By Nick Hammond
Venturing across the pond, NICK HAMMOND, our Brit abroad, kicks back on the Rhode Island coast and finds a little bit of an old-fashioned world, where manners, style and taste still matter…
THERE’S A SORT OF SEMI-AFFLUENT, live-and-let-live sleepiness to Westerly, Rhode Island, that creeps up on you.
Once you’ve been here a few days, with the cleansing sea breeze driving out fustiness and the laid-back amiability of the shops and restaurants, you begin to see why the great and the good migrate out here.
At the top of the hill, sentinel over the town and with an unblemished view of the ever-changing Atlantic, Ocean House sits four-square and masterful.
This imposing Victorian mansion was once a place of retreat for wealthy inlanders anxious to catch the sea air and escape the interminable heat of summertime Boston, New York and Hartford. Bust followed boom, though, and the grand old dame of Watch Hill – a bastion of old money on the very cusp of the ocean – fell to rack and ruin.
It took a Watch Hill resident to realise what might be lost. Charles ‘Chuck’ Royce is not a man used to throwing good money after bad; yet the Hedge Fund founder sank a not insignificant fortune into the dilapidated Ocean House. Deeming nothing short of return to its glory days acceptable, he set about reconstructing this hotel that could have been lifted from a novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
The original furniture was tracked down and bought at auction. A decrepit old elevator – wooden-lined but eaten by decay – was lovingly restored. The imposing stone fireplace was dismantled, brick by carefully labeled brick, shifted and rebuilt. It was an inch or two off centre, so Royce ordered it to be taken down and built once more.
The result is a hotel so compelling, so utterly beguiling in a world so short on charm that it’s like having carte blanche to play on your own movie set.
As I sat alone in a white-painted rocker overlooking the croquet green (I later had a knock about with the US national champion – no kidding), I smoked a fat little Liga No.9 Flying Pig from Drew Estate and felt the urge to don a stovepipe hat and whiskers.
Provenance and food mean a big deal here, so the culinary centre holds masterclasses throughout the day. I dropped in on one, slurped startlingly fresh oysters and learned how to make a real-deal clam chowder. And nothing is too much trouble.
Which is how I found myself purring along the coast road in a silver convertible Mercedes, courtesy of the front desk. I had to smile as I gazed out across the sparkling briny blue with the accompaniment of an insanely powerful engine burbling menacingly under the hood.
Just 20 minutes didn’t give me much chance to open her up – probably for the best – and I crunched to a stop on the drive outside the Weekapaug Inn, sister property to Ocean House. I was surprised and delighted when a perfectly British-accented, tweed clad chap introduced himself as the hotel manager.
Turns out Simon Dewar is ex-British Army and lives here with his wife and two young’uns – sensible chap, I say. And a visiting Englander is welcomed with open arms. Set on the serene majesty of the Quonochontaug Pond (try saying that after a few tumblers of Whistle Pig Rye Whisky) Weekapaug is hauntingly beautiful. Dotted with lavish holiday houses and linked to, but shielded from, the ocean, the pond is awash with wildlife and surrounded by rising foothills of beech, oak and pine.
After a sumptuous outdoor lunch (more clam chowder, killer fresh lobster) I spark up a feisty Joya Black and sit, feet in the chill of the gently rippling water, and watch the world go by. A chipmunk appears at my feet, tail whisking, scolding me roundly for being there. A heron stalks the margins. A distant peregrine knifes through the blue. Lower 3 photos courtesy of Weekapaug Inn.
After a while, I’m picked up by Mark Bullinger, the hotel’s very own nature guide. He has the carefree smile of a very happy man indeed. In his little boat, we cruise out of the pond and bounce on the froth of a rolling afternoon ocean, looking for the tell-tale dark ball of little bait fish that signal bigger friends lurking nearby. I finish my Joya Black and we fish in earnest, following diving seabirds until we’re in the thick of it, flashing white wings spearing the surf, tiny fish leaping from the jaws of sleek, silver-flashing monsters; and other pleasure boats coasting a line. Mayhem. But with just a little silver spinner, I catch three good-size Bluefish, the largest getting on for 10lbs. Brilliant fun.
There’s still time when I get back – happy, slightly sunburned, smelling of fish – to head into the town of Westerly and find Vintage Cigar Lounge and Club. It’s my kinda place. Photos courtesy of Weekapaug Inn.
Founded by old friends Tom Clune, Greg Williams and Jesse Saglio, it reminds me of Cheers. It’s the kind of place you really want to be a regular. There’s a superb bar offering 200-plus spirits – old fashioned brass rail, long counter, optics and everything – a humidor proudly displaying more than 450 cigars and both a public and a private members area, with Wi-Fi, humidified lockers, gaming table and private 20-hour entrance. Man, I really want to be a member.
“We just wanted to build a lounge where everyone feels welcome,” says Tom Clune. “Adults can come in here and have a proper conversation over a decent cigar and a drink. We happen to think that’s pretty important.”
I couldn’t agree more. So, I order up something from Ageing Room and a damned fine coffee and sit at the bar to while away an hour. Before long I’m poking around in the back rooms of the members’ area, envying the meeting room, the space and general comfort to enjoy a handrolled cigar in peace or in companionship. It’s not something we get the chance to do too often in the UK. If I lived over here – I’d be living in here.
A smoke and a couple of coffees down, I head back to the wonder that is Ocean House. Tonight, I shall dine, no doubt, on clam chowder and something piscine. And tomorrow, I shall somewhat sheepishly slip into the OH! Spa for a massage.
Until then, the sky darkens and separates into a brilliance of deep colours over Little Narragansett Bay and the waters lie limpid as the moon takes precedence. This is a special part of the world. Long may it remain so.
VINTAGE CIGAR LOUNGE