Travel: Divine Providence

Old houses in Providence
Old houses in Providence

Helen McGurk continues her tour of Rhode Island with a visit to the hip and happening state capital

From its chrome bar stools to the slide-in bright orange and yellow booths, Olyneyville N.Y. System is a perfect, all-American fast-food joint.

The gates to Brown University

The gates to Brown University

Located in Providence’s Olneyville neighbourhood, everything about it feels authentic and cinematic.

I want to sit there all day drinking coffee milk; a super-sweet concoction of coffee syrup and cold milk which Rhode Island kids have been guzzling since before the Great Depression, whilst my kids tuck into the best hot wieners (hot dogs with the works) in town, but there are places to go and lots to see.

Providence, Rhode Island, is the biggest city in America’s smallest state and is easily accessible from T.F. Green International Airport, 10 miles away.

We flew from Dublin with low-cost carrier, Norwegian, a journey of some seven hours.

The WaterFire event in Providence

The WaterFire event in Providence

Providence was the last leg on our tour of Rhode Island, New England, a region famous for its foliage, food, colleges and universities.

A hub of higher learning, Providence is home to some 12 universities and colleges, including the prestigious Ivy League Brown University (Harry Potter actress Emma Watson is a notable alumnus) and the Rhode Island School of Design, perhaps the top art school in the USA.

The city’s college affiliations and its bohemian leanings, give it a youthful, artsy feel, but it’s a city which will appeal to visitors of all ages and tastes.

For families, like us, there is so much to see and do and we were truly besotted with the city.

Our base for three days was the Providence Marriott Hotel - the only hotel in the city with free parking and connecting indoor/outdoor pool. Breakfasts in its Bluefin Grille restaurant are fantastic and there’s a well-stocked store in the lobby, where my 11-year-old bagged herself a cool hoodie.

The hotel is a little bit out of the main drag, but that doesn’t matter, for it offers a free shuttle taxi service, bringing guests into and out of the main city areas.

All our drivers were students at one of the city’s universities, earning a few extra bucks as chauffeurs, and all were politeness personified.

In fact, everyone in Providence is so warm and friendly; everything is ‘awesome’ and it seems all are ‘having a nice day’.

Everywhere you turn, members of the service industry are smiling at you, holding doors open, straining to help. I know most of the time they’re angling for tips, but I don’t care. In fact, I love it. It’s so refreshing not to be served dinner by some sourpuss, or taken to your destination by a surly, uncommunicative taxi driver.

And it’s not just those in the service industry who are lovely. We must have looked a bit lost one day ambling down a street near Brown University, for a lovely young student approached and asked us if we needed any assistance or if she could help us find where we were looking to go. A truly lovely gesture.

Providence offers some beautiful urban strolling; particularly around College Hill, which contains over 100 colonial, federal and revival houses dating from the 18th century.

We enjoyed walking along the river and in the downtown’s handsome streets and lanes with their bustling cafes and cooler than cool bars and shops. I spent about an hour browsing and buying in Craftland (Westminster Street) - a store of one-of-a-kind finds from local artists.

Providence Place Mall is great spot to seek out all those iconic American brands we don’t have here.

The vast shopping complex is anchored by Macy’s, and is home to a plethora of stores including Banana Republic, J Crew and a vast Apple store.

Providence’s downtown has some of the best-preserved turn of the 19th century and early 20th century architecture in the United States.

The beux arts City Hall makes an imposing centerpiece and the stately white dome of the Rhode Island State House, modelled in part on St Peter’s Bascilica in Vatican City, is visible from many corners of he city.

In Federal Hill, otherwise known as Little Italy, trattorias and gelaterias are bizarrely mingled with not-so-Italian hookah bars.

We ate in Angelo’s Civita Farnese, where generations-old recipes define this lively old-school, family-run, kid-friendly Italian spot - my children were particularly enamoured by the ceiling-mounted model train.

They also loved Trattoria Zooma, where the house made pastas and wood fired pizzas really are like mamma made and the cocktails are scrumptious.

Any time of the year would be good to visit Providence, but the summer must surely be amazing, for it is then that the city hosts its famous signature event, WaterFire, an award-winning fire sculpture installation on the three rivers in its downtown.

Created by local artist Barnaby Evans, WaterFire has become a must-see for visitors and locals.

Essentially Providence’s landscaped riverfront promenade springs to life with street performers, vendors, food and throngs of people who come to view the 100 anchored, flaming braziers illuminating the water, marking the convergence of the Providence, Moshassuck and Woonasquatucket Rivers.

Whilst we couldn’t enjoy WaterFire (this time), we were able to enjoy Roger Williams Park Zoo, a short drive outside the city.

Most of us probably have a conflicted view of zoos, but conservation and environmental stewardship are at the core of the mission at the Roger Williams Park Zoo. It is the recipient of numerous awards for conservation work done both locally and around the globe.

When we were there it was running a new rainforest exhibition with indigenous monkeys, birds, amphibians, and reptiles of the Amazon Rainforest.

The zoo is really well laid out and there are plenty of places to eat and grab a drink on the route.

There’s also a fantastic play park on the site, with hammocks, water activities, an impressive playhouse and much, much more.

Roger Williams Park was created in 1871 after Betsey Williams bequeathed 102 acres of farmland and woodland to the city of Providence to be used for public purpose. Comprised of more than 435 beautiful acres, with lakes and ponds, forest copses, lawns and picnic grounds, it still serves as “the people’s pleasure ground”.

On site, there’s an operating Victorian carousel, featuring classic colonial horses, benches, and other real and mystical creatures to ride. My kids loved it; even our ‘tweenager’ couldn’t be grumpy for long. In fact I defy anyone to be grumpy in Providence - go and see for yourself. It really is awesome.

Factfile:

Norwegian fly a nonstop service between Dublin and T.F Green Airport. Fares start from €210 one way / €400 return including all taxes and charges. To book visit www.norwegian.com/ie or call 0330 828 0854. For car hire visit www.avisworld.com/norwegianreward. For more info on Rhode Island visit www.visitrhodeisland.com