Despite its small size, Rhode Island boasts a prodigious list of nicknames. There is the Plantation State (from its official name, Rhode Island and Providence Plantations), the Smallest State (no explanation needed), and, affectionately, Little Rhody. Still, there is one title that rises above the rest, the only one to have made its way to the bottom of all Rhode Island license plates and up onto the billboards welcoming visiting drivers. That is the Ocean State — a tagline in part conceived for tourism purposes, but with significant geography to back it up.
Rhode Island comprises approximately 1200 square miles. Of these, only 1000 are land. The remaining 200 hundred are inlets and bays counted within the state border, which together create over 400 miles of coastline. State legislators have named an official State Yacht (The Courageous, US-12/26), an official State Tall Ship (a replica of The Providence), and, most importantly, as of June 27, 2014, an official State Appetizer (calamari). Even if this watery pride extends to the highest levels of state government, it is not immediately clear to a visitor.
I have been told that Providence is close the sea. How can I be sure? Yes, there is good seafood in the city. Yes, the river that cuts East Providence off from Downtown must empty out somewhere. Yet during all my time at Brown — approximately 12 weeks — I have never heard talk of a beach. Maybe I just don’t spend enough time with the sailing team, but Newport has entered the conversation only in the way that the Rio Grande or Istanbul might — as the origin of an exchange student, not the destination for a day trip.
Then, I discovered the Brown-RISD beach (or, technically, I heard of it from a friend). Either way, the beach and its surrounding area in Barrington, RI are owned by RISD and reserved exclusively for the use of the students, staff and alumni of both schools. In peak months, a guard even makes rounds to check IDs. What could be better than a private vacation destination for exclusively college students — a spring break in any month? Well, a lot. Or, at least, that’s what some locals want you to believe.
The Yelp Reviews do not paint a particularly promising picture of the place. The beach garners three-stars, a rating that would steer me clear of any restaurant. Common complaints revolve around the grime of the sand, its size, and the grime of the ocean — just about everything that makes beach-going worthwhile. Meanwhile, the highest praise comes from the locals who find the location convenient. Unfortunately, at twenty-five minutes out from College Hill, this is not the case for students at the schools for whom the beach is named.
Well, I had to see for myself. Would the beach live up to its mediocre reviews?
To start, the drive is inconvenient but not unpleasant, especially if you skip out on I-95 (which I did because I hate highway driving) and wind your way through the slower streets of East Providence, where the last leaves are falling and traffic is never halting. Zipcar is the best bet (there are many lots around Brown) since the beach has free parking.
Upon arrival, you may be inclined to rub your eyes in disbelief and wonder who wrote the reviews. Either reviewers have an unexplained vendetta, or locals love it too much to let the secret out, because the Brown/RISD beach has a rich and unexpected beauty. On your way to the sand, you wind your way through a grassy park, walk through fields of tall grass, and then pass through scrub that shines red like fox fur. RISD students can take painting classes out here, and I can understand why they are willing to make the half hour drive. When I arrive at sunset, the sky is an impressionist painting with the painter’s whole palate — dashes of violet, red and deep purple. In fairness, not everything is perfect. Seashells do fill up the sand, and seaweed does litter the ocean, but the entire effect of looking in both directions and seeing nothing except ocean, sand, and sky, as far as your gaze can reach, is magical. Beaches in my mind — and in my experience — are a social experiment in personal space. How many speedo-ed men can you fit per square foot? Will the real estate for my towel always be at a premium? Many and yes are too often the answers.
At this beach, you will have no such worries, especially as frosty air chases away the last locals. You will have the entirety of the space to yourself and then some. Bring friends for that reason.
But bring friends also because there are many social activities for which the Brown-RISD beach is perfect: going for a walk, going for a long walk, or simply standing and staring at the ocean.
Unfortunately, however, other undertakings will not work as well. Here, reviewers are spot on. The rocky sands make lying down literally painful; beach picnics are better suited for softer grounds. Choppy waves make any sort of strenuous swimming difficult. For that matter, since water temperatures have sunk to the forties, pleasure swimming is also out of the question. Even taking off your shoes and dipping your feet into the water will send chills (not the good kind) up your legs and into your spine.
But even if you cannot touch the ocean, you should still take the time to listen. I, for one, have always found listening to the rhythm of the waves a way to recuperate from any stress. Especially now, in winter, there is a particular beauty to visiting the beach, a feeling of transgression not far from magic. The sand is not warm as it should be, and water is not calm as you envision it to be. Wind churns the waves, and the waves, released, churn the sand on the shore. The beach passes through all seasons, whether or not we are there to observe it. If you’re lucky enough to visit in winter, take time to appreciate its odd, magical beauty. Don’t let the bad reviews scare you away.
Photograph by Jack Hegarty.