The Ocean State
The Ocean State, The Plantation State, Little Rhody. Otherwise officially known as the “State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.” Despite the fancy name, we know it best as simply just: Rhode Island. Inadvertently and unwittingly, in a way only America could do, they bestowed the smallest state in the whole nation with the longest name. Regardless of the land mass size, there is no lack of fascinating history to be discovered lurking amongst the bright sandy beaches and the neat, seaside colonial towns. RI was the first of the Thirteen Colonies to discard their loyalty to the British during the American Revolution, before becoming heavy-weight leaders of the slave trade in New England. After the Civil War, the rich New Yorker’s blew in on an afternoon sea breeze bringing their wealth and The Gilded Age along with them. Just when you thought this small state had nothing more to give, the gangsters arrived and the state became infamous for organized crime.
When I said we were heading to RI for the weekend, I continually got the same response. “What for?” As far as anyone was concerned, there was nothing to do there and no valid reason to go. No big cities for weekend breaks, no mountains for hiking trips, no special attractions worth the drive. If I’m completely honest, we picked it as our destination purely by chance. The idea presented itself at the bottom of my bag one day in the shape of a fluff covered quarter coin.
Our air bnb was to be found in Jamestown, located on the second largest island in Narragansett Bay. Instructed by our over enthusiastic American sat-nav, we took U.S. Route 1 heading northward. This highway runs the entire length of the East Coast, from the Canadian border town, Fort Kent in Maine, all the way down to the tropics of Key West in Florida. Between the two of us, we’ve driven a large portion of it already. This could be seen as quite an achievement by some, but unfortunately, the whole sodding length of it is unbearably boring. It’s no Californian Pacific Coast Highway that’s for sure.
We made it safely out of Northern New Jersey- literally the worst drivers I’ve ever seen in my entire life and in all my travels. Yes, that includes India with the wandering cows and unpredictable tuk-tuks. Over the gaping Hudson River of New York State we went and into Connecticut. I have a Grandma who spends her summers there who I’ve been writing to since childhood. I recently discovered that I’ve been spelling ‘Conneticut’ wrong the whole time and no one breathed a word. We left the highway to avoid a pile up and were finally treated to a glimmer of Colonial architecture before crossing into Rhode Island I at last.
Our accommodation was on a quiet street that lead right down to the ocean. Our host had sent us a message to let us know the front door would be unlocked. With the absence of a key, we soon came to realise that this was an everyday norm. It’s been a good while since we’ve been somewhere where you can leave your house open and your keys in the ignition without worry. Inside, bright homemade throws covered the couch, flowerpots were overflowing with green cascades and there was a wood burner, brushed clean after winter. Ocean paraphernalia left a blue and golden trail throughout the cozy house and chickens clucked happily in the backyard.
To waste no time, we headed straight out to Beavertail State Park. No beavers in sight but not to be disheartened, on route I almost caused a crash due to my excitement at seeing a real live skunk. The only one’s I’d seen up until that point were the less favourable kind. The unlucky ones that have been pasted flat to the roads surface and have taken it upon themselves to go out with a bang (literally) and omit that terrible, lingering stench. Beavertail State Park was was small but special, and such a lovely way to end our drive and to begin our trip in RI. A lighthouse stood proudly on the rocks, it’s light blinking intermittently, looking out onto the stunning New England coastline before it.
Just across the bridge from Jamestown, we have the city of Newport. This little settlement of 24,000 warrants it’s own set of impressive nicknames; ‘City by the Sea, Sailing Capital of the World, Queen of Summer Resorts, America’s Society Capital.’ Throughout history, Newport has continued to attract the crowds. Whether it was for trading at the bustling port of the 18th century, to attend a lavish 19th century party at one of the many mansions or in more recent times, to enjoy the cluster of fine restaurants along the wharf.
After wandering around Newport perusing our dinner choices, we settled on The Black Pearl. We had one thing on our mind: seafood and this place was renowned for it’s chowder. We ate in the dimly lit Tavern area where the burgundy walls were carved up with black beams and faded tan navigation maps. We began with hearty, creamy bowls of chowder and ordered mussels for our main. They arrived at our table leaving a steamy wake of garlic and white wine in their path. We concluded this was an excellent beginning to our seafood treasure hunt.
Our second day began with Maryland Blue Crab cakes topped with buttery, golden hollandaise sauce. The sun filled diner was on Spring Street, a narrow lane hidden away from the main drag and right in the heart of Newport’s Historic District. The 250 acre area contains houses, market buildings & even a synagogue constructed as early as 1750. The street was empty at 9 am on a Saturday morning, but the temperatures were finally rising after a long winter and the daffodils were answering the suns call to bloom.
The Newport Cliff Walk was something I had been looking forward to for the whole week. The 3.5 mile path really gives you the best of both worlds, with the rich blue ocean on one side and a trail of outrageous Gilded Age mansions on the other. The start was busy due to the picture perfect weather, but soon enough we left the strollers and the crowds behind us. The path became uneven, the mansion exteriors more unconventional. Even the names seemed more untamed and wild, ‘Rosecliff’ and ‘Marble House’ gave way to ‘Rough Point’ and ‘Lands End.’ After seeing them from the outside, we were keen to see the interiors and hear the stories from within the walls.
The term ‘Gilded Age’ was first gifted to us by Mark Twain in 1873. He was actually mocking the elite for attempting to ignore the social problems of the age by covering them in a thin layer of gilding. No one can deny that between the years of 1870 and 1900 was a time of huge prosperity for the nation. The influx of European immigrants had brought new skills to the country, allowing various industries to develop at an astonishing rate, paving the way for the USA to become a world super power. With the economy thriving, the Industrialists and the businessmen moved in and made their money. Rhode Island became the centre of The Gilded Age, and if you were anybody who was anybody, you would have a summer ‘cottage’ in Newport.
With so many beautiful mansions to chose from, I settled on Rosecliff purely because it was the location of the 1974 film adaption of The Great Gatsby. The mansion was built by Tessie Fair Oelrichs of Nevada between 1898-1902. Her husband spent much of his time away for work, so she launched herself into the social scene, eventually becoming known as one of the three great hostesses of Newport. Unfortunately the end of Tessie’s story is not a happy one. With the deep depression of 1893 bringing the Gilded Age to a close, lavish parties were not required anymore. With no guests to entertain, Tessie slowly went mad, demanding huge banquets be arranged for her and her ‘guests’, when in-fact she was all alone in her mansion.
There is only one way to to describe The Breakers mansion and that is: outrageous. 1893 saw The Vanderbilt family begin work on their new summer residence. Built in the Italian Renaissance style, it is by far the most opulent of the Newport mansions and remarkably, only took 2 years to complete. From humble beginnings as farmers in Holland, the Vanderbilt’s rose to be the wealthiest family in America by forging a shipping and railroad empire. They displayed their fortune through numerous building projects; large estates in North Carolina, grand townhouses along Fifth Avenue in NYC and more than one mansion in Newport, RI.
The towering cast iron gates gave the property a serious air. It was hard to imagine party guests flowing through this very entrance way, anticipating the evening ahead, pea gravel crunching underfoot and long dresses trailing behind them. The long tree-lined driveway gave us time to appreciate the exterior on the approach. Big, but surprisingly not over done, if you ignore the fact it’s a whopping great mansion. I had avoided looking at pictures online, I wanted to experience how the visitors would have felt, walking up the steps, entering the room and being stunned into awed silence.
It’s so easy to see why it’s the top tourist attraction in the whole of the state. I don’t think I’ve ever been somewhere so ornate, so flamboyant, so.. over the top. Your eyes are instantly drawn to the winding staircase where a ruby red carpet cascaded down them to meet the creamy marble floor. Oriental rugs had been partly unfurled for show, elaborate light fixtures were suspended from the incredibly intricate ceiling and heavy crimson drapes plunged downwards. Each room was more phenomenal than the next. The games room was constructed entirely of mosaic, the marble hand picked and imported from Italy and Africa. The library was furnished with dark, rare wood from floor to ceiling, the fireplace had been taken from a French Château. One of the stone bathtubs was so large and dense it had to be filled up multiple times to keep the water warm. It was exhausting trying to take it all in and absorb all the minute details.
The mansion was passed down within the family until 1948 when the youngest daughter Gladys leased the property to The Preservation Society of Newport County, for $1 a year. When she died in 1998, the Society agreed that the family could continue living in part of the house which is not open to the public. Even though we would have liked to see more of the property, it was an amazing place to visit. The time and thought, the attention to detail that the architect (Richard Morris Hunt) put into the project just astounds me. In the end, we were ‘mansioned-out’ and decided we were well overdue for our next portion of seafood.
Sahar has been obsessed with finding half decent fish and chips since we left England, so driving 45 minutes to somewhere I had read about, was not even questioned. Amaral’s Fish and Chips was in the small town of Warren, close to the border with Massachusetts. Many Yankee Magazine articles had claimed that Amaral’s had some of the best seafood in the state. We had, what can only be described as a seafood banquet; fish & chips, white chowder, clear chowder, clam cakes and stuffed quahog’s. I know you’re wondering what half of things are so I shall elaborate. Clear chowder is a RI specialty and was the surprise star of the show. To make a clam cake: take said clams, chop them up, mix them with a batter and then deep fry them. A quahog is a type of hard clam that is chopped, mixed with other ingredients and returned to it’s shell to be baked and served. Locals affectionately refer to them as ‘stuffies.’ Everything was on point, and i’m ecstatic to say this- even the fish & chips were delicious.
Our wonderful day was concluded with an easy ride back to town along Ocean Drive. We slowly followed the winding tarmac, admiring the houses up on the hills and trying to peer down the long, overgrown driveways to see what they led to. We stopped halfway for frozen lemonade and sat in the car 10 metres from the ocean, watching the waves roll in towards us. Rhode Island, you are fabulous and don’t let anyone else tell you otherwise.
We drove towards the state capital, Providence, whilst listening to a podcast about folklore and creepy stories, some of which took place in RI. We stopped for breakfast in the town of East Greenwich on our search for another RI specialty: Johnnycakes. Jigger’s Diner is your typical 50’s setup in an old dining car train carriage, with booths and a counter. The space was so narrow that the servers had to go on tip toes to be able to pass each other. I found the Johnnycakes to be a little disappointing, even drowned in maple syrup. The cornmeal ‘gruel’ is made from yellow or white cornmeal mixed with either milk or hot water, then fried to create something like a very heavy pancake.
We attempted a stop in Providence to check out the historic Benefit Street on college hill, but it was so cold it just wasn’t enjoyable. However, all was not lost for our Sunday as we stopped in Connecticut on the way home to try some infamous New Haven style pizza, in the town itself. New Haven style pizza (locally known as ‘apizza’) is a thin crust baked in a coal fire brick oven. Simple toppings are added; tomato sauce, garlic, mozzarella and Parmesan. On Wooster Street, the Little Italy area of New Haven, there are two pizzerias in competition with each other; ‘Sally’s’ and ‘Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana.’ We arrived at the door of Sally’s an hour before it opened, there were already people queuing- it was like being back in NY. We wandered up the street, bought Italian lemon ice, cannoli’s and then returned to claim our spot. The door opened at 3 pm, we flooded in and soon our small two person table had disappeared under the 2 ‘medium’ size pizzas we had ordered.
Would we return to RI? Yes, I’d say so. Would we return there soon? Probably not. There’s so much of America to explore, even in our small, over inhabited corner of the country. We’re heading to Maine next week to meet up with a friend and I literally cannot wait to see more of New England. It’s a shame it’s so frightfully cold there in winter otherwise I might have tried to persuade Sahar to move up there. He’s such a Florida baby. Seafood, beaches, breweries, history, hikes, done. Cheers Rhode Island, you were awesome!