It’s a late fall day and most of the blooms are past peak. But as I unfold from the long drive that lands me at Blithewold Mansion, Gardens & Arboretum in Bristol, Rhode Island, the heady scent of roses greets me in the parking area. It’s too late in the season to tour the mansion, designed in the style of an English Country Manor. (Note: the mansion opens again during the holidays for a stint of festive tours.) But the grounds are always open, and the grounds are enough. Lush lawn, a variety of rare trees, a walking path down to the seaside property line…it’s pure serenity just off Ferry Road. Still, I make a note to return in December for the chance to see the interior decked out for the season, and to learn about the Van Wickle’s that once lived here.
Time to head to downtown Bristol. I park the car in the spaces alongside Independence Park and start walking. It’s a patriotic town, known for its enormous 4th of July celebrations—the oldest continuously celebrated Independence Day festivities in the country. And, yes, the July 4th parade route sports a red, white, and blue median year-round; a spirited touch.
Antique stores, galleries, and unique shops dot Main Street, adding to the charm. You’d expect a memorial to fallen soldiers in such a patriotic town, but the garden area adjacent to Burnside Memorial is particularly arresting.
A few steps down the road is Linden Place, a magnificent example of Federal style architecture, originally built by George DeWolf. Generations of DeWolf’s and Colt’s (two big names in this town’s history) made use of the home up until 1989 when the property became a house museum, open to the public.
There are several dining options in Bristol, Rhode Island, and an early lunch crowd is already packing Le Central bistro and Bristol Bagel Works. But, I’m already thinking about the list of excellent dinner options ahead. From past experience, I know S.S. Dion prepares both steak and seafood equally well, and The Lobster Pot does a brisk dinner business, too, with its wall of windows bringing sunsets over Bristol Harbor direct to your table. The much acclaimed DeWolf Tavern occupies a remarkable c. 1818 stone building—a former rum distillery once operated by another of the DeWolf’s (James, the nefarious slave-trader).
It’s difficult to reconcile the legacy of the DeWolf’s in Bristol. They certainly helped this town prosper in its early days, but so much of the DeWolf’s wealth in the 1700s and early 1800s came from slave-trading. In fact, descendents of the family recently explored their own discomfort with the family’s past through film and literature. Tom DeWolf penned Inheriting the Trade, and his cousin Katrina Browne is the filmmaker behind the 2008 documentary Traces of the Trade.
Just outside town is Colt State Park. If we all had such a park in our backyard, we’d be walking or bike riding each and every day. The property once belonged to Samuel P. Colt, nephew to the Colt arms manufacturer. It’s 464 acres and the entire western border is open to Narragansett Bay. The 14-mile East Bay Bike Path runs through here, and Colt offers an additional 4 miles of its own biking trails. You could easily spend an entire day enjoying this park: walking and biking along the ocean’s edge, tossing a Frisbee or playing ball on the open tracts of manicured lawn, having a picnic in view of the bay, setting sail from the public boat launch, or just watching seabirds cruising around the marsh.
It may be a small town in the small state of Rhode Island, but Bristol offers much to see and do, and a rich history worth exploring. Best to plan on staying awhile. An overnight at Bristol Harbor Inn provides a downtown location with the bay as your backyard. Or just minutes away is the elegantly appointed Governor Bradford Inn, set on 200 bucolic acres known as Mount Hope Farm. Check in for your chance to check out Bristol.
Have you ever visited Bristol, Rhode Island?
This post was first published in 2012 and has been updated.