Travel: Rhode Island

Providence, Rhode Island was one of the first cities established in the United States.
Providence, Rhode Island was one of the first cities established in the United States.
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It might be the smallest state in the union, but Rhode Island has a lot to shout about. Here are seven reasons why.

1) See what state capital Providence has in store

A yacht anchored near Coast Guard station at Block Island, Rhode Island, USA, shortly after sunrise.

A yacht anchored near Coast Guard station at Block Island, Rhode Island, USA, shortly after sunrise.

(visitrhodeisland.com, waterfire.org)

Settled in 1636 just six years after Boston, the story of Providence’s origins is as quirky as the city is today. Roger Williams, an Englishman who evaded hanging because of his religious beliefs – he was a bit liberal for the Puritans – named it after “God’s providence” allowed him to stay and start a community. However a spirit that welcomed all, no questions asked, while providing a safe harbour for Baptists and Quakers also led to it being nicknamed “Rogue’s Island” as criminals from across the 13 colonies pitched up too. In later years the Industrial Revolution shaped the city. Providence River used to be so polluted that it was covered over with car parks. Today it is home to gondolas (see 2) and the WaterFire festival which sees the waterway lit with around 100 atmospheric flaming braziers, accompanied by musical performances and living statues. Providence supports several colleges and universities including Browns and catering school Johnson & Wales whose super talented graduates are largely why the food in the city is so delicious – special mention must go to the blueberry muffins at Ellie’s (elliesbakery.com) and Geoff’s Superlative Sandwiches (www.geoffsri.com).

2) Take a ride on a gondola

(www.gondolari.com, mid April-early November)

His name might be Matthew Haynes, but when Matt is at the helm of his stately Venetian goldola he’s “Marcello” and if that sounds cheesy then it’s also incredibly charming. From a spot right on the river you hop aboard to experience Providence from a maritime perspective. As you float downstream Marcello explains some of the history of the river and the city it bisects. He wears his knowledge lightly – you disembark having learned that the state got its name from the legendary eponymous mapper of Brooklyn’s famous Verrazano-Narrows Bridge – he also mapped Narragansett Bay and thought it looked a bit Greek – but this isn’t just a geography lesson. As you pass under bridges tenor Marcello serenades his passengers with Venetian standards including Santa Lucia, or the sailor’s prayer. For one memorable number he rendezvoused with his brother in a separate gondola for a duet.

3) Eat some seafood

You’re going to eat extremely well in this state, especially if you like seafood and the closer to the coast you can get, the fresher it’s going to be. If oysters are your thing, dining at Matunuck Oyster Bar (www.rhodyoysters.com) will be a little like heaven. Owner Perry Raso is pioneering aquaculture in this area and you eat overlooking his oyster beds. Try different kinds at “a buck a shuck” or pick the Oyster Rockefeller ($14.95) – six oysters baked with pernod, spinach, bacon, breadcrumbs and fresh herbs.

Lobster rolls are the entry point into scoffing these dual clawed crustaceans, synonymous with New England, usually involving a quarter pound of cooked lobster meat, sometimes augmented with mayo and herbs, scooped into a lightly buttered toasted brioche hot dog bun. No cracking, no shell, no slurping required. These are sold at market price which varied from around $14-$20 during our visit. We also encountered stuffies, quahogs and littlenecks – the latter two are clams, which can be minced and mixed with breadcrumbs to be packed into an empty shell and baked to create the former.

4) Visit the Newport Mansions

(newportmansions.org)

If ever an address could be linked to a place and time, it’s Bellevue Avenue in Newport and the gilded age of America, born of the Industrial Revolution. The richest families in the country, including railroad magnates, the Vanderbilts and coal entrepreneur Edward Birwind and his wife Herminie constructed summer “cottages” along this stretch of shoreline, designed to show off their vast new wealth. Perhaps the best known is The Breakers, built in 1895 by Cornelius Vanderbilt II, including a two and a half storey high Great Hall and a Morning Room adorned by panels which up until quite recently were believed to be silver, but which are in fact, platinum. Now beautifully maintained by the Preservation Society of Newport County these incredible properties offer a snapshot of history where architecture and family dynasties merge to illuminate the lives of the celebrities of the day. Rosecliff (1902) and Marble House (1892) are also popular in part as they were locations for the 1974 film of The Great Gatsby starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. Marble House is particularly striking, not just for its 500,000 cubic feet of marble, but for its entire concept as a party house for a few weeks during summer – one illustration being the room decorated entirely in gold, designed to explode in yellow light at the point of sunset. The Kardashians couldn’t do it better today.

5) Set sail on the Madeleine

(www.cruisenewport.com)

Known as the sailing capital of the world, if you want to get to know Newport better you’ve got to head out on a boat, and if you’re lucky you’ll book a 90 minute passage on the 72ft three mast schooner, the Madeleine. Available for daytime and sunset sails as well as private charter tours, this elegant sailing yacht cruises through the Narragansett Bay. In between wrangling the sails, the enthusiastic young crew point out landmark sights, including Goat Island, Fort Adams and Hammersmith Farm where Jacqueline Bouvier celebrated her wedding to JFK in September 1953. Feel the wind in your hair as you sip iced tea and dream of being an ocean-going Kennedy.

6) Get the ferry to Block Island

(blockislandferry.com, 24 May-8 Oct, adult same day round trip, $37.85)

Take the seasonal high speed ferry from the dock at the fishing village of Galilee on Point Judith and you’ll make land at Block Island 30 short minutes later. It’s only 13 miles away, but this pork chop-shaped settlement located in the Block Island Sound is even more relaxed than laid-back Narragansett, if that’s possible. Your chatty fellow passengers will disembark, headed for a variety of excursions. The population of just over 1,000 swells to up to 20,000 in the summer months as day-trippers and those staying for longer make the crossing. Settled in the 17th century the traditional way of life was centred around fishing, with tourism following about 130 years ago which explains the mainly Victorian buildings on the harbour front. Hire bikes or mopeds (www.bimopeds.com) to explore the 10 mile square land mass, or just relax on one of the ten sandy beaches. You can rent kayaks or try SUP (sandypointco.com). We only had a brief visit, but we would not block (sorry) the chance to stay longer next time.

7) Getting there and away

Norwegian offers the UK’s only direct flights to Providence, Rhode Island from Edinburgh in the summer season with fares from £149 one-way in brand-new Boeing 737 aircraft. Providence offers good access to Boston, Cape Cod and historic Newport. Book now at www.norwegian.com/uk or tel: 0330 8280854 (opt. 1)

A car is the best way to get around the state of Rhode Island – Holiday Autos can arrange this for you, https://www.holidayautos.com. For more information on lodging, dining, attractions, transportation and more, visit www.DiscoverNewport.org.