BRISTOL, R.I. -- We had already checked into the "new" lodging on the waterfront when we read the brochure and learned that the Bristol Harbor Inn's 40 rooms occupy what was a "rum distill house" in 1800, a bank in 1797, and a former coal and lumber building before that.
Sure enough, the inn presents a flat-faced brick facade with 12-over-12 windows looking onto Thames Street, and the side driveway has been maintained as a historically suggestive string of potholes half-filled with crushed shell. Everything else, however, was so new and fresh that we pegged it all at 2001, when the inn opened as the centerpiece of the Thames Street Landing complex of lodging, shops, and restaurants. Beyond the facade is little evidence of the bank or the coal and lumber business. As for the distillery, more on that later.
We should have known better than to think we could escape the iron hand of the past in Bristol, where main streets are painted with red, white, and blue lane lines, bunting drapes Colonial and Federal porches, and plaques proclaim the year and builder of most houses. Yet for all its Colonial trappings, Bristol is simply a fabulously salty village with a gorgeous Narragansett Bay harbor. The Bristol Harbor Inn looked like a yachtsman's berth of choice.
Our room (No. 225) was on the third floor, a curiously European affectation (the French start counting floors one story above ground level) given some support by the French Provincial leanings of the decor. Delft-blue walls in the bedroom were complemented by a blue and gold carpet, blue and yellow toile drapes, and a blue and yellow plaid bedspread on the queen-size bed. The small desk and armoire (hiding the TV) were in a pale blonde wood with a light blue glaze. The bathroom walls were bright yellow while the floor tiles and fixtures were gleaming white.
Because our corner room was on the harbor end of the building, we had splendid water views in two directions. Thames Street Landing has a wide boardwalk along the water, complete with an outpost of the wildly popular Tiverton-based Gray's Ice Cream, enabling us to sit in the sun and lick ice cream cones as sport fishermen cruised past in their outboard boats.
The hotel's ground floor is filled with small shops, so we perused Chinese antiques, Irish giftware, and upscale women's clothing. We could have booked a cut at the New Leaf Hair Studio or a few treatments at Alayne White Spa & Body Boutique, which professes to be Bristol's first spa. Instead, we strolled out Thames Street to Independence Park, where the last of the season's beach roses were in bloom. Granite blocks line the harbor here, making perfect perches for parents to sun in the falling angle of light while the kids cast for flounder.
When we booked our reservation in mid-August, the clerk assured us the inn's new restaurant, DeWolf Tavern, would be open by our visit. When we arrived, however, the floor varnish was still drying in the rough stone building next to the inn (the former distillery). It is expected to open later this fall.
The desk clerk gladly gave us other restaurant suggestions, but because Thames Street Landing faces west across Narragansett Bay, we wanted to hang around for sunset. So we opted for a casual dinner at J.G. Goff's Pub & Grille, which occupies a prime location on the water. A few Adirondack chairs were set up for sunset viewing, but most of the convivial boaters, fishermen, and vacationers crowded around plastic tables to devour big plates of nachos, drink beer, and debate whether plastic cups used on the deck hold as much as the glasses used inside. (They do.)
The kitchen is several cuts above most pubs, though the menu is tiresomely laced with jibes at the owner's ex-wife and the pub's ex-chef, whose departures appear to have been concurrent. We settled on beer-battered fish and chips (the sweet and firm cod was clearly fresh), and a roast turkey club sandwich, made, per the menu, with turkey breast roasted daily on the premises. The vegetables were fresh and seemed to be local.
As the sun set, an elegant yawl returned to her mooring as a lone trawler steamed out for a night of fishing.
Patricia Harris and David Lyon write about food and travel from Cambridge.