06 Oct The Providence WaterFire Festival
The night was full of autumn; frosty dark air, the taste of hot apple cider and the smell of wood smoke. Our boat cut a smooth path down the river while the orange heat of bonfires blazing on the water’s surface warmed our noses. I like to think of myself as an expert planner, but sometimes the best travel experiences turn out to be totally unexpected, like the Providence WaterFire Festival.
*Update: you can read our complete 2016 New England Fall Foliage Guide here. This includes tips on where on when to see the best foliage, what to eat, which festivals to visit, how much our fall trip to New England cost and our favourite destinations in New England.*
Rhode Island is both the smallest state and the one with the longest official name: Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. As we discovered, Rhode Island’s small presence on the map can be misleading, as it is in fact home to many important historical events and some of the most beautiful places we’ve discovered so far in New England.
Providence was founded in 1636 by the British settler Roger Williams, who strongly believed in the separation of church and state. Williams was exiled from Massachusetts for his beliefs, which led him to establish the Providence Plantations, a haven of religious freedom. Later, Rhode Island became the first state to declare independence from the British, but it was also the last to ratify the US Constitution because it held out for a Bill of Rights to be instated. The First Amendment of the Bill echoes Williams’ beliefs, stating that: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Today, Rhode Island is a bustling cultural and historical hub, home to prestigious Universities and design schools, art museums, cute cafes and impressive landmarks. We wandered around the vibrant Italian Quarter and discovered streets full of cheap eateries next to Brown University’s grassy quad. We visited the Roger Williams Memorial Park and toured the stunning State House, which has the fourth largest self-supported marble dome in the world after such buildings as St Peter’s Basilica and the Taj Mahal.
The Providence WaterFire Festival
The highlight of our time in Providence was without a doubt WaterFire, an event which takes place almost every Saturday during the summer and on sporadic weekends throughout the rest of the year (the Providence WaterFire schedule is available on the official website). The WaterFire Providence is an arts project run by a non-profit organisation interested in: “Revitalising the urban experience, fostering community engagement and creatively transforming the city.”
During the WaterFire over 80 bonfires are lit on the river as darkness falls, they flicker on past midnight, accompanied by dramatic music as boat-loads of volunteers cruise up and down the water, replenishing fire wood throughout the night. There are also fire dancers on the riverside, street stalls, food and entertainment and a festival vibe.
After hearing about the WaterFire from an enthusiastic man at the Providence Visitor centre, we were keen to attend; I hoped the experience would be something akin to Bonfire Night in the UK, my favourite festival and one I’ve now missed for the third year running. I wasn’t disappointed. Bundled up against the autumnal weather, which had finally kicked-in with full force, we made our way downtown as darkness began to fall and the fires were lit. Rows of spectators lined the riverbanks, legs dangling over the water to bask in the orange glow of the fires and watch the flaming reflections flicker on the water’s surface.
We bought cups of deliciously sweet-sour hot apple cider to warm up our hands and insides . Recently we discovered that American cider isn’t alcoholic, like it is back in the UK, after Andrew asked a puzzled shop-keeper how strong her cider was. Still, the non-alchoholic stuff is pretty delicious and tastes just how autumn should.
Further along the river the pavement gave way to a park filled with statues and lights. Drawing closer we noticed that the statues were actually intricately dressed and made-up living gargoyles. In the park paper lanterns with messages on them lined the paths and blue stars bearing wishes hung from the trees.
Our WaterFire ended with a spectacular boat-ride down the river. Even as my face froze from the icy breeze I couldn’t stop smiling as we sailed alongside dancing clusters of flames. Gondolas passed by us as and we glided along; bright artificial lights from office buildings and specks from silver stars joined the fire light. My lasting memory of Providence is the wavering reflections of the city on the river’s surface and the warm crackle and orange glow of wood burning on an autumn evening.