Travel

Why drive to Newport when you can float instead?

courtesy of RIDOT

It has been gliding through Narragansett Bay multiple times a day each summer since 2016 — and yet the Providence-to-Newport ferry is somewhat of a locals’ secret.

Most passengers live within just 25 miles of Providence, according to survey data, said Brett Chamberlain, director of marketing for SeaStreak, which operates the ferry along with a number of others in the Northeast.

But psst, visitors: Riding the ferry, a 65-foot catamaran named the Ocean State, is an easy and affordable way to take in the beauty of the state and Narragansett Bay, deemed an “estuary of national significance,” by Congress.

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“The bay is arguably one of Rhode Island’s best natural resources, and we don’t have any other transportation services that traverse it like this one,” said Rhode Island Department of Transportation spokesperson Charles St. Martin.

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Before experiencing it, though, I didn’t fully understand why anyone with access to a vehicle would opt for the one-hour boat ride to Newport, and the rigidity of the ferry schedule, instead of driving there from Providence. Even with summertime traffic, it takes roughly the same amount of time to travel between the two cities by car.

It turns out that there are practical as well as leisure-related benefits to using the seasonal ferry, operated by SeaStreak through a Rhode Island Department of Transportation program.

Partially funded by the Federal Highway Administration’s Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality program, the service was launched in 2016. Its main goal? Get vehicles off the road to reduce air pollution and traffic.

Using the ferry is generally more affordable than spending money on gas and parking in Newport. Tickets cost $11 for adults and $5.50 for children, seniors and those with disabilities, and passengers are permitted to bring bikes and surfboards on board for free. Free parking, which can be difficult to come by in Newport during the summer, is available at the Providence Ferry Terminal. There’s also a shuttle that connects the dock with Providence’s Amtrak station.

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While it’s still in its pilot stage, the Providence to Newport ferry has been well received so far, with ticket sales increasing each year since it began in 2016, according to St. Martin. This season, the DOT added new weekend stops in the town of Bristol. In addition, regular service, between the India Street Ferry Terminal, in Providence, and Perrotti Park, in Newport, has been extended until Oct. 14 this year. It previously ended right after Labor Day.

With a capacity of 149 people, the two-level ferry is smaller than the SeaStreak vessels that travel to Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. “It’s our baby,” said John Silvia, a SeaStreak general manager who oversees the company’s operations in Providence and New Bedford.

When I used the service on a sunny Sunday afternoon earlier this summer, there was a mildly irritating 20-minute to half-hour delay to board. But any annoyance eased once I made my way onto the boat and stepped up to the open-air top level.

Think instant vacation mode.

Fellow travelers, everyone from older couples to groups of teenagers, seemed to be in the same easygoing frame of mind, whether they were snapping selfies at the hull of the boat or sipping a cold Narragansett beer from the first-level bar. Some held overnight bags, while others gripped dog leashes — animals are welcome on board free of charge.

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As the sun’s bright rays glistened on the waves, I leaned back in my upper-level seat and immersed myself in the view of Narragansett Bay for the full hourlong ride. The bay is a relatively narrow body of water, so you can see the shorelines of at least 10 towns and cities on both sides of the boat during the trip. I delighted in my attempt to spot as many landmarks as I could along the way: The Providence skyline, including the iconic Industrial National Bank Building (more commonly known as the Superman Building). Claiborne Pell Newport Bridge. Fort Adams. The US Naval War College. Rose Island Lighthouse.

Once we neared Newport, I understood why, as Silvia said, some people immediately head back on the next trip to Providence. The ride had lulled me into total relaxation and I didn’t necessarily want to move.

“We have some regulars, a lot of retirees, who will just go back and forth,” Silvia said. During the high season, the last trip back to Providence leaves at 9:30 p.m.

But I couldn’t let myself arrive in Newport on a sunny summer day only to turn right around. The four or so hours between our arrival and scheduled departure ended up being an ideal amount of time for a friend and I to eat a leisurely lunch downtown, walk around Bowen’s and Bannister’s wharfs, and make a quick stop at Easton’s Beach to stretch out on the sand.

Later, back on the boat as it maneuvered toward Providence, we stood at the stern and vowed to never again endure the stress of a traffic-filled drive to Newport. Now we know that we can float there instead.

For more information, including schedules and tickets, call 800-262- 8743 or go to ridethebayri.com. Ferries arrive and depart from Seastreak Ferry Terminal, 25 India St., Providence; State Street Pier, Bristol; and Perrotti Park, 39 America’s Cup Ave., Newport.

Jenna Pelletier can be reached at jennapelletier@gmail.com.