TIVERTON, R.I. -- There's a bucolic slice of New England here where the hills are blanketed in rich farmland, even an unexpected lush vineyard. Fresh eggs are for sale down by the curb and there are hayrides and overflowing farm stands come fall.
Buffered by Newport on one side and Massachusetts on the other, this spot is as much about the mighty ocean as fertile soil. Yet it couldn't be more different from the gilded glamour of Newport, a half hour's drive away.
Plan to stay at a bed-and-breakfast, snack at a farm stand, cruise the winding back roads by car or bike, marvel at wind surfers, or visit a wildlife refuge to watch birds during the fall migration. The prettiest stretch is on Route 77 near Fort Barton, a troop staging post during the Revolutionary War, out to the harbor nestled at the point. The hamlets of Tiverton Four Corners, Little Compton, and Adamsville are about as much bustle as visitors will find.
According to James Weir, a Massachusetts architect who lives part time in Adamsville, the expanse is one of the last remaining rural coastal areas in New England. To find a similar landscape, travelers would have to trek to northern Maine, he says. And while many head to northern New England to take in the fall foliage, Weir says Tiverton and Little Compton also put on a vivid show. About an hour southwest of Boston and 3 hours from Manhattan, the Rhode Island spot has the character of Martha's Vineyard, he says, yet is easier to reach. Still, a prime location isn't all that makes the area attractive.
"It's timeless, small villages that are still villages. It's what Cape Cod used to be," says Weir, who was first introduced to Tiverton and the environs some 20 years ago.
He is particularly proud of the shops at Tiverton Four Corners, a district placed on the National Register of Historic Places 30 years ago. Housed in buildings dating to 1750, some two dozen stores sell everything from yarn to toys and include galleries and an ice cream parlor.
This summer, a farm stand specializing in artisanal cheeses, Milk and Honey Bazaar, opened on Main Road. Another store, Frill, which features handmade wedding gowns and wedding planning for rural nuptials, also joined the shopping scene.
Michael Roseberry, who owns Roseberry-Winn Pottery and Tile with his partner, Bruce Winn, opened a second location last year in Tiverton Four Corners while maintaining a studio in Providence. They live above the shop.
"It's more about the quiet features of the land with a sprinkle of retail," says Roseberry. "You won't find chain stores and you won't be mobbed by people."
For a taste of historic retail head to Adamsville and Gray's Store, built in 1788 and one of the oldest continuously operating shops in the country. The building was the site of Little Compton's first post office, dating to 1804.
Meander back to Route 77 and travel south to Sakonnet Vineyards. The winery owners, Earl and Susan Samson, chose Little Compton back in 1975 because the microclimate and soil are similar to several successful overseas wine regions, particularly the maritime climates of northern France. The award-winning wines of the vineyard include chardonnay, Gewurztraminer, and Pinot Noir. Harvesting at Sakonnet takes place usually in mid-October, depending on the weather, with a skillful crew handpicking the grapes. Visitors can watch the grapes being pressed and then go to the hospitality center, where they will find a tasting room and displays of Sakonnet's vintages, T-shirts, and wine paraphernalia, such as mulling spices and bottle stoppers.
Back out on Route 77, the vista consists of nothing more intrusive than endless low stone walls surrounding wide-open yards with a couple of Adirondack chairs under an enormous shade tree. Vines trail up a garage door and the shingles on summer cottages age to blue, gray, or brown. Not a blade of grass appears out of place at these affluent properties.
In contrast, Sakonnet Point is a working man's harbor where weary fishermen file back to their cars, lunch box coolers in hand, after bringing in the day's haul. The pungent smell of the ocean fills the air and the wind whips up frothy whitecaps along Rhode Island Sound. Sakonnet Point Light maintains its vigil in the distance.
While the area boasts seven seashore playgrounds, crescent-shape Fogland Beach is a near-perfect pebbly alcove with tables just a few feet from the water's edge. Bring a picnic and dine al fresco. Or, stroll to the other side of the point for some clamming in calm waters as the day wraps up in this secluded Rhode Island haven.
Christina Zarobe is a freelance writer in New England.