By David Lyon and Patricia Harris
Whoever planned the boundaries of Rhode Island must have had the weekend getaway in mind. This very small state (drive 30 miles in any direction and you’re in Massachusetts or Connecticut) is divided by a very large bay, which means more than 100 public beaches along more than 400 miles of coastline. Little wonder it’s called the Ocean State.
The two-mile rainbow of concrete and steel (aka the Newport Bridge) has a true pot of gold on its eastern end: Newport Harbor shelters some of the swiftest and most expensive boats in the water. Book a harbor tour on a retired America’s Cup contender and you may never get your land legs back again. Too bad, because you might miss touring the Gilded Age mansions of Bellevue Avenue or ambling the Cliff Walk behind them for spectacular views across Rhode Island Sound.
Just below the Cliff Walk, surfers in wet suits catch the high curls on Easton’s Beach. But probably the best swimming strands line the coast of South County between the Connecticut border and the deep-sea fishing port of Galilee. (Nearby Point Judith is the easiest jump-off ferry to get to Rhode Island’s real island: Block Island.) The endless sands of Misquamicut, complete with amusement rides and taffy booths, slide into the Victorian charm of Watch Hill, where the Flying Horses, New England’s oldest carousel, still whirls.
Not that all of Rhode Island is a playground. Slater Mill, now Pawtucket’s living history museum, was one of the first places where pilfered British technology gave birth to the American textile industry. A ponderous water wheel drives creaking machinery with leather belts and pulleys, and you can almost hear the farm children being called from the fields to tend the spinning jennys and mechanical looms.
Stop at the sign of the lemon for Rhody’s taste of summer, Cranston-spawned Del’s Frozen Lemonade. Look in any grocery store for coffee milk, or visit a dairy bar for a coffee cabinet (that’s a milkshake with ice cream in it). Jonny cakes usually turn up on the menus of diners and breakfast cafes — just make sure they use white cornmeal milled in Usquepaugh. On a driblet of a peninsula that’s almost Long Island, Sakonnet Vineyards in Little Compton exploits its microclimate to make crisp white table wines.
Sakonnet’s signature Vidal Blanc is a standard on the wine lists of Providence bistros. With top-notch culinary school Johnson & Wales minting more chefs every year, Rhode Island’s capital city has a capital restaurant scene. Still, you might just prefer Federal Hill’s Italian-American eatfest, otherwise known as Atwells Avenue, where caffes and salumerias and trattorias and bakeries stand puffy cheek by jovial jowl.
Walk it off on the East Side by traipsing down Benefit Street’s so-called Mile of History, where the John Brown House is a virtual chronicle of Providence’s society folk through the ages, and the Rhode Island School of Design has a surprising art museum that spans the globe. RISD’s famous sense of style pervades the city — what other community would celebrate the rivers that snake through it by setting them ablaze and throwing a party? (It’s called WaterFire.)