Welcome to Woonsterly!

Exploring Rhode Island's north and south border towns
By PHILIP EIL  |  July 23, 2014

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Misquamicut Beach [Photo by Natalja Kent]

The first thing you need to know about summer visits to Woonsocket and Westerly — the respective north and south “poles” of Rhode Island — is that you don’t need a passport to get to either town. Not only are they both in the same country where you’re likely reading this article, they’re each probably within less than an hour’s drive.

The second thing you need to know is that neither town is particular well served by its loudest media coverage. There’s a lot more to Westerly than Taylor Swift’s $17 million, fenced-in mega mansion in Watch Hill with custom-made signs at the foot of the driveway reading, “I knew you were trouble when you walked in. NO TRESPASSING.” And there’s a lot more to Woonsocket than the shopping frenzies that mark the beginning of every month. (A memorable Washington Post story from March 2013, “Food Stamps Put Rhode Island Town On Monthly Boom-and-Bust Cycle,” was part of a Pulitzer Prize-winning series. It’s well worth a read, but not today’s subject of discussion.)

Yes, it’s time to toss your warped notions of how long it takes to travel 15 miles — the actual distance between downtown Providence and downtown Woonsocket – and come along for an exploration of our state’s hinterlands.

Why?

Because Newport and Narragansett are summer clichés, that’s why.

 

WESTERLY

POPULATION: 17,936, according to 2010 US Census

DISTANCE FROM PROVIDENCE: 43 miles (about 50 minutes by car, without traffic)

START YOUR DAY WITH: Beer.

The building at 63 Canal Street has been a macaroni factory, a post office, and an auto-supply store. Now, blessedly, it’s home to  Grey Sail Brewery , which, at 1 pm on a Saturday and Sunday, should be your first stop in town. If you get there right at opening time, you’ll be one of the first to sidle up to the bar, choose a collectible receptacle (ranging from $5 to $10, depending on the type), and receive five poker chips — each representing a chance to sample a different kind of suds. Whatever hue you prefer, from the milky Hazy Day Belgian Wit to the rich, dark Leaning Chimney Smoked Porter, beer always tastes better at the source. But a word of advice: designate a driver before you head in, since the word “sample” at Grey Sail seems to be synonymous with “half a pint glass.”

WHAT NOW? In the “Choose Your Own Adventure” of a weekend afternoon in Westerly, you’ve got two very different options. If you’re the quiet, bookish, nerdy type, we recommend heading to the  Babcock-Smith House Museum to immerse yourself in the town’s glorious granite history.

Westerly, if you didn’t know, played a fairly dominant role in the late-1800s granite game, and the museum’s surprisingly badass website, babcock-smithhouse.com, will show just how popular Rhody-quarried and Rhody-crafted monuments were. (The “Westerly Granite throughout the US” map features only a handful of blank spots.) While the Babcock-Smith granite museum is still in construction and scheduled to open this fall, you can still receive a guided tour of the historic house of early settler and prominent Westerly citizen, Dr. Joshua Babcock — a place brimming with old-school oddities like wooden commode chairs and framed needlework samplers.

If you’re interested in the complete opposite of this experience, punch “ Misquamicut Beach ” into your GPS and cruise your way into the Ocean State version of Jersey Shore. Muscles, boobs, tattoos, techno music, the intermingling scents of buffalo sauce and tanning oil — it’s all here on Westerly’s beachside strip, Atlantic Avenue.

Heaven to some, Hell to others, Atlantic Ave. — lined by establishments like the  Purple Ape , the  Sand Castle Inn , and the  Windjammer Surf Bar — is a sliver of Americana that any informed local citizen ought to experience. If you’re hungry, there’s plenty of fried stuff and ice cream to gobble down. And if you’re thirsty, there’s no shortage of neon cocktails served in fishbowls.

A FEW GOOGLE KEYWORDS FOR OUTDOORSY FOLKS:Ninigret Park ” “hiking trails”

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The Pink Poodle Parlor [Photo by Natalja Kent]

RETAIL EXCURSION: Unless you have a small dog in need of grooming, there’s no practical reason to stop into the  Pink Poodle Parlor downtown.

But, wait; yes, there is. Everyone should experience walking into a store to be met by a pink Christmas tree loaded with dangling poodle ornaments and an array of fuzzy, adorable creatures behind the counter — one of which is in the process of having its mane blow-dried — staring back at you with heart-melting eyes. If you are not moved by this place, you have no soul.

EVENING ENTERTAINMENT: Though the famous  Ocean House — the stately goliath perched on a hill overlooking the Atlantic, where it seems to cost $3.50 to even sneeze on the premises — was recently ranked the #1 resort hotel in the continental US by Travel + Leisure, we didn’t make our past the front door, due to a prominent sign reading “PLEASE NO JEANS.” Oh, well.

Instead, might we recommend a few more down-to-earth options?

1) The $10-per-car drive-in movies at  Wuskenau Town Beach on Thursday evenings in July and August. More info at: misquamicut.org.

2) “Shakespeare in the Park,” Southern Rhode Island-style, via the  Colonial Theatre ’s presentation of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) in downtown Westerly’s lush, gorgeous Wilcox Park. The performance is free, though $10 donations are suggested. More info at: thecolonialtheater.org.

3) A one-night-only Vaudeville Variety show at the United Theater on Friday, July 25, hosted by the inimitable Miss Wensday, and featuring ragtime piano, a barbershop quartet, a circus performer, and Kristen Minsky’s Chifferobe Tropigals performing dance routines inspired by the classic movies. More info at facebook.com/TheUnitedTheatre. A livestream is also available at new.livestream.com/unitedtheatre/events/3185579 at 7:30 pm on the night of the show.

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The bamboo forest at the Fantastic Umbrella Factory [Photo by Natalja Kent]

ON YOUR WAY OUT OF TOWN: If someone told you there was a place in Rhode Island to stroll through a bamboo forest; take a selfie with an emu; and purchase reggae CDs, soy candles, mood rings, and flowers; you’d probably tell them to shut up and pass the spliff. Alternatively, you could ask them for the address and name, in which case they’d tell you, “ The Fantastic Umbrella Factory ” and “4820 Old Post Road, in Charlestown.”

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