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Slipping into the ‘Ocean State’ of mind in southern Rhode Island

Updated: Nov 13, 2021



I tasted the ocean in the air as I sat on the outdoor deck at Matunuck Oyster Bar, the ebbing tide draining a few feet from our table into the Great Salt Pond and from there to the sea. Littlenecks were ordered. A cold beer had just arrived. I sipped, and it occurred to me that maybe I shouldn’t write this story.

Why share the lovely little secret that is the rest of Rhode Island? Why risk drawing the tourists out of Newport, the only place they know, and letting them ruin the modest, beachy simplicity that hasn’t changed a whole lot since my parents brought me to Point Judith as an infant in 1962. I suppose the answer, other than that writers should write what they know, is that the southern tip of Rhode Island’s mainland will always be surrounded by other nice places to go. What harm could it do to spread the word about this slower-paced version of the classic summer beach vacation spot? Less crowded than New England’s more popular destinations, it’s a bit more affordable and every bit as beautiful.

First, the beaches. The best, if you like ocean surf, is Scarborough State Beach, just north of Point Judith. If the waves are running high, brace yourself for some knock-down rollers. No surfing is allowed here. But smaller “boogie boards” are, and they can be bought in the gift shop. Just up the road in Narragansett is the town beach where surfing is allowed, with board rentals and lessons available. Roger W. Wheeler State Beach near Galilee may be a better option for families with little kids, as it sits inside the protective waters of the Point Judith Harbor of Refuge. The waves are small.

If you can’t stay for a whole week or prefer hotel amenities, take a look at Narragansett. Huddled up against the ocean shore, it was once a playground for the rich, before they discovered Newport. Now it’s home to a beautiful town beach, as well as a pleasant colony of inns and hotels. Among the more popular are The Break, Ocean Rose Inn and Atlantic House. Midsummer room rates can run into the mid-$300s per night — not exactly budget travel, but generally cheaper than you’ll find in more popular destinations, like Newport. Our favorite restaurants are Trio and Coast Guard House, the latter perched on rocks, literally hanging over the ocean.

If you really must see Newport, its many hotels are minutes away. Indeed, proximity is one of the benefits of Rhode Island vacationing. Visitors typically fly into Providence, which is just over half an hour from Point Judith. Boston is less than two hours away.

For my money, cottage or condo rental is the way to see the real Rhode Island. This is not a what’s-the-next-tourist-attraction kind of place. There’s nothing like having a kitchen table for card games; a lawn for cocktails. The rental market, driven both by summer vacationers and students at the nearby University of Rhode Island, offers many options. You’ll find good selections at Durkin Cottage Realty and Lila Delman Real Estate.

Besides hanging out at the beach with a good book, you can rent kayaks and paddleboards for a more active experience. Fishing charters are available, mostly out of Galilee. The area also is well-stocked with the usual family diversions, like putt-putt golf and bumper boats. A favorite for our brood is a visit to “the rocks,” vast stretches of jagged coastline ideal for picnicking and exploring. Ask a local for directions (everyone has a favorite spot), but be mindful not to get too close to the pounding surf. There’s an ocean tide here, and rocks that are often submerged can get slippery.

Local eating is essential to any vacation. Favorite options include the seafood joint Aunt Carrie’s near Point Judith. Unchanged for decades, it offers classic Rhode Island fare. Do yourself a favor, and order your clam chowder “plain” or “clear.” That’s the Rhode Island style, without the heavy cream. The seafood spot Champlin’s in Galilee is another favorite. It has an elevated deck to watch the fishing boats come and go. Highly recommended, and available everywhere, are clam cakes, fried balls of clam-filled batter that, as far as I can tell, are only eaten in Rhode Island.

New on the culinary scene is the aforementioned Matunuck Oyster Bar, Rhode Island’s take on farm-to-table cuisine. Started in 2009 by oyster fisherman Perry Raso, who runs a 7-acre aquaculture farm in nearby Potter Pond, the lauded fare is simple, fresh and expertly prepared. Set on the banks of Great Salt Pond, it’s the kind of place that just might serve up the best meal you’ve ever eaten.

Point Judith Lighthouse is worth a visit, as well, even if just to park the car and look out at the ocean. (Tip: Buy some clam cakes. Drive to the lighthouse. Sit. Eat. Breathe. Relax. You’re welcome.)

One of our family traditions is buying lobster fresh off the boats in Galilee, a bustling fishing village. Most lobsters go to restaurants and retailers, but there are always a few hand-made signs at the end of the docks, offering the freshly caught crustaceans for cash. The lobsters are stored in cages hanging off the boats. There’s nothing quite like seeing your dinner emerge from the water, still alive and moving.

Then it’s home to — if you’re lucky — an outdoor shower. There you can stand under a stream of fresh water in the fading light, washing the salt and sand from your sun-soaked skin. The fresh cotton shirt you throw on afterward will feel as good as any piece of clothing you’ve ever worn, ideally followed by the beverage of your choice, a lawn, an Adirondack chair, and a passel of family and friends.

(This article first appeared in the Chicago Tribune May 8, 2017. It has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Hartford Courant, and other publications.)


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