hiking trails and an abundance of oaks, maples, starflowers, and, in season, pink lady’s slippers.

4. Ninigret National Wildlife Refuge
Set on a coastal plain that once served as a U.S. naval-air installation, this 400-acre sanctuary is bordered by a large saltwater pond. Yet the water is so shallow (only four feet deep in most spots) that sunlight can easily reach the bottom, promoting the growth of vegetation that in turn nourishes a wide variety of life—from shrimp and flounder to black ducks and snowy egrets.

In late September visitors may glimpse hordes of orange-and-black monarch butterflies as well as flocks of migrating hawks. A walk along one of the old airplane runways is a good way to spot a deer, fox, or even a coyote.

5. Trustom Pond National Wildlife Refuge
Piping plovers that fill the air with their whistling calls; mute swans gliding across the water with unerring grace; American woodcocks that perform elaborate courtship rituals; ospreys that plummet down from nowhere, then suddenly soar skyward with a fish in their clutches … These are but a few of the 300-odd species that frequent this bird-lover’s paradise. Once a farm, the 640-acre refuge—among the best wildlife preserves in Rhode Island—is now covered with abandoned orchards, a scrub forest, and fields of alfalfa, which the refuge still cultivates to help make the area more inviting to wildlife.

6. Galilee
Legend has it that this bustling fishing village was named for its biblical counterpart by a Nova Scotia fisherman who settled here at the turn of the century. The best time to arrive is at sundown, when trawlers are returning with their catch of the day. Nearby Roger Wheeler State Beach (also known as Sand Hill Cove Beach) has calm, shallow waters, making it a good swimming spot for children. One mile east of Galilee is Point Judith, where visitors can enjoy spectacular ocean vistas and photograph an octagonal lighthouse.

7. Narragansett Pier
In its heyday—the period between 1878 and 1920—the Narragansett area (named for the tribe that once occupied the region) was a mecca for affluent vacationers, who were lured to the region by its luscious landscapes and beautiful beaches. Reminiscent of those bygone days is the Romanesque arch that greets visitors as they enter Narragansett Pier. Once part of a lavish casino, The Towers, as the massive stone structure is called, now houses the chamber of commerce. The town beach offers fine white sand and long smooth waves that are ideal for surfing.

8. Saunderstown
Thoughts of New England don’t normally conjure mental images of plantation life, but from the early 1700s until 1774 (Rhode Island was the first colony to prohibit the slave trade), South County had many large farms tended by slaves. Typical of these estates is the Silas Casey Farm in Saunderstown. Modest by southern standards, it is stately nonetheless; the homestead is named for the wealthy trader who owned it. With 300 acres of fertile land, this working farm has various animals (including horses, cattle, and sheep) and a two-story clapboard house with period furniture.

Several miles northwest of the farm is the birthplace of Gilbert Stuart, the most renowned American portrait artist of the Colonial era. The son of a Scottish immigrant, Stuart is perhaps best known for the likeness of George Washington that appears on the one-dollar bill. Stuart’s home beside the Mattatuxet River is a simple barn-red structure that housed New England’s first snuff mill. Inside are reproductions of a few of the hundreds of portraits the artist painted during his lifetime.

9. Wickford
With its snug, well-protected harbor and proximity to fertile farmland, this quaint village was once a chief port for shipping produce to the markets of nearby Newport. Hints of Wickford’s prosperous past can still be seen in the dignified white clapboard houses and red-brick buildings that line its tiny, tidy streets.

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