x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

My Kind of Place: conventional beauty in Rhode Island

Green spaces and slices of Americana make the smallest US state calm and inviting.

Providence, the state capital, is a lively city with interesting museums, local retailers and an experimental rock scene. Getty Images
Providence, the state capital, is a lively city with interesting museums, local retailers and an experimental rock scene. Getty Images

Why Rhode Island?

Rhode Island is in the middle: it lies in the valley of the I-95 highway between Boston and New York. And though it has less panache than those two, sometimes on a holiday - a US road trip, say - you could use a break from panache. You could use a middle. And, unlike Cape Cod, the prices are in the middle range, too.

Few cities are as well preserved as Providence, the state capital, from the red neon sign in giant meat-packers' stencil above the Omni Biltmore Hotel to the mansard roof atop the city hall, built in 1878.

In the US there are two kinds of places: those that have let themselves become overrun by chains and are ugly, and those that have not, and Rhode Island is strongly inclined towards the latter. And so you see pieces of Americana, like the sign at the Coffee & Cream shop in North Smithfield, which is a mug of coffee that must be a metre and a half high and seems like something out of The Flintstones, or a procession of cars queuing outside the Rustic Tri-View Drive-In theatre for a Saturday-night showing.

Rhode Island is compact and clean, safe and green. Its waters are favoured by boaters, and were for decades the site of the America's Cup regatta. It is the smallest state in America, roughly twice the size of Fujairah, and its population is barely above a million.

A comfortable bed

We stayed at the Renaissance Providence Downtown Hotel, a former Masonic Temple that dates to the 1920s and is part of the Marriott chain (www.renaissanceprovidenceri.com; 001 401 919 5000; US$191 [Dh701] with tax for a double). It was stately and had nice touches, such as a vat of lemonade (and on another day, iced chai) at the check-in - a cool salve after a day of driving - and those half-circle signs with arrows that show which floor the lift you're waiting for is on. And our rooms were the size of Ajman.

But the grande dame is the Biltmore (www.providencebiltmore.com; 001 401 421 0700; $151 [Dh555] with tax for a double), a 90-year-old L-shaped brick tower in the city centre that boasts that its rooms are the biggest in the state.

Find your feet

Providence was, like Rome, built on seven hills, which endure today in the names of such districts as Federal Hill and Beverage Hill. While "hills" might be pushing it, the slopes do add variety to a stroll.

Meet the locals

The thing I liked most about Rhode Island was the New England accent, where Rs turn into As, and sometimes even Ss into Ds. At Roster, a shop that sold every Boston sports jersey, one of the sales guys asked, "See anything?" and I replied, "You got a LOTTA stuff," and then he said, "Idn't it? Idn't it? It's crazy."

At a glum, spiritless road stop by the Connecticut border, a woman turned "Where do I order?" into a pileup of w's and h's: "Wheah deweye wohdah?"

Book a table

We didn't have a bad meal. My favourite restaurant was Fellini Pizzeria (www.fellinipizzeria.com; 001 401 751 6737, lunch for two for under $15 [Dh55]), on Wickenden Street not far from Brown University, the 244-year-old Providence school that is one of the eight tendrils of the Ivy League. Ordering "The Betty White" brought a thin-crust slice covered in gooey mozzarella, ricotta and feta cheeses, with garlic to give it extra bite. Yum.

For seafood, try Champlin's in Narragansett (www.champlins.com; 001 401 783 3152). Fishing boats are docked right outside, and you can tuck into specialities such as lobster ($14.99 for a one-pounder), clam chowder ($6.79 for a pint) or the seafood platter ($24.99, feeds two people).

Shopper's paradise

Providence Place (www.providenceplace.com), touted as "New England's largest indoor carpeted mall", is not about to knock the socks off shoppers from the Emirates. But it's not ugly, it's right downtown, it has some brands you don't see in Abu Dhabi or Dubai (Abercrombie & Fitch), and the shops often have better prices and selection than UAE outlets of the same name.

Most interesting was the Curatorium (www.thecuratorium.com; 001 401 453 4080), across the street from Fellini's, which appears to cater to the collegiate crowd from Brown University. Things you can buy there: emergency googly eyes, a tarantula encased in glass, Lego sets that make Frank Lloyd Wright buildings, and a book on the overuse of quotation marks entitled FRESH BROWN "EGGS". So, the essentials.

What to avoid

Well, it was a little sleepy at the weekend, and the state legislature was closed for tours on a Sunday, but really I have no complaints.

Don't miss

Before you go, check out dates for WaterFire Providence events, when wood fires burn in metal brasiers along the Providence River. It has the look of floating fire and lights up occasional nights from May to October.

And if I could have swung it, I would have liked to have seen a Pawtucket Red Sox game. Attending a minor-league baseball game is a uniquely local and convivial experience. The PawSox play from early April to early September.

Go there

Etihad Airways (www.etihad.com) offers return direct flights from Abu Dhabi to New York from Dh6,100 return, including taxes.

rmckenzie@thenational.ae