TRAVEL: Rhode Island — America’s Jolly Old Seaside

We had now visited the brain of the United States (AKA Washington DC), but we wanted to go back further in history. Who were Americans before they were American, and what were these pre-Americans like?

I wanted to trace their history, and instead of finding clues in ancient cave paintings, I found my answer in a travel guide. Next, we packed up the car for a weekend trip, and printed out directions to the quaint little state of Rhode Island.

 

One time, I actually heard a teenage American girl ask why British people had chosen their official language as English, just like Americans. Next, her friend (rolling her eyes in cool disbelief) explained how Americans were once Englishmen that moved away looking for new lands and opportunities, when they came across America. After a war known as the American Revolution, the people of the American colonies won their independence from England, making all those English colonial people the first Americans (if you don’t count the natives, but that’s another story). Anyway, the last colony to sign into the United States (there were 13 of them at first) was that of Rhode Island, and so the trail of the first Americans brought us here, our first trip into the New England region of America, where the English tea and jam scones were still fresh… almost.

You are now entering Rhode Island.

As we drove along into New England, the scenery got greener and the hills got hillier, and soon enough we had crossed the border into Rhode Island – which isn’t an island, but does contain a couple of large populated islands. We were bypassing the capital city of Providence (home of the prestigious Brown University) for the old seaside ports and mansions on the southern coast so we kept heading east until we went over a huge suspension bridge and came across a sign that welcomed us to Newport – our home for the weekend.

The main drag along the Newport harbour.

As soon as we had crossed into Newport things began to look colonial and British. The streets were old, bendy and narrow, and there were plaques outside buildings that told you they were built in the 1700s – with some of them being the homes of old British naval commanders. Everything seemed historic, from the pubs and taverns (the local White Horse Tavern being the first tavern built in the Americas) to our accommodation for the weekend – the Clarkeston Inn, built circa 1705. That’s older than colonised New Zealand.

Inside the historical Clarkeston Inn, built circa 1705…

When we entered the Clarkeston Inn, inside it looked like a very large and very old house, where the ancient wooden floors creaked and slumped as you walked. Instead of having numbers on the doors to each room, they had gold plaques with the name of the original person to live there. We stayed in a room that once belonged to a Joseph Burrill, who was obviously very well dead by now, and this all added to the historic ghostly feel of the house. I thought this place must be haunted by quite a lot of old spooky tales, and when I looked out the window to the street one night I saw a walking ghost tour standing outside, with a man in an old suit and top hat pointing up towards me. There was a flash of lights as the tourists’ cameras took their shots, and I suddenly disappeared from the window.

We weren’t there to stay locked up in a haunted house, though, and it was time to get out and see the sights. We left the building and began walking towards the ports and this is when I began to realise that the locals were different to other Americans I’d encountered before. From the first person I spoke to, this being the lady at the reception desk at the inn (I want to call her the innkeeper) I noticed she had a friendly, cheerful charm about her, yet it wasn’t the same sort of charm as an American from the Midwest or the South. It seemed polite, and dare I say it, quite British. As we wandered about, this type of positive demeanour seemed common, and it appeared that all Newport inhabitants were like this. We even passed an old tavern where a group of scruffy happy homeless guys were holding up shot glasses of some cheap foul liquor they had acquired and shouting ‘cheers!’ before clinking them together and downing their drinks. Everyone in this town just seemed jolly.

Sunset over Newport Harbour.

We reached the harbour and found much of the same. There were more old pubs, sweet stores and alehouses. I half expected to see ‘Ye Olde’ before all the shops’ names as there was definitely a British theme overpowering any Americana here. There were all sorts of sailboats moored up, and a large lobster market at the end of the pier, with lobster being the popular pick of any seaside town. We also noted a big local fanbase for the American Cup yacht races, as Newport has hosted the competition many times and has a decent coast to practice along. After wandering around exploring the area while the sun set on the horizon, we had a pub dinner and headed back to our inn to rest for the next day’s adventures.

On Saturday, we got up bright and early and drove over to the other side of Newport. Here, you not only find the ports replaced by seaside cliffs, but the famous historic Rhode Island mansions. Wandering around this area, you’ll find that most of the houses are huge and set behind big iron gates, but some of the more historic ones offer audioguide tours. Taking our budget into account, we decided on two of the most famous mansions, both owned by the Vanderbilt family, who just so happened to be the richest family of their time.

The Breakers mansion, as seen from its giant stadium-sized backyard.

We started with the Breakers mansion – a huge old building on a giant section of land against the rough sea wall. This place is more of a palace than a mansion, with its huge lawn out back, big enough to be a decent public park, and its perfectly manicured walking gardens to the side. Inside, you find a huge grand hall with sculptures, chandeliers and large showy oil paintings, and rooms for every occasion, such as a morning room for reading the newspaper, a music room, and a room of strange items collected from around the globe. The mansion is also filled with secret doors and passageways so that the servants could move around without being seen. Unfortunately, they didn’t allow photography inside the house so you’ll have to use your imagination… or you could visit, which I highly recommend if you find yourself in Newport. The audioguide took us all through the house, explaining the purpose of each room, with extra tales and titbits of information about the occupants, too.

Newport Cliffwalk – tourists get their sea views while peeking in at private mansions.

After we’d finished exploring The Breakers, we walked along the famous cliffwalk (the coastal footpath along the seawall) to take in the views on the way to our next mansion. Here, you’ll find locals and tourists alike, walking their dogs or taking pictures, while the waves smash violently against the rocks a couple of metres below. The cliffwalk is actually really long, covering a large portion of the coast, but we only did a small section of it between the two mansions, and parts of it had us clambering over rocks to get by. I would suggest suitable footwear.

The perfectly symmetrical Marble House.

Next, we arrived at Marble House – a grand marble mansion built with symmetry in mind. In fact, our audioguide taught us that its dimensions actually make a perfect cube, and this is reflected inside, too, with matching left and right wings of the house. While Marble House seems quite a bit less extravagant than The Breakers (at least by size), the whole house is basically built not only with marble, but one of the most expensive marbles of its time. The marble was brought over by ships from some fancy corner of the world. There’s even a Chinese style tea house in the back lawn that now works as a little café for tourists. It seemed that the Vanderbilt family wanted people to know of their wealth and social standing by building these extraordinarily stunning mansions, and the most bizarre thing was that these mansions weren’t even occupied all year round – they were summer ‘cottages’. During summer, Newport was the place to be if you were a real somebody, and if you were a real somebody, you’d make sure everybody knew it.

Our bootlegging harbour tour vessel, Rum Runner II.

The coastal views of the sea had teased us, so we headed back to the ports and quickly found ourselves a harbour tour. Soon after our strange looking motorboat headed out, we were informed that it was actually a historic boat that was used to smuggle rum during the prohibition years. It was called Rumrunner II, and back when alcohol was outlawed, it would venture out into the night, out of the harbour and into the open seas to meet up with the bigger vessels bringing in the goods. It would then bring back its precious cargo to sell off to a selection of underground dealers. Our guides pointed out the Coastguard headquarters located in a small inlet and told us that it used to be known as Smuggler’s Cove, and that’s where the bootlegger boats would hide from the authorities, and our boat would have pulled into the dark sanctuary of Smuggler’s Cove on a few occasions. Of course, it would have been painted plain black back then to blend in with the darkness, but now it was white and brown, and used for taking tourists like ourselves around to learn about Newport’s harbour.

Old lighthouse next to Newport Bridge.

The harbour tour was great, obviously informing us about Newport’s history within the prohibition years, and also about its fishing fleets and its America’s Cup history. We even passed Fort Adams – home of the Newport Folk Festival, and the place where Bob Dylan caused a scene when he began to play an electric guitar to much of his folk-fans’ disgust. While drifting along past yet more giant seaside mansions, we also saw lighthouses of all shapes and sizes – some of the very first built in America. We took note that Rhode Island definitely has a soft spot for lighthouses.

A night at the drive-in.

After dinner that night, we decided we would drive up state a little bit for a movie, but not just any movie – we’d be having our first experience of a Drive-In. After driving north for around 40 minutes as the sun set, our surroundings got leafier and we finally arrived in North Smithfield and found the Rustic Tri-View Drive-In, with its three large outdoor screens. We pulled up in our car, set our radio to pick up the audio, and with our hot popcorn and icecream from the drive-in shop, we settled in to watch Rango. In less than two hours, I was in love with the drive-in experience and knew that it would be a part of my life from that moment on. And it didn’t hurt that I really liked the movie, too.

A Jamestown mansion..?

 

 

The next morning we checked out of our colonial inn and hit the road once more, headed back home to New York City but with a scheduled stop in Jamestown, Rhode Island – Jamestown being an island just over the bridge from Newport.`Jamestown didn’t offer us much, apart from a few stores and a cool blues bar where we had lunch, and we followed the central road down through the island passing old farm shacks instead of mansions. There were definitely more signs of the simple life here.

Beavertail Lighthouse at the bottom tip of Jamestown.

After a while we came to the bottom of the island and entered Beavertail National Park, home of some nice sea views, some cliffs, and one of America’s oldest lighthouses (although it has been destroyed and rebuilt a few times). There’s even a lighthouse museum here, but it was closed during our visit. To be honest, I didn’t find this historic lighthouse all that pleasing to the eye, with its stone block tower and lack of colour. After a few photos of the rough sea views, it was time to continue on our journey home.

On the way back, I began to think about what we had experienced in the jolly old state of Rhode Island. Had we witnessed characteristics of the pre-American people, AKA the English colonists? Were they so jolly, friendly and cheerful because of their English heritage, or was it something else? Unfortunately, it seemed that after our visit, I had seen the traces of prehistoric Americans but still didn’t have the answers. My findings were inconclusive, but I came up with one other possibility: it might just be a Rhode Island thing.

Looking out towards Newport Bridge.


Background:

Jessie and I stayed at the historic Clarkesdale Inn from Friday, May 13, 2011 until Sunday, May 15, 2011. Here, we had an old historic room, and were treated by a delicious breakfast of blueberry pancakes or French toast each morning by the extra friendly staff.

For tours, we visited The Breakers and Marble House mansions, and also took a great, informative harbour boat tour on the historic Rumrunner II


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