Arriving in Watch Hill in Rhode Island is like finding yourself in a Ralph Lauren advert – rosy-cheeked children cavort along the town’s boardwalks, sun-kissed teens hang out in chino shorts and billowing shirts, while their effortlessly-chic parents browse the quaint gift shops. Above them are wide skies and, ahead, the Atlantic rolls in to crash on the untouched beaches of Little Narragansett Bay.
With its sprawling mansions – modestly referred to as ‘cottages’ – this Eastern Seaboard town, found at the most south-western point of Rhode Island, has long had a reputation for being one of the country’s most affluent summer resorts. Just a two hour drive from Boston and New York, it has been the summer hideout of choice – since the turn of the century – for stressed-out urbanites looking for some down-time.
Housing many of them over the years is Ocean House – a sunshine-yellow weatherboard hotel, which first opened in 1868 and has an iconic place in the USA’s hospitality history. Back in 2005, the grand-dame – instantly recognisable due to its Victorian grandeur (all pillars, verandas and porticoes) – was given a new lease of life. After it had fallen into disrepair and was doomed to be demolished, local residents, Charles and Deborah Royce, stepped in and, along with investors, rebuilt the property from scratch with the aim of restoring it to its former glory.
Reopened in 2010, it is now part of the OHM Collection, which also has three other historic New England properties under its umbrella. The $146 million project has seen many of the original details restored, partly due to the conservationists’ regulations but also down to the hotel’s legions of fans whose families have always holidayed here and insisted it did not change. The 247 windows were put back in exactly the same place, for instance, and the lobby’s stone fireplace was meticulously rebuilt twice to get its position exactly right.
As well as a penchant for the past, the hotel has also kept an eye on the present, with a plethora of new additions to give it a modern-day luxurious feel. Most importantly, for guests wanting a spacious feel, is the fact that the original 159 bedrooms have been opened out to create 49 larger rooms along with 18 super-luxe signature suites. While décor is modern and bright with colourful textiles, light-filled rooms and glorious marble bathrooms (which have shuttered windows, allowing you to peak out from your tub to the bedroom and the ocean beyond), there are many lovely reference points to the hotel’s history.
In fact, 5,000 artefacts were kept from the original property – from sepia photographs to original fixtures and lighting. The hotel’s first phone booth (originally installed so holidaying Wall Street financiers could call back to the city), for instance, has been repurposed as a fancy display cabinet while the main lift is a modernised, decorative, brass carriage-elevator dating back to the late 1800s.
New additions for a contemporary visitor include the OH! Spa, which has already been named a ‘Forbes Five-Star Spa’, one of 47 spas in the world to receive the rating. It’s a glorious place to escape to, with a relaxing lounge overlooking the ocean, a salt-water lap pool and seasonal changing treatments inspired by the land or sea.
This connection to the surroundings is also echoed in the hotel’s restaurant scene which offers a wide choice to suit every culinary ‘mood’. This being a Relais & Chateaux hotel, there is a strong emphasis on sourcing seasonal and local ingredients as much as the culinary prowess of chefs and sommeliers alike. For something special, Coast by Jennifer Backman, offers a nightly-changing seasonal menu, dictated by produce sourced from local farms and the fishermen.
The tasting menu is deliciously inventive – from Ninigret Oysters to Black Pepper Tagliatelle, which come with a slow cooked hen egg, Rhode Island mushrooms and smoked pork bouillon. You know you are somewhere special when a vegetarian dish is one of the standouts – and ‘Jardiniere’, a pretty, garden-inspired plate piled with glazed, roasted and pickled native vegetables, is a showstopper.
Offering more of a relaxed feel is the iconic Sunday Brunch with live jazz. Expect a piled-high raw seafood bar, artisanal cheeses and charcuterie, homemade pastries and an a la carte menu boasting the best Eggs Benedict you’ll find in Rhode Island.
As well as a cosy bistro and lounge, there is also a choice of seasonal dining. In the summer months, adding the fun-factor for holidaying couples and families alike, the hotel opens a Below Deck gelato store, there’s a Secret Garden Champagne Bar, showcasing Veuve Clicquot cuvees and found tucked away in the gardens, as well as weekend lobster boils and BBQs on the beach.
From the daily complimentary ‘resort’ activities – such as wine tasting or art tours (the hotel has a rich art collection) – to the four Mercedes-Benz cars which guests can use free of charge – luxury here is one of largesse.
“We’re not in the business of charging our guests for a diet-coke in their room,” says Daniel A Hostettler, OHM group managing director. So, complimentary mini-bars in each are generously filled with gourmet snacks and drinks, and, outside of the restaurants, it is a ‘gratuity-free’ hotel. “This is a top-end hotel and our definition of luxury are all the little extras that make our guests feel at home and relaxed,” he says.
It’s the same feel at the group’s second property The Weekapaug Inn, a 15-minute drive along the coast. Here, this smaller, more rustic hotel is set in idyllic surrounds on the banks of Quonochontaug Pond and has a focus on the ‘great outdoors’.
In-house naturalist, Mark Bullinger offers a choice of unique activities so that guests become immersed in the nature surrounding them. In the day, he’ll teach you the difference between herons and ospreys, while, come night-time, you’ll soon be able to spot the difference between the Ursa Minor and Ursa Major, after one of his stargazing sessions. From fly-fishing to bicycle trips, paddle boarding on the pond to crabbing on the beach – there are organised and impromptu events happening throughout each day.
Just a short walk away, the hotel also offers access to a private beach, with views framed by Block Island, Montauk and the Rhode Island coastline. The Bathhouse is the hotel’s outpost, with changing facilities and a casual restaurant, perfect for a day spent idling in the sun.
Dating back to 1899, The Weekapaug Inn has more of a laid-back feel than its grander Ocean House sister. Renovated in 2012, interiors reference the rich birdlife, bull-rushes and sand-dunes found outside. From its painted mural of seagulls and gulls along the main staircase to its range of John James Audobon watercolours of North American birds (from the 1800s) – you never feel as if you are far from the natural world.
Bedrooms have a quaint charm about them with custom-braided rugs laid over hard-wood floors, antique furniture, sash windows to breathe in the sea air and feather-top beds with dainty flower-print bedspreads. A complimentary pantry means fresh-baked cookies and hot coffee are available on tap, while, channelling iconic New England culinary traditions, are the Thursday-night clambakes and lobster cook-outs around the fire-pit.
The hotel’s main dining spot – The Restaurant – offers refined flavours of the Atlantic Coastal region (most produce is sourced from local growers, farmers and fishmongers), while in the more casual The Garden Room, you can grab a lobster roll and a crisp glass of Chardonnay by the fire or on the terrace. Come night-time, you can roast s’mores over open fires, huddled under a blanket under the stars. It’s everything and more you’d want from a New England holiday.
If the two coastal hotels channel a Ralph Lauren aesthetic, OHM’s latest project, Blantyre, will take you into the pages of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel. This latest historic property to be renovated by the group opened its doors in May this year, and is found in The Berkshires, a two-hour drive inland in the mountainous region of western Massachusetts.
Originally built in 1902, it is one of the last remaining mansions which were once owned by a wealthy set who decamped to the Berkshires during the summer months. Eventually becoming a famous hotel through the 1980s – it was actually the first Relais & Chateaux property in the USA – the revamp by OHM sees a pared-back reimagining of its historic rooms and a delivery of its ‘preserving the old with bringing in the new’ ethos.
From arrival at the ivy-covered Tudor-style building, it’s like stepping back to a more elegant era. In the main house, the downstairs rooms – with their antique furniture, wood panelling and statement Baccarat chandeliers – house the dining rooms. There’s a traditional brasserie, The Bistro, which serves New England classics with a French twist, all with locally-sourced produce at their heart – from Beef Tartare to Lyonnaise Salad, Dover Sole to Steak Frites.
Meanwhile, the Conservatory at Blantyre builds on the hotel’s already excellent culinary reputation for fine dining experiences. Oenophiles will be in their element with an impressive private wine cellar, featuring 10,000 bottles, and a new private tasting room. While another new creation – the Dom Perignon Champagne Salon – aims to take guests back to the Roaring 20s, with its speakeasy feel.
Upstairs, are eight guest rooms, all with restored original features, such as parquet flooring, opulent fireplaces and marble bathrooms. A heritage colour palette, fine textiles and statement lighting add a level of sophistication. Meanwhile, in the sprawling grounds, The Carriage House offers 11 suites, and there are also four private cottages for rent.
As well as 110 acres to roam around, the hotel also offers an outdoor heated pool, tennis courts, croquet lawns and a standout spa, so there is plenty to keep you busy. But Blantyre is also the perfect spot for exploring the region’s artistic heritage. Nearby is The Mount – the home of author Edith Wharton – and Tanglewood – the summer residence of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (not to mention its endless roster of jazz, rock and live music). It will be music to your ears.
Rates at Ocean House start from $400 per night. For more information, visit www.oceanhouseri.com. Rates at Weekapaug Inn start from $345 per night. For more information, visit www.weekapauginn.com. And rates at Blantyre start from $435 per night. For more information, visit www.blantyre.com.
British Airways flies from London Heathrow to Boston four times a day, fares start at £349, hand-baggage only. For more information and bookings, visit www.ba.com.