Cape Crawl: A New England Road Trip

By Peter Mandel
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, May 20, 2001

Summer is near. Soon the days will be lazy-hot, and you will pack up and desert the city for a week. This year you have promised yourself that you will drive up the coast, away from D.C.'s swampy miasma. Find some towns where there are shops and old houses, some history and character, and fewer cars and crowds. End up near the water.

A friend insists that, instead of Martha's Vineyard or Maine, you should try Rhode Island.

Rhode Island?

"Perfect for you," she says, "and you can drive up from there to the bay side, the quieter coast, of Cape Cod." She talks about afternoons spent bicycling along tree-shadowed lanes, of a place where small farms lead right down to the sand and when you look at the green of grass, the black-and-white of cows, you have to squint because beyond them are not silos or fences but the gleam of the sea.

That decides it. You will fly from Washington to Providence and rent a car, driving south and then east. Distances will be short, for even the Cape is only a few hours' drive along Narragansett Bay, Buzzards Bay and the Atlantic Coast itself.

Because the ocean winds and currents here mellow out extremes, your guidebook calls this area "New England's Riviera." This you will have to see.

Bristol, R.I.

The Providence airport is actually in Warwick, but you cruise up Interstate 95, flash through town and take I-195 east to 114 south. Less than an hour later, you've reached Bristol.

The road's center line changes to red, white and blue as you drive in, and you stop a pedestrian to ask why. "It's for the parade," he says, pointing out that Bristol, not Philadelphia or Boston, has the country's oldest continuous Fourth of July celebration (since 1785). You are too early for fireworks, but the choppy harbor is reflecting the sun, and there is a ferry out there, rolling and rising up, and brightly painted Colonial and Federal-era homes wherever you look.

Bristol is not a beach town. That will come later on your drive. But it is something even better – a town of boats. Companies based here have built America's Cup yachts, and you spend the morning admiring sleekly varnished hulls and keels at the America's Cup Hall of Fame at the Herreshoff Marine Museum. Even your inn displays little ships, which are set out here and there on mottled sea chests and in corners on the pine-planked floors.

You walk down Hope Street, the main drag, a strip of snapping flags and iron gates with rosebushes struggling to push through. Besides the tricolor stripe on the road, what you like best are the houses and stores that seem an integral part of the town, not just for tourists. The William Fales House (1797) has nautical touches that make you look twice. You stare at column decorations that curl like ocean waves. When you peer under a porch roof, you see that it is bowed and ribbed as if it were the hull of a ship, and painted a soft sea green.

At the Bristol post office, a couple of blocks down Hope, the building's smooth gray slate and stained-glass windows shower light through patriotic shields and arrow quivers. When you step inside, the glass on window edges tints passersby in astonishing colors: rich vermilions that make Bristol look dramatic, and the deepest of blues.

For lunch, you find a tiny restaurant on a dock overlooking the Bristol harbor. Quito's Restaurant knows some secret to frying scallops and clams that keeps the batter feathery and the texture of the shellfish just right, and you are adrift with the scent of lemon and mayonnaise. For dessert, you follow puffs of white smoke to the Basically British Tea Room up on State Street. The puffs are coming from the giant teapot-shaped sign steaming above the door. "It's my pride and joy, that teapot," the British-born owner tells you, setting out Ty-Phoo Darjeeling tea and a scone with clotted cream and jam.

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