By Trish Fox
Imagine a wave of brilliant, billowing sails gliding across Narragansett Bay, and you have one stunning snapshot of the rich seaport heritage of Newport, Rhode Island.
This seaside setting, roughly 74 miles south of Boston, has an abundance of history, shops, spectacular scenery, cool summer breezes and — lining the Bellevue Avenue Historic District — gloriously restored Gilded Age mansions. Adding to Newport’s glamorousappeal, John Kennedy and Jacqueline Bouvier were married here in 1953 at St. Mary’s Church.
Sailing and all things nautical lie at the heart of Newport’s charm. The America’s Cup race was based here for generations, attracting sailing enthusiasts from around the globe. Today, a flotilla of sailboats continues to accent the town’s glistening waters.
Newport’s gilded reputation began when New York society spent summers here to escape the city’s heat. But though the rich and famous put the fabled place on the map, now everyone can enjoy one of New England’s most beautiful and historic destinations.
The Vanderbilts paved the way to the summer playground, and in time everyone else followed. The Preservation Society of Newport County is responsible for managing most of the mansions and does an outstanding job, hosting special events throughout the year. Reflecting various styles of 19th- and early 20th-century architecture, these splendid homes open a window onto vintage chapters of America’s past.
The Breakers is the scene-stealer. Cornelius Vanderbilt II’s opulent “summer cottage” — by far the largest of the collection and the most famous — is an ideal introduction. A brand- new visitors center opened this year to assist travelers in their Newport explorations.
Imagine Downton Abbey with an American accent, and you have a pretty clear idea of how the Vanderbilts lived during the Newport summer season.
Although the Breakers is a must, a particular favorite that should not be overlooked is Rosecliff, which sits at the end of Bellevue Avenue. Designed by Stanford White, Rosecliff’sother claim to fame is that it was the setting for the 1976 film version of “The Great Gatsby,” starring Robert Redford. This lovely estate continues to display a Gatsby-like atmosphere, exquisitely capturing the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote: “Men andgirls came and went like moths among the whispering and the champagne and the stars.”
Among the other mansions open to the public are: the Elms, the 1901 home of coal magnate Edward Berwind, featuring Venetian paintings and tapestries and elaborate sunken gardens with an array of flowers and fountains; Marble House, another Vanderbilt property, inspired by the Petit Trianon at Versailles; Chateau-sur-Mer, built with China trade money to the designs of Breakers architect Richard Morris Hunt; Kingscote, a Gothic Revival landmark; the Shingle Style Isaac Bell House; and Chepstow, an Italianate-style villa. Representing an earlier era is Hunter House, an 18th-century Georgian home. One can opt for audio or guided tours, some of which take visitors behind the scenes or “backstairs.”
During the summer months, a convenient trolley departing from the visitor center onAmerica’s Cup Avenue whisks travelers up to mansion row. Plan to visit the mansion gift shops, where a selection of unusual treasures will surely capture your fancy.
Lodging, Dining and Shopping
For a taste of Hollywood and literary history, the Castle Hill Inn should be your choice in Newport. Another recommended option is the Hotel Viking, the preferred in-town address. Both of these properties offer history, ambiance and a genuine taste of Newport’s grace and style.
The 1875 Castle Hill Inn displays the beauty of those rock-bound scenes along Ocean Drive. Once the summer residence of Harvard marine biologist Alexander Agassiz, the lovingly
restored inn offers 33 rooms, all distinctively designed. The Turret Suite was a favorite of author Thornton Wilder, who mentions it in his novel “Theophilus North.” Wilder’s visits began in 1922 and his love for the area remained throughout his lifetime. The lovely suite, with its bay views, woodsy environment and secluded setting, remains a favorite for writers. It was here that Wilder penned “The Bridge of San Luis Rey.”
There is also a Grace Kelly connection. The actress visited during the filming of the 1956 film “High Society,” the last film she worked on. Kelly would often sneak down to the inn after filming to take in an afternoon swim or just relax. The beach at the secluded cove is named for her.
The Hotel Viking, dating to 1926, is within easy walking distance of the harbor and shops. In 2007, the hotel underwent a $6.8-million renovation, adding pale grays and blues to accent nautical themes in its décor. The mansion suites are located in the main building, along with One Bellevue, the hotel’s main dining room.
Bannister’s Wharf is the main shopping area, featuring both name-brand and one-of-a-kind shops. Be sure to stop in at the Black Pearl, a sailors’ delight, which serves the best New England clam “chowda” this side of Boston. Usually packed, the inn’s outdoor patio is for those who desire al fresco dining, with the Commodore Room its inside choice. For an unforgettable daytrip, hop on one of the fast ferries and scoot over to Block Island, much smaller than Newport but every bit as scenic and interesting.