Sitting on the southern tip of Aquidneck Island in Narragansett Bay and connected to the mainland by three bridges, Newport is practically synonymous with the term “idle rich.” In the late 19th century, it was the place for America’s wealthy aristocrats to spend their summers. From the Vanderbilts to the Astors, all the Gilded Age millionaires had summer mansions (or, as they called them, “cottages”) here, each grander than the next, with an aesthetic that’s half chateau, half Versailles, and 100% over-the – top opulence.
It’s not difficult to understand how this picture-postcard seaside setting drew the elite. During the Colonial period, Newport rivaled Boston and New York as a center of New World trade, and during the Civil War it became home to the U. S. Naval Academy. After the war, the town began to draw wealthy industrialists, railroad tycoons, coal magnates, and financiers, who began to build the town’s reputation as the center of the U. S. sailing universe. In 1854, the New York Yacht Club held its first annual regatta off Newport, and from 1930 to 1983, the club held the great America’s Cup race here in “the City by the Sea”—stopping only after the cup was snatched by the Australian sloop Australia II following a 132-year American reign. Despite the fact that U. S. boats won the cup back in 1987, 1988, and 1992, the race has never yet returned to Newport’s waters, but the city continues to be a major sailing center, hosting more than 40 races each summer and fall.
Today, Newport has a beautiful sea, rocky coastline, and a bustling town that’s all cobblestone streets, shady trees, cute cafes, and historical homes. Much of the hubbub is along the waterfront and its parallel streets: America’s Cup Avenue and Thames Street, with the pronunciation of the latter Americanized from the British “tems” to “thaymz” after the Revolution. Though millions of people visit every year, Newport has managed to retain much of its small-town charm and hasn’t been overtaken by T-shirt shops and fast-food outlets.
COMING ASHORE Ships both large and small are visiting Newport these days, all of them anchoring just a short distance offshore and shuttling passengers to the tender pier, just a block from the Newport Visitors Information Center at 23 America’s Cup Avenue. An information kiosk is also often set up on the pier. You’ll find all of Newport’s most popular sights, including its famed mansions, within a short walk or drive of the downtown area.
GETTING AROUND From the tender pier, you can walk around the historic town or hop on the Yellow Line/Rte. 67 RIPTA trolley (& 401/781-9400; www. ripta. com/content320.html), which visits the mansions, Bellevue Avenue shopping, the Cliff Walk, Rough Point, and other highlights. It’ll cost you $5 for an all-day hop – on/hop-off pass, and you board it at the Visitor Information Center (see above). If you want a taxi to drop you off at the mansions, try Yellow Cab Service (& 401/846- 1500). Another great way to get around town and out to the mansions is by bicycle. One of several rental shops is Ten Speed Spokes, 18 Elm St. (& 401/847-5609; www. tenspeedspokes. com), just a couple of blocks inland from the tender pier. Rentals are $5 per hour or $25 per day.
Colonial Newport Walking Tour ($29, 122 hr.): An expert guide takes you through a 10-block area of Colonial Newport, noted for nearly 200 restored 18th – and 19th – century Colonial and Victorian homes and landmarks. You’ll walk along the city’s quaint and shady streets where no buses are allowed, and hear how tobacco heiress Doris Duke and many other residents led the fight to rescue this once-neglected area. Stroll by the superb 1726 Trinity Church, architect Peter Harrison’s Brick Market, the Touro Synagogue (the oldest in the country), the Quaker Meeting House, and the Old Colony House.
Guided Cliff Walk Tour ($34, 132 hr.): You can walk Newport’s famous Cliff Walk (see below) on your own, but this option comes with narration. Your choice. . .
The Vanderbilt’s Newport ($64, 322 hr.): This tour combines visits to two of Newport’s grandest mansions: Cornelius Vanderbilt II’s The Breakers and William K. Vanderbilt’s Marble House. Another mansion tour, typically called Grand Mansions of Newport ($54, 3 hr.), visits The Elms or Rosecliff, the latter built in 1902 by architect Stanford White on the model of Versailles’ Grand Trianon.
America’s Cup Sailing Experience ($119, 2 hr.): Though Newport is not currently home to the America’s Cup (as it was for more than 50 years), you can sail a 46-foot America’s Cup yacht as part of this excursion, which sails past sites like the lighthouses, Newport Bridge, and some of Newport’s lavish estates.
This is a place for walking, if there ever was one. If you’re reasonably fit, the famed mansions on Bellevue and Ocean avenues are within 1 to 4 miles of the tender pier, or you can take the trolley or a taxi (see “Getting Around,” above).
Ten of Newport’s grandest 19th-century mansions are operated by the Preservation Society of Newport County (& 401/847-1000; www. newportmansions. org), which offers several ticket packages that combine admission to different houses. Admission to The Breakers, the most famous of the mansions, is $17. Admission to any of the others is $11. A combo ticket for The Breakers and any one other mansion is $23. For the ultimate, $49 will get you into The Breakers, Marble House, and The Elms, and add in the “Rooftop and Behind the Scenes Tour” at The Elms and lunch at The Elms Carriage House Cafe—though that’s all a bit much to squeeze into your limited time ashore.
The Breakers, 44 Ochre Point Ave., east of Bellevue Avenue (& 401/847-1000), is a 70-room Italian Renaissance-style palace built for Cornelius Vanderbilt II in 1895. Perched above the sea, it was designed by Richard Morris Hunt, the Beaux Arts master who also designed the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Highlights include the gilded 2,400-square-foot dining room (lit by 12-ft. chandeliers) and the great hall, which was designed to resemble an open-air Italian courtyard—right down to the 45-foot sky-blue ceiling.
While none of the other Newport mansions are quite as grand as The Breakers, several come close. Marble House was built between 1888 and 1892 for Cornelius Vanderbilt’s younger brother William, making it the earliest of all the Newport mansions. Some $7 million worth of marble was used in its construction. The Elms was built for Pennsylvania coal baron Edward Julius Berwind in 1901, its stately design inspired by the Chateau d’Asnieres, a mid-18th-century home outside Paris. Rosecliff was built in 1902 for Nevada silver heiress Theresa Fair Oelrichs, designed by architect Stanford White after the Grand Trianon at Versailles. All the mansions are located off Bellevue Avenue, and tours run throughout the day.
Several other mansions are privately held and open to the public. At the Astors’ Beechwood, 580 Bellevue Ave. (& 401/846-3772; www. astorsbeechwood. com), daily tours are led by actors portraying the wealthy Astor family in the year 1891. Admission is $15. The 60-room Belcourt Castle, 657 Bellevue Ave. (& 401/846- 0669; www. belcourtcastle. com), was built from the inherited fortunes of August Belmont, the Rothschild Banking representative in America. Its current owners, the Tin – ney family, still reside here, opening their home daily to tours. Admission is $15.
The 3.5-mile CliffWalk meanders between Newport’s rocky coastline and many of the town’s Gilded Age estates, providing a better view of their exteriors than you get from the street. Traversing its length, high above the crashing surf, is more than a stroll but less than an arduous hike. For the full 3.5-mile length, walk about a mile from the pier to the path’s start at the intersection of Memorial Boulevard and Eustis Avenue. For a shorter walk, end at the Forty Steps (an access point between the path and the street), which is at the end of Narragansett Avenue, off Bellevue. If you want to do the entire Cliff Walk, but don’t want to walk all the way back to the pier when you’ve reached the end, consider taking the trolley back. You can grab it on Bellevue, just 122 blocks from the walk. Keep in mind that there are some mildly rugged sections to negotiate, no facilities, and no phones. A number of mansions, such as the Breakers, Rosecliff, Astors’ Beechwood, Marble House, and Rough Point, are just on the other side of the walk; others are a few blocks inland from the path.
Just a few blocks from the pier, Newport’s Historic Hill section contains one of the most impressive concentrations of original 18th – and 19th-century Colonial, Federal, and Victorian houses in America, many of them designated National Historic Sites. Spring Street, the hill’s main drag, is an architectural treasure trove dominated by the 1725 Trinity Church, at the corner of Church Street. Said to have been influenced by the work of the legendary British architect Christopher Wren, it certainly reflects that inspiration in its belfry and distinctive spire, which can be seen from all over downtown. Not far away, Touro Synagogue, 85 Touro St. (& 401/847-4794; www. touro synagogue. org), is the country’s oldest continually operating synagogue, dedicated in 1763. It’s sometimes open for tours, charging a $5 admission. All around Historic Hill, you’ll find homes marked with signs that read “NRF,” denoting that they’re among the 83 18th-century houses that were restored by tobacco heiress Doris Duke’s Newport Restoration Foundation between 1968 and 1984. All are now owned and maintained by the foundation and rented privately. Historic Hill rises from America’s Cup Avenue, along the waterfront, and runs inland to Bellevue Avenue. Walking tour maps are available in the “Preservation” section of www. newportrestoration. com.
Other Newport attractions include the Gothic St. Mary’s Church, 12 William St. (www. stmarynewport. org), where John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Bouvier married, and the International Tennis Hall of Fame, 194 Bellevue Ave. (& 800/457-1144; www. tennisfame. com), one of the few places in North America where you can play on a grass court. Museum admission is $10. To play on the grass courts, visitors must call & 401/846-0642 and reserve in advance. Prices for play start at $90 per hour for two players.
Lower Thames Street provides some quirky shopping opportunities, including stores that sell vintage clothing, salvaged architectural components, books, and sailing gear. Spring Street is noted for its antiques shops and purveyors of crafts, jewelry, and folk art. Spring intersects with Franklin Street, which harbors even more antiques shops in its short length. Bellevue Avenue also has a collection of resort-type boutiques— shopping in the true Newport style.