Rhode Island - An American dream

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Rhode Island may be the smallest US state, but as Helen McGurk discovers, it’s big on charm

Much has been written of New England in the fall, when the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness tranforms the foilage into an astonishing arboreal palette of blood-reds, russetts, golds and oranges - a phenonmenon which attracts thousands of ‘leaf-peepers’, as they are known, every year.

International Tennis Hall of Fame

International Tennis Hall of Fame

But autumn is not the only time to witness the splendour, or sample the many charms, of this beautiful region.

My family and I visited Rhode Island, the smallest of New England’s six states, at Easter, when the daffodils were Wordsworthian and the temperatures mild.

Getting to this part of the east coast is as easy as (American) pie; low-cost airline Norwegian operates a popular service from Dublin to Providence Airport, Boston. With the time difference, our 3pm departure meant we arrived in the US at 5pm feeling perky and pre-ordered meals meant we didn’t go hungry on the seven-hour flight. After picking up an Avis hire car we were soon on our way to the city of Newport, about 40 minutes away.

Newport, which hosts the grandadddy of all jazz festivals ever summer, is a delightful port city of mansions, buzzy pubs, interesting shops, renovated wharfs and narrow streets.

The Breakers

The Breakers

It features several fine beaches, rocky cliffs and much history including America’s oldest syangogue, oldest lending library, oldest library building in continuous use, and the oldest surviving tavern building in the US, which it would have been downright churlish not to visit.

The White Horse Tavern was built before 1673, so it seemed only right and proper when we visited, to enjoy a couple of Old Fashioned cocktails in our old-fashioned surrounds.

Our base for three days in the city was the Newport Marriott, a lovely, nautical-themed hotel set on the waterfront in the historic downtown district, just a short dander to the shops and restaurants, and right next door to the Newport Welcome Centre. Parking is free in low season in an adjacent garage, but the big plus for my kids was the swimming pool, not to mention the cool, ceiling-suspended chairs in the uber stylish lobby.

A great way to get your bearings in the city is on board the Viking Trolley bus (catch it at the Newport Welcome Centre) which takes passengers on a 10-mile ocean drive, where you can observe the city’s historic architecture, marvel at the beautiful ocean views and rubberneck as you pass the magnicient mansions.

Ocean House Hotel

Ocean House Hotel

Newport was a watering hole for America’s aristocracy (JFK and Jackie married and summered there) and it is famous for its over-the-top properties, where the money made in the country’s Gilded Age was spent on all kinds of unnecessary architecture.

We gawped at the grandeur on Bellevue Aveune, a tree-lined street that stretches down to the Atlantic, with each palatial ‘cottage’ – as the well-heeled high society chose to think of these houses – seemingly an attempt to outdo the Joneses. And then some.

Undoutedly, the grandest of these seaside cottages a is The Breakers, a 70-room Italian Renaissance-style palazzo, perched above the crashing waves and the most visited historic budidling in the state. In the 1890s it was the summer home of mega rich, Cornelius Vanderbilt II.

The audio tour managed to keep my kids, aged 11 and 6, enthralled for the duration as we marvelled at this cathedral of excess.

A great way to observe the architectural artristy of the mansions is by taking a stroll along Newport’s gorgeous Cliff Walk. The rich and famous built their properties by the Atlantic Ocean, and this 3.5 mile pathway is a nosey parker’s dream, allowing a sneak peak into the mansions’ grounds.

Another stunning mansion which is open to visitors is Rosecliff, which was used as the backdrop for popular films including The Great Gatsby.

Besides big houses, Newport has a wealth of attractions to keep families and individuals of all ages occupied.

My two were particularly taken with the Save The Bay Seal Watch; taking a boat from Newport Harbour, and bestwoed with binoculars, we toured the waters around Rose Island and Newport Bridge, spotting at least six of these gorgeous creatures with their puppy-dog looks.

The International Tennis Hall of Fame museum (Bellevue Avenue) is well worth a visit, even if you aren’t an afficiando of the sport. In 1881, it hosted the first US National Lawn Tennis Championshps, which has evolved into today’s US Open. There are more than 2,000 unique objects on display, from racquets, to clothes, to trophies, as well as a variety of interactive exhibits - my son loved being a tennis commentator, whilst mummy loved the Roger Federer hologram.

Just a few steps up the street is the Audrain Automobile Museum. You don’t have to be a petrolhead to enjoy this quirky little museum. When we were there there was an exhibition called ‘Horseless to Horsepower: the Gilded and Golden Age’ and a parade of gleaming cars.

There are any amount of wonderful places to eat in Newport; we had belly-busting breakfasts in the Corner Cafe, dinner in Brick Alley, a vibrant and bustling place with an extensive menu and lots of local ales,

The town is also home to some very decent chain stores that haven’t made it over here (yet), including J Crew and Banana Republic and the beauty chain, Sephora.

Between Newport and the Connecticut state line to the west lie a string of gorgeous beaches with poetic names like Narragansett and Misquamicut. We visited the latter, staying at the fantastic Hotel Maria (much to the delight of my daughter Maria). Here you’ll find a beachy, contemporary vibe, with an Italian-inspired menu and wonderful staff. Our ocean-front room was just stunning, with ice-cream coloured furnishings, a handy microwave and even an Etch-a-Sketch for our young’uns.

If seafood is your thing, a visit to Matunuck Oyster Bar in nearby South Kingstown, is a must. The oysters are grown in a pond right off the resturant’s waterfront patio and many of its herbs and vegetrables are grwon in its own vegetable farm. When we visited the place was thronged with diners - no wonder, as the food is superlative.

Rhode Island is home to the wealthy Watch Hill resort,Taylor Swift has a home here, and previous residents included Clarke Gable and Henry Ford.

Perched high on the bluffs is Ocean House, an iconic luxury hotel, where, sadly, we didn’t stay, but did enjoy a memorable Easter afternnon tea. On a tour of the suites, jaws dropped in unison at the ultra-luxe modern amenities - private terraces, fully-equipped kitchens, palatial bathrooms, and on, and on.

Should we ever return to this part of the Ocean State - I’d like to ‘summer’ there.

*Next week Helen McGurk continues her Rhode Island trip with a visit to the capital city, Providence.

Factfile:

Norwegian fly a nonstop service between Dublin and Providence Airport, Boston. 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