Earlier this spring, a Clay County couple celebrating their 70th wedding anniversary reported they’d visited every U.S. state but Rhode Island.
“We didn’t see any reason to go there,” she was quoted as saying.
I was shocked.
Who could not find a reason to explore a pocket-size state about twice the size of Kanawha County with nearly endless beaches, great food and historic mansions?
Let’s start with the beaches. West Virginians love the beach. It must be compensation for having no coastline and only one teeny natural lake. We’ll drive hours to feel the sand between our toes on Virginia Beach or Myrtle Beach. Land at Greene Airport in central Rhode Island and before you can use up that first tank of gas in your rental car, you can sample at least a dozen.
The beach buffet in Rhode Island includes more than 50 saltwater locations decorating more than 500 miles of coastline — plus a couple dozen freshwater beaches thrown in for those who don’t use salt.
Every town has a beach, and the state fills in any blanks that remain. Like any good buffet, each beach has its own distinctive flavor. Tiny Narragansett has four, starting with Town Beach, popular with surfers, and continuing south through Scarborough, the largest and busiest state beach, with a stone pavilion, fine sand and good surf.
Farther down the road is another pair of South County’s 20 beaches — East Matunuk with strong surf and South Kingstown with a boardwalk.
Easton’s Beach, called First Beach by those in the know, is on one end of the famous Cliff Walk in Newport, introduced by gigantic stones leading to a stretch of sand beach with a long, public beach house.
A little farther into the next town is Sachuest Town Beach, or Second Beach, a nature beach complete with sand dunes.
Adjacent to Second Beach is Purgatory Chasm, a plunging gorge of a type that could easily be found in West Virginia. Rhode Island is filled with geography anomalous for a beach state barely above sea level, including abundant cliffs, rises and an incredible array of rocks. Rhode Islanders treat their beaches the way West Virginians treat their mountains: as homeplace, workplace and backyard playground.
No self-respecting Mountaineer is without a favorite hunting spot. In Rhode Island, it’s fishing.
Any local car trunk or pickup bed has fishing gear ready to haul out in case the blues are running as the driver heads down some beach road or another on the way home.
All this fishing, both commercial and personal, makes for fine eating. Rhode Island scores No. 1 nationally in the local food movement, in great part because every morning lobster and fishing boats leave hundreds of docks and their catch is on countless restaurant tables by dinner.
One of the biggest sea crops in state waters is lobster. In a week, I ate lobster in forms I never imagined, including fritters and sliders, rolls and salads, croissants and traditional lobster tail with melted butter. There were claws and bisque, stuffed and pies, nachos, quesadillas, ravioli and mac and cheese.
Counting leftovers, I ate lobster for breakfast, lunch and dinner almost daily. One of the best sources was the Red Parrot, in Newport, where at least half the odd lobster dishes could be found on the menu, including their specialty — Monsta Lobster BLT.
Like West Virginia’s pepperoni rolls and hot dogs, Rhode Island has iconic foods available at bargain prices literally everywhere, but especially the three D’s:
n D’Angelo’s sandwich shop, a local chain, has a legendary steak sub that takes a back seat only to its lobster rolls in season.
n Dunkin’ Donuts is a familiar national brand, but Rhode Island elevates it to an obsession with more stores per square mile than anywhere in the U.S. “Doughnuts are our state flour,” quipped one witty native.
n Del’s Lemonade rounds out the trio. The branded brown trucks are summer accessories parked against marvelous beach backdrops and making for quick breaks on beach-traffic-filled highways.
A family business started in 1948 with mid-19th-century roots, the lemony slush is now a cultural icon that just paired with local Narragansett Beer on Del’s Shandy, a hard lemonade.
Released on a mid-May weekend, the initial run sold out immediately. Fortunately, more is in the tanks.
The state’s culinary landscape is more than snack foods and drink. Clam shacks are so plentiful, they rate their own category in every dining list.
Calamari is a prolific appetizer, and it comes from just down the coast. Giant clam cakes are what every Southerner recognizes as hush puppies, and South County has its own style of clear chowder.
At places like Matunuck Oyster Bar, shucking goes on hour after hour, and the haul of bivalves comes from out the back door.
Italian food is the major tribute to the state’s dominant ethnic group, and that does not mean pizza. Almost every town has several options from gourmet to carryout, virtually all family-owned and -operated.
The culture, food and price cannot be beat at the legendary Twin Oaks, in Cranston, with lakeside view, unsmiling male waiters and a suspiciously “Sopranos”-like clientele. The two specialties are Rhode Island favorites: veal Parmesan with a choice of side pasta that includes homemade ravioli and baked stuffed shrimp — local catch, of course.
Portion size goes far to justify the bulk of the clientele.
Rhode Island’s history is among the longest in the U.S., settled in the mid-17th century by Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson in the name of religious freedom while West Virginia was still unknown territory over unexplored mountains.
It’s always been a bit odd, the ethnic and freethinking outlier in rigid and colder New England. Quirks continue to dominate, and the noticeable lack of national-chain shopping is one indicator.
Coming home with Rhode Island art is easy with art fairs, shops and galleries in every town, plus the enlightened attitude that proclaims it “state of the arts” with no sales tax on original and limited-edition works of art. (Hear that West Virginia?)
The ultimate shopping score is Alix and Ani, a multimillion-dollar local brand that markets causes along with their wildly popular bracelets, necklaces and earrings.
The most famous artist in the state is Gilbert Stuart, who painted the George Washington portrait on the $1 bill — unless you count “Family Guy” creator Seth MacFarlane, who set his Emmy Award-winning animated television series in Rhode Island and populated it with local characters including recurring cameos by actor James Woods.
A tale of three hotels
The Atlantic House, in charming Narragansett, is a beach lover’s dream. Modestly priced with balconies overlooking Narragansett Bay and its beaches just footsteps across the front lawn and sea walk, each room has a small sitting area attached.
The balcony view also includes Narragansett Towers, a stone structure arching over the beach road, remnant of an early-20th-century casino destroyed by fire.
Today, the Towers’ upstairs hall is a favorite of brides and elegant events.
Just up the main drag — in Rhode Island, that’s the combo of U.S. 1 and Interstate 95 — is a piece of industrial heyday transformed into a minimalist trendy and hip hotel.
NYLO is built on the site of the former Fruit of the Loom factory. Next door still stand decaying buildings and a river perfect for mills.
I was wary at first in the ultra-modern lobby with a library that had hanging chairs. But once upstairs, I was amazed at how comfortable and efficient the room was using minimal space.
Luxury has its place, and in fabulous Newport that means the historic 1926 Viking Hotel, with its legions of cute male valets and suites overlooking the spectacular harbor.
The rooms have classic furnishings and impressively comfortable beds. I was pleased to add my name to a long list of rich and famous guests from Will Rogers to Kennedys and Vanderbilts.
Where summering became a verb
There is a list of “mosts” attached to Newport that make it a must-see place while in Rhode Island — or New England, in fact.
It is the historic architecture capital of the U.S., with so many surviving colonial structures that a mid-19th-century house is considered “new.” Historic homes have been transformed into lodging, allowing Newport to proudly offer more than 100 bed-and-breakfast inns, the most in any American city.
There are little squares and parks scattered everywhere. Narrow cobblestone streets lead down to a picture-perfect working harbor with nearly 20 wharfs and landings, most lined with shops and restaurants.
Tours may be the biggest industry in Newport: walking and trolley, themes and sites. Leaving the harbor are tours on yachts, sailboats, cruisers, schooners, smuggler boats, ferries and even helicopters.
No tour can match those through nearly a dozen Gilded Age mansions. Built by the “really rich” at the turn of the 20th century, the theme of most seems to be covering every square inch of visible surface with nonfunctional but gasp-inducing ornamentation.
Versailles is the model of choice, and The Breakers and Marble House its most avid copiers.
Marble House’s aptly named Gold Room has an impossibly ornate carved ceiling gilded in 14-carat gold and a huge, rare black striated marble fireplace that is a small piece of the mansion’s nearly half-million cubic feet of marble. A charming Chinese Tea House on the lawn serves refreshments in season.
America’s most unique National Recreation Trail, the famed 3.5-mile Cliff Walk, offers ever-changing beach views on one side and equally changing views of private mansions lining the bluffs overlooking those beaches on the other. Climb the ramparts at Fort Adams for more spectacular ocean views.
A 19th-century coastal fortification, largest and most complex fortress in America, it is site of the annual Newport Jazz Festival.
If our Clay County couple needs more persuading that there is something to see in Rhode Island, I can cite the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, where they could play on grass courts surrounding the former Victorian casino.
For the literary-minded, there is Redwood Library and Athenaeum, the oldest still-functioning lending library in the U.S.
For oddities, visit Old Stone Mill, at Touro Park, described as the most controversial structure in America. Experts are undecided as to its origins. Built by Norsemen? Or Benedict Arnold, one of Rhode Island’s first governors?
How about St. Mary’s Catholic Church, where John Kennedy and Jacqueline Bouvier married in 1953?
A week was not enough to enjoy all Rhode Island has to offer. The capital city Providence is cosmopolitan and urban drawing nightlife lovers, shoppers and diners.
Alluring Block Island, reachable only by ferry, has 17 miles of pristine beaches and even more miles of biking and walking trails. There are two harbors and accompanying areas of shops and restaurants plus Victorian hotels with ocean views.
West Virginians would find Jamestown Island a familiar rural landscape with farms, historic fire hall and cozy town … familiar until they come to the working harbor and two bridges connecting it to the mainland and Newport on the next island over.
May I stop now? Can I expect Mr. and Mrs. Clay County to hop on the next plane for Rhode Island and complete their check list of mainland states to visit?
The friendly folks I encountered throughout the smallest state are waiting to hear.
Jeanne Mozier’s latest release is a sizzling political thriller set during a U.S. Senate campaign in Rhode Island. “Senate Magic” capped her love affair with the tiny state; the recent visit was an epilogue. The fourth edition of her award-winning “Way Out in West Virginia” is available from Quarrier Press at www.wvbookco.com.