Sunday, April 14, 2013

Tazi's Corner #40 - Guest Writer "Tazi's Mommie" Talks Travel, Vacationing In Rhode Island

Dear Readers:

I know that you come to this space to read about MY thoughts, and not my Mommie's, but she has once again asked to "borrow" this space for her own writing. I am begrudgingly allowing her this space this week because her article might be of interest to people planning their summer vacations to Newport and other places in Southern New England. So, in deference to my Mommie and in support of the local tourism scene, I present the following:

Cycling Through Conanicut
a travel essay by Tazi-Kat's Mommie

Where – and what – is Conanicut? It is not a misspelling of Connecticut, as auto-correct may try to tell you. Conanicut Island is the largest of the three islands that makes up the small town of Jamestown, Rhode Island and is one of the most cyclist-friendly areas you will find in New England.

Discovered by Native Americans around 3,000 B.C., Conanicut Island was originally a summer home to Narragansett Chief Cononicus (1565 – 1647). Friends to Rhode Island’s Founding Father, Roger Williams, the tribe sold the land to Colonial settlers after Cononicus’ death and the island was incorporated under the new name of Jamestown, after the Duke of York and future King, James II. In New England, old names die harder than Bruce Willis, and there is still a large faction that prefers to use the island’s historical name. Respect the local culture and you will be welcomed with open arms to this 9.7 square mile patch of unspoiled American soil!

An example of what not to do is offered by Courtney, a server at one of the local pizzerias, who comments that Conanicut “is a little island, and residents may be irritated by high maintenance tourists. (‘No Starbucks? No place to get my soy infused raspberry-mocha-dark Tahitian truffle latte with an extra shot of espresso, hold the foam?’).

“I’m a little greedy”, she continues, “let all the yahoos who feel the need to go grocery shopping in designer heels, to show up to the beach at 7 AM already drunk with a fifty person entourage, etc.; let them go to ‘Gansett & Newport and the more fun-loving summer bums will enjoy the laid-back scene of Jamestown”. Conanicut may be the island that Corporate America forgot, but this has allowed a local flavor to take hold; all businesses are locally owned and operated, creating a quaint atmosphere that parents can trust not to corrupt their young children.

The quickest, safest, and least expensive way to get to Conanicut Island is by motor vehicle, since the ferry from Newport will cost around $60 for a family of four and the Jamestown-Verrazzano Bridge does not have a bike lane. Set out early to avoid the beach traffic and to get the most out of your day! While sunrise over the ocean possesses a majestic, almost Genesis-like quality, you do not necessarily have to leave that early to take advantage of all that there is to see and do, but arrival by 9 AM is recommended, especially on weekends.

Conanicut Island is home to many historical sites and wilderness trails that can make for an educational and physically invigorating day of family fun. As you start over the Jamestown-Verrazano Bridge (named so because residents outright refused to call it the Verrazano Bridge) you will see all that now stands of the original Jamestown Bridge. Hopes remain that it will be turned into a fishing pier, and so it remains – an old soldier that has not yet faded away and a reminder that in Jamestown, residents cling to the old ways.

In addition to its quaintness, Jamestown also holds tight to its New England quirks. The island of Conanicut runs north to south, in spite of what the signs for the main road through the town, Route 138, say (which have the island running east to west). Once on the island, there are two paths you can take; I would suggest the road less traveled, notable for its lack of blinking signage informing tourists that it is “THIS WAY TO NEWPORT!”. Route 138 West is the direct route to the southernmost point of the island, where you will find Beavertail State Park and its acres of open space that overlook the Atlantic; trails to walk and fields for picnicking; an explosion of color from wildflowers and the Monarch butterflies that flock to them; historical sites; restroom facilities; and best of all, plenty of free parking!

Pictures do not do this view justice...
Beavertail itself is a wonder to behold, its rock formations etched naturally into the landscape. There are broad, flat cliffs for children to frolic as well as more challenging bluffs to scale. Fault lines remain as a reminder of the Ice Age bergs that once covered the land. The smell of the sea permeates the air, and mingles with that of rusted iron, an ore that infuses the rocks and is oxidized by the salty atmosphere. As the tide goes out from this rocky outcropping, the extent of the cliff formations becomes obvious, as does the reason why Colonists built a lighthouse to warn ships of the unseen dangers that lurk beneath the waves. Like many stops in Jamestown, Beavertail is rich in Early American History; if you stop into the Beavertail Light Museum, you can explore the history of this locally infamous maritime landmark.

As beautiful as Beavertail is, there are many other sites to see and things to do in Jamestown, so unload your bicycles and start for the Town Center, which is only four miles away down a safe and scenic road that is little traveled by car. In fact, cyclists are frequently seen riding down the center of the street, spread out like a mobile game of Red Rover, while the occasional car waits for them to move aside.

Cyclists rarely do, much to the frustration of motor vehicles

A scant three miles from Beavertail Park is Mackerel Cove, a beach so tame that mothers allow their infants to sit on its shores and play in the tide pools that develop during low tide. By this point in your journey, cyclists might be ready for a quick break and Mackerel Cove is the perfect place to take one. During the summer, the water is as warm as bathwater, with sand so soft it feels like cake flour. Seagulls perch on a large rock that is known as Seagull Rock. The birds know that minnows and other small fish – as well as juveniles of much larger species, such as kingfish – can be easily caught in these waters, which makes Mackerel Cove the perfect place for them to find a meal and for young children to have a successful fishing excursion. (Just be on the lookout for "Fred", the lunch-snatching seagull who has grown accustomed to humans).

Are you hungry for a mid-morning snack? Town Center is only a mile away; you will know that you have reached it when you reach a four-way stop. Redundantly, there will also be a set of red caution lights, blinking in synchronicity like the world’s tamest disco. Just through the intersection is The Village Hearth Bakery and Café, where everything is baked fresh or bought locally. The smell of the wood-burning oven mingles with the bread dough it is baking, calling to hungry patrons like a Pied Piper’s tune. Local ownership keeps Jamestown “pure, sleepy, and old-fashioned”, says Sarah, the cashier at the locally owned Cumberland Farms that serves as “the local Friday night hangout”, according to Andrew, another local who knows the island as well as he knows his own backyard. With all this localness, don’t worry about not being welcomed; Islanders are very outgoing. They are also very talkative, and love to tell visitors about their home.

Even if you skip The Village Hearth, your children are sure to notice the large public playground that stands diagonally across the street. Painted in jolly pastels and bright pinks and purples it “looks like a rainbow threw up on it”, according to one bakery patron. I suggest stopping on the return trip; there is still much ground to cover to see the many sites that Jamestown has to offer. I also suggest stopping in at Cumberland Farms to pick up a Conanicut Island Walking Trails Guide. It only costs $1.00, and details the many walking paths that will put you up close and personal with the wildlife that inhabits the island – deer; rabbits; raccoon;  foxes; and other small creatures. Children and adults alike will enjoy looking for animal tracks and remnants of growing juveniles creatures, such as shed snake skins and lost teeth, while the fresh, woodsy scented air reinvigorates both body and spirit.

One more mile or so down the road will deliver you to the Windmill Hill Historic District and Zeke’s Creek, the best place to observe the drastic differences between the high and low tides! Be certain to take note of the water level and compare it to the level you see on your return trip; the tides at Zeke’s Creek are extreme, going from tide pools and mud flats  to near flooding, and will fascinate young and old alike. There is also a Farmer’s Market across the street with fresh fruits, vegetables, and meats for sale, along with farmers who will be happy to talk about the life of a working farmer. You might even get to pet the livestock!

Route 138 is full of rolling hills, but the pedaling required to reach the top of Windmill Hill is well worth the panoramic view of farmlands, ocean, the Newport (official name: Pell) Bridge, and the windmill itself, built in 1787, after British forces burned the original one to the ground during the Revolutionary Battle of Rhode Island. The windmill, on the National Register of Historic Places, has undergone extensive renovations, which explain why it is in remarkably good condition rather than appearing to have lost a joust with Don Quixote. While there, stop in at the glass blowing shop that is on the premises and see the master artisan at work!

On your way back to Beavertail, you will want to stop somewhere for something to eat. While downtown Jamestown has many restaurants, from pizzerias to fine dining to homemade ice cream (check out Scoops, on the docks, by turning left at the disco-dancing caution lights), why not visit McQuade’s Market to pick up provisions for a picnic? As Jamestown’s answer to Whole Foods, McQuade’s offers a variety of prepared foods and sandwiches that are “made fresh daily from local ingredients with no added preservatives”, offers Sarah, who does double duty at McQuade’s deli after finishing her shift at Cumberland Farms. With offerings that range from sandwiches to prepared dinners, there is something to meet everyone’s tastes.

Even more amazing in person!

Upon returning to Beavertail, the park will be quite populated with visitors who have come to see its panoramic views and uniquely large waves, which clap like thunder on even the calmest days. While you will be glad that you claimed a parking spot earlier in the day, there is always plenty of space to spread out – with 153 acres of land, you are bound to find a cozy spot to sit, relax, and watch the sun set over the ocean. In Jamestown, there is always something to do if you know where to look for it. If you find it, try to keep it a secret from the party-goers; the islanders will thank you for it.
Gracious appreciation to the Jamestown Chamber of Commerce for their insights on island living, and to the employees and residents of Jamestown, without the help of whom this article would not have been possible to write. --T.K.'s Mommie

Ask Tazi! is ghostwritten by a human with a Bachelors of Arts in Communications. Tazi-Kat is not really a talking feline.

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