It wasn’t too long ago that the only things I knew about Providence involved crooked politicians and the city’s large number of . . . um, gentlemen’s clubs. However, the once-maligned capital of Rhode Island has undergone a major renaissance. The city is slowly recognizing the value of its waterfront and the Providence River as major highlights, and is starting to make an effort to attract boaters. The work of environmental group Save The Bay, whose headquarters is located on a former dump at Fields Point just south of the city, has also done much to raise awareness of the aquatic treasures that lie at the city’s doorstep, and t help clean up and restore the bay’s waters.
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Yet Providence still doesn’t offer much for visiting boaters. Downtown Marina, located behind the hurricane barrier, has but a handful of transient slips. There are a couple more slips on the Seekonk River at the Oyster House Marina and the East Providence Yacht Club, but otherwise boaters have to drop anchor or grab a slip or mooring a few miles downriver. That’s also where you’ll need to look if you need fuel up or work done on your boat.
The city’s major planning document—a text called Providence 2020—has called for more access to be created for recreational boaters, but that’s been slow to happen, especially given the economy. Officials realize that lower Narragansett Bay is maxed out with marinas and that the Providence area is the logical place for growth. Providing access to boaters would certainly help business in Providence, and there are plenty of things for boaters to enjoy.
On the East side of the river, cyclists can pedal along the scenic 13-mile East Bay Bike Path, which runs from East Providence to Bristol. The path will eventually cross the river at India Point Park, allowing easy access to downtown. India Point Park itself has athletic fields, a wonderful waterside playground and a scenic walkway that ends at the Community Boating Center, where residents can come to sail and row on the river.
Just beyond India Point Park is the rejuvenated neighborhood of Fox Point, which has a laidback, college-town feel about it. Fliers covering telephone poles advertise lectures, theater and music shows, activist meetings and restaurants. The aromas from nearby restaurants fill the air.
Follow the waterfront westward, and you’ll find yourself on the east bank of the Providence River, just inside the hurricane barrier. The riprap here is a popular shore-fishing spot, where some surprisingly large stripers are taken in the early season. Nearby, shops, clubs and restaurants, all within easy walking distance of the venerable Downtown Marina, represent the city’s new face.
Talk to local businesspeople about what spawned the city’s renaissance and many will credit the extensive construction. Others may mention all the new restaurants. However, almost everyone will point to one thing: WaterFire. Several times each summer and into the fall, WaterFire organizers light fires in roughly 100 braziers running down the middle of the Providence River as it flows through the heart of the city. Artist Barnaby Evans started the events more than 10 years ago to attract people to Providence River Park, which comprises more than a mile of scenic walkways and 7 acres of open space along the river.
Not long ago, much of the Providence River was literally buried beneath the city, covered by industrial lots and freight yards. Only recently has it been uncovered and celebrated as part of the city’s facelift that was largely spearheaded by the colorful—and now infamous—former mayor Vincent “Buddy” Cianci.
During the day, shallow-draft skiffs, dinghies and kayaks can access this part of the Providence River. Indeed, idling or paddling north along the river in a small boat or kayak is a great way to see the city, and some businesses have docks where boaters can tie up briefly. Just be sure to keep an eye on the water level, as the river is quite shallow in spots, especially at low tide. When the WaterFire braziers are burning, though, the river is off-limits to the boating public.
On a WaterFire nights, the burning fires along the water look like something out of medieval Europe. Adding to that feeling are candlelit chandeliers hung along the walkways beneath the Exchange Street and Waterplace Bridges. In fact, I have to think that if WaterFire were held in a major world city, it would be as much of a must-do experience as visiting the Eiffel Tower in Paris or walking the Charles Bridge in Prague. Of course, Providence doesn’t have the cachet of Paris or Prague . . . well, at least not yet.