Features

Park offers respite, romance and exotic animals

By and
Staff Writers
This article is part of the series On the Rhode

Featuring paths weaving through gardens, an award-winning zoo and historical structures such as the Temple to Music and an antique-style Bandstand, Roger Williams Park makes for a leisurely, whimsical day off of College Hill. A 15-minute drive from campus, the park is a 435-acre complex nestled in South Providence’s Elmwood neighborhood. 

A pair of stately gates and the Victorian Rose Garden mark the park’s Elmwood Avenue entrance. Here, it becomes evident that this park is no tranquil oasis. While there are plenty of gorgeous, green attractions to be found within its borders, the park is intersected by a number of roads, though some sections are blocked off to motor traffic.

 

Gardens and carousels

Down the hill past the colonial Betsey Williams Cottage, the park opens up and Roosevelt Lake comes into sight, as does the old-fashioned Bandstand on its shore. Accessible by a short walking path, the Bandstand is a handsome structure with a nice view, though it appears in need of cleaning and repair.

A bit farther along is one of the park’s highlights – the Japanese Garden. Though small, the garden features a collection of wooden footbridges, stone pathways and ornamental ponds which add to a tranquil, distinctly Zen feeling. For old and young alike, the gardens offer one of the park’s most secluded and beautiful spots.

Past the Japanese Garden is a more kid-friendly area of the park: Carousel Village, featuring a Victorian-style carousel, snack bar and playground. But if playgrounds aren’t your thing, a short stroll away is the Tudor-style boathouse, featuring swan-shaped paddleboats for rent. Despite the chilly weather, families and couples were happily paddling away on the park’s waters underneath the various bridges and waiting in line for the carousel.

Up the hill from the boathouse is perhaps the park’s most striking attraction: the Temple to Music. On the shore of Cunliffe Lake, the structure – which looks a bit like the Lincoln Memorial in miniature – sparkles in the sunlight, surrounded by a small stone theater. Inside, the names of famous musical minds – including Pythagoras, Haydn and Brahms – are inscribed. Away from the road, with the breeze blowing in from the lake, it provides a wonderful place to sit and relax – iPod optional.

 

Trouble in paradise

Still, this tranquil spot reflects the park’s major downside: on the wall, right next to the names of medieval composers, is a mass of black graffiti. Everywhere, it seems, the park is in need of repair and some places, like the Bandstand, are on the verge of collapse. This is a shame – the land itself is gorgeous, as are the structures built upon it. Perhaps it is reflective of Providence’s current fiscal situation that authorities have not kept up with maintenance of the park.

This is not to say that the park is not worth visiting. With green vistas, shimmering lakes and brilliant architecture, the park provides a welcome retreat from the bustle of the Hill. Beyond the park itself, the complex contains an acclaimed zoo and botanical gardens – both expeditions in and of themselves. 

 

Animal kingdom

On a rainy day, the zoo had an impressive number of visitors  – mostly parents with their children – splashing through puddle-filled paths to peer at animals as exotic as African elephants, Masai giraffes, red pandas and Grant’s zebras. Supported by about 50 paid staff and almost 300 volunteers – many of whom are college students – the zoo is home to approximately 100 species of animals, said Susannah Brooks, manager of volunteer resources at the zoo.  

“We’re very well-known for our conservation efforts,” Brooks said, noting the zoo’s work with Karner blue butterflies, New England cottontail rabbits and timber rattlesnakes. The zoo provides a place to learn and find other “conservation-minded” people, she said.

Jane Goodall, an advocate of conservation, lectured at the zoo and included its work on the American burying beetle in her recent book, “Hope for Animals and Their World: How Endangered Animals Are Being Rescued from the Brink.”

For those who might not be as keen on conservation, the zoo offers respite to students and visitors from all over New England, with adult tickets priced at $14.95. Romantics might find privacy on a secluded stone bench near the zoo’s large pond, grab a bite to eat at one of the zoo’s eateries or rediscover the joys of a quaint farmyard – red barns, chickens and all. “I think it’s an underutilized place for college kids to go on dates,” Brooks said.

For those who want to see an elephant take a skinny dip, simply stop in to see Alice, Ginny and Kate, the zoo’s three female elephants. Alice, who likes to swim when it rains, drew a crowd of excited zoo volunteers as she splashed about and submerged herself in water just feet away from the enclosure.

For Ryan Olsen, who came from Connecticut with his daughter, the elephants and giraffes were the highlights. This was his first trip to a zoo – an “awesome” experience, he said.

Zoo visitors seem to have a shared passion for animals. “We are obsessed with animals,” said Diana Perry, who came with her son, Thomas Gomez, from Mass. Perry, who rescues animals, said the zoo is aesthetically appealing and also effectively keeps the animals’ well being in mind. She explained that seeing animals mating – which she has witnessed at the zoo – signals that the animals feel they are in a safe environment. The zoo also allows visitors to see elephants being bathed inside, and it is “nice to see the interaction between the handler and the animal,” Perry said.

For Charles Adams, who hails from Cranston, the zoo is a 15-minute drive away. Adams visits the zoo almost every weekend, usually for about three-hour visits, he said. While some zoos’ enclosures are much smaller, Adams said the Roger Williams Park Zoo provides the animals with “a good atmosphere.” 

“I love the zoo,” he said, holding a camera with a lens over a foot long.”The snow leopards are my favorite.”