A nonstop, two-hour flight delivers opulent mansions and vibrant arts and dining scenes
One-Flight Wonder: Providence & Newport, Rhode Island
An invigorating wind is gliding in from the ocean and right up to Prospect Terrace Park, a sliver of green space with huge views overlooking the seaport city of Providence, Rhode Island. Photographer Peter Frank Edwards and I have been walking since we arrived this morning on a two-hour, nonstop flight on Breeze Airways. After a short Uber ride, we dropped our bags at the Renaissance Providence Downtown Hotel, across the street from the gleaming white marble dome and hilltop grounds of the state capitol. From there, we began exploring nearby blocks, eventually arriving at the overlook park, where a towering monument to Rhode Island’s 1636 colonial beginnings is the centerpiece.
At this elevated perch in the College Hill neighborhood, Providence’s academia and creativity are palpable. Most of the park’s benches are full, and there’s almost a library-style hush to the crowd—I imagine many are students or professors. College Hill is home to the stately brick and classical architecture of Brown University, and many buildings and residences date to the 1700s. Also within these historic blocks are classrooms and studios of the Rhode Island School of Design, making the area an inspiration and launching point for artists and designers, too.
Meanwhile, even though it’s midsummer, gushes of cool air keep sweeping into town like a sea breeze pipeline from the Atlantic.
SEAFOOD SHACKS TO ELEGANT ITALIAN
Between the wind and the collegiate energy, we’re excited to explore, and before long we’re ready for a New England must-do, lunch at a seafood shack. Even in the urban downtown, we find one not far from the waterfront along the Providence River that flows toward the Atlantic. Dune Brothers Seafood is a red-painted, fresh take on an old-school takeout, with menu boards showcasing its focus on traceable local seafood—and what’s available each day, including pollock salad, clam chowder, and fried fish sandwiches. Seating is outdoors at picnic tables arranged on grass or crushed seashells.
We choose a plate of fried butterfish, a small silvery fish abundant further north, and fries seasoned with Old Bay. There’s enough of the thin, pan-sized fish for both of us to share one order at Dune Brothers. Otherwise we’d get a lobster roll, too—especially after noticing one of the staff portioning out a beautiful mound of fresh-cooked lobster for the day’s orders. But we have the sea-salty crunch of battered fried fish and a tall can of Del’s Narragansett Shandy, the famed blend of two favorite local beverages, Narragansett Beer and Del’s Lemonade.
Restaurants shine in Providence, which many say is a credit to having a continual flow of grads from Johnson & Wales University, originally founded as a business school here in 1914 by Gertrude I. Johnson and Mary T. Wales. (Longtimers in Charleston may remember the JWU branch campus (1984-2006) in the old Cigar Factory, bringing countless students of food service, hospitality, and travel/tourism to the Lowcountry.)
White hydrangeas lean out from garden gates along Benefit Street as we walk through the city blocks that afternoon. (If you travel here, bring good shoes for the hills and historic brick streets.) A pedestrian bridge in the path of what used to be I-195 highway is now a peaceful, car-free passage across the Providence River. And on the water, people paddle past in kayaks or kick back while riding on Venetian gondolas.
That night, we find more Italian flavor in Providence, this time on the plate, and we get a taste of New England lobster, too. Bellini, an elegant Italian restaurant and bar in The Beatrice hotel downtown, sets the mood immediately with 1970s music and fluted flower vases, cream-colored upholstery, and oversized, vintage black-and-white photos—a glimpse of Frank Sinatra in one. At a curved banquette table, I slide onto the soft cushions and order, of course, a Bellini cocktail. (The restaurant’s owners are descendants of Giuseppe Cipriani, who created the famous concoction of puréed peaches and prosecco as founder of Harry’s Bar in Venice, Italy.)
Next, we try a chilled lobster salad and a couple of the handmade pasta dishes—pappardelle noodles with Pomodoro sauce and splash of cream and bucatini cacio e pepe—both delicious with a glass of nebbiolo. The hostess and server mention that the house-made pistachio ice cream is truly special, and it is—a beautifully round scoop in a stemmed dish, sprinkled with roasted pistachios sourced from Sicily.
The next morning, we board a Seastreak passenger boat downtown, which travels the Providence River for 75 minutes to the colonial-era town of Newport, home to sailboat racing and regattas, tennis, polo, and other pastimes of the monied set. The boat is full of festivalgoers to the annual Newport Jazz Festival—many wearing backpacks and sun hats. Everyone’s talking about music, and the young woman next to me recounts how a few years ago, a group of her friends had spent the day at the festival when they met a guy—they were all college-aged—who said they could crash at his house. “Everyone was expecting to spend the night on the floor, but his house ended up being one of the mansions—enough bedrooms for everyone, each with its own bathroom!”
I don’t know if this is a myth or exaggeration, but it seems like a fitting introduction. I’ve been reading journalist Anderson Cooper’s book Vanderbilt: The Rise and Fall of an American Dynasty (Harper, 2021), which opens at one of the Newport mansions built by the Vanderbilt family in the opulent Gilded Age of American history, from the 1870s to 1890s. (Cooper’s interest is personal, as his mother was fashion icon and socialite Gloria Vanderbilt.)
We spend the day exploring some of the town’s historic wharves and neighborhoods—known to have more colonial homes than any other US locale, along with the church where Jacqueline Lee Bouvier and John F. Kennedy were married in 1953. Then we catch one of the free Bellevue trolley buses that follows a there-and-back route to the massive houses that are open for touring.
At Marble House, a 50-room summer “cottage” (as they’re known in Newport), we see marble in every direction—including a rose-colored variety from Algeria on the walls of the dining room, where the chairs are made of gold-coated bronze. The spectacular house was built between 1888 and 1892 as a 39th birthday present for Alva Vanderbilt. I heard more than one tour-goer say that its basement kitchen and scullery reminded them of Downton Abbey.
The next home on tour is just a little farther south on the coast. Rough Point is another Vanderbilt family mansion built about the same time frame as Marble House, and was sold to the Duke family of North Carolina (yes, the tobacco, Duke University Dukes) and by the 1950s, heiress and philanthropist Doris Duke resided there seasonally. The rooms are still decorated as she left them at her death in 1993, so it’s a fascinating look at the art and collections—from shoes to swimsuits to closets full of couture. Large portrait paintings line the walls of a grand staircase, and on the grounds are arbors of ‘American Pillar’ roses originally planted by Duke and flower gardens protected from sea breezes by tall privet hedges.
It’s amusing to imagine life here, and the guides relay a story of Doris Duke being a strong believer in sea baths, walking down the steps at Rough Point to swim in the salt water. I’m happy to have this humanizing detail amid all of this extravagance. Most everyone can relate to the simple joy of an ocean swim.
MORE SEAPORT CITY FLAVOR
The views of sailboats and lighthouses continue as we ferry back to Providence that evening and on to another special dinner. Our destination is in the Fox Point neighborhood on the eastern side of the city, which is still home to descendants of Portuguese immigrants who arrived here in the 19th and 20th centuries. Set back from Governor Street, we find the marigold-hued Aguardente, which opened in 2021 and focuses on recipes and ingredients from Portugal, Guatemala, and the Azores. The menu of about three dozen items represents the food and flavors of the three owners’ cultures, starting with pitchers of passion fruit sangria.
We’re seated on the intimate patio, and the shareable food arrives on traditional clay plates—it’s a festive scene. Soon we’re digging into littleneck clams soaked in a Portuguese-style broth of white wine, garlic, olive oil, and cilantro. We also try the herb-marinated lamb chops and an avocado, arugula, and chorizo dish sprinkled with Oaxaca cheese that’s a terrific combination of cool, heat, and flavor. Dessert is pastel de nata, a custard in a crispy pastry that co-owner Victor Pereira says is made in Portugal, baked here, and best enjoyed with sips of Aguardente (an aged Iberian brandy). Yes, please.
The following day we’ll be flying home, but this has been an intriguing, sometimes larger-than-life dip into Rhode Island, the smallest state in the US (by land area). Both Providence and Newport have history and flavor that’s bigger than I’d imagined—not to mention that wonderful sea breeze.
Flight: From Charleston International Airport (CHS), Breeze Airways offers six nonstop flights per week to and from Providence (PVD); flybreeze.com.
Local Transport: It’s easy to navigate Providence without a car; downtown is walkable (note: often hilly!) and ride-shares are readily available. The Seastreak ferry offers seasonal rides to Newport, about an hour and 15 minutes each way; seastreak.com.
(Left to right) Nightfall at the Renaissance Providence Downtown Hotel and (right) Bellini restaurant on Westminster Street; Marble House, in Newport; A recent mural by Charleston-born street artist and RISD grad Shepard Fairey.
Renaissance Providence Downtown Hotel: A renovated 1920s Masonic hall overlooking the Rhode Island State House; 5 Avenue of the Arts, Providence; marriott.com
The Beatrice: The 47-room boutique hotel opened in 2021 in the brick, circa-1887 Exchange Building. 90 Westminster St., Providence; thebeatrice.com
Aguardente: Mixing art and unique flavors, this restaurant opened in 2021 and serves cool cocktails and dishes from Portugal, Guatemala, and the Azores. 12 Governor St., Providence; aguardente.com
Bellini: One of three US restaurants by fourth-generation Cipriani restaurateurs, it has an elegant bar and dining rooms in The Beatrice hotel. 50 Westminster St., Providence; bellinirestaurant.com
Clarke Cooke House: Lobster salad, oysters, and cocktails in The Bistro, surrounded by sailing memorabilia and America’s Cup prints; 24 Bannister’s Wharf, Newport; clarkecooke.com
Dune Brothers Seafood: Walk-up order window for lobster rolls, fried fish, fries, and salads to enjoy in the grassy picnic yard; 239 Dyer St., Providence, dunebrothers.com
Plant City: In this plant-based food hall by New England chef Matthew Kenney, menu items include bistro burgers, wood-fired pizza, and tacos, as well as a gourmet market, coffee shop, and cocktails. 334 S. Water St., Providence; plantcitypvd.com
Cottage & Garden: Wicker chairs, cafe tables, statuary, and gifts in a charming antiques and garden store established in 1999; 9 Bridge St., Newport; cottageandgardennewport.com
Modern Love & Queen of Hearts: Find everything from dresses to lipsticks at side-by-side sister shops for fashion, jewelry, beauty, and home goods. 220 & 222 Westminster St., Providence; shopqueenofhearts.com
RISD Store: Art supplies and art/objects designed by students and graduates of Rhode Island School of Design; 30 N. Main St. (across from RISD Museum, risdmuseum.org), Providence; risdstore.com
Royal Male: Natty blazers, striped boatneck shirts, other classic, fine European clothing for men and women since 1983; 18 Bannister’s Wharf, Newport, royalmale.com
The Avenue Concept: Take self-guided tours of murals, sculptures, and other public art in downtown Providence. Download the free app at theavenueconcept.org/programs/wayfinding/
Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology: Free admission to exhibits in the circa-1834 Manning Hall gallery on the Brown University campus; 21 Prospect St., Providence; ham.brown.edu
La Gondola: Rides in authentic Venetian gondolas through downtown on the Providence and Woonasquatucket rivers; 1 Citizens Plaza, Providence; gondolari.com
Marble House: A Vanderbilt family mansion comprised of more than 500,000 cubic feet of marble, one of several mansions of the Gilded Age open for self-touring; 596 Bellevue Ave., Newport; newportmansions.org
Prospect Terrace Park: An urban green space in College Hill (home to RISD and Brown University) with panoramic views of the city; 60 Congdon St., Providence. Learn more about parks, walking tours, boat tours, and cultural arts festivals at goprovidence.com
Rough Point Museum: An oceanfront mansion still decorated with the art and collectibles of tobacco heiress and philanthropist Doris Duke (1912-1993); 680 Bellevue Ave., Newport; newportrestoration.org/roughpoint
Also in Newport: Cliff Walk, the new Sailing Museum, polo matches, and music festivals (Newport Jazz Fest, Newport Folk Fest); discovernewport.org