PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- It only takes about an hour to drive across Rhode Island, which is wedged between Massachusetts and Connecticut and straddles picturesque Narragansett Bay, but its pleasures are many. It boasts stunning wide, sandy beaches and architecture that goes back to Colonial times. Newport and other communities became a summer playground for the rich during the Gilded Age, but you don't have be a Vanderbilt to enjoy the Ocean State. Many of its most interesting spots don't cost a thing.
Cliff walk: A walking trail that dates back centuries is one of Rhode Island's most impressive attractions. It runs alongside the Atlantic Ocean and some of Newport's most beautiful mansions, known as "summer cottages" to the families that built them in the 1800s. Around two-thirds of the 3½-mile trail is currently closed because of damage from Superstorm Sandy, but the most heavily traveled parts are still open. The walk runs along private property, so stopping for extended periods is not allowed. But there is a seating area along the trail outside The Breakers mansion, built for the Vanderbilts, and it's the perfect spot to eat a picnic lunch.
Waterfire: This simple concept, lighting bonfires in the rivers of downtown Providence, has become a wildly successful public art project, drawing tens of thousands of people to each lighting. It runs more than a dozen nights a year, and on some nights stages are set up that feature free live music or dancing. Despite the crowds, the mood is calm and relaxed as people chill out listening to music piped into the river way, watching fire dancers or gazing at the flames from the shore.
The schedule for the rest of 2013 includes lightings scheduled for Aug. 24, Sept. 7, Sept. 21, Sept. 28, Oct. 5, Oct. 12 and Nov. 9. Details at http://waterfire.org/schedule/2013-waterfire-event-schedule/ .
The Providence Athenaeum: With roots dating back to 1753, this private library is one of the oldest in the country. It is housed in a Greek Revival-style granite building that neighbors Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design. Edgar Allan Poe courted poet Sarah Helen Whitman here, and legend has it she called off their wedding within the Athenaeum's walls. You don't need a membership to browse, and just as interesting as the books are the surroundings, which include a skylit central room surrounded by stacks.
The Athenaeum is closed to the public through Sunday, Aug. 18, but otherwise open 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday to Thursday; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Fridays; and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays. From September to May, it's open Saturdays until 5 p.m. as well as Sundays from 1 to 5 p.m.
Benefit Street: On the doorstep of the Athenaeum is historic Benefit Street, a milelong stretch of notable buildings. The brick sidewalk will take you past Colonial, Federal and Greek Revival-style homes, Rhode Island's Old Statehouse and the white stone First Unitarian Church, built in 1815. You'll also pass alongside the First Baptist Church in America, a congregation founded by colonist Roger Williams, champion of the separation of church and state, an idea later enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.
Watch Hill: A seaside village in Westerly on the Connecticut border, Watch Hill has become known most recently as the summer home of pop star Taylor Swift. She recently bought a house here and has been spotted frequently. The area was hit badly by Superstorm Sandy, which washed away much of the sand on the beaches and deposited some of it in its quaint shops. Watch Hill has recovered from the damage, and its sandy beaches on Block Island Sound are, as usual, the best reason to visit.