WATCH HILL, R.I. – For a fleeting moment, sipping rose as the polo ponies rumbled by, we were transported to another time and place, taking in the sport of kings. The Veuve Clicquot was flowing, Lily Pulitzer and wide-brimmed hats were de rigeur, and a late-model Land Rover was parked at an exquisite angle on the sand nearby. The ultimate moment came when a gentleman who looked like Rob Lowe stuffed a free checked pocket square, made from polo jersey fabric, into my blazer.
Then, in chatting with a handsome woman who had come in from New York, I reverted. Spotting a plate of lumpy crab cakes untouched on the table before us, I blurted: “You gonna eat those?’’
I did, however, resist the temptation to stuff them into my pockets for later, and quickly got back to the business of trying to fit in.
You have to hand it to the Ocean House, the luxurious Relais & Chateaux seaside resort on the bluffs at Watch Hill. They come up with programming not readily seen anywhere else in the region. What’s more, the inaugural Ocean House Beach Polo Classic held last fall — between Harvard and Yale — wasn’t just about tasty hors d’oevres and Ralph Lauren. The event pays homage to an historic New England tradition.
The North Shore, Newport, the Berkshires, and the South Coast of Rhode Island were all hotbeds for polo, collectively on a par with Buenos Aires and Palm Beach. The sport came to the United States by way of Persia, India, and England, after New York Herald publisher James Gordon Bennett witnessed a game across the pond in 1876. As with the arrival of squash, curling, and of course, golf, the pastime became associated with dignified private clubs and upper-class clientele. Before the Patriots and tailgating at Foxborough, esteemed fans all along Bellevue Avenue would turn out to see man, horse, mallet, and ball.
New England’s colleges and universities got into the act as well. The Harvard Polo Club, the oldest intercollegiate polo program in the United States, dates back to 1883, and was re-established after a hiatus about 12 years ago. The teams practice at the Harvard Polo and Equestrian Center in Hamilton, Mass. The Yale Polo Club was founded in 1903, and is the longest-running and most successful collegiate polo team in the United States.
The Harvard-Yale matchup at the Ocean House was not only a twist on the better-known football rivalry, but a different version of how polo is typically played: three-on-three with a softball-size orange plastic sphere, and the soft, pockmarked sand substituting for smooth turf. A well-postured referee, also on horseback, kept tabs, and an announcer did the play-by-play, an art in its own right, over a loudspeaker.
After being led down the boardwalks to the beach bar and the beaded white surf of the Atlantic Ocean, and accepting a small plastic glass of Whispering Angel poured from a magnum, we settled in at the dune fencing to watch the first chukka — polo parlance for a seven-minute period of the game.
The teams put on a lively show, trading ice hockey-style fast breaks, sneaky steals, and explosive backhand swats. The end-to-end action looked a little overly strenuous to me, as anyone who has ever tried to run in mushy sand can attest. A bulldozer served as a Zamboni between the chukkas, while the horses got some rest.
When the last of the contests was over and trophies awarded — a friendly match, to be sure, but for the record, Harvard bested Yale — we repaired to the croquet green, getting a nice lesson in smacking multicolored balls on green as smooth as a kitchen floor. We imagined that Taylor Swift herself might be surveying the scene from her seaside mansion in the middle distance.
Then it was on to the hotel restaurant, rebranded Coast, for an early postmatch supper. Jennifer Backman, previously head chef at Spicer Mansion in nearby Mystic, Conn., bestowed East Beach blond oysters paired with Keel vodka, corn chowder with Stonington scallops, and halibut and Hopkins Farm lamb. The black cherry soufflé for dessert was paired with a Jonathan Edwards Zinfandel port, as darkness settled over the beach stretching from the Watch Hill carousel to Misquamicut.
Spectators need not be guests at the hotel, but for a full-on experience, the property offered the beach polo event as part of a special weekend promotion, with tickets to the match and breakfast included, starting at about $1,000.
No firm dates are set as yet, but the Ocean House team says future events are planned. It could even be a new tradition.