Travel: Rhode Island

Providence has all of the restaurants, culture and architecture you could ask for on a city break, but the scale is compact. Photograph: ''Getty/iStock
Providence has all of the restaurants, culture and architecture you could ask for on a city break, but the scale is compact. Photograph: ''Getty/iStock
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Most Scots have probably heard of Rhode Island, but ask them to tell you more about the smallest state in the union and they might struggle. This could all be about to change with a new direct route from Edinburgh to the state capital, Providence, courtesy of Norwegian Air.

Rhode Island measures 35 miles by 47 miles, with Connecticut to the west and Massachusetts to the east. Boston is less than an hour’s drive away and despite the name it’s not an island. It does, however, have more than 400 miles of coastline packed with idyllic beaches, cliffs and lighthouses. The state was once an industrial powerhouse and it attracted early 20th century industrialists who built their mansions and spent their summers hobnobbing in the city of Newport.

Gondolas on a canal during the Waterfire festival. Photograph: ''Getty/iStock

Gondolas on a canal during the Waterfire festival. Photograph: ''Getty/iStock

Providence is easy to get to know and enjoy. It has all of the restaurants, culture and architecture you could ask for on a city break, but the scale is compact. You can explore all of the city’s main attractions over a couple of days with the help of the self-guided walking maps the city produces.

We stayed at the centrally located Hilton Providence and, walking shoes on, headed off first into the east side where you can travel through time on leafy streets filled with wood-clad Colonial-era buildings and grand Victorian homes while Brown University sits at the top of the hill, its Ivy League students quietly going about their business.

Things get livelier at the bottom of Capitol Hill where the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) provides a hub for artists and designers. The RISD museum (free on Sundays) is home to a great series of collections, ranging from impressionist paintings by Monet, Degas and Manet to 20th century furniture and art. It has more than enough exhibits to impress, but not so many that you feel gallery fatigue setting in.

Tax incentives are offered to artists who choose to live and work in the city’s Arts & Entertainment district and, as a result, it’s packed with interesting shops, galleries, performance spaces and cafes. The city has also become known as a foodies’ destination, in part because it’s home to the world’s largest culinary college, Johnson & Wales University, and many students stay in the city after graduation. We enjoyed a great vegetarian meal at the Grange on the city’s west side, and you don’t have to look far for seafood fresh from nearby Narragansett Bay. The best place to head for Italian food is the Federal Hill, dubbed “little Italy” and home to restaurants in a pretty pedestrian area complete with a fountain and old Italian gentlemen sitting chewing the fat.

For decades the rivers that cut through downtown Providence were paved over, but today the waterways are a vital part of the city and the centrepiece of Waterfire, a festival that takes place several evenings a year during the warmer months. We were lucky enough to be there for the big event when more than 100 braziers located along the centre of the river are set alight. It’s a strangely relaxing experience; the woodsmoke and instrumental soundtrack creating an otherworldly feel. Alongside the river, locals and tourists enjoy the torchlight procession, market, living statues and fire jugglers.

Providence is a great destination in itself, but it’s also the ideal starting point for a road trip or series of day trips. You can catch the train to Boston for some shopping and sightseeing or rent a car and head to Vermont, Maine or Cape Cod. We chose to drive to Newport, a place where you can expect to see yachts, mansions and hear a lot about the “gilded age”. The city is home to some fabulous old historic houses that have been turned into B&Bs and we had a pampered couple of nights at the luxurious Hilltop Inn, where the bed was sumptuous and the bathroom was bigger than my living room.

The trolley tour is a great way to get your bearings and learn about the city’s history. It sets off from America’s Cup Avenue, named for the yacht race the city hosted for many years. The waterfront is packed with restaurants where you can eat oysters, lobsters and clam chowder aplenty, but if you want to get off the tourist beat and hang out with the locals, head to Broadway. We had a fun night (and one that came with a considerably lower price tag) enjoying drinks at the Fifth Element bar, dinner at Malt and stumbling across a bluegrass band at Caleb and Broad.

As the famed playground of the Kennedys, Vanderbilts and other wealthy families, visiting a mansion or two is a must-do activity. Many of these buildings are looked after by the Newport Preservation Society and we opted for The Breakers, a 70-room mock renaissance palace created by Cornelius Vanderbilt II. From real gold leaf on the wallpaper to some of the biggest chandeliers I’ve ever seen, this is a destination where every room makes your jaw drop a little more. Outside at the foot of the manicured gardens there’s a great sea view and the Cliff Walk – a 3.5 mile public path that lets you peer over the garden fences to catch a glimpse of all the best houses in town.

When we visited Newport, Hurricane Jose was playing havoc with the weather, so our cliff walk came with added wind, rain and drama. But there are lots of indoor options to explore including the Audrain Automobile Museum and the International Tennis Hall of Fame. We braved the elements and headed to Fort Adams State Park where a guided tour revealed America’s largest coastal fortification, built with so many clever devices for killing the enemy that it never actually saw a battle.

The bad weather meant we couldn’t make it across to Block Island (www.blockislandinfo.com), but it sounded like it would have provided the perfect getaway – miles of quiet beaches, nature reserves and hiking trails providing perfect photo opportunities.

We left Rhode Island feeling we’d only scratched the surface of this hidden gem of a state and wishing we’d booked a longer trip. Still, there’s always next time.

FACT BOX

Norwegian offers the UK and Ireland’s only direct flights to Providence, Rhode Island, with fares from £138 one-way. The airline operates four flights per week from Edinburgh to Providence, which offers good access to Boston, Cape Cod and Newport. Book at www.norwegian.com/uk or dial 0330 8280854 (option 1).

For more information on lodging, dining, attractions, transportation and more in Newport, visit www.DiscoverNewport.org and to learn more about all that Providence has to offer, visit www.GoProvidence.com