I REALIZE THAT some travelers think of Rhode Island as a tangle of highway blocking easy access to somewhere else. I say give them a map and bid them Godspeed. I know this small and unruly state, and I can tell you for a fact that it affords more opportunities for easy enjoyment than any […]
By Wayne Worcester
Jun 04 2008
Photograph of Scituate, RIPhoto Credit : Mike Dooley
I REALIZE THAT some travelers think of Rhode Island as a tangle of highway blocking easy access to somewhere else. I say give them a map and bid them Godspeed. I know this small and unruly state, and I can tell you for a fact that it affords more opportunities for easy enjoyment than any other in New England — and there’s greater variety, too.
The only thing you can’t find in Rhode Island is a mountain; I suppose something had to go. After all, the entire state is only 37 miles wide and 48 miles long, and much of that is given over to coastline — 460 miles of it, with literally dozens of public beaches. I know coastline doesn’t spell trees, and therefore the foliage might not be what you’d see in the North Country, but believe me: We have autumn in Rhode Island. I know this, and that is why I’ve set out to find the best views that Rhode Island has to offer. Of course, one traveler’s “best view” may be entirely humdrum to another, but to me the term implies a sense of beauty, uniqueness, joy, and inspiration.
If you’re inclined to agree, come along. We will see some of the finest Colonial architecture in the Northeast, visit a classy zoo and a gem of a museum, see trees (with colored leaves) so magnificent and stately that you’d think you were in Yorkshire, gaze at mansions so elegant you’ll question the century you’re in, and take in seacoast as picturesque as any in New England.
For those of you who have been with us from the Connecticut tour and are heading to Providence from the Quiet Corner, we suggest that you take Route 14 east from Sterling, Connecticut. When Route 14 merges with Route 102 North, continue on 102 to the towns along Highway 6. The area around Foster and Scituate, Rhode Island, is gentle, rural, and not at all touristy. Colorful forests, windy roads, and acres of beautifully crafted fieldstone walls dot a landscape that begs for autumn rambling. A nice detour: Follow Route 14 east where it splits off from Route 102; make a hard right at Crazy Corners, where you’ll cross the Scituate Reservoir for splendid foliage reflected in water. (Return to Route 6 via Route 116.)
Next on the tour is a visit to Roger Williams Park Zoo. Take Route 6 from North Scituate to Interstate 295; head south. Take exit 5, the very next exit, and turn left at the bottom of the ramp to continue east on Route 6 until you arrive at the junction with Route 10. Take Route 10 southbound. Just after passing I-95, Route 10 intersects with Highway 1, also known as Elmwood Avenue; from there, follow the signs. The park covers 435 acres and includes nine miles of twisting roads. It harbors a chain of 10 small lakes, a botanical garden, specimen trees, small rolling meadows, beautiful flower gardens, a replica of a Victorian carousel, and a large Japanese garden where about a third of Rhode Island’s young women pose for wedding pictures. It would be easy to spend a couple of hours here, and the penguins alone make the zoo well worth the visit.
Retrace your steps back to Interstate 95 north, and get off at exit 22A in Providence. Turn left onto Francis Street and take your first right, where you will discover Waterplace Park, four reclaimed acres on Cove Basin at the confluence of the Woonasquatucket and Moshassuck rivers. If you would like, you can come back here at night and enjoy WaterFire, unique performance art that features more than 100 bonfires set to music all along a one-mile stretch of water (call ahead to check the dates). Good lunch spots are easy to find. Only a short walk from Waterplace Park you can enjoy hearty sandwiches at Caffe Pazzo on Steeple Street (just off South Main).
That huge white-marble landmark perched atop the rolling green lawn and looming over everything else is the Rhode Island State House. Historians in this, the most heavily Roman Catholic state in the nation, say that the building’s unsupported dome — the first of its kind in the nation — is second in size only to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
Cross the river on Washington Street to the foot of College Hill, home to Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design, and you’re in history’s lap. Straight ahead at the junction of North Main Street is the First Baptist Church in America, beautiful in its clapboard simplicity, majestic for its situation at the foot of one of the finest and most beautifully restored neighborhoods of 18th- and 19th-century homes in the Northeast. This is the capital city’s historic East Side, and the next street ahead of you is Benefit Street, its heart. Parking is expensive, but don’t be daunted; there are plenty of side streets where you can park your car. To arrive at Benefit Street, turn left onto North Main Street — Waterman Street, which Washington morphs into once you’ve crossed the Providence River, is a one-way street — and turn right onto any of the side streets that shoot off of North Main.
Don’t miss the Museum of Art (which houses more than 80,000 diverse works) at the Rhode Island School of Design, the Providence Athenaeum (the fourth-oldest library in the country, designed by William Strickland. Here you will see Napoleon’s commissioned book Description de L’Egypte, and unique 19th-century collections in natural history and travel.), and the historic John Brown House (a 1786 brick Georgian-style mansion with a two-acre lawn, once owned by a wealthy Providence merchant. John Quincy Adams described the house as “the most magnificent and elegant private mansion that I have ever seen on this continent.”), all within easy walking distance of one another.
For the next leg of our trip, drive to Waterman Street and take a right onto Gano Street. At the end of Gano, hop onto Interstate 195 east and drive two miles, to exit 7, for Route 114 south, the Wampanoag Trail. Reset the odometer.
Within four scant miles, as you pass from East Providence into Barrington, the landscape will start to change. It flattens out. The autumn light turns gold and the trees give way to riverfront and saltwater marshes, where egrets and great blue heron poke about in the tawny eelgrass. One can imagine how peacefully the Wampanoag tribe who inhabited this area (now the towns of Barrington, Warren, and Bristol) must have lived, hunted, and fished this lush land.
We hope that you will rest as peacefully tonight. Comfortable lodging and good food await in the quiet of East Bay.
Three towns, all located on Route 114 between Providence and Newport, make up East Bay. Barrington is largely a bedroom community for Providence; Warren is authentic New England at its best; and Bristol is a historic seaport with all the amenities of a tourist town. These Bristol County towns share Narragansett Bay, miles of salt marshes dotted with shorebirds, a 14-mile scenic bike path, stunning architecture, and a preponderance of excellent antiques shops.
The town of Bristol is the annual site of one of the nation’s oldest and biggest Fourth of July parades. Exactly 11.3 miles from the start of the Wampanoag Trail, turn right into Colt State Park.
This is the former property of industrialist Colonel Samuel Pomeroy Colt, and it sprawls over 460 well-tended acres on Narragansett Bay. It’s a great place to walk, bike, fly a kite, play bocce, have a picnic or a barbecue, or just while away a quiet hour sitting on the seawall watching terns and gulls play across the water. The pavement is usually sprinkled with bits of broken quahog shells; the gulls take them up high and drop them until they break open and yield their clams. In the middle of the site is a long, low stone barn. It’s now home to park management, but the picturesque building once housed Colt’s prized cattle. In fact, verdigris-coated bronze statues of two of Colt’s favorite bulls flank the entrance and exit to the grounds.
For a clearer taste of what it was like to live in such comfort, take a right turn out of the park and continue for a couple of miles on Route 114 south through downtown Bristol; follow the signs to Blithewold Mansion, Gardens & Arboretum. This is a simple but comfortable 45-room manor, a summer residence in the tradition of those that dot England’s countryside.
The manor is set on 33 acres, lavishly planted with more than 2,000 species of flowers, shrubs, and trees, many of them Asian, as was the fashion in 1895, when Pennsylvania coal magnate Augustus Van Wickle established Blithewold. The manor’s “Great Lawn,” a broad expanse stretching down to Narragansett Bay, was used for drying the massive canvas sails. These powered the grand 12 Meter yachts that first sailed from Narragansett Bay in the 1930s to capture one America’s Cup after another.
In the distance is Poppasquash Point and beyond that Prudence Island, but don’t let the panorama lull you into missing Blithewold’s gardens, and especially its trees. Three are particularly striking: a small Chinese weeping pagoda tree that dates back to the 1870s (the oldest tree in the collection), a giant sequoia so tall at 94 feet that for preservation it needs its own lightning rod, and — my favorite — an 80-foot European weeping beech. Within the sanctum of its dense, shading boughs, the temperature is easily four or five degrees cooler, and you can look straight up its majestic trunk and know why the rich are different. To plant a slow-growing tree such as this, you would have to believe that your money and position and power and cultural tradition would long outlive you, that it would all pass down through the generations with your house and property intact, and that one day your distant scion, and perhaps the entire state, would think well of you for it.
Neither is it an accident that many more magnificent beeches line the best streets in Newport, which is only about 30 minutes away. To get there, hop back on Route 114 south, cross the Mount Hope Bridge, and just follow the signs. Along the way you’ll pass through Portsmouth, home to Green Animals Topiary Garden, an exquisite six-acre property featuring 70 pieces of topiary, including 25 animal sculptures. (To get there, turn right onto Cory’s Lane off Route 14 south.) It’s here that you can also tour the Brayton House, a two-and-a-half-story 19th-century Victorian. The home, complete with period furniture, children’s toys, and books, serves as an excellent primer for the Gilded Age splendor that awaits you in Newport.
To complete the journey to Newport, get back onto Route 14 south, which connects with Thames Street to take you right into Queen Anne’s Square, where a stop at Trinity Church is well worth the trouble of finding a place to park. The church dates to 1698 and has been in continuous use ever since. George Washington, Queen Elizabeth II, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu all prayed here. Trinity’s pulpit rises in three tiers. Some of its pews are flanked by magnificent stained-glass windows crafted by Louis Tiffany, and its organ, imported from London in 1733, is said by some historians to have been tested by George Frideric Handel. Today, the organ is played year-round at the 10 a.m. Sunday service.
Follow the “mansions” signs on America’s Cup Avenue (you can turn onto it from Thames Street in Queen Anne’s Square) and Narragansett Street, which eventually intersects with Bellevue Avenue. It’s along Bellevue that you’ll be able to visit and tour the awesome trappings of great wealth ’til your heart turns green. The majestic homes all have names — and not quaint ones like “Art and Betty’s Bungalow” or “Dunrovin.” Here are The Breakers, Beechwood, Chateau-sur-Mer, The Elms, Kingscote, Belcourt Castle, Marble House, and Rosecliff.
The Newport Casino and International Tennis Hall of Fame and Museum are down at the end of Bellevue, back toward town (take a left at the intersection of Narragansett and Bellevue). Looking to stretch your legs? Take a right turn onto Memorial Boulevard and you can park on the street to take the Cliff Walk, a glorious three-and-a-half-mile stretch of ocean and mansions. You can also pick up the walk by continuing straight on Narragansett at the intersection of Narragansett and Bellevue. Follow the street to where it dead-ends and you’ll find a few spaces to park your car.
The first third of the walk is easy, but the rest is work, and the whole length is not suited to small children, strollers, bicycles, or anyone who is disabled. If you go far enough — and how can you not, in the presence of lively surf and grand mansions — you’ll be clambering over big rocks and along seawall, and — depending on the tide and the wind — you may get a bit of saltwater spray in your face, too. The view is breathtaking: There’s Rhode Island Sound stretching out for miles off Newport. Sunlight shimmers across the water like hammered silver. The surf slaps the rocky base of the walkway, sending fountains of salt spray into the air to be caught briefly on the wind and gently sprinkled onto the thickening hedgerows of beach plums that gird parts of the meandering path. Just beyond and to my right are the manicured lawns and sprawling, stately backyards of some of the most magnificent mansions in the country.
There’s enough in the country’s smallest state for everyone; we’re more than halfway through our second day and we haven’t even explored Second Beach in Middletown, East Beach in Charlestown, Watch Hill in Westerly, or Mohegan Bluffs on Block Island.
For now, those stops will have to wait. My goal is to continue west. I cross the Newport Bridge, pay my $2, and drive onto Conanicut Island and Jamestown, which was burned by those zany Brits in 1775. After you’ve crossed the bridge and passed through the tolls, take your first exit and turn right, following signs for Jamestown. Once you’re in town, turn right onto Narragansett Road, following it until it intersects with Southwest/North Street. Turn left (Southwest Avenue eventually merges with Hamilton Avenue, and becomes Beavertail Road), to Beavertail State Park and Lighthouse Museum, which is a fitting place to let the day wind down. In fact, Beavertail offers one of the finest ocean views in the state.
The wind is up. The fall air is still warm and redolent of distant marsh and ageless salt. The setting sun is bright red, and it paints the sky a rich and darkening vermilion, like an ember.
From here, you can either retrace your steps back to the East Bay or settle in for the night in Jamestown at the Bay Voyage Inn. This inn with 32 rooms is known statewide for its Sunday brunch (reservations are a must). It is open year-round with a dining room that overlooks the harbor and serves classic American cuisine. A delicious ending to a spectacular journey.
– Wayne Worcester
Rhode Island’s only covered bridge is in Foster. Although it is one of the nation’s newest and smallest (36 feet long) covered bridges, it has a dramatic history. In the late fall of 1992, Swamp Meadow Covered Bridge, a latticed-truss, one-lane bridge, was built over Hemlock Brook, much to the delight of locals who took seriously the fact that Rhode Island was the only New England state without a covered bridge. On a September night one year later, teenage vandals doused the bridge with gasoline and, with the flick of a lighter, destroyed it. The townspeople were so distraught that they weren’t sure they wanted to rebuild, however, calls, money, and offers of support came from all over Rhode Island. A few months later, volunteers began the process that ultimately led to rebuilding. Dedicated in November 1994, the new bridge resembles an authentic 19th-century covered bridge. To visit: From Route 6, go south on Route 94; turn right on Central Pike.
Bradford-Dimond-Norris House, 888-329-6338, 401-253-6338. 474 Hope St., Bristol. This c. 1792 building, one of Bristol’s best-known landmarks, is called the Wedding Cake House. Open year-round. Four rooms.
Quito’s Restaurant, 401-253-4500. 411 Thames St., Bristol. Don’t be misled by the plastic chairs and paper plates — the seafood here is so fresh that you can watch it being unloaded from Quito’s boat right on Bristol Harbor. Quito’s is also a wholesale fish market. Open for lunch and dinner daily.
Redlefsen’s Rotisserie and Grill, 401-254-1188. 444 Thames St., Bristol. This restaurant is highly recommended by locals and visitors alike, who enjoy the European bistro atmosphere. Its Wiener schnitzel has been called the best in New England. Open for lunch and dinner daily.