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Beach town watches crowds pass it by

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Juggling containers of chowder and sandwiches in Watch Hill, R.I., we join the trickle of beach-goers padding along Bay Street in flip-flops. Past the arcaded shops. Past the antique carousel -- and the historic lighthouse. Up the hill crowned by elaborate Victorian-era summer houses. We turn onto a rocky path overgrown with wild roses and honeysuckle and soon emerge on a sweep of sand washed by gentle surf.

It's the perfect beach, the perfect beach day, the perfect beach town. What's missing are crowds.

That's the beauty of Watch Hill, a fashionable little seaside hideaway once known as Rhode Island's other Newport.

A century ago, in its heyday, ferries steamed in daily from New York. Prominent visitors from Isadora Duncan to Albert Einstein sought solitude in its oceanfront mansions, and Douglas Fairbanks Jr., who spent childhood summers with his grandparents in Watch Hill, later returned to shoot a silent film here.

But fame is fickle. A fire in 1918 wiped out most of the resort's grand hotels, and before long the jet age started turning one-time East Coast hot spots into flyovers. While larger Newport mushroomed into a high-profile tourist destination -- with all the accompanying congestion -- secluded Watch Hill settled into a quiet chink in time. A night out still means a cone of homemade ice cream and a stroll along a leafy lane.

Winding roads

The village lies just across the Connecticut border in the laid-back region of Rhode Island called South County. Even the New York auto club couldn't plot my route through the maze of winding roads for the last half dozen miles beyond neighboring Westerly. "Just look for signs from there," I was advised.

After countless twists and turns, I found myself on the block-long main street, feeling like one of those lost motorists who stumbles onto some uncharted hamlet in "The Twilight Zone."

The few dozen harbor-front stores along Bay Street offer arts and crafts, jams and jellies, resort wear, T-shirts and other souvenirs. Prices run the gamut, from lovely $5 earrings at the Shell Boutique to exquisite estate jewelry from the local carriage trade at James Gerrad Co.

But apart from hunting for gifts and antiques, going fishing or swimming and gazing at the prancing wooden horses whirling around one of America's oldest carousels, you'll find that Watch Hill offers little in the way of planned entertainment.

Plenty to do -- elsewhere

Action-oriented vacationers usually settle into nearby Misquamicut, which offers lots of motels, bars and restaurants plus a small amusement area and water park as well as a vast state beach. And downtown Westerly, inland from Watch Hill, offers Broadway shows at the Colonial Theater and free summer concerts in Wilcox Park, a lovely 18-acre oasis designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, creator of Manhattan's Central Park.

Being in the slow lane is just fine with Watch Hill, which can handle only a couple hundred carfuls of day trippers at any one time in addition to vacationers staying in its sprinkling of guest rooms. But even on summer weekends, its endurance is rarely tested.

The hamlet's name dates to Colonial times, when settlers climbed atop the bluff to watch for British pirates. The legendary Captain Kidd supposedly buried pots of gold in the section known as Treasure Hill, where opulent estates that sprawl hedge to hedge now do their part to uphold that label.

A fort built in 1898 to protect the coast during the Spanish-American War now stands in ruins at the end of #F Napatree Point, an unspoiled barrier beach. The ecologically fragile area is managed by a conservation group that permits public use with the proviso that hikers and beach-goers take care not to disturb sea grasses and bird-nesting areas.

Napatree, like East Beach (the one reached via the rocky path), ** has no facilities or lifeguards, so you swim at your own risk. Watch Hill's protected village beach is a small stretch with bathhouses just behind the Flying Horse Carousel.

The carousel is probably Watch Hill's best-known attraction. Now a national landmark, it was built in New York about 1867 and has been in operation since 1883 -- at first pulled by real horses. Its wooden steeds -- each carved from a single block and sporting a leather saddle and horsehair mane and tail -- are suspended from a center frame so they swing out, or "fly," when in motion. Streams of kids line up daily to buy a 75-cent ticket to ride and reach for a brass ring.

Charms and conveniences

Other relics from Watch Hill's golden age include two landmark hotels. The Watch Hill Inn on Bay Street lives up to its promise of "yesterday's charms and today's conveniences." My room was small but prettily furnished and had a modern bath though no TV. Hallways contained bookcases, baskets of magazines and photos of the resort's early days.

The Ocean House, an incredible yellow hulk a few uphill blocks from the village center, still has echoes of a grand hotel from centuries past. The outside has a new coat of paint, but inside the rugs are threadbare, the furniture is mismatched and the long, dark hallways undulate like the waves that roll onto the beach a hundred yards outside the front windows. Only a third of its 150 rooms are still used, and the empty ballroom cries out for Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. But rooms -- as well as the Marine Deck, dining room and sweeping porches -- offer romantics matchless water views.

A Watch Hill dining fixture is the Olympia Tea Room, which hasn't changed much -- except its menu and its wait staff -- since it opened in 1916. The decor includes a marble-topped soda fountain, varnished wooden booths and ceiling fans. The ++ Olympia's signature dish is "the world-famous Avondale swan," a graceful puff-pastry bird filled with ice cream, chocolate sauce and whipped cream.

Other eateries? St. Clair Annex serves great chowder and ice cream; Bay Street Deli offers a variety of overstuffed sandwiches, and Watch Hill Pizza features -- well, you know. There's also a bakery and an espresso bar in town. That about does it.

For information, call the Greater Westerly-Pawcatuck Area Chamber of Commerce, (800) SEA-7636.

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