Situated on an island in Narragansett Bay, Newport, Rhode Island, has been attracting visitors to its sheltered harbors and picturesque cliffs since the Gilded Age. The wealthiest residents furnished their lavish Rhode Island mansions with imported marble, fine wood and polished crystal. They gave dinner parties for pets and draped their slumbering horses in satin sheets. They ate off solid gold dishes under glittering Baccarat chandeliers.
The great summer palaces of the Vanderbilts and Astors remain as inviting today as they were more than a century ago—only now you don't have to be among society's New York 400 to get in. Anyone willing to pay the price of admission can enter these "cottages," as the robber barons called their seasonal homes, or tour any of Newport's remarkable collection of impeccably preserved colonial-era buildings.
So take time to appreciate the city's architectural riches, but don't forget to enjoy the things that lured the high-society types to Newport in the first place: ocean breezes, sandy beaches, sumptuous seafood and picturesque lighthouses that dot the rocky New England coastline.
From its rough-and-tumble stint as a Navy town from the 1950s through the early '70s, the redeveloped Newport waterfront has grown into a sophisticated shopping and dining mecca. Today, Newport is a magnet for summer visitors seeking relaxation and recreation as well as a year-round escape for romantics looking for a getaway in a seaside city that boasts of having more bed-and-breakfasts per capita than anywhere else in the U.S.
Although Newport has not hosted the America's Cup yachting race since 1983, the city has not forgotten its nautical roots: It remains a port of call for weekend sailors and giant cruise ships alike, and the downtown wharves are the best place in Rhode Island for chartering a boat or joining a tour group to explore the wonders of Narragansett Bay.
Newport occupies the southern tip of Aquidneck Island, which sits in the middle of Narragansett Bay. The town's main drags are Bellevue Avenue and Thames Street, each of which runs north-south. Thames Street traverses Newport's historic downtown and harbor areas, ending just a block away from the southern end of Broadway, the city's municipal hub. Bellevue Avenue, a few blocks south and parallel to Thames, runs past many of the city's majestic late-19th-century homes. Ocean Drive intersects the southern end of Bellevue Avenue and heads west along the shoreline.
Aquidneck Island is also home to Middletown (which, aptly, sits in the middle part of the island) and Portsmouth (near the northern tip). Both are easily reached from downtown Newport. Middletown is a 10-minute drive, and Portsmouth is a little more than 15 minutes away.
West across the Newport Bridge from downtown Newport is Conanicut Island and the town of Jamestown, which retains a small-town feel but also has some excellent restaurants along its main street, Narragansett Avenue. Just offshore of downtown Newport is Goat Island, connected by a short auto and pedestrian causeway to the mainland.
The town was founded in 1639 by religious dissenters fleeing the intolerant Puritans of Massachusetts Bay Colony. The new residents, who obtained land from the Narragansett tribe, welcomed people of all faiths, including Quakers, Jews and Roman Catholics.
Although the European settlers lived in relative harmony with the local Wampanoag and Narragansett tribes, not all Native Americans were willing to give up their lands quietly. Resistance to the Europeans and disputes over land throughout what is now southern New England led eventually to the bloody conflict known as King Philip's War, 1675-76, which resulted in the near annihilation of the native tribes.
Prosperity came early to the young community, located on the southern tip of Aquidneck Island. Its fine deep-water harbor allowed Newport to develop a lucrative commerce—but one that contemporary residents are not proud of. In what was called the Triangle Trade, Newport traders shipped rum from local distilleries to Africa and exchanged it for slaves. They took the slaves to Caribbean islands and traded them for molasses, which was used to produce more rum.
The Triangle Trade made Newport one of the wealthiest seaports on the East Coast until the American Revolution, when the British occupied Newport for three years and wreaked havoc on the town. Seagoing commerce came to an abrupt halt.
Newport later gained a new claim to fame—as a luxury resort. Rich plantation owners from the U.S. South and the Caribbean began to travel north each year to escape summer humidity and malaria. By the 1850s, a Who's Who of New England intellectuals and artists was making the town a summer colony, establishing Newport as America's first true destination resort. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow summered in Newport, as did Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry James, John Singer Sargent and—for one season—Edgar Allan Poe. Even the notorious Lizzie Borden spent some time there.
By the early 1900s, New York tycoons and their families, servants and extended households had joined the caravan. These days, visitors flock to Newport to see the historic homes once inhabited by those wealthy residents. Newport's lovely beaches are as popular as ever, and thousands attend Newport's famous jazz and folk festivals, sailing regattas and other events.
Newport is not a big city, but you can't see everything in one day—there's so much to explore in this compact seaside locale. Whether you're interested in art and architecture or outdoor pursuits, you'll find almost too much to do in a brief visit. The summer crowds don't make it any easier, either. On the other hand, Newport is less hectic on weekdays even during the high season (Memorial Day-Labor Day), and sightseeing is truly a pleasure in the shoulder seasons, with May, September and October offering warm weather, lighter crowds and ample activities.
To experience Newport's heyday, visit Bellevue Avenue and its Gilded Age mansions. Alternately, you can take the very popular Ten Mile Drive that includes the Bellevue Avenue mansions, a number of beaches on Ocean Avenue, Newport Harbor, Fort Adams and various historic yacht clubs and other architectural sites of interest.
Many of the grand mansions are managed by the Preservation Society of Newport County, which offers a variety of ticket packages to fit your schedule and interests (phone 401-847-1000; http://newportmansions.org). Most of the houses are within walking distance of one another in the Bellevue Avenue-Ochre Point neighborhood. Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA) trolleys take travelers to Bellevue Avenue from the Newport Visitors Information Center on America's Cup Avenue.
If you tire of the opulence, delve into other chapters in Newport's history by participating in a walking tour of colonial sites, visiting the country's oldest synagogue or browsing at the illustrious Redwood Library. The Early American neighborhoods of the Point and Historic Hill are not to be missed. And you'll have to choose which museums to see, as you probably won't be able to visit them all.
Not a history buff? Newport offers an array of down-to-earth fun, including video gambling, rum tasting, kite flying, beachgoing or tailgating at a polo match. Sports fans won't want to miss the International Tennis Hall of Fame, where the game's history and celebrity are showcased and players have the remarkable opportunity to serve and volley on legendary grass courts.
Be sure to stroll all or a portion of one of the most stunning and exhilarating oceanside promontories in all of New England: the Cliff Walk. And don't miss the chance to board a schooner, yacht or tour boat for a scenic harbor voyage.
Festive all year long, Newport is particularly dazzling during late November and throughout the month of December during the Christmas in Newport celebration. A number of the mansions are transformed with period decorations, lush florals and towering Christmas trees, and Santa and Mrs. Claus make their entrance by yacht. In addition, Christmas in Newport events such as concerts, public strolls, lantern tours, readings of The Night Before Christmas and holiday train rides make the town an unforgettable destination for the whole family. Phone 401-849-6454 for a listing of events. http://www.christmasinnewport.org.
Newport's nightlife peaks in the summer months, when the city is filled with sightseers, vacationing families, college students and yacht crews (who can almost match the college students in their partying). At that time of year, there is always something going on in Newport bars and clubs, especially those along the waterfront. Off-season, many local neighborhood bars have more limited hours but still feature musical acts on weekends.
Though small, the city does have nightlife options to suit most tastes. Newport has many residents of Irish descent and seasonal workers with ties to Ireland, which translates into an abundance of bars that recall the Emerald Isle.
Most clubs close at 1 am.
Newport is a gourmand's delight, with excellent restaurants to suit any taste and budget. For a community this size, the choices are surprisingly eclectic. You can dine in a 17th-century building that is one of the oldest active taverns in the U.S., enjoy afternoon tea, eat freshly caught seafood by the water's edge, sample multicultural cuisines or experience a European-style bistro.
Perhaps one of the reasons dining is such a joy in Newport is that the region is home to Johnson and Wales University, which has one of the nation's leading culinary arts degree programs. Located in Providence, the college maintains high standards of innovation and sophistication, and its students have had a positive impact on cuisine throughout Rhode Island.
Fish-and-chips, lobster rolls and creamy white New England clam chowder (pronounced CHOW-dah by the locals) are menu staples—no surprise in this seaport and yachting town. But don't despair if you're not in the mood for seafood: Newport also has colonial inns serving hearty steaks, as well as French and Italian restaurants and basic hamburger-and-salad cafes.
For the ultimate in comfort food, order some "stuffies"—fresh quahogs filled with chopped clams and chourico (Portuguese sausage pronounced sure-E-soo or shu-REES)—at a roadside clam shack.
Restaurants fill Newport's downtown, and there are abundant choices within walking distance of area hotels. Reservations are strongly recommended during the summer. Otherwise, be prepared for lengthy waits.
If you like to eat where the locals eat, Newport can be particularly rewarding. A rule of thumb about Newport locals: They don't like to wait for their food. Look for off-the-main-drag restaurants such as the Salvation Cafe for real local dining, particularly in the summer. Newporters return to downtown favorites once the leaves have turned, the parking meters are no longer running, and the crowds have thinned. During the early months of the year, some restaurateurs vacation or close for renovations, so it's a good idea to phone ahead January-March before making a trip.
Dining hours tend to vary with the season. During the fall and winter, you'll find most locals eating dinner between 6 and 7 pm. Once warmer weather arrives, restaurants can be crowded later in the evening, about 7-10 pm. Breakfast and lunch stay consistent year-round: about 7-10 am and 11:30 am-2 pm.
Expect to pay within these guidelines for a meal for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than US$15; $$ = US$15-$25; $$$ = US$26-$40; $$$$ = more than US$40.
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