Rhode Island's Newest Beach Hotels
Watch Hill’s Ocean House and other luxury oceanside hotels in Rhode Island.
“The world does not need any more McMansions.” So says Charles Royce when explaining his decision to save the Ocean House, Watch Hill, Rhode Island’s beloved Victorian hotel. One day in 2003, Royce, an investment manager with offices in Manhattan and Greenwich, Connecticut, read that a developer had purchased the property and was planning to tear it down to build new homes on the bluff. “That just broke my heart,” he says. Since the late eighties Royce has been spending his summers (and most weekends) in Watch Hill—the seaside village at Rhode Island’s southern tip once known as the “queen of Atlantic resorts”—and he couldn’t bear to see an icon of the community destroyed. He arranged to meet with the developer, Girouard Associates, the following day and convinced them to sell the building to him.
Built in 1868 and originally one of seven grand hotels in Watch Hill, the Ocean House had its heyday in the early 20th century, when successful financiers and society families summered there. It was a place of lawn fêtes and tableaux vivants, where waiters performed cakewalks for the guests. Then came the Hurricane of 1938, which wiped out many of the old palaces. The Ocean House was left standing, but it started a long, slow decline after World War II. By the time Royce began coming to Watch Hill, the hotel was a run-down joint mainly known for its bar. “It was a down-and-out kind of place, with beer spilled on the floor all the time,” he says. “But it was a fun spot and very much part of the Watch Hill experience.”
Years of neglect left the Ocean House in such bad shape that when Royce took over, only 59 of the 154 rooms were usable. The entire third floor had been closed for safety reasons. Rhode Island had just tightened its fire laws in response to a horrific nightclub fire, and it became clear that bringing the hotel up to code would be nearly impossible. After consulting closely with preservationists across New England, Royce made a painful decision: The original building would have to go. “My first choice was to fix it up, but it just became impractical,” he says. “So I defaulted to the next best idea: a serious replication, harvesting as many of the original details as possible.” Demolition of the Ocean House began in December 2005. The building that now stands in its place was completed this spring, in time for the May opening.
Seeing the new Ocean House for the first time can be an eerie experience—it looks as if the old hotel has risen again, whole, from the rubble. Every detail of its exterior, from the wide porches to the red-cedar shingles to the signature yellow paint, has been reproduced exactly. All 247 windows sit in precisely the same positions, and a replica of the original Ocean House sign has taken up its rightful perch.
Working with Connecticut firm Centerbrook Architects and Planners, Royce came up from Greenwich nearly every weekend for five years to make sure every detail was right. (His own house is just down the street.) “As a type-A male,” he says, “I had no choice.” Some 5,000 artifacts were used in the construction. The same front desk welcomes guests. When the lobby fireplace was dismantled, the stones were numbered so that they could be returned to their former configuration. The original mahogany-and-bronze cage was secured inside a modern elevator.
But the differences are also significant. Where the old Ocean House had 154 guest rooms, the new one has just 49 (and 23 residences, starting at $1.5 million). The hotel now claims five restaurants, including Seasons, the flagship with an ambitious menu that changes weekly, and the Club Room, where there’s a zinc bar from the world’s last zinc–bar top manufacturer, in Paris. Most notably, three entire floors tucked in next to the bluff have been added below the lobby. They are home to the 12,000-square-foot OH! Spa, a lap pool, a fitness center with virtual personal trainers, and a music room lit by the old lobby’s Art Deco fixtures.
The Ocean House restaurant menu from Tuesday, August 22, 1899, offered “filet of black bass, Genoise” with sides of “iced cucumbers,” “mixed pickles,” and “sliced tomatoes.” Unlike the architects, the new executive chef, Albert Cannito, hasn’t sought to replicate this quaint collection of dishes. Still, since farm-to-table cuisine, which the hotel’s restaurants practice rigorously, was the norm in the early days of the Ocean House, Cannito is in fact bringing back an old tradition. The majority of his ingredients come from within New England, and the hotel’s “food forager,” Pamela Stone, maintains close ties with about 200 local purveyors.
The rooms in the new Ocean House are also far more spacious than the old ones. Almost every one looks out onto the water, either to Block Island Sound or to Little Narragansett Bay. Furnished with a mix of antiques from the old hotel and custom pieces upholstered in Scalamandré, and decorated with nostalgic photos of Watch Hill, the hotel’s rooms have the feel of an elegant, well-loved summer home.
Much attention is paid to even the most basic services. “We tried to think of all the little things that can ruin the hotel experience,” says managing director Daniel Hostettler, who has worked in the industry for 20 years. “One of them was having to walk by used room-service trays sitting out in the hall.” So each tray comes with a sensor that signals when it has been pushed out of the room. Another innovation is the “floor valet,” a concierge assigned to each floor to be the guests’ point person for all services.
Perhaps the greatest draw is the hotel’s 1,000-foot stretch of private beach, with its slightly rocky New England sand, chaises, umbrellas, and cabanas. There, Dune Cottage, the 12-by-12 mahogany pavilion that has replaced the old lifeguard shack, serves sandwiches and afternoon cocktails. On the beach, bordered by wild-rose brambles and tall marsh grasses, with the hotel’s warm yellow façade in the background, the feeling of timelessness—of being transported back to the Ocean House at its prime—is complete.
By car, the Ocean House is three hours from New York and two from Boston. The hotel offers complimentary shuttle service to and from the Westerly and New London train stations. Rooms, from $260. At 1 Bluff Ave.; 401-584-7000; oceanhouseri.com.
Ocean Views: Vintage Sail
In 1923 members of the Watch Hill Yacht Club commissioned Bristol, R.I.’s Herreshoff Manufacturing Company to design a new racing sloop. The result was the Watch Hill 15, named for its 15-foot waterline length. Every week Ocean House guests can watch the 1923 originals race against newer models.
Raw Bar: Gone Native
The Watch Hill oyster, sourced exclusively from nearby Winnapaug Pond, is a favorite at the Ocean House. “It has an interesting mix of strong oyster notes and a sweet, almost buttery flavor,” says executive chef Albert Cannito.
Days of Wine
Little Compton’s Sakonnet Vineyards, which grows cool-climate grapes such as Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, turns 35 this year. sakonnetwine.com.