They dodged a bullet last year. When Tropical Storm Hermione finally veered out to sea, the crews of 68 mono hull sailboats awoke Labor Day weekend to lively northeast winds on a sun-splashed morning, scattered cotton clouds racing across the skies.
It was the start of the 89th Conanicut Yacht Club Around the Island Race. The oldest continuing yacht race on Narragansett Bay, the competition is easily one of the most popular staged all year long in New England. Flying their colorful spinnakers, the boats sailed under the iconic Jamestown Verrazzano and Claiborne Pell bridges and passed by the watchful eye of Beavertail Lighthouse.
The race creates a magical backdrop to the annual Jamestown seaside car show set on a bluff overlooking the Bay at the Fort Getty town park. They are just a couple of the fun events that the quaint and quiet village holds each summer.
By the 1300s the island of "Quinunicut" served as a summer camp for the Narragansetts, the largest of the area American Native American tribes. Artifacts spanning a 3,000 year period have been recovered from a site near the local elementary school. The island was purchased from the Naragansetts by a group of colonists in 1657. The first regular ferries began running to the island 20 years later and remained the only way to access the island until well into the 20th century.
Once a summer haven for the East Coast wealthy accessible only by ferry, Jamestown was celebrated in the early 1900s for beachfront elegant hotels and grand summer cottages. Today, its off-the-beaten-path vibe is precisely what attracts visitors to this community of 5,600. At the mouth of Narragansett Bay, Jamestown is located twenty-five miles south of Providence, the mainland two miles to the west. A pair of yacht clubs and marinas, as well as a certified sailing school, draw scores of folks every summer.
The sleepy village offers an attractive mix of homes and historic sites, a string of local shops, boutiques and restaurants, that team with rolling acres of preservation land and sweeping vistas. It's a one-stoplight town where family-owned businesses take the place of chain stores, and grocery shopping can entail travelling to one of the island’s nine working farms. Only nine miles long and one mile across, the island is a great place to pedal, with miles of dedicated cycling trails and scenic, lightly traveled back roads.
When the high suspension bridge connecting Jamestown and Newport was completed in 1969, it transformed Jamestown into a bedroom community for cities as far away as Providence and Boston. Still, the picturesque island is relatively isolated by modern standards and presents a striking contrast to its bustling high-profile neighbor Newport three miles to the east.
Jamestown is a seaside resort that doesn't feel like one, even at the height of the summer season. You find that sense of being an islander—a little apart from the rest of the world. Older neighborhoods and historic properties, lighthouses and the remains of old military fortifications offer a vivid connection to the past.
Drive along north Main Road and you see its quiet rural character with rolling hills, green pastures and heavy timber that sits in the middle of Lower Narragansett Bay. As a coastal Rhode Island destination Jamestown stands nearly alone retaining an open waterfront and a half-mile boardwalk with long lengths of shoreline still accessible to the public.
One such beach is part of a two-mile trail tract encircling Watson Farm. Founded by Job Watson in 1789, it's a 285-acre working farm with miles of picturesque trails. Through the use of innovative sustainable practices, the managers of the farm continue the tradition of pastoral husbandry with grazing Heritage Red Devon cattle and sheep on the scenic seaside pastures. Operated by Historic New England, the farmers produce 100% grass-fed beef as well as lamb and wool blankets for the local market. Climb aboard the big swing hanging from the towering poplar tree in front of the 1796 farmhouse.
Across the road the Jamestown Windmill once was used to grind flint corn, a key ingredient in Rhode Island’s famous johnnycakes. Climb to the top of the turret to take in a dramatic view of Newport's Claiborne Pell Bridge soaring over the East Passage. Stop by Zeek's Creek—a weathered wooden shack that sits alone on a picturesque marsh— a hot spot for lobster, cod, and more of the day’s fresh catch.
Downtown, the lively waterfront is dotted with an array of yachts, sailboats and motorboats. Narragansett Avenue stretches between the island’s two marinas, with shops lining both sides. Start your day at Slice of Heaven bakery and cafe with a flavored cappuccino, dark roast “regular,” blueberry sourdough pancakes or Grand Marnier French toast.
There's been a lot of fuss about Jamestown FiSH over the last few years. Walk through the double door entrance and head upstairs for drinks at the Bridge Bar with a deck overlooking the Newport Bridge and Narragansett Bay. Downstairs the tile floor, white wood accents and ocean blue paint colors give the restaurant a soothing atmosphere. Chef-owner Matthew MacCartney uses ultra-fresh local seafood and produce to craft a myriad of seafood dishes and one of Vermont quail. FiSH's signature dish is the Cookpot, a small Dutch oven with loads of seafood and spicy chourico, and the black squid ink linguine with Rhode Island calamari.
Simpatico’s twinkling lights on the restaurant’s gazebo provide a welcoming signpost. One of its specialty dishes is pan-roasted clams, dubbed the Little Rhody Necks that sit atop a knot of linguine awash in a flavorful sweet-corn cream sauce, while the clams are cooked with red pepper, diced onions, and mildly zesty chourico. A jazz trio plays on sunny days, while patrons dine alfresco under a 275-year-old copper beech tree. An herb garden, fieldstone walls, and white linen complete the picture.
Jamestown locals have flocked over to "the Ganny" -- the Narragansett Café for live music and dancing for nearly three decades. The most popular bands in New England perform on Friday and Saturday night, while its Sunday blues sessions have become legendary.
Legend has it Capt. William Kidd, privateer and swashbuckler, spent the last free days of his life at the northern end of the island and buried part of his treasure there. Today, the treasures of this secluded island continue to attract residents and visitors in search of a simpler and more easy-going way of life.
Sailing photo by Cate Brown; other photos courtesy of Conanicut Island Tourism