Rhode Island may be the smallest state in the United States, but it packs a wallop when it comes to history and scenic beauty. Founded in 1636 by Roger Williams, a religious exile from Massachusetts, Rhode Island was the first of the Thirteen Colonies to renounce allegiance to the British Crown. It also was the last of the colonies to ratify the U.S. Constitution.
Rhode Island’s nickname is the Ocean State, which is apt since it has tens of miles of shoreline on the Atlantic Ocean, each foot filled with stunning beauty. The state’s top destination, Newport, is well known for its over-the-top mansions for the rich who summered here but there are many other great places to visit in Rhode Island.
We should all be so fortunate to have a husband who gives us a $11 million “cottage” on our 30th birthday. Yet that’s what Kenneth Vanderbilt, grandson of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, did. The mansion was modeled after the Petit Trianon at Versailles. Built between 1888 and 1892, the structure used 500,000 cubic feet of marble at a cost of $7 million. The Marble House set the stage for Newport to transform from a quiet village into a playground filled with grandiose summer homes for the wealthy. The mansion soon became a landmark in Newport society.
As it’s done for more than 150 years, Beavertail Lighthouse stands ready at the mouth of Narragansett Bay to guide ships and boats traveling through the bay. The lighthouse was built in 1856, though there have been warning lights here there since the early 18th century – the local tribe used fires to light the way. Beavertail Lighthouse was the third lighthouse in the colonies and is one of Rhode Island’s top lighthouses. The light rotates every six seconds 24/7, with a foghorn that goes off every 30 seconds when it’s foggy out.
For much of the year, Narragansett has less than 16,000 people, but the population more than doubles in the summer months. The reason: Narragansett has four of the best beaches in Rhode Island. Possibly the most interesting of them is the Sally Brine Beach, named for a local radio personality. British warships anchored here during the Revolutionary War; today, people enjoy watching fishing boats come and go. Scarborough State Park takes the nod for the most popular, being the best saltwater beach in southern New England. Roger Wheeler State Beach has ramps for handicap access, while Town Beach is located in the town center.
On a clear day at Mohegan Bluffs on Block Island, you will not only see dramatic views of the Atlantic Ocean, but you’ll also be able to see Montauk on Long Island, New York. There are 140 steps between the beach and the top of the bluffs; take your time going down them to savor the views. Though you’ll need to be careful using the steps, at least you won’t have to worry about being tossed over the bluffs like happened to the Mohegan Indians were by another tribe in 1592.
You’ll see some stunningly beautiful views from Colt State Park, which is considered the gem of the state park system. The park fronts on Narragansett Bay, so definitely take a drive along the shoreline. Or, you can bike along the shoreline or through the park on four miles of bike trails where you’ll see carefully tended fruit trees and flowering shrubs. The park is near Bristol, home to a spectacular 4th of July fireworks display since 1785. Take a moment to reflect on life at the open air Chapel-by-the Sea. The park is named after industrialist Samuel P. Colt and was originally the location of his summer home.
The Elms is another one of those over-the-top summer homes in Newport, this one built by the Berwind family in 1898. The Elms, however, possibly wasn’t as opulent as the others, since it only cost $1.4 million to build. While the interiors were still lavish, the focal point here is the Classical Revival gardens with marble and bronze sculptures on terraces, marble pavilions, a sunken garden and fountains. The gardens took seven years to create; construction started in 1907, six years after the mansion was finished. The Elms is open to the public today.
Rhode Island’s capital and largest city, Providence, is one of the oldest cities in the United States. It was founded in 1636 by religious exile Roger Williams who named it after “God’s merciful Providence.” Providence is a scenic city at the head of Narragansett Bay. The Providence River runs through town, so find time to relax at Waterfront Park or Riverwalk. Take a break over coffee and doughnuts – Providence has the highest per capita of coffee/doughnut shops in the United States. Visit the oldest Baptist church in America that was founded by Roger Williams. Providence also is home to the “Big Blue Bug,” a roadside attraction that is the world’s largest termite.
Old Harbor, located on the east side of Block Island, is just a scenic ferry ride away from mainland Rhode Island. The picturesque harbor, with its Victorian waterfront, is filled with yachts and boats, which isn’t surprising as Old Harbor is one of New England’s premier boating destinations. It’s a safe harbor, protected by a breakwater. Once shoreside, you’ll find seafood restaurants, shops and quaint inns to stay in while you explore this historic district of Block Island’s resort community of New Shoreham. New Shoreham is considered one of the prettiest cities in New England.
You can kill two birds with one stone when you walk the Cliff Walk on the eastern shore of Newport. On one side, you’ll enjoy the beauty of the Newport shoreline; on the other side, you’ll see the opulent summer homes for the wealthy. Cliff Walk is New England’s first National Recreation Trail. It runs for 3-1.2 miles along the shoreline. The northern portion of the trail is considered easy walking, while the southern portion is a rough trail over rocks, so you’ll want to be more careful than usual. Still, Cliff Walk is one of Newport’s main attractions.
The Breakers is another summer home built by the Vanderbilt family, this one by Cornelius Vanderbilt II. While Newport summer homes are commonly referred to as “cottages,” this one is anything but. It has 70 rooms spread over five floors. The Breakers is on the oceanfront, with fences on the other three sides. It is consistently one of the most visited house museums in the United States. Because a previous mansion, owned by Pierre Lorillard IV, on the site burned, Vanderbilt insisted his mansion be fireproof, so steel trusses were used for structural support. When it was completed in 1895, it was the grandest house in Newport.