WESTERLY, R.I. — Whalers still anchor 10 miles from here in Mystic Seaport, and people of all sorts go to the seashore for the same reason Herman Melville did--to be refreshed.
The beaches of Westerly are well-known to fans who return year after year. Here, it is still possible to escape the hordes that thunder off to Cape Cod or Block Island and to absorb the deep relaxation a beach vacation can offer.
Tucked away in a corner of the tiniest state, this stretch of sandy beaches is largely noncommercial, holding fast to a sense of its history.
In 1882 Rhode Island bought its southwestern corner from the Indians. They paid a group of Narragansetts $15.43 each in exchange for official rights to what was already a thriving community of sea resorts, shipyards and granite quarries. That parcel of land, called misquamicut , or "red salmon at this place" by the Indians, became the Town of Westerly, including Westerly, Shelter Harbor and the seaside villages of Watch Hill, Misquamicut and Weekapaug.
A trip to Westerly can mean a quiet month or just a weekend in a cottage, inn or motel, with days spent relaxing on the beach or pursuing a busy schedule of trips to the area's many attractions.
The mood of a genuine turn-of-the-century sea resort pervades Watch Hill, and rightfully so, for in 1900 it rivaled Newport, Narragansett and Block Island as the fashionable place to summer. A summer house could mean anything from a modest cottage to one of the mansions that crown the bluff, range along the coastline and dot the countryside. The mansions are not open to the public, but a drive along the winding bluff road will provide some breathtaking sights.
Evidence of the elegant past carries the mantle of Old World gentility, led by the example of Ocean House. Commanding the bluff by its sheer size, this gigantic hotel sprawls down a craggy slope to the Atlantic and its private beach. It retains much of its original decor, shunning the telephone and TVs of modern life.
The 59-room hotel is open from June 26 through the day after Labor Day, with prices from $128 to $148 per couple a night, including a full breakfast and dinner. Reservations are recommended as far in advance as possible, which is true of every lodging establishment in the area. Phone (401) 348-8161.
Another dinosaur from 19th-Century America is the Flying Horse Carrousel at the end of Bay Street. Considered by some to be the oldest merry-go-round in the nation, it has been in use since 1879 and was most likely built around 1850. Send the kids on a spin astride hand-carved wooden steeds for 25 cents. Ride from mid-June to Labor Day from 1 to 9 p.m. Monday to Friday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Bay Street Stroll
A stroll along Bay Street, no matter what the weather, can provide hours of pleasant browsing among the rows and clusters of awning-draped shops. Antiques abound, some dealers specializing in glassware, pottery and jewelry, others in furniture or books.
One of the rarest finds in Watch Hill are two stores, half a block apart, that house the Book and Tackle Shop. You will find an hour or two of enjoyment rummaging through the shelves or talking with owner Bernard Gordon, unofficial historian of Watch Hill.
Under one of Bay Street's awnings is the Olympia Tea Room, a renovated ice cream parlor dating to 1916. Sidewalk tables, looking out on Little Narragansett Bay, are a fixture in good weather.
Inside one finds a chatter-filled room packed with varnished dark-wood booths. Fans revolve slowly against the pink ceiling, reflected in long mirrors lining the walls behind the soda fountain. You are likely to be greeted by owners Jack and Marcia Ferber, who keep the restaurant open for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
The menu offers an imaginative selection of fresh seafood, creative salads and homemade breads and pastries at moderate prices. For lunch, try the Watch Hill gumbo, a combination of quahog clams, steamers, shrimp and sausages smothered in a spicy creole sauce and topped with a slab of crusty French bread ($6.50).
For dinner, make a selection from the blackboard menu, which changes with each day's catch. You might find an offering of sauteed soft-shell crab ($5.95) and homemade tomato linguine with scampi ($11.95); on the next day, bouillabaisse made to order with native mussels, clams, shrimp or scallops ($13).
A spectacular finale is provided by the desserts, particularly the Avondale swan. This elaborate swan is created in detail from eclair pastry, stuffed with French vanilla ice cream, topped by whipped cream and sent swimming in a sea of hot fudge spiked with espresso ($3). Strollers can stop at the new outdoor-indoor raw clam bar added just this season.