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10 reasons to love South County, R.I.

Visitors always provoke curiosity from the resident alpacas at Shadow Pines Farm in Exeter. Visitors always provoke curiosity from the resident alpacas at Shadow Pines Farm in Exeter. (Paul E. Kandarian for The Boston Globe)
By Paul E. Kandarian
Globe Correspondent / June 21, 2009
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Rhode Island has five official counties (second lowest in the nation to Delaware’s three), and what is called South County isn’t one of them. It’s more a state of mind, an area from Coventry at its northernmost, to Narragansett in the southeast, to Westerly on the Connecticut border.

The ocean beaches are its main draw, 16 public ones in all, but the diversity of attractions is not to be missed. So here is a tour of 10 things to love about South County, starting in the north.

George B. Parker Woodland Birds, ancient rock formations, and Revolutionary War-era carriage roads make for great hiking and good exercise at the Woodland Wildlife Refuge, at 860 acres one of the largest holdings of the Audubon Society of Rhode Island.

“Parker abounds with wildlife and songbirds,’’ said Lawrence Taft, the society’s executive director. “It’s a rewarding place to spend a day out on the trails exploring and enjoying the natural world.’’

It’s a walk appealing to all ages, he said, with some trails easily handled by parents with youngsters, while other hillier and rockier ways demand a little more experience and stamina. A sawmill here was built and owned by African-Americans in the late 1700s, and the most prominent landmark is the Isaac Brown House, a center-chimney Colonial on the National Register of Historic Places. 1670 Maple Valley Road, Coventry, 401-949-5454, asri.org/refuges/george-b.-parker-woodland.html.

Shadow Pines Farm Cut down windy, picturesque Route 102 and find gorgeous alpacas. They aren’t very social, though, so unless you’re packing a carrot, don’t expect to pet them.

“The fleece is hypoallergenic and hollow, so it makes very warm fabric,’’ said Vivian Ball, who with her husband, Bob, raises dozens of alpacas on one of a surprising 10 or so alpaca farms in this small state. “We sell alpaca products here, including scarves I make on a tabletop loom.’’

It’s a place you can visit informally, either by just stopping by or preferably calling first. The animals are immensely curious, darting to the fences in bunches, long necks craning to see who’s come and then shambling away when bored. 181 Purgatory Road, Exe ter, 401-295-7859, shadowpinesfarm.com.

Rhode Island Bay Lighthouse Cruise On to the coast, where the high-speed, 400-seat Millennium catamaran ferry makes quick work of checking out 10 lighthouses, myriad islands, plus a turn through Newport Harbor. Between lighthouses the ferry jets along at 40 miles per hour.

“This is the fast ferry we use from Quonset Point to Martha’s Vineyard,’’ said Charlie Donadio, company president and owner.

The ferry goes under the Newport and Jamestown bridges, and by such notable sites as Fort Adams, Hammersmith Farms, and the decommissioned aircraft carriers Saratoga and Forrestal, with historian-narrator Arthur Strauss constantly doling out information. Rhode Island Bay Lighthouse Cruise, 1347 Roger Williams Way, North Kingstown, 401-295-4040, rhodeislandbaycruises.com. Adults $25 in advance, $28 for walk-ups.

Quonset Air Museum The ferry landing is at the former Quonset Point Naval Air Station, which was the world’s largest air base in World War II and most fitting to host this collection of fighting machines great and small, including a recent acquisition, a 41-foot Hercules nuclear missile.

“We get a lotta old pilots come through here,’’ said museum president David H. Payne, 77, himself a former US Army Ranger.

The museum started in 1991 with three or four aircraft and now boasts 28, Payne said, all being restored and maintained by 14 volunteers inside a vintage hangar. One of only three prototype Curtiss XF15C planes ever made is here, Payne said. 488 Eccleston Ave., North Kingstown, 401-294-9540, theqam.org.

Gilbert Stuart Birthplace and Museum Who’s buried in Benjamin Howland’s tomb on Boston Common - besides Howland? It’s Rhode Island-born Gilbert Stuart, the famed presidential portrait artist, who died so broke in 1828 that his equally poor family had to bury him in a plot owned by family friend Howland.

“He was very prolific,’’ said Peggy O’Connor, executive director of the Gilbert Stuart Birthplace and Museum, where Stuart spent his early years before moving to Newport. “He’s known mostly for his portraits of George Washington, but he also painted the first six American presidents and their wives, except Thomas Jefferson’s. He did more than 1,000 paintings in all.’’

His pieces here are reproductions, but the buildings on 22 bucolic acres and their furnishings are mostly original. Not to be missed is a short video of Stuart’s largely sad life. A tour costs $6 but walking around the pristine grounds is free. 815 Gilbert Stuart Road, Saunderstown, 401-294-3001, gilbertstuartmuseum.org.

Theatre by the Sea Out behind the theater is a sagging storage building known as The Brando Barn. Marlon Brando used to park his motorcycle there when he did summer stock here. The theater, on the National Register of Historic Places, has hosted an impressive array of actors since 1933, also including Jessica Tandy, Hume Cronyn, Art Carney, and Burgess Meredith, and thrives to this day, under new ownership since 2007.

The rough-hewn walled barn, unheated and used in summer only, has 502 seats, with the Bistro by the Sea restaurant behind it hosting its own cabaret. This is professional theater at its best, with upcoming shows “Crazy About You,’’ a Gershwin extravaganza, “Peter Pan,’’ and “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.’’ There are children’s shows here, too. 364 Cards Pond Road, Matunuck, 401-782-3800, theatrebythesea.com.

Champlin’s Since you’re right by the ocean grab some Rhode Island chowder (clear broth with clams and veggies) at the legendary Champlin’s, here in one of the nation’s busiest fishing ports. Equally legendary are the views from Champlin’s sunny decks.

“This is one thing I absolutely require,’’ said Jennifer Brown of Jacksonville, Fla., dining on chowder and clamcakes, another Champlin’s specialty. “I come to Rhode Island once a year and coming here is the one thing I must do.’’

Champlin’s started as a shack in 1932 and over the years grew to its current two-level building with knotty pine interior.

For a mere $3.79 you get a half pint of Rhode Island chowder, and $2.40 more gets you a trio of clamcakes. 256 Great Island Road, Point Judith, 401-783-3152, champlins.com.

The Towers Not far away are The Towers, which long ago used to be the place to cut a mean rug - and still is.

“Dance lessons are very popular here,’’ said Debbie Kelso, executive director of the Narragansett Chamber of Commerce, located in the base of the building on Narragansett Beach.

The Towers were part of the Narragansett Pier Casino that in the Gay Nineties was one of America’s hottest resorts and included a ballroom famous for hosting massive dances. Designed by McKim, Meade & White with landscape design by Frederick Law Olmsted, the casino was destroyed by fire in 1900, leaving only the towers. The casino was rebuilt but more fires and massive storms over the years left only the hardy granite towers, now town owned and home to lectures, music, poetry readings - and dancing. In July and August, the towers are open for anyone to walk up and take in the views. 35 Ocean Road, Narragansett, 401-782-2597, thetowersri.com.

Quonochontaug Fishing Area Down the coast a bit, in the Charlestown village of Quonochontaug, is this 49-acre parcel by a breachway connecting Quonochontaug Pond to the ocean and providing some of the most popular fishing in the state, said Mike Roy, harbormaster.

“Blues, stripers, flounder,’’ Roy said when asked what’s there to be caught, adding that the dirt road and unpaved parking area is “packed in summer, bumper to bumper.’’ Come early and stay late. The sunsets here are spectacular. West Beach Road, Charlestown, State Department of Environmental Management, 401-222-6800.

Misquamicut Beach And finally, take in this granddaddy of all beaches in the state, stretching some seven miles from Watch Hill to Weekapaug, most publicly encompassing the half-mile Misquamicut State Beach portion in the middle with a new pavilion complete with showers, a tower, concession stand, and composting toilets.

“It’s the first open beach after Long Island Sound,’’ said Caswell Cooke, executive director of the Misquamicut Business Association. “We get lots of people from Connecticut and Massachusetts who want the surf.’’

There are in excess of 5,000 parking spaces up and down the beach, he said, all full on hot weekends. “Between the town, the Chamber of Commerce, and the business association,’’ Cooke said, “there is something to do every night in July and August.’’ Misquamicut Beach, Atlantic Avenue, Westerly, state beach 401-596-9097, riparks.com/misquamicut.htm and misquamicut.org.

Paul E. Kandarian can be reached at kandarian@globe.com.