Rhode Island

 

 

The day began with a milkshake. Specifically, a Strawberry Awful Awful in a booth at the back of Newport Creamery. Endless gulps from a bottomless beaker, each as thick as warm butter.

The emblazoned beaker dared the slurper: 'Drink three Awful Awfuls, get a fourth free!' 'Not a chance,' I told Perry and Devon, my roadtrip companions who rooted for me to order a second; I was going to have to be rolled out the door as it was.  

Squeezed between Connecticut and Massachusetts, Rhode Island is the USA's smallest state, barely 50 miles wide. No city except Providence has a population greater than 100,000, and you'll have heard of exactly none of them. Pawtucket? Woonsocket? Exactly. 

Newport sits at the southern tip of Aquidneck Island, a shred of land jutting into the Atlantic Ocean. It's a pristine coastal resort resplendent with colonial architecture and New England flora, but what draws the daytrippers to Newport are the summer 'cottages'. When Perry and Devon told me we'd driven for three hours from Brooklyn to look at cottages, I gave them the sort of look reserved for chuggers and dentists. 

Except they weren't cottages at all, at least not as you or I might imagine, not quaint white-washed, straw-thatched dwellings plucked from the Shire. As we took to Cliff Walk, lifted by the sea breeze and a picture perfect day, it soon became obvious that the cottages that lined the path were nothing of the sort. They were mansions, villas and halls. Gilded turrets with yawning views across sprawling lawns, pillars and west wings and water features, grounds that boasted topiary budgets of Scrooge McDuck proportions. 

These were the summer houses of some of wealthiest families in America - the Vanderbilts, the Astors - showcasing impeccable architecture from the Colonial era to the Gilded Age. Built from the mid-19th century onwards, classical mansions neighboured Gothic Revival and Second Empire French villas, seasonal homes built for bankers and merchants and tobacco magnates. Eleven properties are open for public viewing, although we were content to take in the sun and gaze across the lawns from the Cliff Walk. Plenty more remain private; vaguely threatening signs advised passersby not to loiter for too long, or dare to think about sunbathing on the beaches below. 

 

After three hours of gawping and sunburn and negotiating unbuilt pathways, we reached Ledge Road and turned back towards town. Outside one of the more modest townhouses, a teenage girl manned a lonely lemonade stall while chewing gum and flicking through some trashy magazine. The three of us were ready to drown in the stuff for a dollar a cup.'You could double the price on a day like this,' I said, gesturing to the overhead sun that was slowly cooking mine to a salmon hue.

'Yeah I could,' giggled the girl, 'but I didn't want to be greedy, y'know?'

Of course not. Cottages with more lawn than Lords, dairy diets to distend the gut of an elephant. It wasn't greed, Newport didn't need to take, it preferred to showboat its wealth and beauty in a understated, inoffensive manner. 

The smallest state of America, full of riches, for everyone to enjoy.