This year’s Portsmouth polar dive beneficiary? Island Park itself

Festivities start at 11 a.m. on New Year’s Day

By Jim McGaw
Posted 12/27/19

PORTSMOUTH — Want to keep seeing those fireworks and concerts in Island Park, or maybe Christmas lights or a St. Patrick’s Day party in the future? 

Then consider taking part …

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This year’s Portsmouth polar dive beneficiary? Island Park itself

Festivities start at 11 a.m. on New Year’s Day

Posted

PORTSMOUTH — Want to keep seeing those fireworks and concerts in Island Park, or maybe Christmas lights or a St. Patrick’s Day party in the future? 

Then consider taking part in this year’s Island Park Polar Dive on New Year’s Day — or at least make a donation to the cause.

“This year it’s for the Island Park Preservation Society, which is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization supporting what we do in Island Park,” said John Vitkevich, who while technically is not an Island Park resident — he lives “over there” on the Hummocks — is still a member of the Society.

During an interview to promote this year’s Polar Dive — festivities start at 11 a.m., with swimmers running in promptly at noon on Wednesday, Jan. 1 — Mr. Vitkevich, Tremblay's Island Park Bar & Grill owner Mike Macfarlane and Thriving Tree Coffee House owner Kristen Kidd gathered at “Thrive” to talk about the event and their grand plans for the future. 

“(Thrive) is Island Park’s Castle Hill, when you think about it. We’ve got plenty of parking, we’ve got the nice building, we’ve got the rolling lawn, we’ve got the water and we’ve got the Mt. Hope Bridge,” Mr Vitkevich said. “When people come to the park and see what we’ve got, we’re packed on a Wednesday night — and this is December.”

Added Mr. Macfarlane, who’s planning on opening another restaurant next door to Tremblay’s to “complement” that business, many people are being introduced to Island Park while staying at local Airbnbs because Newport is too expensive.

“The people who are coming through now are saying, ‘Wow, I never even knew there were restaurants down here,’ or ‘Wow, you have water on both sides?’ and ‘The people are so nice.’ If I hear it once a week, I hear it 10 times a week,” he said.

Ms. Kidd is happy to see this year’s dive benefit the Society, which gained nonprofit status earlier this year. 

“We have the opportunity to do so many events. We want to make Island Park family oriented. It’s not just the fireworks; we can do more,” she said.

Started with a wedding

It all started with a military couple who visited Thrive to get a coffee in early 2018, and noticing the spacious backyard that met Blue Bill Cove, Mr. Macfarlane said.

“They were getting married and said to Kristen, ‘Could we use the back of this place to have our wedding?’” he said. Ms. Kidd said of course, and advised them to get in touch with Mr. Macfarlane for catering services.

After the wedding was scheduled for July 7, 2018, the business owners got an idea.

“We were like, we’ve got the tent, we’ve got the tables. What can we do after the wedding party pulls out?” Mr. Macfarlane recalled. “And we came up with fireworks. Nine hundred people showed up. That’s what started everything. That was the spark.”

The money from donations and the after-party raffles will be used not only for the fireworks but for whatever else the nonprofit hosts. “We’ve done beach cleanups down here, we’ve done sidewalk cleanups,” he said. “We had Octoberfest, a Christmas party. We have stuff planned for 2020 already — Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Memorial Day, Fourth of July, something around November for Veterans Day. We try to do something, maybe not once a month, but close to it.”

Mr. Vitkevich would like to see a Festivus Party, a celebration for the Ides of March (March 15), a bocce tournament and more. 

“We’ve got to be more creative,” said Mr. Vitkevich, who even mentioned “ax-throwing” as Mr. Macfarlane rolled his eyes.

And how about Christmas lights strung across Park Avenue next year, similar to Hope Street in Bristol?

“I’ve reached out to National Grid and DOT and I have to coordinate that — which pole numbers can we use?” he said. Unfortunately, in Island Park, the poles are often crooked, he noted.

“But that’s perfect,” countered Mr. Macfarlane. “It fits the personality of the people here: just a little bit off.”

Bonfire and after-party

As usual, a huge bonfire will provide the “seals” with some much-needed heat following their dive.

“In the years I’ve been doing this — five or six years — my official ignitors were Chris Freitas and Wally Gray,” Mr. Vitykevich said.

Mr. Gray passed away in September at the age of 79, but his grandson Andrew will take his place at the dive, he said. “He’s going to light the fire and Chris will be there as well.”

He implored anyone who will be making the dive: “Wear beach shoes, old sneakers — something to protect your feet from the rocks and shells. I’ve seen people walk in and fall right down.”

Added Mr. Macfarlane, “It’s not Caneel Bay here.”

After the dive, it’s off to Tremblay’s for the after-party.

“We’re interested in any and all Portsmouth business people who want to contribute to the raffle. There will be a 50/50 raffle and raffle prizes,” Mr. Vitkevich said. 

Last year about $2,500 was raised for the Portsmouth Historical Society, while the previous year’s event collected more than $4,000 for Hannah Wertens, a local girl and longtime cancer patient. (Hannah died in August 2018 at the age of 15.)

“We’re looking to exceed all previous Island Park polar dive contributions,” Mr. Vitkevich said.

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