Looking for something a little different to do? Sure, the Ocean Community region has the best to offer when it comes to the classics — beaches, restaurants, arts and shopping. But adding a dash of adventure can yield some unique experiences — and memories!
Horseshoe crabs: Tag, you’re it!
Ever wonder what the world looked like 450 million years ago? Well, look no further than the horseshow crab. This little miracle of the animal kingdom has remained relatively unchanged in all that time. If you’d like to become better acquainted with the Limulus polyphemus, then Westerly, R.I., is the best place to do it.
Not really a true crab, horseshoes are more closely related to spiders and scorpions, but don’t worry, they’re harmless. And you can join naturalists and volunteers with the Watch Hill Conservancy who tag thousands of horseshoe crabs at the Napatree Point Conservation Area every year. A guide helps you through the darkness under the beautiful unspoiled Watch Hill skies to seek the crabs with flashlights.
The taggings are a part of Project Limulus, which seeks to track the crabs as part of an ongoing effort to see the role the crabs play in our ecosystem and to keep an eye on the population.
They usually come on to shore to mate during high tide at the full and new moons in June and July. The male generally gets to the mating area by hitching a ride on the female’s back. The female digs a hole about 9 inches deep and lays the eggs, which are then immediately fertilized by the male.
Hoseshoe crabs are particularly important to scientists, who use their blood to test new drugs for people. The eggs they lay are also an important protein-rich food source for many of the birds who make a home at Napatree Point.
The Napatree Point Conservation Area is a natural preserve, an important bird nesting and migratory resting area and one of the region’s finest beaches. From Scenic Route 1A, take Watch Hill Road. Continue for about two miles onto Wauwinnet Avenue and Bay Street. Turn right onto Fort Road and park in the shopping center. The entrance to the conservation area is through the private parking lot, past the cabanas on your left. The horseshoe crab taggings take place during full and new moons in June and July. See the Napatree Point Conservation Area page on Facebook for more details.
Take a hike — at Barn Island
Napatree Point isn’t the only place that provides a sanctuary for local animals. Not too far away in Stonington, CT, nestled between the Wequetequock and Pawcatuck rivers is the Barn Island Wildlife Management Area, Connecticut’s largest coastal property managed for wildlife conservation.
Boasting 1,000 acres of woodlands, marshlands, wetlands and fields, it’s one of the best places in New England to go hiking. The property, which provides a diversity of ecosystem and habitats, includes hilly uplands, open fields, hardwood forests and salt, brackish and freshwater tidal wetlands. There is a 5.3 mile loop trail that is perfect for birdwatching and hiking.
Among the birds you may spot are saltmarsh sharp-tailed sparrows, king rail, great and snowy egrets, glossy ibis, little blue herons, and common and least terns.
Just keep in mind that deer hunting is permitted in the management area, so wear appropriate fluorescent gear during deer season, which takes place mid-November through early December. Also, archery hunting is permitted Sept. 15 through Nov. 15.
From Route 1, turn onto Greenhaven Road then take a quick right onto Palmer Neck Road for 1.4 miles to the parking area before the boat launch area. The trail entrance is on the left.
Eyes on the skies
For some of the very best sights in the area, all you have to do is look up. The skies along the coast are particularly stunning, since the area is not contaminated by the same amount of light pollution that plagues the cities.
One of the best places to do stargazing is at the Sky Theatre and Observatory at Frosty Drew Observatory in Charlestown, R.I. The observatory opens every Friday night year-round to the public free of charge. It is a non-profit organization and donations are always welcome. During the months closest to the winter solstice Frosty Drew Observatory will open at 6 p.m. and remain open until the weather crashes the sky or visitors stop arriving — usually around 11 p.m.
If the sky is clear and the wind manageable, the observatory will be in full observation mode. During cloudy, rainy, or snowy conditions the observatory offers presentations in the Sky Theatre from 7 to 9 p.m. with astronomers on hand to answer questions and give tours of the observatory and astronomical equipment.
Some of the more exciting astronomical events in 2016 include the Transit of Mercury on Monday, May 9 from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. and the Perseid Meteor Shower on Friday, Aug. 12 from 6 p.m. to dawn. The observatory regularly updates its Facebook and Twitter accounts for weather information each Friday, so check to see the status of stargazing.
Frosty Drew Observatory is located inside Ninigret Park. The address is 61 Park Lane, Charlestown, just off Old Post Road, which can be accessed from Route 1.
Harbor seals — the winter visitors
While the beaches of New England are summer hotspots for tourists and locals alike, the colder months bring another type of visitor to the coast.
From October to April, harbor seals come to splash in the surf and sun themselves on New England’s rocky coastline. Save the Bay Cruises offers the opportunity to see these magnificent creatures up close.
Take a 90-minute scenic ride down the Pawcatuck River into Little Narragansett Bay for a glimpse of the harbor seals as they rest on rocks and shorelines. The Westerly Seal Cruises provide the binoculars, and offers an educational view of the winter marine visitors in the habitat they love. October is the perfect time of year to take the cruise, as the foliage is breathtaking.
The cruises are offered on weekends and school holidays from October through December. The cruises depart the Viking Marina at 22 Margin St. in Westerly. From Route 1 in downtown Westerly, take Main Street to Margin Street.
The marina is on the right on the Pawcatuck River. The cost is $33 for non-members, and $17 for Save the Bay members, seniors and children ages 3-12.
Plunging with the Penguins
Every year, hundreds of brave souls gather at The Andrea-Misquamicut Beach on New Year’s Day and hurl themselves into the Atlantic Ocean, thus acquiring something to brag about for the rest of their lives. The event raises money for the WARM Center, a 19-bed emergency shelter and soup kitchen serving all of southern Rhode Island and southeastern Connecticut. Not only do you get the thrill of submerging in icy waters, you’ll also get a T-shirt and a hot lunch to go with it. Costumes are welcome and recommended, and water shoes are highly encouraged. Registration, which opens at 10:30 a.m., is $25 for adults and $20 for those under 18. The plunge itself takes place promptly at noon. Take Scenic Route 1A to Winnapaug Road then right on Atlantic Avenue. The Andrea will be on your left. For more information and registration forms, check out warmcenter.org.
What’s better than driving your 4X4 right up on the beach, pulling your tackle out of the tailgate and fishing right from the shore? Well, it’s something you can do at East Beach, an undeveloped three-mile stretch jutting to the east from the wonderfully named Quonochontaug Neck.
A barrier beach, East Beach has very limited parking, but at certain times of year (the off-season) you can get a barrier beach vehicle permit from the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council that allows you to go off-roading, providing you follow all the strongly enforced rules and regulations designed to protect the fragile environment. For more information, or to apply for a barrier beach pass, visit www.crmc.ri.gov.
Another out-of-the-way fishing spot, not too far from there, is the Watch Hill Lighthouse. The rocks near the lighthouse are popular with anglers.
To get to East Beach, take Route 1 in Charlestown to East Beach Road and follow it to the end. To get to the Watch Hill Lighthouse from Scenic Route 1A, take Watch Hill Road to Westerly road to Bluff Avenue to Lighthouse Road.
Stomp them grapes
Remember that famous scene in an episode of “I Love Lucy” when she’s in France and tries her hand at stomping grapes at an old rural vineyard? Well, you can do the very same thing in North Stonington at the Jonathan Edwards Winery. Hosting many fun-filled events throughout the year, such as concerts, wine-tastings, dinners and festivals, one of the local favorites is the wine-stomping contest. To participate, you hold onto the sides of a barrel while rapidly crushing the grapes underfoot. To find out exactly when these grape-stomping events will take place, see the calendar on the winery website. To get there from Interstate 95, take Exit 92 to Route 2 West, remain on Route 2 through the rotary, bear right onto Main Street into North Stonington, continue across the bridge and bear right onto Wyassup Road. Take the third right onto Chester Main Road and the winery is at the top of the hill on the right. The address is 74 Chester Main Road in North Stonington.