Providence and Newport

By Meredith Daniels,

If the Mayans were correct and the world will truly end on 12/21/12, you probably have a big ‘bucket list’ that may include some travel.

While places like Fiji, Paris or the Great Barrier Reef sound exotic (and mostly warm), December is the holiday season and it might be nice to leave the planet knowing you spent some time with the family in a place that’s welcoming and festive. Rhode Island just may surprise you.

Yes, Rhode Island – the Ocean State. A trip to Providence and Newport (just an hour’s drive from one another) is the perfect blend of historic New England, sophisticated, hip dining and culture and a thriving waterfront full of shops and oh, those coastal mansions.

This time of year, it’s easier to find reasonable hotel rates and there are quite a few to choose from in downtown Providence, including the historic Biltmore.

Our residence for the night was the Westin Providence. The staff was very inviting (offering bottles of water and pleasantries while you check in) as was the 20-foot-plus, finely decorated Christmas tree in the lobby.

And if you’re worried about packing on the holiday pounds, but forgot your workout clothes – no worries. The hotel has a deal with New Balance where for just $5 they will lend you gear from head to toe.

If you don’t feel like saving all your shopping until the last minute, the Westin is attached to the Providence Place Mall with access from inside. Of course, there are boutiques and artisan shops just blocks away on Westminster Street. In fact, Craftland is a shop that features all sorts of handmade items from hundreds of artists. You’ll find many one-of-a-kind gifts, even a bacon angel ornament.

As for seasonal family activities in Providence – there’s the Bank of America Skating Center (also in walking distance), the Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art -- which features special tours and exhibits for different age groups, the Providence Children’s Museum – where you can make a seasonal craft or check out their new Think Space exhibit, or the Roger Williams Zoo – where Santa makes visits on special dates and times.The Federal Hill area along Atwells Avenue is full of family-friendly restaurants and we found an affordable, little Italian place called Angelo’s Civita Farnese.

The restaurant was established in 1924 by Angelo Mastrodicasa and has been family-run ever since. Current owner, nephew Bob Antignano, is a friendly presence in the dining room greeting regular customers and bringing over samples of freshly made veal and other popular dishes. They even have a kids’ menu, and our little one couldn’t get enough of the tasty meatballs. Pumpkin praline cheesecake was a delicious, seasonal way to end the meal.

Newport actually represents nine coastal communities each with its own unique attractions. Before hitting the actual community of Newport, we ventured into Bristol where there is quite a bit of holiday charm this time of year.

Christmas at Blithewold Mansion, Gardens and Arboretum is a sight to see. Volunteers spend over a year planning and crafting the perfect decorations for each mansion room – and it shows.

This year’s Christmas theme is “A Grand Tour of Europe.” Whether it’s the nursery with its Swedish influences or the master bedroom in Dutch splendor, every room is festive eye candy. Even the kitchen, where there are cookies waiting for the children after storytime, has a beautiful array of gingerbread houses and nutcrackers.

There are quite a few choices for dining along Thames Street in downtown Bristol, but our choice for dinner had to be among the best of them.

DeWolf Tavern is not only a great location in its historically restored waterfront warehouse, but there is a reason why Chef Sai Viswanath is a nominee for the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef in Northeast award.

Viswanath brings his Indian heritage to contemporary American cuisine in a way that is flavorful and original. The naan pizzas are wonderful (and great for the kids), only outdone by the goat cheese samosas. My tandoor lobster was cooked perfectly as was my husband’s lamb. And the dessert special – ginger pudding with bourbon-glazed popcorn – was divine.

Driving over the Mt. Hope bridge into Portsmouth is own scenic ride. The suspension bridge has a main span of over 1200 feet and is lined with old-fashioned lamp posts. It’s only about a 15 minute ride into Newport from there.

The Newport Marriott is conveniently situated next door to the Newport tourism offices and is centrally located right on America’s Cup Avenue. The nautically-themed hotel was decorated nicely for the holidays with a winter lighthouse and sled right in the atrium. We were lucky enough to take in the 26th annual WADK-AM/WJZS-FM Christmas concert featuring Larry Brown’s Swinglane Orchestra and the Marley Bridges Theatre Company’s Choral Ensemble.

Since Newport is well known for its mansions, one must take a drive along Ocean Drive to experience these breathtaking views. You’ll probably recognize some of the palatial homes as seen in various movies and recognize some of the names of the families who owned them.

And it wouldn’t be a true Newport visit without seeing the Breakers. Decked in holiday splendor this time of year, the Vanderbilt family’s palace is the grandest of Newport’s summer cottages. There is a self- guided audio tour that can be expanded or abridged to your own liking.

The Elms, the summer residence of the Berwinds, who made their fortune in the Pennsylvania coal industry, currently houses a 15-foot pointsettia tree made up of 150 individual plants.

If the mansion walking tours build an appetite, there are lots of choices for dining. The Barking Crab was a good choice for some New England clam chowder and is located in Brick Market Place.

And, if you didn’t already finish up the holiday shopping in Providence (or even if you did), you’ll want to check out the many shops along Thames Street. You’ll find less crowds on the cobblestone streets this time of year making it easier to venture from store to store at your own pace.

So, if the Mayans have it wrong, you’ll still be around to share your little Rhode Island treasures with the family at Christmas and some ideas, too, for next year’s December vacation.

Other attractions of note in Newport:
International Tennis Hall of Fame & Museum
Touro Synagogue & Loeb Visitor Center
White Horse Tavern

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