Forget the Cape. For a low-key weekend journey, explore the Farm Coast of Massachusetts and Rhode Island - and its villages, creeks and farmlands within an easy day's getaway from Providence or Boston and a weekend journey from Manhattan. Tucked out of the way south of Interstate 195 that heads to Cape Cod these tiny communities along Buzzards Bay, Rhode Island Sound and the tidal Westport and Sakonnet rivers happily let you find them. There are few signs and no hotels (and only a few B&Bs) in shake shingle and clapboard villages brimming with vibrant flowers, vegetable stands, arts festivals, distinctive retail and fantastic casual dining (like The Red Dory, see more about it below).
The region is quietly reminiscent of Maryland's Eastern Shore and its historic fishing communities, yet without the crowds; it's checkered with picket fences, marinas, old mills, open studio art displays, maritime history and occasional public beach access.
I first discovered the area 20 years ago when my brother, Steve Johnson, and his chef friends and food purveyors from Cambridge and Boston escaped to the area about 90 minutes south of the city in summer. Then about two years ago Steve opened The Red Dory restaurant in Tiverton, Rhode Island, bringing award-winning fine casual dining to the main road along the Sakonnet River and only 45 minutes southeast of Providence. Last week in another accolade for his storied career, Eater named The Red Dory one of New England's 38 essential restaurants - citing three of my favorites, grilled Rhode Island squid with borlotti beans and arugula, linguini with fresh local clams (at left) and his legendary lemon pudding cake that was a huge hit at his former resto, The Rendezvous, in Cambridge's Central Square.
The concept of the "farm coast" is a natural. In a string of Rhode Island and Massachusetts villages like Tiverton, The Commons, Adamsville, Westport, Russells Mills and Padanaram/Dartmouth, people live from the water, the land and the usual assortment of small town businesses. Some grew up here in communities that date back to the 1700s, or they've moved here for simpler lives in shorts, flops, linens and deck shoes.They are protective of the abundance around them; sustainability and preservation are missions. One morning, I joined Steve and a local reporter for Edible Rhody for their interview while they dug clams at low tide in the Westport River. Then we had coffee at Gray's Daily Grind at the old grist mill in Adamsville before I drove down along hydrangea-bordered back roads to Sakonnet Point, anchored by a white lighthouse and riprap seawall. Farms bursting with cabbages and pole beans - and an occasional vineyard - sweep acres down to the river.
These sprawling plantation-like properties house both mansions and modest homes, signaling the area's economic diversity but shared attachment to the riches of the surrounding land and water.
At Sakonnet Point, the morning was soft and hazy as a gentle sea breeze blew in from Rhode Island Sound and propelled a lone sailboat out where the bay meets the Atlantic Ocean. On my return, I stopped for a walk around the Commons in Little Compton, a town green in the iconic
New England tradition and rimmed with New England Victorian and "salt box" architecture. Before dinner that evening at The Back Eddy, a popular seafood restaurant on the Westport Point marina, I took in deep draughts of the intoxicating salt air at the wild, rocky State Beach. Of course, no summer evening is complete without a sunset, this one near where we had been clamming that morning.
Traversing the region the next day a few miles inland, I started in Tiverton Four Corners, mesmerized by Tiffany Peay Jewelry & Gallery, whose exquisite handmade gemstone, pearl and gold jewelry is so popular that she has opened a shop in Newport, R.I. Like many residents, she is another transplant (in her case, from Virginia). Driving along the FarmCoast Trail about 40 minutes east, I emerged from the picket and rail fence lined neighborhoods in (scenic - but what isn't?) Padanaram, a charming settlement founded in South Dartmouth along the Apponagansett River in 1652. It later became a whaling port and now stretches across six or eight blocks, lightly sprinkled with shops, casual eateries and a book store. The opening of Farm & Coast Market by the harbor last summer was another convincing vote for the region's freshest farm-to-table experiences uniting chefs and food lovers.
Here are some other insider gems of the region:
Westport Point: Paquachuck Inn is not for all tastes but it is worth checking out to see if it fits you. The 200-year-old timber and stone seaport building sits on the Westport River; it has a sprawling lawn and its own small dock and is convenient for boating, kayaking, canoeing, the beach and excursions throughout the area. The antique-filled rooms come in different sizes and shapes, and not all have private bathrooms. While each is advertised to have a view of the water, some are much better than others and some are right on the street, which can be noisy, even in a small village like this one. The home-cooked breakfast is delicious, and the spacious parlors are comfortable and inviting. Across the Town Dock is Westport Lobster Co., one of several fresh daily seafood stores in the region.
Padanarum Village, South Dartmouth, MA: For shopping, Flora-Home (specialty home accessories, 368 Elm Street, 508.996.2332), Flora-Style (specialty women's apparel and accessories and high-end casual brands, 368 Elm Street, 508.996.2332) and Details and Design (home and clothing shop that mixes New England and California, 332 Elm Street, 508.990.7337). And for an alternative to Farm & Coast Market for a meal, funky full-service Black Bass Grille with its pleasant outdoor patio (3 Water Street, 508.999.6975).
Westport Rivers Vineyard and Winery: With sustainability their mantra and mission, the fourth generation of a wine-making family chose Westport for its soils in the early 1980s and have been creating their story here ever since. The winery is not only a vineyard but an education center and hosts summer music evenings and other events. Check their schedule before visiting. The location, on a plateau above sea level, offers beautiful vistas of the region.
Art drives and open studios: The Art Drive in Dartmouth and Westport and the Annual Open Studios Tour sponsored by South Coast Artists in Dartmouth, Westport, Tiverton and Little Compton offer several weekend events and access to dozens of art spaces, galleries and art demonstrations throughout the summer. Check their schedules for the most current details.