It takes only about an hour to drive across Rhode Island, which is wedged between Massachusetts and Connecticut and straddles picturesque Narragansett Bay, but its pleasures are many. It boasts stunning wide, sandy beaches and architecture that goes back to Colonial times. Newport and other communities became a summer playground for the rich during the Gilded Age, but you don’t have be a Vanderbilt to enjoy the Ocean State. Many of its most interesting spots don’t cost a thing.
A walking trail that dates back centuries is one of Rhode Island’s most impressive attractions. It runs alongside the Atlantic Ocean and some of Newport’s most beautiful mansions, known as “summer cottages” to the families that built them in the 1800s. Part of the 3.5-mile trail is closed because of damage from Superstorm Sandy, but the most heavily traveled parts are still open. There is a seating area along the trail outside The Breakers mansion, built for the Vanderbilts, and it’s the perfect spot to eat a picnic lunch. Information:
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• Waterfire: This simple concept, lighting bonfires in the rivers of downtown Providence, has become a wildly successful public art project, drawing tens of thousands of people to each lighting since it began 20 years ago. It runs more than a dozen nights a year, and on some nights stages are set up that feature free live music or dancing. Information:http://waterfire.org
•The Providence Athenaeum:
With roots dating back to 1753, this private library is one of the oldest in the country. It is housed in a Greek Revival-style granite building that neighbors Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design. Edgar Allan Poe courted poet Sarah Helen Whitman here, and legend has it she called off their wedding within the Athenaeum’s walls. You don’t need a membership to browse, and just as interesting as the books are the surroundings, which include a skylit central room surrounded by stacks.www.providenceathenaeum.org
On the doorstep of the Athenaeum is historic Benefit Street, a mile-long stretch of notable buildings. The brick sidewalk will take you past Colonial, Federal and Greek Revival-style homes, Rhode Island’s Old Statehouse and the white stone First Unitarian Church, built in 1815. You’ll also pass alongside the First Baptist Church in America, a congregation founded by colonist Roger Williams, champion of the separation of church and state, an idea later enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.
A seaside village in Westerly on the Connecticut border, Watch Hill has become known as the summer home of pop star Taylor Swift, after she bought a house here a year ago. Watch Hill has recovered from damage inflicted by Superstorm Sandy, and its sandy beaches on Block Island Sound are, as usual, the best reason to visit.