The view looking south along Ocean Road and the always-popular walkway by the sea wall.Photo Credit : Alex Gagne
In summer, the sun casts a beach-town shimmer over Narragansett, Rhode Island. Caught between the Atlantic and Narragansett Bay (not a bad place to get hung up), the town’s beating heart is the mile-long stretch of Narragansett Town Beach, flecked with tropical umbrellas. Here, toddlers explore the gritty taste of sand, teens skim by on boogie boards, and grown-ups pretend they’re helping, even long after the kids have abandoned their sand castles. Surfers bob in clusters, waiting like porpoises to catch the next wave.
A steady stream of swimmers, surfers, and loungers pours down to the beach, following the sea wall that snakes past the Towers, a fairy-tale remnant of the Narragansett Pier Casino, built in 1883 and designed by fabled architects McKim, Mead & White. Just a few blocks back, stately old homes on Central, Caswell, and Rockland streets affirm the town’s Gilded Age grandeur. But that’s not all: The South County Museum, a five-minute walk from the beach, delivers a fascinating crash course in the farm life that once permeated this area. A stroll on Boon Street brings offbeat restaurants and random galleries. From the town center, there’s easy access to the other villages of Narragansett, such as Point Judith and Galilee, plus more of the state’s most beautiful beaches.
It’s all a mix of elegance, surfer culture, history, galleries, and funky shops, with unexpected foodie delights tucked into side streets. A bit of Key West, a bit of Wild West; restless as water, unpredictable as a curling wave.
The population of Narragansett (roughly 15,800) doubles in summer, including surfers flocking to some of the best waves in New England. Popular beaches such as Scarborough unfurl south along the sprawling length of the town, all the way to Point Judith, then hooking around to Galilee. Narragansett is a town made up of villages—an arrangement that’s clear to Rhode Islanders but a bit confusing if you’re new. From Narragansett’s downtown proper, it’s just a quick drive down elegant Ocean Road to land’s end at Point Judith, about 5½ miles away, where an 1857 lighthouse looms over “the graveyard of the Atlantic.” Nearby, a breakwater at the Camp Cronin fishing area entices swimmers, surfers, kayakers, and anglers with sweeping views of Block Island Sound.
Take a tango lesson at the Towers—or learn to surf. “I love it when someone gets up on their board for the first time,” says Abby Ellis, an instructor at Warm Winds Surf Shop. (You can rent a surfboard or sign up for lessons with any of the various surf-shop vans you’ll find parked beachside.) At the South County Museum, a living history farm on the Canonchet estate, volunteers help garden, set up exhibits, and serve as docents. “Our museum is by the people, for the people,” says executive director Jim Crothers. “It’s a gathering place.” The museum also hosts a yearly quilt show, blacksmithing and letterpress workshops, and a Fourth of July chick hatch of heritage Rhode Island Reds. If your toes must tap, see what’s happening back in town at the Towers—it might be a dance class or a Cajun music jam.
And then there’s the sea wall, with its grand parade of babies, dogs, and people toting beach gear. It’s practically guaranteed that someone here will strike up a conversation with you. Artist Nancy Saccoccio, who sells sea glass jewelry, says it’s one of her favorite things to do in summer: “Sitting on the ocean wall, around 7 p.m. It’s 10 degrees cooler over there.”
No burger is too crazy—even ostrich or buffalo, sometimes—at Crazy Burger, a rollicking little place that also offers smoothies and vegan dishes. A local treasure since 1995, it’s absurdly but justifiably popular, so expect a wait (and BYOB). Around the corner, the Bike Stop Café serves up wood-fired pizzas and makes fresh tuna or salmon tacos so juicy they’ll overwhelm your napkin; order takeout, and eat in owner Casey Montanari’s shaded garden. But for the best view in town, head to the 1880s Coast Guard House Restaurant: It puts the ocean at your feet and makes the world your oyster, thanks to its deck, fresh raw bar, and seafood-centric menu.
On Boon Street, OneWay Gallery highlights emerging and established contemporary artists. Not far from the town beach, Narragansett Pier Marketplace offers more concentrated shopping, with a cluster of retailers and eateries that includes the indispensable Nana’s Ice Cream & Gelato. Surf shops such as Narragansett Surf & Skate sell clothes and gear for newbies and experts.
At the time of this visit, a cute two-bedroom “rustic” shingled cottage from the ’60s on Great Island in Point Judith Pond, with gorgeous views, was selling for $379,000. An airy three-bedroom beach house near the sea wall listed at $559,000, and a Gibson Court two-bedroom condo in a shingled turn-of-the-century-style mansion, also within walking distance of the sea wall, listed at $399,900. But there were bargains to be found, too, such as a new two-bedroom cottage across from Scarborough State Beach for $159,500.
At the time of our visit, a day at Narragansett Town Beach cost $8, but if you’re a local you can buy a season pass for $25 (nonresidents pay $50). You also can put your name on the beach cabana list (a 10-to-15-year wait). And you’re never far from other popular state beaches, such as Scarborough (moderate surf, pavilions, picnic tables), Roger Wheeler, and Salty Brine.
Raised in Rhode Island, Peter and Bobby Farrelly—better known as the Farrelly brothers—set much of their 2000 film Me, Myself & Irene, starring Jim Carrey and Renée Zellweger, in Narragansett.This feature originally appeared in the July/August 2017 issue of Yankee.