Misleading though it may be, South County is not actually a county. Rather, locals use this name lovingly to refer to a coastal area of southern Rhode Island (much of which is technically in the domain of Washington County).
Starting from Westerly, at the far southwest corner of the state, the Atlantic coast traces the towns of Charlestown, South Kingstown, and Narragansett, where it turns sharply north, separating North Kingstown from the Narragansett Bay. Known for its long, sandy coastlines and sleepy back-road landscapes, South County offers first-rate beaches, fresh-caught seafood, lots of low-key motels and inns, and in the summer months, some of the most authentically Rhode Island experiences a person can have. If you’ve never rolled up your pants and gone quahogging, spent an afternoon sipping Narragansett tall boys at the Ocean Mist, or dipped a deep-fried clam cake into a bowl of steaming “chowda,” now’s your chance.
South County is, for the most part, happily old-fashioned and uncluttered by strip-mall excess. High-rise hotels and massive condo communities are scarce or nonexistent, and where high-density beach housing has been allowed, it’s mostly tasteful and unflashy in the traditional New England style.
Watch Hill, in Westerly, looks like the set of an old movie, with its dainty harbor and small shopping district. Up the coast on Narragansett Bay, in North Kingstown, the village of Wickford is one of the best-preserved colonial villages of its size anywhere in the region, and nearby Kingston is dominated by the many stately old granite buildings of the University of Rhode Island.
Punctuating the shoreline are vast tracts of protected wilderness preserves and sheltered saltwater ponds in Charlestown and Westerly, while further inland, the towns of Exeter, Hopkinton, and Richmond offer nature preserves, hiking trails, and winding drives through farmland and small historic villages.
Highlights of South County, Rhode Island
- Wickford Village: The charming waterfront village of Wickford contains about 40 distinctive boutiques, virtually all of them independent, including fine-art galleries, gourmet food shops, and urbane clothiers.
- Narragansett Town Beach: With its bikini-clad surfers and iconic view of The Towers, this roughly 19-acre stretch of sandy coastline is classic New England.
- Gilbert Stuart Museum: For a glimpse into the life of colonial America’s foremost portraitist, visit this estate of Gilbert Stuart, whose depiction of George Washington graces the dollar bill. Its scenic grounds and gardens here are part of the draw.
- The Fantastic Umbrella Factory: This outgrowth of a 1960s hippie community now serves as an eclectic compound of funky stores in clapboard buildings, with a petting zoo, a café, greenhouses, and a bamboo forest.
- Misquamicut Beach: This definitive family getaway is chock-full of miniature golf courses, ice-cream stands, seafood shacks, and relatively affordable motels and beach cottages.
Planning Your Time in South County
Because South County is one of Rhode Island’s most family-oriented destinations, and also a great area for hiking, sunbathing, sailing, surfing, and the like, you might want to make this your base if you’re traveling with kids or pursuing outdoor recreational activities. Watch Hill, with its carousel, bumper cars, and mini golf, is a particularly nice beach for the kids, while older kids and teens will prefer the action at Misquamicut Beach, as will young adults and couples. Many visitors to this part of the state, especially in summer, rent cottages or efficiencies for a week or more. From South County, you can easily explore other parts of the state on day trips or overnighters.
Otherwise, South County is probably a part of the state that you can enjoy in a relatively short period, especially in the winter. You’ll find a smattering of sophisticated restaurants and shops in the area, especially in the towns of Wickford and Narragansett, and there are some bona fide historic attractions in the South County Museum and Gilbert Stuart Museum, but the best of what the area has to offer is located outdoors. If beachcombing, hiking, fishing, and swimming aren’t your thing, you’re probably better off spending your time in Providence, Newport, and even the East Bay.