A native’s guide
Our intrepid reporter offers an overview of some of her favorite things about the Ocean State
BY RACHAEL SCARBOROUGH KING
Native Rhode Islanders tend to fall into two categories: those who never want to leave the state, and those who can’t wait to get out. My own history would seem to place me in the second category, since I graduated from high school and promptly moved to New York for college. Every summer, though, I end up back home in Providence, fulfilling my three-month-long fix for all things Rhode Island.
Although I have a fierce devotion to Little Rhody, I am not a true native, having been born in Chicago, not Women & Infants Hospital. A mere five years old when my family moved here, I initially resisted, reasoning that a state wasn’t my home unless I’d been there for half my life. Along the way, however, Rhode Island — with all of its idiosyncrasy, natural beauty, and nutty residents — began to grow on me. And just like any newcomer, I had the opportunity to experience many of the state’s unique cultural, culinary, and ecological offerings with an outsider’s perspective.
Many people from outside of New England either confuse Rhode Island with Long Island, or think of it as a miniature Boston. Despite the strong regional identity with the Red Sox, most natives would consider Boston a nice place to visit — if it weren’t so darn far away. In a state where you can drive anywhere in less than an hour, 50 miles on the highway is an epic journey. But Rhody’s tiny confines pack a lot of punch, so here’s my informal guide to some useful stuff.
Because the state is so small, college students can usually get by without a car. Walking, biking, or taking the RIPTA bus in Providence is a more environmentally friendly, convenient and affordable alternative. If you do bring a car with you, don’t get caught unaware by the capital city’s bizarre overnight parking ban, which can cost $15 per ticket.
A great place to pick up a bicycle is Recycle-A-Bike, located in the Steel Yard at 27 Sims Avenue, Providence. By volunteering for four hours, participants can earn a free bike that they assemble themselves. For more selection and less manual labor, check out East Providence Cycle at 414 Warren Avenue, right off I-195 in East Providence. Rhode Island’s mecca for bicyclists is Block Island, the lesser-known counterpart to Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. On summer days, there is usually a crush of day-trippers unloading from the ferry in Old Harbor, but bikers can quickly leave the crowds behind to explore the island’s relatively undeveloped dunes, beaches, and bluffs. Multiple ferries leave daily from Galilee and Newport until mid-October.
There are many other options on the mainland for those inclined to spend their time outdoors. Rhode Island is the Ocean State, after all, and the beach is foremost in any Rhode Islanders’ mind on a sunny, warm weekend day. Some of the most popular and least expensive beaches are Scarborough State Beach and Narragansett Town Beach in Narragansett, and Easton’s Beach in Newport.
Roger Williams Park, straddling the border of Providence and Cranston, near Broad Street and Elmwood Avenue, is another pleasant spot for a lazy day outside. The park was designed by Horace Cleveland, one of the architects of New York’s Central Park, and features children’s attractions like a carousel, large playground, and, of course, the well-known zoo. The park is also large enough to offer more quiet, secluded spots for visitors to sunbathe, play Frisbee, or read in the shade.
For a real dose of Rhode Island culture, go to a Pawtucket Red Sox game at McCoy Stadium in Pawtucket. The PawSox (www.pawsox.com) are the Red Sox’ Triple-A affiliate, the top minor league club, and a number of Boston players, including Mo Vaughn, Wade Boggs, and Trot Nixon, got their start in Pawtucket. Unlike Fenway Park, Paw Sox tickets are usually readily available on game days, and general admission is just $6.
Rhode Island also has its share of indoor activities. Despite its role as the site of dozens of my grade-school field trips, the RISD Museum on Benefit Street in Providence still enthralls me. For a small museum it has a fairly extensive collection, and the varied special exhibitions are a good partner to old favorites, like the giant wooden statue of the Buddha in its own room on the second floor. The museum is free on Sunday from 10 am to 1 pm; on Friday from 12 to 1:30 pm; from 5 to 9 pm on the third Thursday of the month; and on the last Saturday of the month.
For a fuller taste of Providence’s art scene, Gallery Night, on the third Thursday of every month, offers a good opportunity to visit some of the city’s many studios, galleries, and museums, possibly while enjoying some free appetizers and drinks. Another major fixture is AS220 on Empire Street (www.as220.org), which features a wide variety of performances, workshops, exhibitions of local artists, and chances to showcase your own music or artwork. The main building recently underwent an extensive renovation that increased the available performance and café space.
In Providence, three independent movie theaters are a big draw for students: the Avon Cinema (260 Thayer Street, 401.751.7446, www.avoncinema.com), the Cable Car Cinema (204 South Main Street, 401.272.3970, www.cablecarcinema.com), and the Columbus Theatre (270 Broadway, 401.621.9660). The Columbus has a particular hipster-ironic cachet because it used to exclusively show adult movies. The Cable Car includes a café outside the screening room and loveseats or couches inside, instead of the usual movie theatre chairs.
One of my favorite places to see a movie, whether with a date or a group of friends, is the Rustic Drive-in (Route 146, North Smithfield, 401.769.7601). The drive-in opened in 1951 and is one of the few of its kind left, with six movies a night on three huge screens. An extra bonus is the $17 per carload price, which means that even with just two people it’s cheaper than the first-run theater, and you can stay for a double-bill. But since the projection quality is somewhat fuzzy and the audio comes through your own car’s radio, this may not be the best place to see a movie with a lot of special effects.
For nightlife, Providence has plenty of offerings in terms of booty-shaking clubs playing the latest in hip-hop. For a more relaxed atmosphere, try the Hot Club (575 South Water Street, Providence, 401.861.9007). It’s a great place to grab a drink and relax on the riverside deck. If you’re interested in a more college-aged crowd, Captain Seaweed’s (also known as the Family Pub) on Ives Street in Fox Point offers pool tables and relatively cheap bears, and it’s only a short walk from Brown’s main campus.
Another challenge for newly arrived students can be finding affordable food. Supermarkets like Whole Foods and Eastside Marketplace have wide selections of organic food and precooked meals, but they can be somewhat pricey. Various farmers’ markets throughout the city, offer local fruits and vegetables at prices that are often cheaper than the supermarkets through October, plus they’re a great way to support small businesses. On Saturdays, there are markets at Hope High School and 807 Broad Street, and on Mondays there is one in the Fleet Skating Center in Kennedy Plaza.
Rhode Island is also well known for its excellent restaurants. Although much of the strange culinary lexicon is no longer in use — few menus still refer to a milkshake as a cabinet — there are many favorites around the state for winning seafood, Italian cuisine, and other treats. For a traditional meal of fried clams and French fries, my first choice is Champlin’s Seafood (256 Great Island Road, Galilee, 401.783.3152). Although getting there is a trek, it’s worth it for the fresh and inexpensive clams, fish, and lobster. The deck, located on the harbor and next to the dock for the Block Island Ferry, offers some wonderful Rhode Island scenery.
Providence’s Federal Hill, the city’s own Little Italy, has been immortalized in movies and on The Sopranos, and it lives up to its reputation as one of the best places to eat in the city. Former mayor Vincent A. “Buddy” Cianci Jr., now serving a term in federal prison in New Jersey, used to be a nightly fixture at Mediterraneo (134 Atwells Avenue, 401.331.7760), and it’s definitely a place to take Mom and Dad when they visit. For cheaper alternatives, Sicilia’s Pizzeria (181 Atwells Avenue, 401.273.9222) is famous for its stuffed pizza and calzones, and Bob & Timmy’s Grilled Pizza (57 DePasquale Avenue, 401.453.2221) is the place, as the name implies, to go for wood-grilled pizza. And then, of course, there’s dessert. If you’re on Federal Hill, or anywhere else, head over to Pastiche Fine Desserts & Café (92 Spruce Street, 401.861.5190) near DePasquale Square, which is so good it draws diners from afar with its famous cakes and tarts.
All in all, the many attractions in the Ocean State just go to prove the cliché, “Size doesn’t matter.” Justly proud of the state’s small dimensions and all that it offers, we welcome fresh converts to our way of life.