Rhode Island may be the smallest state in the country (with the longest official name: "State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations"), but with 400 miles of coastline, it is sheer summer paradise. Small towns like Bristol and Little Compton, and their Massachusetts neighbor, Westport, offer a clothes-on-a-line air. Beaches in the shape of half moons and small farms lead right down to the sand, and when you look at the green of the grass and the black-and-white of the cows, you have to squint because just beyond them is not a silo or a fence, but the gleam of the sea.
Site of the first battle of King Philip's War (1675) and proud owner of the nation's oldest Fourth of July celebration (since 1785), Bristol is a rarity among historic New England towns. Charmingly old-fashioned villages don't often have real downtowns where you can buy groceries or hardware, but although Bristol is loaded with sun-slanting harbor views and brightly painted Colonial and Federal homes, it generates a local life that has little to do with selling seagull sculptures or scrimshaw to tourists.
Half an hour south of the state capital and port city of Providence, Bristol has long been a center for those who design and build high-quality boats. Companies based here have produced several America's Cup yachts, and if you're interested, you can look over classic yacht specimens along with sleekly varnished hulls and keels at the America's Cup Hall of Fame at the Herreshoff Marine Museum.
Bristol's main thoroughfare is Hope Street, and besides the red-white-and-blue stripe down the middle (for the parade), some of the nicest things there are the houses and stores that are a normal part of the town, with people hurrying in and out. The William Fales House (1797) has nautical touches that are worth a look, including column decorations that curl like ocean waves. The underside of the porch roof is bowed and ribbed as if it were the hull of a ship, and painted a soft sea green.
Among other architectural finds is the little Post Office, also on Hope, that features an exterior of smooth gray slate and stained glass motifs of patriotic shields, arrows, flowers, and leaves. If you step inside to peer out, the glass above the entry and along window edges comes to life, tinting pedestrians in unexpected colors: rich dark reds, deep indigos, and October yellows.
The Basically British Store and Tea Room on State Street is marked, not by colored glass, but by its teapot-shaped sign steaming away above the door.
"It's my pride and joy, that teapot," says owner Fab Goldberg, who grew up in Kent, England, "although the steam comes and goes." Since Bristol seems faintly British with its front gardens and side-by-side shops, it makes sense to duck in here for a pot of Ty-Phoo tea and a scone spread with clotted cream, imported English butter, and jam.
By this point, you may feel like settling in, and becoming one of those who pick up their paper every day and head to the benches across from the town clock to spread out sections in the afternoon sun. As Mary Cantwell describes it in "American Girl: Scenes from a Small-town Childhood" (Penguin Books), a memoir of growing up here, "People who have the Bristol Complaint can never leave town. The elm trees snag them. So do the harbor and the wild roses and the history." That, and the simple fact that Bristol doesn't fawn over its visitors. It will welcome you if you want to stay on, or point the way to the arching Mount Hope Bridge just south of town if you do not.
If you're willing to venture a bit farther, the gray-shingled town of Little Compton, staked out by English settlers in the 17th century, faces ocean and bay on three sides. Famous fogs fight with patches of clear blue to rule the air on a given afternoon. Whichever wins, the spit that includes this town and its Rhode Island neighbors, Tiverton and Adamsville, is a stalwart kingdom of stone walls, fine old houses, and vegetable farms.
The Little Compton town common seems almost too whitewashed and spare to be real, with no-hype establishments like C.R. Wilbur's General Merchandise and the wood-framed town bulletin board that tells its users to "Please Limit Size of Notices."
Elizabeth Pabodie, daughter of pilgrims John and Priscilla Alden, is buried in the graveyard here, but almost no one visits the site or talks about this tidbit of local history.
Along West Main Road (Route 77), early summer means the opening of a long string of outposts hawking corn, beans, tomatoes, blueberries, melons, fresh fish, handmade wreaths, jars of salsa (there's an entire stand devoted to this), and mustards and relishes. Sometimes the stands stand alone; honor boxes are left out where customers are trusted to drop in the correct amount for whatever they bag.
Not very far from all this is the pint-sized whaling and shipbuilding settlement known as Westport Point, which is in Massachusetts. Down here at the very tip of the larger town of Westport, everything is silent and scrubbed clean, as if some laundry-day high tide regularly foamed through to erase any signs of clutter or litter.
Though Westport Point is no older than Little Compton, the proud historical plaques on every house make you realize that Colonial lineage here is a far more self-conscious phenomenon than it is in the town next door. "Joseph Prudence Allen -- Minuteman -- c. 1785" reads one such plaque. Others tacked onto fine-featured and perfectly kept clapboard houses let you know that "Joseph Devoll -- Mariner (1780)" and "Benjamin Franklin Davis -- Distiller (1773)" lived down the block.
If you walk down to the marina at the end of the point and look across the water, you can see the salt-marsh backside of Horseneck State Beach, which, although it has its share of blaring radios and soccer balls firing off puffs of sand, also has dependably good waves and walls of dunes that make you feel miles from any road.
Escape the beach crowds, if you like, by trudging down to the southern tip of the beach and turning the corner where the inlet cuts you off. Don't go for a swim here, because the tide is dangerous, but plant yourself on a dune to watch the boats sail out from Westport and, as fast as breezes, blend into the sea and sky.
Peter Mandel lives in Providence and writes books for children, including "Boats on the River" and "Planes at the Airport" (both from Scholastic).