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, 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.
Visitors are struck immediately by the sense of history that pervades the capital city, Providence. The city was founded in 1636 by an Englishman named Roger Williams. His name has been lent to Parks, Universities, memorials and a zoo. In a rather macabre end to the Williams story, a human shaped apple tree root, is said to be the last remains of Williams. You can see the tree root at the historic John Brown House on Benefit Street, the base for the Rhode Island Historical Society, which manages a number of the buildings on the historic Street and offers walking tours.
You can see the city sights with Ted Strickland, President of Experience Rhode Island Tours. 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”.
The American Diner concept is well known throughout the USA, however you may not realise that the concept was started in Providence. Haven Brothers Diner serves up burgers and shakes to the night-time crowd, as it has done since 1893. 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. We are the only mobile diner left in America”. Another Rhode Island tradition is found nearby. 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, told me “I have been working here since I was a kid, that’s over 40 years. We keep our offering consistent, people know what they get”. 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.
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. 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.
Accommodation of all descriptions is available in Rhode Island. In Providence, I stayed in the Dean, an independent boutique hotel which is the location of one of the city’s top coffee stops, Bolt Coffee. 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.
Rhode Island is a fascinating and welcoming state. It has a proud, strong identity and the people are very friendly and welcoming.