Watch Hill, Rhode Island
Coco Chanel famously said, “Some people think luxury is the opposite of poverty. It is not. It is the opposite of vulgarity.”
If that’s true (and why shouldn’t it be), then luxury serves a higher purpose than mere indulgence: It’s an art form. In that interpretation, one role of the upscale resort is to curate and reify the art of living.
On that frontier sits Ocean House. Perched on a gentle hill above the well-to-do enclave of Watch Hill, Rhode Island, elegance warms the nervous system as you enter the property, like sipping Glenmorangie scotch. It puts one gradually, undeniably, at ease.
Fitly cinematic, the building is reminiscent of an Elin Hilderbrand novel. In an act of architectural audacity, the preexisting 19th-century structure was precisely measured and catalogued, then demolished and duplicated down to the millwork, only far larger and infinitely finer. Many artifacts—the lobby’s massive stone fireplace, the wood elevator, newel posts, Palladian windows—were removed, restored, and reinstalled. The ambition of it was exceeded only by the result.
The architects missed nothing. They even arranged all the rooms along single-loaded corridors so that each has a commanding view of the ocean, while the hallways always have daylight (unusual for a hotel of any size).
What they achieved is the most picture-perfect seaside resort in New England. That this happened at all was mostly thanks to Ocean House patron and champion, Charles Royce, the respected mutual fund manager whose love of the property is felt throughout. He and his investors stood pat through the great recession, patiently assembling the project according to a grand vision of chic coastal comfort.
Authenticity. Sense of place. An otherworldliness that is profoundly welcoming. Surpassing quality in all things. In the luxury resort world, these traits are associated with one brand above others—Relais & Châteaux. It’s a cultivated fellowship of properties that maintain local character and global service quality at a level most hotels and resorts (even very good ones) can’t be bothered with.
Though Forbes has awarded Ocean House 15 stars (one of only 10 such hotels in the world), it’s the Relais & Châteaux belonging that truly befits the place. Chief among R&C’s precepts is a focus on what they call “the soul of the innkeeper.”
Here, that ennobling mission falls to Daniel Hostettler. An accomplished hospitality executive, the erudite hotelier with immense savoir-faire came to Ocean House with every intention of rewriting the book. But not the Relais & Châteaux book.
“Relais & Châteaux has a level of expectation that everywhere you go, whatever you do, will be quintessential,” Hostettler says. “Hopefully, when you walk into the Ocean House it feels quintessentially New England. And everything on the menu is coming from Rhode Island and Connecticut, within 150 miles of the property.”
Guest Rooms, Property, and Grounds
With 49 guestrooms and 23 private residences, the Ocean House plays the trick of seeming like a much larger property, and does it well. This may be truest in the signature suites, all uniquely themed and thoughtfully furnished.
The two-bedroom Napatree Suite (named after a nearby peninsula) is a curvilinear delight. It flows from the sprawling beach-stone master bathroom, past the master bedroom and darling second bedroom, into a tranquil living room and kitchen that all whisper littoral sophistication. From the hidden laundry room to the scale model of a racing yacht on the mantle, the suite fluently mixes élan with beachy utility.
As you walk through the foyer, an always-welcome sense of space permeates. You’d expect it from this level of accommodation. But here, floor plan, color scheme, and omnipresent ocean views combine into something more than a great lodging.
There’s a feeling to this part of Rhode Island. About halfway (by sea) between Greenwich, Connecticut, and Portland, Maine, it’s both unspoiled and settled at once. Cape Cod and Nantucket charm you; Misquamicut enthralls. For Ocean House guests, that enchantment beams through big windows wherever you are.
The fireplace, comfy dining nook, sleek kitchen, and nautical décor in the living room are, in some ways, an appetizer for the spacious, inspiring veranda. With sweeping views of manicured grounds and lapping surf, you’ll be tempted to stay put and get some thinking done. Coffee out there—the hotel rising behind you as the shoreline parabola beckons—creates one of those exquisite moments. It is surely intentional.
Perfect though these rooms and suites may be, there’s always room for improvement. Hostettler says he’s getting ready to renovate the rooms for a spring 2017 debut, celebrating Ocean House’s upcoming anniversary.
“We’re going to do two rooms in February of 2016 in the new style, maintaining the contemporary coastal feel that we’re famous for,” he says. “We’ll test drive those rooms for six months with hotel guests who stay here all the time.”
Public areas in the Ocean House are suitably grand, yet arranged in a series of intimate nooks. High Tea in these spaces is a dignified affair, though not at all stuffy. It was during High Tea that we met restaurant manager Charles Staub, a man with so many bona fides that it suffices to call him “expert.” He did a yeoman’s job rolling up history and current events into a neat package as we walked the grounds.
Strolling past flora evocative of classic seaside cottage gardens—including drifts of Oakleaf and Nikko Blue hydrangeas alongside old-fashioned shrub roses and boxwood—Staub proved quite the guide. He was good enough to exhibit the plentiful beach with its dining and lounging options, including the beach-clubby Dune Cottage restaurant right on the sand. It’s a fine spot, restful beneath sail awnings as Block Island and Montauk Point trace the horizon.
Just then a boisterous wedding party was escorted past, preceded by a Dixieland band, as hotel staff ushered revelers to a beachside wedding service with white leather upholstered seats. A drone videographer hovered nearby. They were en route from a reception in the handsome Seaside Ballroom and Seaside Terrace, and seemed to be having the time of their lives. It would be hard not to.
Loveliest of all is The Verandah, a giant porch bordered by neatly trimmed lawns with the ocean dramatically framed. Taking in that vista, sprayed with color from blue flowering beautyberry, crepe myrtle, and Hidcote lavender planted within view, is as delightful as terrace seating gets. Attentive servers and diverse companions chatter away with bonhomie all around, deepening the appeal.
Michelin stars may be the ultimate prize for great restaurants, but once you’ve earned five Forbes stars, Michelin becomes more aspirational than compulsory.
Seasons, the fine dining room, is the Ocean House’s culinary heart, informing every choice made by the artisans here. It’s led by executive chef John Kolesar. A native of Madison, Connecticut, Kolesar has to deliver food-wise on “La Route du Bonheur,” or “the route of happiness,” a philosophical keystone of the Relais & Châteaux network. They were farm-to-table long before anyone called it that, and Kolesar’s kitchen is equal to the task. It’s a big one, as gastronomical choices abound at Ocean House. To make it happen, Kolesar employs a core team of foragers and mongers who comb the countryside for succulent items that infuse his prolific, changeable menus.
The Bistro is a casual alternative, right off the Seasons dining room, adjacent to The Verandah. Cozy banquets ring the room of tables that are set a discreet distance. The service style is polite and efficient—friendly but not too friendly—as one would expect with Forbes criteria being observed.
But it’s hardly as dull as that. The room and adjoining bar have the rhythm of all great restaurants: cheerful and full of happy surprises. The menu isn’t adventurous, a virtue of which is that you’ll find familiar favorites. The 8 oz. filet is simple and perfect, accompanied by savory roasted cauliflower steak and crispy Brussels sprouts. Crispy salmon with spaghetti squash, confit baby fennel, green quinoa, and roasted bell pepper purée is fresh and pleasing. The server was happy to arrange desert—homemade ice cream and cookies—sent up to the room.
At certain times of year (and depending on one’s reservation) the Club Room is also open to hotel guests. With the oak-paneled glow and rarified ambience of a country manor, it’s a lordly dining experience. Their lobster and Jonah Crab risotto with house made Andouille sausage is a salty sensation. Short rib tostadas on masa tortilla with pulled short rib Jalapeño Pico De Gallo is an orgy of smoky flavors. The house cut shoestring truffle French fries seem to go with everything.
Crème Brulee with house made orange marshmallow, dark chocolate, and cranberry truffle and white chocolate and citrus truffle was almost overdoing it, but not quite.
The Moving Target of Luxury
The Ocean House is a locus of arcadian pleasures. It’s 12,000-square-foot OH! Spa is responsible for 5 of the 15 Forbes stars, and the only place in the immediate region where you’ll find a rejuvenative tonic on the order of, say, the Lavender Relief Massage. Tension flees before its warmth and deeply serene nature.
A magnificent spa is de rigueur in a setting such as this. But it’s the unexpected delectations that make Ocean House less predictable. Like being offered keys to a Mercedes E Class convertible to tool around the idyllic seaside town of Watch Hill, with no clock running on your return. Or finding yourself on one of the property’s classic motor and sailing yachts for the day, considerately arranged by hotel staff.
Hostettler understands that luxury today is a moving target, and not the staid matter it was even 20 years ago. “It used to be the luxury travelers were 60 years old, retired, and traveling as a couple,” he says. “Now they’re 40 something, making a lot of money, but working really hard. Luxury to them is about family and togetherness, with the excellence to make it special. That isn’t just about requisite amenities. It’s experiential. It’s expressed in anticipatory gestures, suggested by the moment.”
Do highly rated resorts exist only as elite sanctuaries, devoted to pampering the affluent? It often appears that way. But appearances can be deceiving. While exclusive places are laden with lavish encounters, they are much more than that.
They’re works of art, with a touch of magic. As such, nowhere is more divinely composed than the seaside gardens, superb guestrooms, and dreamy dining tables of the Ocean House.