Home to an endless selection of beaches, nature parks, and acres of farmland to explore, South County is ripe with adventuring opportunities, no matter your age, and a winter cooped up indoors through the last leg of this pandemic is sure to have many kiddos climbing the walls. Fortunately, with sunnier weather on the horizon, the family destinations we may have missed out on last year are making a comeback too, whether your definition of fun is outdoor theater, brushing up on shark facts, cuddling with alpacas, or good old-fashioned bumper boats. Folks looking for day trips with the whole fam – or even a friend group made up of kids-at-heart – will find plenty to celebrate this season. Even as more and more of us are vaccinated, masking up is still a thing, and it never hurts to call ahead as you map out your itinerary of South County jaunts.
As the waters are warming up, and as per Rhode Island tradition, you can expect one or two shark sightings (or is that a sunfish fin?) along the coast, so there’s no better time for families to learn about the diverse natural environments we share a home with. The free-admission Living Sharks Museum in Westerly is a no-brainer for any budding enthusiast and uncovers these prehistoric predators’ history, habitats, and modern conservation with real fossils and eye-opening exhibits. Head over to Biomes Marine Biology Center in North Kingstown for hands-on encounters with living specimens like horseshoe crabs and to see their new shark and stingray tank. A pandemic adaptation that remains is the option to rent out the Biomes aquarium for a birthday party or school group and have the place to yourself. For a full day or nature enlightenment, hike the woodlands, fields, and waterways of the Environmental Education Center on the Alton Jones Campus, where URI students and faculty conduct research, and try your hand (or eye) at astronomy, mapping the stars on a clear spring night at Frosty Drew Observatory and Science Center.
Young history buffs will find plenty of enticement in South County, too. If last summer’s closures had you itching to return to immersive docent tours and spring festivals, Gilbert Stuart Birthplace and Museum in Saunderstown reopened for the season last month to once again welcome visitors into the famous George Washington portraitist’s home, and in North Kingstown, Smith Castle’s opening day is May 1, featuring The Rhode Island Pirate Players, a presentation on The Women of Cocumscussoc, and more family fun. Home to a flock of Rhode Island Red chickens (our state bird!), South County Museum in Narragansett houses experiential collections and exhibits to explore 19th-century life, and additional spring events are in the works. While an in-person opening date is yet to be announced at press time, the Indigenous education center Tomaquag Museum hosts regular cultural programming over Zoom; look for a new museum planned for an 18-acre site in South Kingstown where ancestors of the Niantic and Narragansett tribal nations once lived.
Days are longer, the weather is nicer, and while local beaches are a playground in their own right, nothing beats a day in the sun duking it out in bumper boats or testing your daring 20 feet high with the Extreme Big Air Jumper. That’s right: Narragansett’s Adventureland is back for the season, so kids can let out some steam in the batting cage, and let’s face it, you’re never too old to tee up for a round of mini-golf. Pro tip: Start planning those summer birthdays early by booking all-inclusive adventures complete with a slice of ‘za, cool T-shirt, and more. Over in Exeter, you can beat the heat at the Yawgoo Valley water park come July, and hit the waterslides or splash around in the kiddie pool. Younger kids will love taking a spin around the old-timey Watch Hill Merry Go-Round (with tickets only $1-$2 for a ride!), whose 1883 restored flying horses hang from rods and chains rather than mounted to a platform, and kids can reach out to catch a brass ring as they’re going around.
For coastal fun, there’s Atlantic Beach Park, which celebrates 100 years this summer and remains a classic boardwalk excursion in every sense: Think hot dogs and lobster rolls from the Windjammer Snack Bar, adirondack chairs for the folks to take a breather, and an arcade with classic games. The 1915 Herschell-Spillman Carousel is a showstopper, along with other rides in the summer. See all our Rhody shores have to offer by boat with day-trips and other special voyages aboard Conanicut Marina’s Coastal Queen departing from Jamestown and Newport, and bring your binoculars for a lighthouse tour with RI Bay Cruises in North Kingstown. Make a game of spotting seals, sea gulls, and other marine life, too!
You don’t need to be an athlete to get active...or to imitate the pros ahead of the Summer Olympics. Fun fact: This year’s games in Tokyo debut the sport of rock climbing, so thrill-seeking kids can give it a try with after-school and weekend programs at Rock Spot Climbing in Peace Dale, or harness up as a family and hit the wall after a short orientation that comes with your day pass. Max capacity is 60, but a live tracker lets you check online to see the facility’s volume before you head over. If teeing up is more your speed, Westerly Virtual Golf houses two socially distanced simulators that replicate the green, but in a climate-controlled setting. Starting this spring, they’re offering a special low rate for families of up to four. Or for a simulation closer to a battlefield, Warzone Paintball & Airsoft in Saunderstown lets you choose adventures for kids 7+ or 10+ and families to let out some steam playing,
essentially, the ultimate game of tag.
Of course, there’s plenty of classic recreation, too – whether the fam’s into gliding in circles around the rink at Boss Ice Arena in Kingston or going for a leisurely horseback ride. Make a ferry trip over to Block Island even more special with guided trail riding along the beach or through nature preserves with Rustic Ride Farm’s noble steeds. Stepping Stone Ranch in West Greenwich is gearing up for summer riding camps for the kiddos, plus lessons and programming for all levels. See the sights of South County from the seat of a bike with rentals from places like Beach Rose Bicycles, Far Out! (offering surf and skate rentals, too), Island Moped, Napatree Bikes, NBX Bikes, Old Harbour Bike Shop, Providence Bicycle Warwick, or Stedman’s Bike Shop (ask about helmet and protective gear rentals, too!).
All the world may be a stage for many young minds, but the lack of theater last summer likely has the creative juices flowing all the more strongly this year. Thankfully, as we take baby steps back into normal, many performance outlets are back, including the Contemporary Theater Company in Wakefield with a full summer season to be staged on their outdoor performance patio. For a day of whimsy, the company also hosts the Fairy Tea Party (an inclusive event for magic-enthusiasts of any gender) on May 30, featuring private tables with finger sandwiches and an enchanting walk through Kinney Azalea Gardens. While summer schedules have yet to be announced at press, watch for updates from Rhode Island Youth Theater in North Kingstown and Theatre By The Sea in Wakefield for their family-geared programming, too.
A trip to The Fantastic Umbrella Factory is sure to quell early summer boredom with a stroll around Charlestown’s landmark international bazaar, featuring a general store filled with candy and toys, henna body art (safe for kids and cool for grown-ups, too!), and The Purple Shell trading post with traditional Eastern Native crafts and wares. With inspiration renewed, set out to create your own arts and crafts projects at Create Color Art Studio in Narragansett for ceramic and canvas painting (plus DIY art kits to-go), Clayground in East Greenwich for pottery crafts, or Rebekah Cook Art in Wakefield for paint nights – all great choices for handmade Mother’s Day momentos, too.
If the paintbrush isn’t your first choice to foster imaginative thinking, Riddle Room in East Greenwich and Warwick is here for the puzzle solvers in the family willing to lead the way pursuing treasure in the Forest of Fortune or acting as private investigator in a murder mystery. Each of these escape room adventures can be cracked by solving riddles, thinking outside the box, and of course, teamwork. With rooms now open for private groups, bring the whole family and see who has prowess in connecting the dots.
There’s no better way to encourage stubborn eaters to finish their greens than to see where the fresh veggies on their plate come from (or that’s the hope, anyway!). A spring gardening project can start with a trip to Casey Farm in Saunderstown, where the Coastal Growers Market takes place Saturdays beginning this month, and their Spring Seedling Sale runs May 6-9 (in time for Mother’s Day), so you can bring home your own starters to pop in the ground and watch grow into herbs and vegetables. Another Historic New England Property, Watson Farm in Jamestown is open for self-guided walking tours to witness the day-to-day workings of farm life, along with seaside pastures home to sheep and cattle. Sheep Shearing Day on May 1 puts you up close to the flock to learn about all things wool and woven. Animal lovers will also love seeing the critters at Festival Farm in Hope Valley, featuring a country store and adorb baby goats to visit, and at 1661 Inn Exotic Farm & Gardens on Block Island, where you can also get tasty treats from Farmstead Refreshments food truck while meeting lemurs, kangaroos, fainting goats, and other unique creatures.
Speaking of furry friends, if you haven’t been to an alpaca farm yet, add that to your agenda immediately. These long-necked, irresistibly soft herd animals are smaller than llamas and known for their mild temperaments, making them a great first encounter with wildlife for the little ones. Green River Alpacas in Exeter welcomes visitors by appointment on weekends; Lazy K Ranch in West Kingston is open to visitors Sundays to see the herd, plus chickens, heritage turkeys, and honeybees; and Open Farm Days at Matunuck Alpacas are the first Sunday of each month, plus Wakefield shop Dove & Distaff carries clothing and finger puppets knitted from their wool. Hint, hint: Alpaca socks and sweaters make great gifts for Mom.