Destination: Wickford, Rhode Island

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By Mary Drake

Ask harbormaster Mark Knapp about Wickford, and he’ll tell you this Rhode Island town is

really special. “The No. 1 sailing destination for cruisers in Narragansett Bay,” he says.

Knapp says Wickford welcomes transients at the downtown public dock and offers four of its moorings free to visitors. “That’s quite a commitment,” he says, “since we have a 10- to 12-year waiting list for moorings.”

With a reservation, you’ll have a slip or mooring in one of the harbor’s two coves. Without, you’ll likely have to anchor outside the breakwater, since hundreds of yachts crowd the harbor in-season. From the anchorage, moorings or marinas, you can dinghy downtown and tie up at the public dock. Shops, restaurants and pocket parks along five blocks of Brown and Main streets are just steps away.

Wickford was founded in 1665, and Knapp says a good portion of the village remains relatively unchanged since the 1700s. Art galleries often feature local artists, and downtown turns into one big outdoor festival each July, when 250 juried fine artists display their work along the streets.

In one of the 40 antique, gift and craft shops, Elizabeth and Harry Spring create functional pottery pieces in their West Main Street shop, then glaze and fire the pots in their home studio. “There’s an element of magic and excitement creating something from a lump of dirt,” says Elizabeth Spring.

The Hour Glass displays a fascinating array of timepieces, barometers,weather instruments, cloud charts and the like. “Clocks are like paintings that tell time,” says proprietor Karen Lucas. Only non-chiming timepieces show the correct time; the others are set randomly, so chimes sound almost continually.

Most downtown restaurants specialize in what Knapp calls “nice lunches” for the day-tripping crowd, some of whom come by boat from Newport. Dinner choices include The Seaport Tavern, Wickford Diner and the nearby Carriage Inn, which will pick you up and deliver you back to town for fine dining and “gentle upscale ambience” worth the ride. There’s also pizza from The Place, or if you cook on board you might want to try custom-cut meats from Ryan’s Market, or fresh fish, lobster or shellfish from Champlin’s on the commercial wharf. For a casual lobster feed, locals recommend Duffy’s Tavern, but you’ll need transportation.

Ryan’s, operated by fourth-generation family members, stocks staples, wines, produce, deli foods and many specialty items to round out your larder. The Pastry Gourmet offers baked goods and coffees, and Wickford Gourmet Foods tempts with hand-dipped chocolates, breads, cheeses and deli foods. A liquor store, pharmacy and banks are also downtown.

The surrounding shady streets are lined with 18th- and early 19th-century homes and churches built when Wickford was a prosperous shipping port. The carillon of the 1847 St. Paul’s Episcopal Church fills the area with sound, and the stone Greeneway path leads from the church to the 1707 Old Narragansett Church.

Despite its museum-quality homes, Wickford doesn’t flaunt its charm; residents live in these impeccably restored houses. The Historic Wickford Walking Tour describes the most notable, including some built before 1735. Plaques on many state the original owner and year built, and all are privately owned. Several homes along the harbor have been modernized to take advantage of the views, including the Wickford Yacht Club’s Wednesday night races and the return of the fleet when the competition is finished.

Harbor views take on a Victorian flavor when Newport’s 12 Meter charter fleet arrives for maintenance. The scene is reminiscent of that Golden Age, when New York’s elite arrived in private railroad cars, then transferred to steamships for the cruise to their Newport mansions.

The industrialists didn’t summer in Wickford, but in the mid-1900s, other visitors did, transforming the village into a low-key beach resort. Today, Wickford’s beach on Narragansett Bay — with lifeguards, park and playground — is free to pedestrians. Residents have vehicle access. Boaters dinghy in or anchor off the beach for the weekly children’s programs, Fourth of July fireworks or a visit to the adjacent Wickford Art Association Gallery.

Beneath the tourist attractions are remnants of Wickford’s working waterfront. Most of the commercial quahog fleet ties up at the Town Wharf, with others at Johnson’s Marine and Pleasant Street Wharf. Wickford Shipyard — which built wooden minesweepers during World War II, the brigantine Black Pearl in 1954, and Sea Sprite sloops in the 1960s — still sprawls along the harbor, despite objections from neighbors who are morphing 1950s cottages into mansions.

“The Wickford Shipyard is a rarity,” says harbormaster Knapp, because of the independent craftsmen renting its enormous wooden sheds.

“You can get anything done or do it yourself there,” says Dick Wing, program director of the University of Rhode Island fisheries center, which keeps its research vessel at the shipyard.

In one shed George Zachorne Jr., 51, and his wife are building a 40-foot plank-on-frame Lyle Hess cutter for New York Metropolitan Opera percussionist Rick Barbour. As the first wooden boat to be built in Wickford in 12 years, the project attracts attention. The Zachornes tolerate locals coming by, but they refused a tour bus visit, telling the driver, “We’re not Mystic Seaport,” referring to the maritime museum in Connecticut.

In other sheds, contractors repair boats, weld and fabricate iron, do canvas work, repair electronics, and teach would-be sea captains.

A 63-foot Dutch sailing vessel, which evacuated World War II soldiers from Dunkirk, stands out on the downtown waterfront. Doug Summers, a former marine equipment representative, bought Brandaris in 1985 and renovated her with stained glass, central heat, a fireplace and paneled living quarters. He says he “came to rest in Wickford” a decade ago. “The town recognized this unique historic vessel,” says Summers, who adds that he tries to return the favor by making charter and educational cruises.

Knapp recommends exploring the coves and islands inside Wickford harbor by dinghy. “Cornelius Island’s sandy beach is great for little kids,” he says.

Wilson Cummer of nearby Wakefield, R.I., who has been sailing his 1935 Concordia sloop, Cinderella, here for 20 years, says he enjoys the gorgeous views, long stretches of undeveloped coast, and shoreside parks along Narragansett Bay’s West Passage. He’s not alone in considering Wickford the jewel of Narragansett Bay’s western shore. n