For a tiny state, Rhode Island boasts a number of larger-than-life attractions and experiences. One of these is Ocean House, located in tiny Watch Hill, a diminutive village on the state’s southern tip, along the border of Connecticut.
I’m a born-and-bred Rhode Islander, and I didn’t know much about Ocean House until recently. Nearly 30 years ago, I left the state, assuming — as most young people do — that I’d seen everything my birthplace had to offer. While you might be able to take a New Englander away from the coast, you can’t keep the shoreline out of her imagination for long. I’m now exploring the region with fresh eyes and discovering new-to-me places and sights — like Ocean House.
The original Rhode Island Ocean House was one of those Gilded Age properties built, in 1868, for the well-heeled who used “summer” as a verb. Perched high on a hill overlooking Narragansett Bay, it was a popular destination for families for 135 years and was even used as a location in the 1916 Douglas Fairbanks silent film American Aristocracy. But as a new middle class rose in America and Victorian excess fell out of fashion, Ocean House deteriorated. It closed in 2003, and was deemed “beyond feasible repair.”
In 2004, though, Ocean House Management purchased the 13-acre property. Over 6 years and with a $140 million investment, they built a new resort from the ground up. The contemporary hotel, which is a member of the prestigious Relais & Châteaux, thoughtfully retains the romantic seaside character of the original structure as well as more than 5,000 of its furnishings and objects — including the walnut reception desk, the scrollwork elevator, and a stone fireplace that was taken apart block by block and reassembled in the hotel’s restaurant.
Today at Ocean House, you can choose from 49 guestrooms, 8 cottages, and 20 signature suites, including a sumptuous penthouse with three bedrooms, a private kitchen larger than the ones found in most homes, and views of three states from the rooftop deck. With the exception of the four-level Tower Suite, all parts of the hotel are ADA accessible. The resort charges premium prices, and because of this, they have a no-tipping policy.
Every Ocean House room boasts marble sinks and bathtubs, Molton Brown bath products, and luxury bath and bed linens. Some rooms, like the one I stayed in, have deep soaking tubs concealed behind shutters that, when opened, provide serene views of the ocean. Others have terraces or fireplaces.
All rooms also have a private bar stocked with complimentary food and beverages. (Mine had soda, plain and flavored waters, and snacks like chocolate-covered pretzels, cheese, and crackers.) Stay in a suite, and you’ll also get complimentary alcoholic beverages in your bar. Additional amenities, such as water bottle refilling stations, are available in the hotel’s common areas.
Beauty and plush room amenities aside, where the resort really stands apart is in its impressive array of guest experiences. From relaxing with a cocktail by the outdoor fire pit to watching a movie in the plush-seated Screening Room, these Ocean House experiences make for a rewarding getaway, even if you never step foot off the property during your stay.
Here are some of my favorite things to see and do at Ocean House — all part of your standard hotel fee.
1. Tour The Property And Its Art Collection
Sign up for a guided tour of the hotel to learn about the property’s storied history and the incredible architecture and design that went into recreating the ambiance of the original inn.
Or take a self-guided tour of Ocean House’s more than 250 pieces of original art. The resort has a full-time curator who frequently changes out the Gallery, a long hallway by the elevators. You’ll also find the largest private collection of work by Ludwig Bemelmans, best known for the Madeline children’s books. (Look carefully, and you might spy a copy of the first Madeline in your room.)
2. Wine, Dine, And Snack
I could write pages about the dining experiences at Ocean House. The resort has six food-and-drink venues, ranging from casual snacks to white-tablecloth service in COAST, its farm-to-table restaurant. Chef Kat Kaine is a Rhode Island native who worked in Manhattan and Denver before returning to her New England roots. Her seasonal menus are a skillful land-and-sea blending of local produce, meat, and especially fish. Even better: She’s not snobbish about providing alternatives for those with dietary restrictions.
In addition to signature cocktails in the deck-top Secret Garden Crêperie and summer lobster boils and barbecues on the beach, Ocean House has debuted some innovative, COVID-safe dining experiences. These include Fondue Village, a creative winter repurposing of decommissioned ski gondolas into private dining rooms. In warmer seasons, the new, beachside Dune Cottage offers a Mediterranean-inspired lunch menu, while the Taco Shack is all about — you guessed it — street tacos and Mexican-style cocktails.
During my visit, I took part in a special Farm & Vine Dinner at COAST. The four-course Tuscan-inspired menu (I’m still dreaming about the creamy polenta) was crafted to complement the wines of Il Borro. The vineyard and certified organic farm is owned by the family of fashion designer Salvatore Ferragamo, who was patched in from Italy, via Skype, to geek out over wine with us. How he managed to look both chipper and effortlessly stylish at 2:00 a.m. CET is anyone’s guess. But getting an insider’s perspective on production methods on the Il Borro estate, then tasting each of the wines he selected, is what vacation memories are made of.
Even if you don’t typically consider yourself a breakfast person, plan to have a morning meal at an ocean-view table in The Bistro. It’s a singular experience to gaze out at the water while lingering over a cup of tea and favorites with a twist, like crispy French toast with cognac-soaked cherries, goat cheese, and dark amber maple syrup.
3. Pump It Up At The Gym
Work off your meals at Ocean House’s 24-hour Fitness Center. Here you can choose from a variety of cardio and strength-training equipment, each with its own video/music screens.
Prefer a class? Head to the next-door Movement and Yoga Studio for group classes like Body Sculpt, Pilates, and yoga. (Some classes are offered on the beach in summer and early fall.) Or select from among 100 virtual classes with the hotel’s Fitness on Demand touch-screen kiosks. You can also play squash on the indoor court, or go outdoors for croquet, shuffleboard, and golf.
Practice your freestyle or breaststroke in the 20-meter heated, salt-water lap pool. Located on the hotel’s lower level, it’s also open 24 hours a day, year-round, with designated adult-swim hours each day. In the warm weather, the hotel throws open the pool’s French doors, flooding the room with natural sunlight.
My pick among Ocean House’s active offerings: anything that allows me to get near or into the ocean, including surfing, paddleboarding, and private yacht charters, in season. During my visit, I also made it a point to walk the private, 650-foot, white-sand beach first thing in the morning. Yes, that’s early. But I had a spectacular sunrise — with the silhouettes of Block Island and Montauk visible in the distance — all to myself.
4. Indulge In Self-Care At The Spa
It’s named the OH! Spa for a reason. The moment you enter its sweet-smelling lounge and accept a glass of fruit-infused water, you’ll immediately feel your shoulders drop away from your ears and your breathing deepen. Take some time to enjoy Ocean House’s marble-bedecked steam room before you start your chosen treatment — massages, facials, body wraps, and more — from a seasonally inspired menu.
In the summer, treatments can book up quickly. If you have your heart set on a particular one, contact the hotel before your stay to ensure the treatment of your choice.
5. Offsite Excursions
If you decide to skip out for a bit, you’ve got several options. Ocean House has complimentary bikes along with maps of the local area. Or you can borrow one of the hotel’s six Mercedes-Benz sedans and convertibles, which are available for day and evening excursions around the local area.
Whenever I visit a new place — or a place I haven’t been to in a while — I usually start my explorations on foot. Ocean House is a short, sloping, 0.2-mile walk from the village of Watch Hill, where you can go boutique shopping, stop for drinks and snacks, or take a scenic walk along the water. Pay a visit to the ponies at the Flying Horse Carousel, at the corner of Bay Street and Larkin Road. It’s on the National Register of Historic Places and is considered the oldest continuously operating suspended-horse carousel in the United States.
Accessibility is generally good in the village, though uneven ground in some spots may be tricky for walkers and mobility vehicles. Complimentary car service is available to many parts of Watch Hill and Westerly, including the train station, which is served by Amtrak’s Northeast Regional route.
When planning a vacation in Watch Hill, keep in mind that most shops and attractions are open only between Memorial Day weekend and Columbus Day weekend. You’ll still find a handful of restaurants and shops in operation during shoulder seasons, which can feel much more intimate than the height of summer. Whether you choose the color and energy of summer or the solitude and serenity of spring, late fall, or winter, Ocean House will be there, ready to welcome you with a wide range of uniquely relaxing and enriching vacation experiences.
Want more on Ocean House? The stunning Relais & Châteaux property is featured in our Beautiful Coastal Rhode Island Road Trip: Providence To Westerly.