Where Cottages Are Really Mansions: A Breezy Visit to Gorgeous Newport, Rhode Island
Once the playground of Astors and Vanderbilts, and still a mecca for yachties and sun-seekers from around the world, Newport, Rhode Island boasts the history and charm you’d expect from a coastal New England town, coupled with sophisticated shopping, innovative restaurants that go way beyond the seafood shack, and the high energy of a summer beach community. Just 35 miles from Providence, Newport is an enticing trip for a perfect day at the shore, paired with a night on the town.
THE BIG HOUSE(S)
Newport’s famously under-named “Summer Cottages” (they’re actually opulent mansions) are the typical starting point for any visit to the City by the Sea. Despite their popularity, these shorefront Gilded Age vacation homes still have the power to awe. Of the ten properties maintained by the Preservation Society of Newport County, Marble House may be the most lavish: a reimagining of the Petit Trianon at Versailles, it cost $11 million to build…in 1892.
Open for tours year-round, the Newport mansions can also be glimpsed on a stroll along the Cliff Walk, which traces 3.5 miles of Newport coastline and passes behind The Breakers, Ochre Court, Rosecliff, Marble House, and Doris Duke’s Rough Point as it meanders along cliffs that rise up to 70 feet from the pounding surf. The path starts at Memorial Boulevard near The Chanler, an upscale hotel and restaurant that offers a taste of the lavish Bellevue Avenue lifestyle, and ends at the swanky Bailey’s Beach.
Speaking of beaches, First Beach, also known as Easton’s Beach, is the strand that’s closest to downtown Newport. (You can walk there from many of the city’s bed and breakfasts and some hotels.) A crescent of sand within hailing distance of the mansions, First Beach buzzes with activity on a hot summer day with its rolling surf, perpetual beach volleyball games, whirling carousel, and nearby beach bars and seafood restaurants. Most famous (but least pretentious) of the latter is Flo’s Clam Shack, a casual two-level shorefront eatery that has been serving up local fried clams and chowder since 1936.
Just over the border with Middletown is the more laid-back Second Beach, a surfer’s mecca, as well as two of Newport’s best places to connect with nature: the Norman Bird Sanctuary and the Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge. As the name suggests, Norman’s 325 acres of woods, fields, ponds, and streams provide habitat for a variety of migratory birds like ducks, herons, egrets, as well as native hawks, owls, woodpeckers, and songbirds. Entry to the sanctuary’s Barn Museum and guided bird walks on seven miles of hiking trails are included with admission.
Similarly, Sachuest Point is an important stopover for migrating birds, as well as a nesting area for the endangered piping plover. Trails crisscross the park’s 242 acres of shrublands and lead to saltwater marshes and secluded beaches.
Founded in 1639, Newport’s rich history is remarkably well preserved: The view from Newport Harbor is not that much different than you might have seen if you had sailed into port 200 years ago.
It’s an experience you can still enjoy today on a harbor tour aboard the Adirondack II, an 80-foot, two-masted schooner that sails past landmarks like the Newport Bridge and Easton’s Point—a perfectly preserved 18th-century Quaker neighborhood—as well as the Rose Island and Newport Harbor lighthouses, plus historic Fort Adams, a brooding Civil War era fortress that now plays host to the annual Newport Folk Festival and Newport Jazz Festival
Really want to get the wind in your hair? Book a sunset cruise aboard the Rum Runner II, a high-speed motor yacht once used to smuggle hooch by Prohibition-era gangsters.
You’ll find these classic boats tied up at Bowen’s and Bannister’s Wharf, respectively, which also happen to be two of Newport’s prime dining and shopping destinations. From Rhode Island’s own Alex & Ani jewelry to the high-fashion Mandarine Boutique and the unique nautical artwork at Scrimshanders, these seaside shops are sprinkled among fine-dining restaurants like the 22 Bowen’s steakhouse and more casual hangouts like Diego’s for Mexican and margaritas, and the affordable Wharf Pub with its all-local lineup of draft beers.
The multifaceted Clark Cooke House on Bowen’s Wharf serves up everything from private dining to sushi and libations at the Candy Store, a hangout for America’s Cup yacht crews. On weekends, the party continues right downstairs at the Boom Boom Room, Newport’s most “scene-ic”dance club and watering hole. Just a short stroll down Thames Street is 41º North, a popular marina and hotel that has reinvented the legendary Christie’s restaurant with a mix of hip decor and traditional New England shore dining, and boasts one of Newport’s best waterfront bars. (Just make sure to tap a designated driver... or sailor.)
RELAXATION ON THE SIDE
If you want to get out of town without straying too far, driving or biking Newport’s 10-mile Ocean Drive is a relaxing way to spend an hour or two. Beginning at The Elms and passing by many of Newport’s other famous mansions, you’ll skirt the shoreline and see many of the fabulous homes of the city’s wealthiest latter-day residents, with the option of stopping at breezy Brenton Point State Park to watch the kite-flyers at play, or Gooseberry Beach for a refreshing dip in the Atlantic. For lunch, ease into an Adirondack chair and enjoy an upscale picnic on the lawn at the Castle Hill Inn.
Or, take the quick drive over the Jamestown bridge to the quiet island community of the same name. Jamestown has a surprisingly excellent local dining scene (Simpatico Jamestown is as delicious as it is gorgeous), as well as attractions that include the windswept Beavertail Lighthouse, which has warned mariners away from the shoals of Conanicut Island since 1856.
How else can you have fun zipping near Providence? Tell us your favorite Newport and Providence spots in the comments below.