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Boston Bookstores: An Indie Guide

What do Ralph Waldo Emerson and Robert Parker have in common? They both lived and worked in New England, and whether they sought the serenity of Walden Pond or roamed the tough streets of Boston, this region informs their work. Add in greats such as Louisa May Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Sylvia Plath, and Atul Gawande, and you’ll get a glimpse of the range of authors who call this area home.

old fashioned book shop sign on a street lamp
New England is a literary hotspot. Photo © florigianluigi/iStock.

There’s a reason New England—and particularly Greater Boston—continues to be a literary hotspot, more than three centuries after Anne Bradstreet penned her poems in what is now Cambridge. While groups like Grub Street and the Writers’ Room offer groups, classes, and support, and the Boston Literary District kicks off the annual Boston Book Fest with its fun Lit Hub pub crawl (Oct 26 this year), those of us who live by the pen know that what makes Boston’s literary heart beat are its independent bookstores. While chains—or online giants like Amazon—dominate elsewhere, the indie bookstore scene is alive and well here, creating an environment where readers and writers of all types thrive. Pop into some of these Boston bookstores, or check out Indiebound for a complete listing of indie bookstores in the Greater Boston area.

In Cambridge, home of Harvard University as well as Mistress Bradstreet, two quite different indies rule. Although it’s not affiliated with the university, Harvard Bookstore has held sway across the street from Harvard Yard since 1932. The sprawling bookstore features new fiction and nonfiction upstairs and a huge basement of remainders and used books below. Store best sellers and staff picks get their own displays, and one entire wall of featured titles are on sale at 20% off during their month in the spotlight. And if the book you seek is a rare or out-of-print tome, look to Paige M. Guttenberg, the store’s print-on-demand “book robot” (which also does a handy job with self-published works).

Right up Mass. Ave, Porter Square Books–winner of Boston Magazine’s “Best of Boston” for 2017–adds a café to the mix, along with a popular fiction section (vital to crime fiction authors like me!) that’s second to none, which means readers can enjoy a ginger lemonade as they browse the latest whodunit or NPR pick. Both shops have regular and varied reading series, as well as frequent buyer programs that reward readers.

Further west, brand new Belmont Books is the newest addition to the local indie list, filling a void left seven years ago when the beloved Charlesbank Books closed. Featuring weekly events and cozy children’s area, Belmont Books looks to become a community center. Head a bit further out, and you’ll find the Concord Bookshop, which has been serving Thoreau’s hometown since its founding in 1940. The knowledgeable staff, which includes former librarians and educators as well as writers, offer great staff picks.

Across the river, Brookline Booksmith holds sway. Since 1961, this huge and well curated store—winner of the Improper Bostonian’s 2017 Best Bookstore award—has a fun collection of toys, housewares, and gifts, as well as volumes old and new. Booksmith’s busy event series not only hosts touring authors but also reading groups, like the Small Press Book Club and YA Fierce Reads events. In 2010, Booksmith’s sister store in Wellesley spun off under new owners as Wellesley Books, and has added a special focus on local authors to its own fine collection and reading series.

Downtown Boston, meanwhile, has its own book culture, and discerning readers often head to trendy Newbury Street for the quirky Trident Bookseller and Café. With its roots in counterculture, Trident is the place for works on astrology and alternative health, as well as healthy treats in its upstairs café. The multi-level store also boasts both a great selection of literary journals as well.

Meanwhile, out in Newton, the beloved New England Mobile Book Fair has finally lived up to the “mobile” part of its name, moving from its longtime location earlier this fall to a new spot down the street. For several months, the fate of the store—known for its warehouse-like shelves and books filed by publisher—was in doubt until a suitable new space was found. Although the move required some culling in the cavernous store, the hearty reception local readers (and authors) have given the new space (at 4,400 SF considerably smaller than the previous 32,000 SF store) demonstrates the strong relationship yet another indie bookstore has to the community.

Visit South County, Rhode Island

Travel Planning for South County, Rhode Island

Misleading though it may be, South County is not actually a county. Rather, locals use this name lovingly to refer to a coastal area of southern Rhode Island (much of which is technically in the domain of Washington County).

[pullquote align=right]Watch Hill, in Westerly, looks like the set of an old movie, with its dainty harbor and small shopping district.[/pullquote]Starting from Westerly, at the far southwest corner of the state, the Atlantic coast traces the towns of Charlestown, South Kingstown, and Narragansett, where it turns sharply north, separating North Kingstown from the Narragansett Bay. Known for its long, sandy coastlines and sleepy back-road landscapes, South County offers first-rate beaches, fresh-caught seafood, lots of low-key motels and inns, and in the summer months, some of the most authentically Rhode Island experiences a person can have. If you’ve never rolled up your pants and gone quahogging, spent an afternoon sipping Narragansett tall boys at the Ocean Mist, or dipped a deep-fried clam cake into a bowl of steaming “chowda,” now’s your chance.

South County is, for the most part, happily old-fashioned and uncluttered by strip-mall excess. High-rise hotels and massive condo communities are scarce or nonexistent, and where high-density beach housing has been allowed, it’s mostly tasteful and unflashy in the traditional New England style.

Watch Hill, in Westerly, looks like the set of an old movie, with its dainty harbor and small shopping district. Up the coast on Narragansett Bay, in North Kingstown, the village of Wickford is one of the best-preserved colonial villages of its size anywhere in the region, and nearby Kingston is dominated by the many stately old granite buildings of the University of Rhode Island.

Punctuating the shoreline are vast tracts of protected wilderness preserves and sheltered saltwater ponds in Charlestown and Westerly, while further inland, the towns of Exeter, Hopkinton, and Richmond offer nature preserves, hiking trails, and winding drives through farmland and small historic villages.

Take a trip back in time at the Gilbert Stuart Museum
Take a trip back in time at the Gilbert Stuart Museum. Photo © Liz Lee.

Highlights of South County, Rhode Island

  • Wickford Village: The charming waterfront village of Wickford contains about 40 distinctive boutiques, virtually all of them independent, including fine-art galleries, gourmet food shops, and urbane clothiers.
  • Narragansett Town Beach: With its bikini-clad surfers and iconic view of The Towers, this roughly 19-acre stretch of sandy coastline is classic New England.
  • Gilbert Stuart Museum: For a glimpse into the life of colonial America’s foremost portraitist, visit this estate of Gilbert Stuart, whose depiction of George Washington graces the dollar bill. Its scenic grounds and gardens here are part of the draw.
  • The Fantastic Umbrella Factory: This outgrowth of a 1960s hippie community now serves as an eclectic compound of funky stores in clapboard buildings, with a petting zoo, a café, greenhouses, and a bamboo forest.
  • Misquamicut Beach: This definitive family getaway is chock-full of miniature golf courses, ice-cream stands, seafood shacks, and relatively affordable motels and beach cottages.

Planning Your Time in South County

Because South County is one of Rhode Island’s most family-oriented destinations, and also a great area for hiking, sunbathing, sailing, surfing, and the like, you might want to make this your base if you’re traveling with kids or pursuing outdoor recreational activities. Watch Hill, with its carousel, bumper cars, and mini golf, is a particularly nice beach for the kids, while older kids and teens will prefer the action at Misquamicut Beach, as will young adults and couples. Many visitors to this part of the state, especially in summer, rent cottages or efficiencies for a week or more. From South County, you can easily explore other parts of the state on day trips or overnighters.

Otherwise, South County is probably a part of the state that you can enjoy in a relatively short period, especially in the winter. You’ll find a smattering of sophisticated restaurants and shops in the area, especially in the towns of Wickford and Narragansett, and there are some bona fide historic attractions in the South County Museum and Gilbert Stuart Museum, but the best of what the area has to offer is located outdoors. If beachcombing, hiking, fishing, and swimming aren’t your thing, you’re probably better off spending your time in Providence, Newport, and even the East Bay.

Excerpted from the Fourth Edition of Moon Rhode Island.

Exploring Rhode Island’s Sakonnet Peninsula

Originally named Pocasset by the Seaconnet Native Americans who lived here before selling the land to the Plymouth Colony in 1680, Tiverton and Little Compton (to the south) make up the Sakonnet Peninsula. It is not a true peninsula, since it shares a land border with Massachusetts to the east, but the area is nevertheless physically cut off from the rest of Rhode Island except by way of the Sakonnet Bridge (Route 24/138).

Sakonnet is a quiet and picturesque corner of Rhode Island; both Tiverton and Little Compton are small and pastoral, with acres of flat farmland surrounded by trim stone walls and gray-shingled farmhouses. After exploring them both, it’s interesting to consider that these two towns have a land area considerably larger than either Aquidneck Island (home to Newport, Portsmouth, and Middletown) or the East Bay towns of Barrington, Bristol, and Warren. Suburbia has been slowly creeping into both towns, especially the northern reaches of Tiverton, but the two communities still remain pleasingly rural. Little Compton has a large and close-knit summer community, many of the families having been regulars for generations. There are no miniature golf courses or amusements, however, just a handful of informal eateries, a yacht club, and a smattering of beach houses, most of them down quiet dirt lanes out of the public eye. Tourism isn’t discouraged in these parts, but you won’t find many places to stay or things to do, and that’s just the way the locals and many visitors like it.

An antique shop in Historic Tiverton Four Corners.
An antique shop in Historic Tiverton Four Corners. Photo © Liz Lee.


Although Plymouth settlers bought the land that is now Tiverton in 1680, the town wasn’t incorporated until 1694. No provisions for a church or school were made until 1746, shortly before the area, along with its East Bay neighbors to the north, were transferred to the Rhode Island colony.

During the Revolutionary War, however, the town’s high bluffs overlooking the Sakonnet River and Aquidneck Island had tremendous strategic importance. From the town’s shores, the Continental Army launched several raids on the British, who had settled comfortably in Newport and elsewhere on Aquidneck Island. Aside from the war, for its first 300 years Tiverton maintained a mostly agricultural existence, with a smaller but still significant fishing industry.

Attractions are few, but shoppers will want to congregate around Historic Tiverton Four Corners, a village of mostly 18th-century houses full of boutiques, galleries, and cafés. It’s at the junction of Routes 77 and 179, a few miles south of Route 24, the main road through the peninsula. Beachcombers should wander along Grinnell’s Beach (Rte. 77), a narrow spit of sand where an old stone bridge used to cross the Sakonnet River before the towering Sakonnet Bridge replaced it. It’s a scenic place to admire the river.

Little Compton

Once the domain of the Seaconnet Native Americans, who were ruled in the late 1680s by a female chieftain named Awashonks, Little Compton holds a special place in the hearts of Rhode Islanders, many of whom have dear memories of summer bike rides, country drives, and campfires on the beach. The town’s history as a summer resort predates even the Civil War, making it one of New England’s oldest retreats. Like Tiverton, it has also drawn heavily on fishing and agriculture to support itself. You can reach it most easily and scenically by driving south from Tiverton either on Route 77, on the west side of town, or Route 81, on the east side.

As you explore the west side of Little Compton by car or by bike, you can enjoy great views of the Sakonnet River and the many historic homes along Route 77. On your left, not long after crossing from Tiverton into Little Compton, you’ll reach the Wilbor House (Rte. 77, 401/635-4035, tours 2pm-5pm Wed.-Sun. mid-June-mid-Sept., free), a lovely old clapboard farmhouse with several restored outbuildings. Parts of the house date to the 1690s, but it has been added onto several times through the centuries. You can also picnic on the grounds.

Grapes on the vine at Carolyn's Sakonnet Vineyard=.
Grapes on the vine at Carolyn’s Sakonnet Vineyard. Photo © Liz Lee.

Carolyn’s Sakonnet Vineyard

Still farther south along Route 77, Carolyn’s Sakonnet Vineyards (162 W. Main St., Rte. 77, Little Compton, 800/919-4637, 10am-6pm Sun.-Wed. 10am-8pm Thurs.-Sat.) has transcended New England’s reputation for lackluster grapes to produce some exceptionally fine wines. Back when wine was a mostly West Coast phenomenon, Susan and Earl Samson rolled the dice in Rhode Island, where they surmised the cool microclimate could support vines similar to those in France’s Loire Valley. Founded in 1975, the vineyard has since been a smashing success—one of the first in New England and still among the best. Acres of grapevines produce several wines from the winery’s signature vidal blanc grape, a French-American hybrid with floral aromas and fresh acidity. Also notable is the aromatic gewürztraminer. Sakonnet produces about 30,000 cases of wine each year, proving that it’s far more than a boutique winery. Along with over 50 acres of scenic vineyards, the winery features tours, tastings, and an outdoor café with a menu specially created for pairings. In 2012, jewelry manufacturing magnate Carolyn Rafaelian (founder of Alex and Ani) purchased the vineyard and sullied some of its charm by tacking her first name onto the title. Fortunately, no amount of hubris can spoil the vineyard’s exceptional beauty, The tasting room and expansive front lawn seating area here overlook the vineyard and the Sakonnet River just beyond.

Goosewing Beach and Nature Preserve

The 75-acre Goosewing Beach and Nature Preserve (also called South Shore Beach) (125 South Shore Rd., 401/331-7110) is an historic landmark and a favorite spot among Rhode Islanders who appreciate its out-of-the-way location and its relative lack of tourists, beach traffic, or commercial enterprise. Purchased by the Nature Conservancy in 1989 in an effort to preserve the endangered populations of Piping Plover and Least Terns that nest here, the beach has since opened the doors of a small environmental education center (accessible by crossing over the beach from the parking lot) offering seasonal nature walks and events. This spectacular expanse of sandy barrier beach narrowly divides the sea from a series of pristine coastal ponds. There are limited camping spots available, on-duty lifeguards, and restrooms during daytime hours, and, unlike many of Rhode Island’s state beaches, campfires are permitted on the shore. Goosewing is also a favorite surf spot with locals; it’s a nice sandy beach break with minimal rocks. There’s a parking fee of $12 a day during the week and $15 per day on weekends Memorial Day-Labor Day; at other times it’s free.

The Sakonnet Peninsula has a number of attractive beaches with considerably smaller crowds than those in nearby Newport. Grinnell’s Beach (Main Rd. at Old Stone Bridge) is a sandy crescent at the head of the Sakonnet River and is popular with surf fishers; it has a lifeguard, changing rooms, and restrooms.

Excerpted from the Fourth Edition of Moon Rhode Island.

Exploring Rhode Island: Prudence Island

One of Rhode Island’s strangest little places, Prudence Island—which is about six miles long by a mile wide—lies just a few miles southwest of Bristol in the middle of Narragansett Bay. Technically it’s within the town limits of Portsmouth, just to the east. It was entirely wooded until the Revolutionary War, when the British used it as a source of lumber. Despite being the third-largest island in Rhode Island after Aquidneck and Conanicut, the island now has fewer than 100 year-round residents, including just a few summer homes and a small convenience store to pass for civilization.

[pullquote align=right]It’s an ideal spot for beachcombing, hikes, and taking advantage of nature lectures and strolls.[/pullquote]Of course, that makes it a nature-lover’s dream, with the densest white-tailed deer herd in New England, as well as wading birds such as great blue herons. It’s an ideal spot for beachcombing, hikes, and taking advantage of nature lectures and strolls, which are sponsored by the Audubon Society of Rhode Island (401/949-5454).

The shoreline at the Prudence Island Ferry dock
The shoreline at the Prudence Island Ferry dock. Photo © mcdonojj/123rf.

Near the boat docks at the southern end of the island and a four-mile bike ride or hike from the ferry landing, the Narragansett Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve (S. Reserve Dr., 401/683-6780, 11am-3pm Fri.-Mon., and by appointment), encompasses many acres of salt marsh, tidal flats and pools, forest, and even a historic farm site. Birding is a favorite activity at the reserve, where you’ll also find a butterfly garden and several nature trails. A mile’s walk from the boat docks is the 25-foot-high Prudence Island Light, which stands sentinel on the island’s east side. The lighthouse itself is not open for tours, but the grounds are open from sunrise to sundown.

While this is a great place for exploring, keep in mind that deer ticks are a major problem on the island—take necessary precautions when exploring, especially in wooded areas. No bridges connect the island to the mainland or Aquidneck. Transportation is by the Prudence Island Ferry (147 Thames St., Bristol, 401/683-0430, $2.85 adults, $1 children under 12) which runs several boats from Bristol sunrise-sunset daily. You can also dock your own vessel at the southern tip of Prudence Island. Unfortunately, camping is not permitted.

Excerpted from the Fourth Edition of Moon Rhode Island.

Block Island Bicycle Tour

Few places in the Northeast are more ideally suited to bicycling than Block Island, where curving country lanes pass rugged bluffs and magnificent vistas alongside sweeping pastures and meadows. There are about 40 miles of road, most with mild grades as no point on the island is higher than 250 feet; there are a handful of reasonably challenging hills and bluffs, however. There really aren’t specific bike trails per se, but all of the island’s roads are appropriate for cycling. The self-guided Block Island Bicycle Tour, which hits many of the island’s highlights, is particularly fun. Bringing a bike over on the ferry is easy and inexpensive, and there are several businesses on the island that rent bicycles by the day, week, or the hour.

Mohegan Bluffs along the coast of Block Island, Rhode Island.
Mohegan Bluffs along the coast of Block Island, Rhode Island. Photo © Todd Arena/123rf.

The Block Island Bicycle Tour

Perhaps the most fun and convenient way to experience Block Island’s beaches, bluffs, and bird sanctuaries is by bicycle, an eco-friendly and widely accepted mode of transportation for island visitors and locals alike. In 2014, the Block Island Tourism Council teamed up with (a Southern New England tourism group) to create the Block Island Bicycle Tour, a self-guided, 7.5-mile loop that includes nine stops at island landmarks and attractions at the southern end of the island, with an option to extend the tour by 8.5 miles with three stops on the north end.

Each tour stop is marked with a station signpost; look for a blue and yellow bull’s-eye marker with a QR code at the center. Cyclists can use their cell phones to scan the QR code, allowing them to access a short informational video about each stop on the route along with a tour map directing them to their next destination.

The tour includes many of the island’s highlights, beginning at the Visitor’s Center directly adjacent to the ferry landing, (where you can also pick up a paper map of the tour route if you’d rather not use your phone), and continuing on to Abrams Animal Farm and the historic Springhouse Hotel, where American icons from Mark Twain to the Kennedy family have enjoyed the view from the enormous veranda. From there the route continues on to the Southeast Lighthouse, the spectacular Mohegan Bluffs, and Painted Rock, an island tradition that began in the 1960s and continues to this day. This first leg of the tour will take you on to Rodman’s Hollow nature preserve, and concludes at Dead Eye Dick’s, a former piano bar with great seafood and one of the best sunset views on the island.

More ambitious cyclists will want to follow the route to its end by continuing on to marker number 9 at Fred Benson Town Beach, then on to Great Salt Pond, a popular spot for kayaking and paddleboarding (several marinas here offer rentals), or simply enjoying the plant and animal habitat of the marshes. From here, continue another two miles north on Corn Neck Road to check out North Lighthouse, the northernmost point on the island. The area behind the lighthouse is a National Wildlife Refuge, with sandy paths and amazing ocean views.

The tour ends at marker number 12 in Old Harbor, where you’ll likely want to reward yourself with a treat from one of the many restaurants and shops on Water Street.

Rhode Island's Block Island Bicycle Tour is self-guided, allowing travelers to experience the island's highlights, including beaches, bluffs, and bird sanctuaries. The 7.5-mile loop includes nine stops at island landmarks and attractions at the southern end of the island; there is also an option to extend the tour by 8.5 miles with three stops on the north end.

Excerpted from the Fourth Edition of Moon Rhode Island.

Best Bird-Watching on Rhode Island

Bird-watching on Rhode Island is taking off with the locals, especially folks who live around the coastal regions, with Block Island ranking among the best spots. Its popularity makes a lot of sense, as hobbies go, as it is not expensive and is highly educational. Best of all, birds are abundant in the state year-round, although which individual species can be seen depends on the season.

[pullquote align=right]Peregrine falcons, hawks, and osprey regularly fly around marshes and estuaries.[/pullquote]More than 400 species of birds live in Rhode Island. Much of the best birding is along the coast, where you’ll see myriad waterfowl year-round and magnificent blue heron October-April. Peregrine falcons, hawks, and osprey regularly fly around marshes and estuaries, and in August-September you’ll see warblers and thrushes. A huge population of sparrows descends on coastal points during the fall. Owls are not easy to find, but they do live around the state.

For further information on specific species that live in Rhode Island, visit the website, which has detailed information and photos of hundreds of birds common to Rhode Island and the rest of the Northeast.

A great blue heron hunts along the Blackstone River in Rhode Island.
A great blue heron hunts along the Blackstone River in Rhode Island. Photo © vinoverde/123rf.

The Rhode Island chapter of the Audubon Society (12 Sanderson Rd., Smithfield, 401/949-5454) is also a useful resource. The society’s website has helpful links for birders, including a bimonthly newsletter and information on recent sightings downloadable from its website. At the society’s headquarters in Smithfield, the Hathaway Library houses a vast collection of books, publications, videos, and software related to birding in general and in Rhode Island specifically. You can also pick up books, tapes, and other birding materials at the two Audubon Society gift shops in the state, one at the headquarters and the other at the Audubon Environmental Education Center (1401 Hope St., Bristol, 401/245-7500).

The society owns or oversees about 9,500 acres of preserves throughout Rhode Island, several of them open to the public and excellent for bird-watching. Kimball Wildlife Sanctuary (off U.S. 1, adjacent to Burlingame State Park, Charlestown) is a 29-acre property with a 1.5-mile hiking trail through fields and forests. Another birding Valhalla is the Emilie Ruecker Wildlife Refuge (Seapowet Ave., just off Route 77, Tiverton), overlooking the Sakonnet River. The salt marshes here are a favorite spot for observing migrating birds during the fall and spring; there are blinds set up for watching and photographing the wildlife.

Another excellent spot is the Headwaters of the Queen’s River (Henry Bowman Rd., reached via New London Turnpike and Rte. 102), a remote woodland that connects Fisherville Brook Refuge (owned by the Rhode Island Audubon Society) to the state-administered Big River Management Area. Walking along trails here, you’re apt to see many kinds of forest interior birds, including hawks. Another excellent Nature Conservancy preserve for bird-watching is the Francis C. Carter Memorial Reserve (Route 112, Charlestown), a large coastal preserve frequented in summer by species that include eastern towhee, scarlet tanager, and prairie warbler. Contact the Rhode Island chapter of the Nature Conservancy (159 Waterman St., Providence, 401/331-7110) for directions to and descriptions of these and more than a dozen other pristine preserves around Rhode Island.

On Block Island, the Nature Conservancy works in partnership with several local organizations to preserve a huge section of the island from being developed—these preserves are among the state’s most exceptional venues for bird-watching.

Excerpted from the Fourth Edition of Moon Rhode Island.

7-Day Best of Rhode Island Travel Itinerary

With a week to explore Rhode Island, you can easily see the state’s key towns and cities and enjoy a sampling of its major attractions. This approach begins in Providence and then steers you down through the state’s coastal hubs, ending in Bristol, just an hour’s drive from Providence.

It’s not difficult to manage this tour in just five to six days by using Providence and Newport as your bases and spending one night instead of two on Block Island, but to fully soak up the region’s appeal, plan to take seven full days to get around.

Slater Mill Historic Site, a linchpin of the American Industrial Revolution.
Slater Mill Historic Site, a linchpin of the American Industrial Revolution. Photo © Doug Kerr, Flickr/CC-BY-SA.

Days 1-2: Providence

Providence’s renaissance has occurred largely around its downtown riverfront, so spend your first day getting acquainted with the area. Spend some time checking out the shops and cafés in Downcity, then walk over to Waterplace Park, where you can take a gondola ride during the warmer months. On many Saturday evenings from March through November you can also watch the dazzling Waterfire, a dramatic display of bonfires set in cauldrons along the river.

In the same day, you can cross the river to College Hill, home to Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design as well as several other attractions, some of them related to the neighborhood’s academic institutions. Must-sees include the RISD Museum of Art and the Providence Athenaeum. Be sure to stroll along Benefit Street, which is lined with gorgeous colonial and Victorian homes, and check out the excellent shopping, gallery-hopping, and inexpensive dining along both Thayer and Wickenden Streets.

On your second day, venture out to Roger Williams Park, which is an easy four-mile drive or bus ride south from downtown. This sprawling green park contains Roger Williams Park Zoo and the excellent Museum of Natural History, which includes a planetarium, making it an especially nice option if you have kids in tow.

Alternatively, make a day trip north of the city to Slater Mill Historic Site, a linchpin of the American Industrial Revolution, located in downtown Pawtucket, a 15-minute drive north of Providence. Finish off the day with dinner and a stroll through Federal Hill, Providence’s Little Italy, or check out one of the many other eclectic and highly acclaimed restaurants in the West Side neighborhood.

Breakers Mansion was built by Cornelius Vanderbilt.
Newport’s Cliff Walk includes Breakers Mansion, built by Cornelius Vanderbilt. Photo © Chee-Onn Leong/123rf.

Days 3-4: Newport

You should not visit Newport without taking a road trip along winding Ocean Drive, which meanders along the waterfront and affords close-up views of some of this small city’s prettiest homes. Spend the rest of your first day becoming acquainted with the compact and highly walkable downtown, checking out the shops and the well-preserved colonial and Victorian architecture of Historic Hill, or enjoying the exhibits at the excellent Newport Art Museum.

Save your second day in Newport for touring the massive summer homes of the Gilded Age along Bellevue Avenue, the most famous of which is The Breakers. After the imposing Breakers, if you have time to see only one other mansion, your best bet is The Elms. If you’re a tennis fan, you might consider a visit to the International Tennis Hall of Fame and its museum.

If mansions aren’t your thing, head north to visit the towns of Portsmouth and Middletown, where sightseeing highlights include the Norman Bird Sanctuary, Sachuest Point Nature Preserve, and Green Animals Topiary Garden, as well as some of the best sandy beaches in the state.

Day 5: South County

Laid-back South County contains some of Rhode Island’s best beaches as well as copious opportunities for hiking, boating, swimming, and sunbathing. It’s also where you catch the ferry to the next place on this tour, Block Island.

A great way to make the most of a day in South County is to drive along the shore, beginning in the quaint Victorian seaside town of Watch Hill and continuing along Route 1A and U.S. 1 (and some side roads) through such charming seaside communities as Weekapaug, Misquamicut, Charlestown, Galilee, and Point Judith.

A bit north, Narragansett is home to the South County Museum, which preserves the legacy of a gentleman’s farm, and the Gilbert Stuart Museum, the home of George Washington’s foremost portraitist. Don’t feel like you have to spend the day sightseeing, however—when you find the beach that matches your personality, whether that’s kid-friendly Watch Hill, pristine Charlestown, or raucous Misquamicut, feel free to pull out that towel and sunbathe.

Daffodils on Block Island, RI.
Daffodils on Block Island, RI. Photo © Liz Lee.

Day 6: Block Island

Beautiful and isolated Block Island, just 10 miles or so south of the mainland, feels a world away from the rest of the state. Far less developed than other New England island retreats, such as Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, Block Island is home to numerous nature preserves as well as some of the grandest Victorian seaside resorts in the country.

While it’s possible to visit for an afternoon, you’ll want to spend a night and really get the feel of the island. Go for a bike ride, hike along the grounds of Southeast Light or through Rodman’s Hollow preserve, grab an ice-cream cone at Aldo’s, or simply laze away your time reading in a lounge chair at Crescent Beach.

Day 7: East Bay and Sakonnet

End your tour of Rhode Island with a visit to the quiet East Bay area, which you can reach from Newport more scenically by making a short detour through Sakonnet, a small patch of villages bordering Massachusetts and the ocean and home to the state’s best winery, Sakonnet Vineyards.

If the vineyard doesn’t appeal to you, consider a trip to Goosewing Beach and Nature Preserve, a great place to watch the sunset or observe the enormous flocks of piping plover and other birds that congregate here.

Head north to reach the East Bay, whose main towns are Bristol and Warren. Bristol may be relatively small, but it’s home to some historic attractions, including Blithewold Mansion and Arboretum, as well as a charming downtown neighborhood. Head to Warren for dinner at one of the several hip and eclectic restaurants that have cropped up here in recent years.

Excerpted from the Fourth Edition of Moon Rhode Island.

6 Classic Rhode Island Foods

Rhode Island has a few quirky food items that locals find completely ordinary but which might cause confusion for the uninformed tourist. Here are some of the most commonly encountered—and uniquely delicious—items for which the Ocean State is known.

  • Quahogs are hard-shell clams found in abundance on Rhode Island’s sandy shores, inlets, and salt ponds. These tasty bivalves can be found on restaurant menus all over the state, but they taste even better if you dig them yourself. Popular “quahogging” spots include the Point Judith Salt Pond in Galilee, and Ninigret Pond in Charlestown. Note: shellfishing licenses are required for out-of-state residents and can be obtained through the RI DEM.
  • Fresh oysters and quahogs (far left) at Matunuck Oyster Bar in South Kingstown, RI.
    Fresh oysters and quahogs (far left) at Matunuck Oyster Bar in South Kingstown, RI. Photo courtesy of Matunuck Oyster Bar.
    Enjoy stuffies with a view at Matunuck Oyster Bar in South Kingstown, RI.
    Enjoy stuffies with a view at Matunuck Oyster Bar in South Kingstown, RI. Photo courtesy of Matunuck Oyster Bar.
  • Stuffies, a common menu item at many restaurants, are quahog shells stuffed with a mixture of minced clams and breadcrumb stuffing usually containing onions, celery, garlic, spices, and herbs. They are especially delicious with a bit of fresh-squeezed lemon juice and hot sauce. Exceptionally good stuffies can be found at the Matunuck Oyster Bar in East Matunuck (a gorgeous view of the salt pond makes them taste that much better) (629 Succotash Rd., 401/783-4202, 11:30am-10pm daily).
  • Coffee Milk is the official state drink; it’s a rather self-explanatory mixture of milk and coffee syrup, which is a rarity in other states but can be found on grocery shelves throughout Rhode Island. Any Rhode Island diner worth its salt will have coffee milk on the menu—try the Modern Diner in Pawtucket (364 East Ave., Pawtucket, 401/726-8390, 6am-2pm Mon.-Sat., 7am-2pm Sun.), just over the Providence line.
  • A Cabinet is Rhode Island-ese for what is basically a milkshake: blended ice cream and milk. Coffee cabinets with Autocrat coffee syrup are a local favorite, but you can get them in a variety of flavors, locally made, at Gray’s Ice Cream in Tiverton (16 East Rd., Tiverton, 401/624-4500, 6:30am-9pm daily summer, call for off-season hours).
  • Hot wieners or New York System wieners are famous staples of Rhode Island food culture and can be found at several New York System diners throughout the state. This strange, tiny hot dog is served on a steamed bun and tastes best when ordered “all the way,” which means loaded with chopped onions, celery salt, yellow mustard, and seasoned meat sauce. The legendary Olneyville New York System in Providence (18 Plainfield St., 401/621-9500) is the best spot to enjoy them.
  • Del’s is the locally favored brand of frozen lemonade slush sold from trucks and lemonade stands all over the state. Look for the yellow and green striped Del’s umbrella stands or trucks that park at beaches during the summer, or head to 1260 Oaklawn Avenue in Cranston, where the first Del’s Lemonade stand opened in 1948.

Excerpted from the Fourth Edition of Moon Rhode Island.

Environmental Issues in Rhode Island

Environmental issues in Rhode Island center on wildlife, both on land and in the ocean. On land, a steady climb in the local population continues to threaten wildlife habitats. In the sea, the threat is much the same. Overfishing and misuse of resources have damaged food stocks possibly beyond recovery.

[pullquote align=right]One of the most contentious ongoing issues in the region is the controversy over how to manage coastal fish and shellfish effectively.[/pullquote]As nice as it is for wildlife watchers to be in such close proximity to wildlife, it’s also unfortunate; wild animals have become increasingly dependent on people, dangerously abundant in areas with heavy traffic and an environment that barely supports them. Where there is overpopulation, animals are a nuisance in the eyes of many people—blamed for spreading Lyme disease, ravaging gardens and yards, and causing traffic accidents. Rhode Island does have some areas that are sparsely populated by people, especially the western and northwestern sections of the state—you’ll even find a few designated hunting grounds. But anybody who drives on a daily basis in Rhode Island is sure to see deer leaping across the road, usually at night—sadly, many have been struck.

With all the talk these days of encroaching suburban sprawl—and it’s true that this trend is one of the greatest threats facing the state in the 21st century—it’s easy to forget that most of Rhode Island was already deforested by the early 1800s, when the state’s economy was almost entirely agrarian.

Grasses along the coast of Rhode Island.
Most of Rhode Island was already deforested by the early 1800s, when the state’s economy was almost entirely agrarian. Photo © Patrick Lienin/123rf.

Ironically, the region’s woodlands were saved not so much by conservation efforts, which didn’t develop in earnest until the 20th century, but by the Industrial Revolution. In places where the hilly, rocky terrain made fast and simple transportation routes difficult, or where a lack of rivers made hydropower impractical, the land was left largely to revert to woodland, and some areas were even reforested to increase the supply of lumber.

Despite this, the amount of undeveloped land has consistently diminished at a rapid rate since the late 19th century. In Rhode Island’s countless river valleys, fields of crops gave way to mills and factories. Farms still thrive in a few parts of the state, but their number has decreased dramatically.

Rhode Island’s regulatory economy has ensured that much of the area enjoys clean air and water, as efforts have been made to clean up the pollution of the mills and factories that boosted the economy in the 20th century. Isolated chemical factories and power plants continue to cause problems in some areas.

A commercial fishing boat.
Rampant overfishing decimated cod, flounder, and other groundfish species by the mid-1980s. Photo © Andrei Orlov/123rf.

One of the most contentious ongoing issues in the region is the controversy over how to manage coastal fish and shellfish effectively. Rampant overfishing decimated cod, flounder, and other groundfish species by the mid-1980s. At that point, the federal government seized fisheries all over New England in a bid to restore populations using quotas and periodic bans. While the effort has been successful at restoring some species, such as haddock, bluefish, and many species of shellfish, others still languish at severely reduced levels, with cod even less plentiful than in the 1980s.

Along with the fish stocks, many people employed in the fishing industry have languished as well. Tensions between them and regulators have led to angry protests and outright flouting of quotas, as well as disputes over the numbers used by scientists and environmentalists to justify them. Currently the two sides are cooperating. While some areas of coastal Rhode Island—most notably, the port of Galilee in Narragansett—continue to thrive as fishing ports, they are nowhere near as vibrant as they once were.

Excerpted from the Fourth Edition of Moon Rhode Island.

Planning Your Time in Newport, RI

With its tightly packed rows of immaculately restored colonial homes and impossibly narrow streets, Newport looks and feels every bit the quintessential New England maritime town.

[pullquote align=right]For those less nautically inclined, the museums, mansions, and restaurants can keep you occupied for days.[/pullquote]The city’s fascinating history, excellent beaches, upscale shopping district, and the most creative food in the state are what really put Newport on the map. Of course, for those interested in sailing, opportunities abound here; whether you’re interested in lessons, boat rentals, or charter services. Excellent surf breaks, prime saltwater fishing, and picturesque cliff walks also draw visitors from near and far. For those less nautically inclined, the museums, mansions, and restaurants can keep you occupied for days. Culturally speaking, Newport is predictably preppy and highbrow—which is what you might expect from a city where the Vanderbilts and Kennedys once spent their summer vacations.

Rosecliff Mansion in Newport, Rhode Island.
Rosecliff Mansion in Newport, Rhode Island. Photo © Felix Lipov/123rf.

Most visitors traveling from Providence will reach the island via Route 138, a road that bends around an off-ramp and somewhat dramatically reveals two stunning bridges spanning the sparkly waters of the Narragansett Bay. The Jamestown Verrazzano Bridge (circa 1922) connects motorists to the Island of Jamestown, where the road eventually continues to the Claiborne Pell Newport Bridge, which offers a dazzling view of blue ocean dotted by sailboats, seagulls, and small surrounding islands. Downtown Newport welcomes visitors with cute cobblestone walkways, the sparkling waters (and impressive yachts) of its adjacent harbor, and a lively shopping and dining district along historic Thames Street.

Planning Your Time

Newport is one of the most popular destinations in the state, and you’ll want to spend at least a weekend here to touch on the major sights and activities. It is possible to see Newport in one day by touring Ocean Drive, walking the waterfront, and taking in at least one mansion tour. But of all the waterfront communities in Rhode Island, this is one where you’ll want to try to dedicate at least two full days, especially in the summer when one could easily spend an entire day just lounging on the beach.

Cliff walk shore view in Newport, Rhode Island.
Cliff walk shore view in Newport, Rhode Island. Photo © Todd Arena/123rf.

Newport is really two cities in one—there’s the tightly laid out downtown with its narrow one-way streets and rows of buildings dating from colonial through Victorian times, and then there’s the sweeping, wealthy peninsula that juts south and east of all this, where expensive homes on large plots of land dominate the landscape. The downtown area is best explored on foot (especially in the summer when traffic is at its peak), but it’s nice to have a car or at least a bicycle to explore the rest. One full day to tour each of these areas, along with a little time set aside for the beach or a sail, is an ideal way to spend a weekend.

The catch is that Newport can be crowded in summer and on weekends just about any time of year, and hotel rates are among the highest in New England, so consider staying nearby and making several day trips into town. Moderately priced motels and hotels are in nearby Middletown, and as the popularity of sites like Airbnb continue to rise, so too do the possibilities for less expensive lodging. Still, there’s no way of getting around the fact that summer is a favorite time to visit but an awful time for traffic, getting a table at restaurants, and enjoying the city’s attractions without enduring long lines or crowds. Consider visiting during shoulder seasons of May or September, or on a weekday, when you’ll have much more room for exploring.

Excerpted from the Fourth Edition of Moon Rhode Island.

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