Updated: Nov 11, 2021
Misty green fields framed by ancient stone walls spill down to the water’s edge in a state of tousled, natural beauty. A salty sea breeze mingles with the scent of fresh-cut hay. And ours is the only car visible in any direction. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear we had somehow driven to the west coast of Ireland (in just over an hour, at that). But the 18th-century cottages clad in weathered gray shingles are a dead giveaway that we’re far closer to home.
We’re on the “Farm Coast,” a rural stretch of New England’s southeastern shores where Massachusetts meets Rhode Island and farmland meets the sea.
And much to my wife’s annoyance, I can’t stop exclaiming, loudly, how stinking pretty it is here. It’s like we’re seated near a celebrity, and I’m the guy who just cannot keep his chill. But the scenery comes to my defense: As we take a left onto Main Road in Little Compton, Rhode Island, we catch a glimpse of majestic horses peacefully grazing in a meadow, their manes literally luminous, backlit by the golden afternoon sun as it melts into the sparkling Sakonnet River beyond. It’s pinch-yourself beautiful.
But this area is so much more than just a pretty place. For one thing, the centrality of agriculture in these South Coast communities — Westport and Dartmouth in Massachusetts, Little Compton and Tiverton in Rhode Island — equates to inspired menus full of farm-fresh, locally grown foods. Especially around harvest time in late summer and fall.
We first discovered the Farm Coast a few autumns ago. We were searching for a lower-key, older-school apple picking experience than the overcrowded apple fests on offer at so many Boston-area orchards. We found exactly what we hoped for at Old Stone Orchard (401-635-2663) in Little Compton.
There were no bounce houses or oil-belching tractor hayrides, but our then-5-year-old daughter still had a blast. Borrowing a red wagon from the farm stand, we gave her a personal hayride into the tree rows (where, even on an October Saturday, we saw maybe a dozen other people). Later, she proudly helped pull our half-bushel of Empires and Galas back down to be weighed, playing the rugged farmhand. Then we meandered down the dirt road to visit the farm’s pigs, goats, and chickens, before loading up the car with our fall bounty of apples, squash, and pumpkins. Before heading back to Boston, we stopped for dinner at The Red Dory (reddoryrestaurant.com, 401-816-5001) in Tiverton, where a casual, beachy vibe belies a sophisticated menu full of locally sourced food and wines. (Don’t miss the fried oysters.)
Later that fall, we returned to the Farm Coast for the November open house held at Westport Rivers Winery (westportrivers.com, 508-636-3423). We sipped wine and hot cider around fire pits, snacked on kettle corn and cheese from Massachusetts and Rhode Island farms, and stocked up on wine baskets and handmade alpaca-wool mittens for holiday gifts. Our daughter and several other kids were engrossed for hours playing in a huge maze of hay bales — first leaping from one to another, then building forts with them, and finally, as the sun descended, toppling their structures; it was like witnessing the rise and fall of a micro-civilization.
We’re kidless this time around, on our first grown-up getaway since the Before Times, and we kick it off with a stop at Running Brook Vineyards (runningbrookwine.com, 508-985-1998) in Dartmouth to sample a flight of five wines ($10). The tasting room is 100 percent frills-free, but some of the wines — all produced on site from home-grown grapes — are remarkably good. We leave with a bottle each of the clean, refreshing Running Brook White and the mellow, peachy Vidal Blanc.
Our next stop is the riverfront patio of Westport Sea Farms (westportseafarms.com, 774-309-3056), where we settle into a pair of Adirondack chairs and order cups of clam chowder to ward against the sea breeze, plus a dozen locally raised “sea-to-table” oysters. Of the four varieties, we pronounce the delicate Spindrifts, farmed in the West Branch of the Westport River, our favorites. But when you’re sitting by the water, slurping down oysters a few hundred yards from where they were hauled out, there really are no losers.
As evening starts to settle in, we head over to The Westporter (westportercatering.com, 508-636-9000), a homey bistro in the center of town where the menu rotates with the local harvest. That includes the drink list: Many of the cocktails are crafted around seasonal fruit, while the beers from Buzzards Bay Brewing are made with Massachusetts-grown hops, grains, and malts. (After a 16-ounce can of Butler Flats Black — a roasty dark lager perfect for an autumn evening — I pledge to visit the nearby brewery on a return visit.)
There’s plenty of seating in the whimsical, converted barn, but we’re sticking to outdoor dining; we don’t have to wait long before a picnic table opens up on the grass. Beneath a canopy of ash trees and twinkling string lights, we devour our divinely delicious, deceptively simple dishes: chicken and rice smothered in the house Mozambique sauce (a Portuguese sauce with a feisty kick), a pair of barbecued black bean and sweet potato sliders, and spicy seasoned fries. Entrees cost about $10 to $20.
We’re staying at The Stone House (newportexperience.com/stonehouse, 401-635-2222), a converted 19th-century mansion near the tip of Sakonnet Point in Little Compton. With just over a dozen rooms and suites, this is an exquisite boutique hotel — a splurge for us, but there aren’t many mid-range options beyond the highway chain hotels. Thankfully, rates drop like leaves in the fall, from $400-plus in summertime to the $300s in September. Despite the historic nature of the property, the guest rooms are spacious and quite modern; ours, in the converted barn, has a luxurious steam shower and gas fireplace, plus tons of windows that open out to let in views of a pond and the Atlantic beyond.
The morning breakfast spread includes an assortment of freshly baked pastries, but we’ve got brunch plans later, so we take only our coffees to the wraparound porch. Some 2 acres of lawn, punctuated with a stone fire pit and pairs of Adirondack chairs, cascade down toward the water. The hotel has a fleet of cruiser bikes for guests to borrow, but instead we walk down the sprawling lawn to Round Pond Road — the kind of narrow country lane most of us only stroll in daydreams or fuzzy childhood memories — and five minutes farther on, reach a small, windswept beach. Minutes later, we come across the sandy, semiprivate Tappens Beach, where on this day rock formations outnumber beachgoers.
The salt air awakens our appetites, so it’s off to The Barn (401-635-2985), a breakfast and brunch spot in Adamsville, a historic part of Little Compton. The inside is rustic, cozy, and charming, with an airy second-story balcony, but we’re able to get a table on the patio, where we tuck into omelets and pancakes ($7.50-$12) beneath the trees and awnings.
In a converted Victorian nearby, Partners Village Store & Kitchen (partnersvillagestore.com, 508-636-2572) in Westport is just a delight, pure and simple. It’s one part cafe, with covered dining available on the wraparound porch; one part gift shop, with regionally-made crafts, cards, and other goodies; and one part indie bookstore, with a small but well curated selection. After picking up a thank-you gift for my sister-in-law for watching our daughter, we amble down a hill to the Dedee Shattuck Gallery (dedeeshattuckgallery.com, 508-636-4177), a striking gallery for contemporary art and fine crafts. The dramatic landscape photography of Barbara Gilson — based in Portland, Oregon, but born in Boston and raised in Brockton — is on exhibit through October 10.
We cross back into Little Compton and stop near the town common for a caffeine boost at the Art Cafe (508-558-5497), a little fairy tale of a coffee shop and gallery. There’s something magical about this beautifully battered bohemian cottage, where the antique glass doors are thrown open to the world with all the hopeful vulnerability of a paintbrush set to canvas. Owners Judith Worthen and Josie Arkins serve up organic coffee, pastries, and art workshops, while patrons lounge and chat in a garden of fruit trees.
Blink and you’ll miss the Art Cafe, but there’s no bypassing Groundswell Cafe + Bakery (groundswellcafegarden.com, 401-816-4256). This upscale, from-scratch bakery serves all-day breakfast sandwiches and quiches ($8.50-$11.50) — plus hearty soups, salads, and sandwiches made with baguettes — and brings a touch of Paris to Tiverton’s historic Four Corners.
Groundswell opened last fall in the gorgeous circa-1876 general store building that had housed the beloved Provender Cafe for 37 years. In addition to a new outdoor dining garden, the bistro tables that line the wraparound porch broadcast a kind of small-town chic, like a movie star on vacation. Somehow, the interior is even more stunning, like stepping inside a design magazine — one that smells of oven-fresh croissants and locally roasted coffee.
Across the street is the Four Corners Arts Center (fourcornersarts.org, 401-624-2600), which maintains a free, serene sculpture park nearby. On exhibit through October are 25 works by Timothy Michael Hetland. Damselfly, a larger-than-life steel sculpture of a dragonfly perched in the pond, is my favorite — along with Calling Elk, a permanent steel and epoxy installation by artist Wendy Klemperer.
The Four Corners area stretches along Main Road with antiques shops, a cheese market, and galleries galore. But right now we’ve got ice cream on the brain, and anchoring a third corner is the famous, nearly century-old Gray’s Ice Cream (graysicecream.com, 401-624-4500). Our oversized, made-on-site scoops are decadently rich and creamy, but if we return with our daughter, we’ll probably end up at Wood’s Ice Cream (508-264-1037) in Westport, where the presence of goats and cows makes up for the ice cream “imported” from Gifford’s of Maine.
Driving back up Main Road, Carolyn’s Sakonnet Vineyard (sakonnetwine.com, 401-635-8486) beckons us with its bucolic beauty, but it’s closed midweek. So we cross into Portsmouth, Rhode Island, to meet up with friends at Greenvale Vineyards (greenvale.com, 401-847-3777). This isn’t technically the Farm Coast — and in fact, after a couple of days across the river, it feels positively bustling by comparison — but there’s still plenty of scenic farmland about.
Greenvale often hosts live music and food trucks on Saturdays into October and November (depending on weather), and opens daily through December. Today, it’s just a few groups of visitors sprawled across the scenic grounds, including a handful of kids and dogs, enveloped by a vintage of plump grapes awaiting harvest. We nab a picnic table overlooking the Sakonnet River and leisurely share a tasting flight of estate-grown wines ($25) served on a reclaimed barrel stave.
As the mellow warmth of a Greenvale chardonnay aged in oak gives way to the bright crispness of the Skipping Stone White, followed by the smoky, moody Meritage blend of merlot, malbec, and cabernet franc, I can just about taste late summer fading into fall — hints of turning leaves, the coming chill in the air.
If only time and place were so easily bottled. But autumn lingers on the Farm Coast, thanks to the moderating influence of the surrounding waters. And local conservation groups are working hard to purchase and protect this area’s historic, breathtaking, nourishing farmland. So for now, we toast the coming change in seasons, and give thanks for all the beauty and bounty around us, here in the heart of the harvest.