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Exploring Newport, RI

Traveler's Visiting Guide to Newport, Rhode Island

Crossing Newport Bridge under the towering arches and soaring cable you get the spacious sensation of visiting a cathedral.  When the island city of Newport comes into view from the height of the bridge a blindingly pure sunlight doubles the religious effect.  It was this sparkling clear sunlight that inspired the Italian navigator Giovanni da Verrazano to name Rhode Island after the Greek Island of Rhodes when he first visited Narragansett Bay in 1524.

The maritime city of Newport has inspired new arrivals through the course of a pre-Revolutionary War Golden Age, and through the 19th Century when the wealthiest families in America chose to build their summer mansions here.  Newport is a gem in the New England coastline that offers early reflections of America's nautical history, as well as preserved images of the Gilded Age of the 19th Century that were formed around the famous social circles of the Belmont's, Vanderbilt's and the Astor's.

Local History:

Newport has the stark, New England feel of Boston combined with that trader-rich, aristocratic sensibility of places like Charleston.  Wharves, beaches and rocky coasts extend in all directions and the streets crowd each summer with tourists and seasonal residents.  Newport's power to attract visitors is astounding.  In a city of 30,000 residents, within a state of 1,000,000 people, Newport hosts 3,500,000 visitors per year, culminating in the JVC Newport Jazz Festival held every August.

On the coast of tiny, ocean-gripped Rhode Island, Newport was founded in 1639 by a group of settlers seeking a separate existence from the Portsmouth settlement.  Like Charleston and Boston, Newport was nourished by the sea trade.  Newport thrived in the pre-Revolutionary War years, trading rum for slaves, and slaves for molasses, which was used to produce more rum. (Although in 1774 Rhode Island became the first state to outlaw slavery.)  This entrepreneurial spirit fueled the Golden Age of Newport, which ended abruptly when the British occupied the city from 1776 until 1779.

Newport rose slowly from the destruction of the Revolutionary War.  During the mid-19th Century,  early steamship routes were established between Newport and New York.  Direct access to New York rekindled Newport's earlier role as a summer retreat for the rich.  After the Civil War many of America's wealthiest families built lavish mansions in Newport.  These structures were commissioned using the best architects and finest materials available.  They survive as unique testaments to the post-Civil War American aristocracy.

Relics of the Gilded Age:

Newport is all about the indelible spirit of America, its nautical heritage, and its unique culture of wealth. The Colonial and Georgian architecture has a stringent, sentry-like appeal that is born of New England.  Even the rows of European-styled mansions convey a chapter of robber baron Americana, with their fantastic opulence and their co-opting of varied stylistic flourishes.

Bellevue Avenue is the legendary boulevard of the great mansions frequented by the American high society of the 19th Century, including the summer residence of the Astors.  Ms. Caroline Schermerhorn Astor formed the list of 213 families whose ancestry could be traced at least three generations and this list became the original social register.  For her Newport residence, Beechwood, Ms. Astor purchased the mansion of New York merchant Daniel Parrish.  In 1881 Ms. Astor hired famed architect Richard Morris Hunt to undertake a $2 million renovation of Beechwood, which then became the social center of Newport's Gilded Age.

Another renowned "summer cottage" is The Breakers, the awesomely extravagant summer residence built by Cornelius Vanderbilt II.  Completed in 1895 The Breakers was modeled by Richard Morris Hunt after a high renaissance Italian palace.  There are 70 rooms crafted in rare marble and alabaster.  For two years 2,500 workers labored on The Breakers to complete it at an estimated present day cost of $400 million.

Despite the exclusive history of Newport high society, most of the great mansions are open for public tours.  Similarly, most of Newport's stunning coastline enjoys public access.  Along the old wharves of Newport's west coast is a popular thoroughfare, Thames Street, that offers shopping and a number of dockside restaurants. At the southeastern corner of Newport there is a three-mile coastal pedestrian path called the Cliff Walk that boasts unobstructed views of the rocky coast, as well as views of many of the great mansions.  Along the southwestern coast of Newport is Ocean Drive, a ten-mile roadway leading to Brenton Point State Park.  Brenton Point is one of the best locations in town to view the nightly event of a Newport sunset, sparkling in clear light and framed in rocky cliffs.

Modern Hospitality in Newport:

Newport has a long history of gracious hospitality.  One hotel choice for visitors is the centrally located Hotel Viking.  The Hotel Viking is a handsome, brick structure in the Federalist style originally built in 1926 to house the excess guests of the mansion set.  The hotel now offers 218 rooms, off street parking, a pool, a sauna, and conference rooms.

Nearby on Thames Street is the Frances Malbone House, a building constructed in 1760 at the end of the Newport's pre-Revolutionary War Golden Era.  Thoroughly renovated in the early 1970s, the Malbone has operated for 25 years as a luxury inn on the main strip of restaurants, wharves and shops.  The Malbone House has a young and engaging staff that provides afternoon tea and a gourmet breakfast of egg dishes and baked goods.  Three common areas, each with gleaming, hardwood floors and a fireplace, are handsomely furnished in period reproductions. The nine guest rooms in the main building were doubled in 1996 to 18 rooms by a complementary building addition that is connected to the originally building by a breezeway.

Commanding a stunning, 300-degree view of Narragansett Bay is Castle Hill Inn and Resort.  The Inn is a former summer home dating from 1874.  Aside from the seductive common areas, and the bay view dining areas, Castle Hill is known for its rolling lawn that stretches to the water.  From the promontory in front of the resort guests enjoy bay views of the lighthouse, the rugged coast, and Newport Bridge.  Sunday brunch and afternoon cocktails on the lawn are a local favorite and draw summer crowds.

Only a block from the mansions along Bellevue Avenue is the Ivy Lodge, an inn within a Victorian structure originally designed by Stanford White.  From the outside the Ivy Lodge may not look a sumptuous as the mansions on Bellevue Avenue, but once inside the front door there is dark wood baluster staircase that seems to climb into the heights of a Gothic heaven.  The lodge has 11 fireplaces to match the seven guestrooms.  The common area is furnished with a baby grand piano and there is a wrap around porch that attracts guests in the warmer months.

Newport has an excellent selection of seafood restaurants.  The Mooring is famous for its seafood chowder recipe and its wharf side views of Narragansett Bay.  Scales and Shells on the main strip of Thames Street offers casual dining downstairs and a more formal setting upstairs where reservations are accepted.  Scales and Shells is so proud of the freshness of their catch that waiters sometimes show off live sea creatures tableside before they go in the pot.  Flo's Clam Shack us a popular summertime raw bar that has been a favorite with locals since 1936.

Asterix & Obelix on Thames Street is a restaurant that loves good food and the dining experience.  A single, open room includes the bar, dining area and an open window through which the chefs can be seen preparing the cuisine.  The waiters enthuse about their favorite dishes.  The drinks menu offers dozens of varieties of fine liquors while the bar sells fine cigars.  On Thursday nights a jazz trio squeezes into a corner of the restaurant.

For dining in a more traditional Yankee setting there are a number of excellent choices. At Clarke Cooke House on Bannister's Wharf the waiters in tuxedos serve under an exposed beam ceiling.  La Petite Auberge has been operated for 25 years in a 1714-era building on the Register of Historic Places.  Previously the owner cooked for Charles de Gaulle.  La Petite Auberge serves traditional French fare in a group of small rooms within the old building.

Despite the over-used term, "oldest tavern in America", the White Horse Tavern is insistent that it is the real article and it has the period, gambrel roofed building to back up the claim.  The White Horse serves expensive colonial fare in an authentic period setting.  The bar is small and inviting, alongside of an open hearth.

The seafaring culture of Colonial New England is the starting point for what our country has become.  The streets and buildings of Newport trace our American evolution from Colonial trader to world citizen.  Newport preserves the earliest meetinghouses, the saltiest wharves, and the most splendid expressions of wealth founded on the entrepreneurial expertise of Americans.  On a fine day, under the glass-clear light of Rhode Island, Newport shows what America is made of and what America has made out of her opportunities.

Travel Logistics:

Newport is 30 miles south of Providence Rhode Island and about 80 miles south of Boston.  From the exit on I-95 it is about 25 miles to Newport.  From I-95 take highway 138 eastbound (near Wyoming, RI), over the Newport Bridge ($2 toll).  T. F. Green State Airport (PVD) is located 10 miles south of Providence, with the smaller Newport State Airport (NPT) located three miles northwest of Newport.

The JVC Newport Jazz Festival takes place in Newport each August at Fort Adams State Park (call 401-847-3700).   The festival started in 1954 and then moved to New York in the 1970s before returning to Newport.

The Mansions

Astor's Beechwood -Actors in period costumes conduct tours at the Beechwood in the guise the Astor family and various servants. 580 Bellevue Avenue, Newport, RI 02840 (401-846-3772)

Tours for eleven of the other Newport mansions (including The Breakers on Ochre Point Avenue) are managed by the Preservation Society of Newport County.  424 Bellevue Avenue, Newport, RI 02840 (401-847-1000)

Restaurants -

The Mooring - Sayer's Wharf (401-846-2260), major credit cards.

Scales & Shells - 527 Thames Street (401-848-9378), no credit cards.

Flo's Clam Shack - 4 Wave Avenue (401-847-8141), MasterCard, Visa.

Asterix & Obelix - 599 Thames Street (401-841-8833), major credit cards.

Clarke Cook House - Bannister's Wharf (401-849-2900), major credit cards.

La Petite Auberge - 19 Charles Street (401-849-6669), major credit cards.

White Horse Tavern -  Farewell Street at the corner of Marlborough Street (401-849-3600), major credit cards;

If Josie is booked up for, you can try some of these other high-end locations in Newport :

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