As the smallest of the US states, you might think that Rhode Island is a “blink and you’ll miss it” kind of place. However, if you keep your eyes open, you will find that it is home to stunning colonial mansions, historic buildings, a vast array of culinary delights, pristine beaches and a homely charm missing in many other parts of the USA.
Those lucky enough to have travelled to various parts of the USA will be struck immediately by the sense of history that pervades the capital city, Providence. The story is an interesting one. The city was founded in 1636 by an Englishman named Roger Williams, who fled the nearby Massachusetts colony due to his imminent arrest for spreading “new and dangerous ideas”, which was basically his opinion that church and state should be separate. He befriended the Native Americans in the surrounding land and they gifted him land, on which he began the settlement of Providence as a refuge offering freedom of conscience. Williams was an interesting and forward-thinking character. He wrote the first Native American-English dictionary and was instrumental in correcting English attitudes of superiority over the Native Americans in the area. Another of his accomplishments was the establishment of the first Baptist Church in America, which is still in use today. His name has been lent to Parks, Universities, memorials and a zoo. A 15-foot statue of Williams overlooks the city he created. In a rather macabre end to the Williams story, after he died in 1683, his burial place was forgotten about for around 200 years. Then, in 1860, the people of Providence decided to create a suitable memorial and community leaders went in search of the remains. All they found were nails, teeth, bones and a human shaped apple tree root. This root appeared to have taken on the form of Williams, splitting at the hips and bending at the knee. You can see the tree root for yourself at the historic John Brown House on Benefit Street. The house is the base for the Rhode Island Historical Society, which manages a number of the buildings on Benefit Street and offers walking tours of the area and nearby Brown University.
Both the statue and the John Brown House are sights you can see on a tour with Ted Strickland, President of Experience Rhode Island Tours. His bus tour of the city takes visitors from the old to the new and most places in between. His knowledge of the city is encyclopaedic and as we stood near to the City Hall he told me “Providence was a major location for early American Heroes, early American Industry and sits on the largest estuary in New England. It was the birthplace of religious freedom in the growing British Empire, and particularly in the Americas”. While Strickland’s tour takes you around by road, visitors get an entirely different view of the city from the water. Tom McGinn is Captain of the Providence Riverboat tour. Tom narrates while he pilots the vessel through the river system. On board, he told me “the rivers are the reason why Providence is here, its main industry was trade by sea and ships travelled as far as India and Africa to trade. Whilst the trade has now gone, the river system has renewed itself as a centre for tourism and activity for downtown Providence”. A big riverside attraction over the year is Waterfire, which is a free public art installation, an urban festival, a civic ritual and a major attraction along the river. The 86 burning braziers “float” along the river and tens of thousands of people attend the monthly spectacle.
From a dining perspective, Providence is renowned for its independent restaurants and dining establishments. The ubiquitous national chains can be found in the city centre area, but they aren’t that easy to spot. Whilst the American Diner is well known throughout the country, the concept was started in Providence. In fact, one of the originals trades every night at the side of the city hall. Haven Brothers Diner serves up burgers and shakes to the night-time crowd, as it has done since 1893. The truck has appeared on the small and big screen numerous times including “Dumb and Dumber” and Family Guy. Current Owner Ian Giusti told me “originally the business operated from a horse-drawn cart and was established to feed the factory workers who worked late at night. Whilst the factory workers might not be there any more, we still operate from the same location every night from 5pm-3am and we are the only mobile diner left in America”. Another Rhode Island tradition is found a short distance from the city centre in an area called Olneyville. For over 70 years, the Stephens family have been serving “Olneyville NY System” Hot Wieners and Coffee Milk from the same location. Fourth generation owner, Greg Stephens, is proud of the tradition “I have been working here since I was a kid and most of the people behind the counter have been here over 15 years. We keep our offering consistent, people know what they get. We work at keeping it the same as it always has been”. While I was there, visitors from across the USA came through the door, drawn by the tradition. One man I spoke to had been brought there through the years by his father and grandfather and he was visiting that day with his own son and grandson. TV stars also frequent the diner, like Guy Fieri from Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, who stopped by for lunch a couple of days after me. I can personally vouch for the wieners and coffee milk too. Both are amazing!
On holidays and weekends, Rhode Islanders head to the beaches. Newport is the epicentre of this temporary mass migration and is home to some of the most historic mansions in the state. These huge houses are, in the main, open to the public and some command incredible views of the coast. At one time these were owned by families like the Vanderbilts and Astors. Newport was also the location of “summer white house” for both President Eisenhower and President Kennedy. These days, a famous nearby resident is Taylor Swift who owns a huge beach house in the area.
The centre of Newport is quite compact. The many restaurants and shops crowd around the marina, which is host to some very expensive-looking cruisers. Whilst there may be a sense of money in Newport, when you walk around and start to peel the layers off the city, you will find it has a rich history and some surprising roots. The Irish played a major role in creating the city there today. Fort Adams, the largest fortress in the USA, overlooks Newport Bay and was built by Irish immigrant labour. The Catholic church, which is a centrepiece in Newport and was the location of the wedding of John F Kennedy to Jacqueline Bouvier, was built by those same Irish labourers. The Museum of Irish History is curated by a small team of local people, from all walks of life who also voluntarily look after the Irish Cemetery, which, in testament to founding father Roger Williams aim of religious freedom, is located next to the oldest synagogue in the USA.
Accommodation of all descriptions is available in Rhode Island. In Providence, I stayed in the Dean, an independent boutique hotel in the city centre. It is the location of one of the city’s top coffee stops, Bolt Coffee, and is renowned for its Faust bar, Boombox Karaoke Rooms and The Magdalene Cocktail Lounge. In Newport, I stayed in the Hilltop Inn, an historic house which dates from 1905 and has been sympathetically restored to its original New England style. The rooms are large and comfortable and the hotel is minutes away from the restaurants, shops and bars of Newport.
Shopping is a popular pastime in Rhode Island. Westminster Street in Providence has a number of independent shops, while nearby Providence Place is a 3-storey shopping Mecca. As well as having some well known names, such as Macy’s, what struck me is that the mall is fully carpeted throughout.
Rhode Island is a fascinating state. It has a proud, strong identity and the people are very friendly and welcoming. It is possible to drive from one side of the state to the other in 45mins, yet within its borders are state parks, coastal drives, stunning islands, historic sites and many activities for all ages.