The Travel Ekspert's Guide to Newport, Rhode Island
With a history spanning back to the mid 1600s, Newport, RI, has lots to interest visitors. And many of its best attractions are free.
Like most early New England towns, it was founded by groups seeking religious and political freedom, which helps explain why the area boasts strong Jewish and Quaker heritages. On the not-so-proud side, the seaport’s most noteworthy early forms of commerce included slavery and piracy. (Note: If your hotel is out on Goat Island, that’s where they hanged pirates).
During the Revolution, Newport flip-flopped as a naval base for the British and the French. In the 1800s, before the nation’s railroad network was broadscale, wealthy southern plantation owners would sail north to Newport to summer in the cool ocean breezes. They were later joined by shipping and railroad millionaires like the Vanderbilts and the Astors who, during the Gilded Age (which followed the temporary abolition of the federal income tax), built palatial summer “cottages”.
Newport has other distinctions. Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy established “Summer White Houses” there. The U.S. Naval War College is here. So is the International Tennis Hall of Fame. And, from 1930 to 1983, the America’s Cup sailing race was contested in the waters off Newport.
Once in Newport, I strongly recommend leaving the car at your hotel, or at the Visitors Center at 23 America’s Cup Avenue. It’s tough to find parking spots in the historical areas, especially during the peak summer tourist season. Newport offers inexpensive trolley service that extends all the way from the downtown shopping, dining and historic areas and visitors center out to all the mansions and the not-to-be-missed Cliff Walk. An unlimited day trolley pass costs $6. Trolley stops are clearly marked all over town. Your feet will thank you.
Where To Stay
Depending on the day, hotels right in Newport can get pricey. When that happens, I recommend either checking out a hotel in neighboring Middletown, or making a bid through priceline.com’s Name Your Own Price hotel service. If you’re lucky, and the hotels have extra inventory, the Name Your Own Price savings can be pretty spectacular (I know – I’ve done it).
If you’re using our published-price hotel service to select a particular hotel, I have three favorites – the Newport Marriott, which is on the water and right next to the yacht club; the Hyatt Regency on Goat Island (remember the pirates); and the Hotel Viking, located at the top of Newport’s Historic Hill.
For those who want to blow the budget for a truly unique experience, some of the newer cliffside “cottages” have been transformed into resorts, with spacious rooms, spas and world-class restaurants that enable guests to experience the Gilded Age for a night. The Castle Hill Inn, with its Turret Suite and Beach Houses, is one such example.
What To Do
The Mansions. Ride down Bellevue Avenue from the Tennis Hall of Fame and watch as the architecture spins out of control. First up are the “stick-built” wooden structure homes like the Isaac Bell House and Kingscote. Opulent, but not eye-popping. Then the grand-daddies of cottages come into view – The Elms, Marble House, Rosecliff and the grand-daddy of them all, the 70-room Breakers. These monster marble-and-granite palaces were built to mimic Versailles and the Italian Renaissance palazzos. In many cases, entire room interiors from European estates were ripped out and shipped to Newport to be reconstructed piece by piece. Watch out for gold leaf, marble and crystal overload. It’s amusing to note that each new mansion was designed to out-do the current best mansion on the block – a keeping up with the Joneses run amok.
Newport mansions are frequently seen in the movies. Famous ballroom dances at Rosecliff include Robert Redford and Mia Farrow in The Great Gatsby, and Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jaime Lee Curtis in True Lies. Gatsby is a particularly good movie to get you in the mood for Newport before visiting.
Tours of the mansions can be bought individually or in packages. A 5-mansion package is $31 for adults, $10 for children 6-17. A tour of The Breakers plus one other house is $23 for adults, $6 for kids. Visiting The Breakers alone is $18 for adults, $4.50 for kids. Admission is a bit on the steep side, but consider that it is the primary source of income for maintaining these huge, aging properties. Having seen all of them, I have a suggestion for those on a budget. The Breakers is by far Newport’s “signature” mansion, so it’s worth a visit. For a second mansion, swing by Ochre Point. It is now the Administration Building for Salve Regina University. The opulent furnishings have given way to office furniture, but the sweeping interior is no less impressive – and it’s free to visit.
Cliff Walk. Newport only has a few beaches. Most of the coastline is edged in rugged cliffs. A scenic walkway constructed along the cliffs lets visitors stroll and view the ocean to one side, mansions to the other. There’s no admission charge to use Cliff Walk, which extends 3.5 miles from Easton’s Beach on Memorial Boulevard all the way to the east end of Bailey’s Beach off Bellevue Avenue. The half of Cliff Walk closer to Easton’s Beach is pretty flat and an easy walk; the half closer to Bailey’s Beach is extremely rugged and should only be attempted by experienced hikers. If 3.5 miles is too much, take any of the connecting side streets along Bellevue Avenue that lead to the ocean and Cliff Walk. When you’re done, walk back up to Bellevue and find the nearest trolley stop. Remember – only the walkway itself is public property, so no trespassing on the mansion lawns.
The Casino and International Tennis Hall of Fame. Just as the name sounds, the Newport Casino on Bellevue Avenue was a private club (men only) where bored millionaires would escape their cottages to gamble at cards and play tennis on the lush grass courts. The Casino is now home to the International Tennis Hall of Fame. Admission to the Hall of Fame museum is $10 for adults, $5 for children. However, it’s free to enter The Casino, see the grass courts and imagine the rich playboys lounging in wicker chaises, drinks in hand, watching a match. If you’re lucky, you may even get to see a match yourself. Or, for the ultimate experience, bring your whites and reserve a court for a set.
Other Diversions. Even the most dedicated landlubber might enjoy a sailboat ride or go on a whalewatching excursion. Local surf shops will rent you a board and wetsuit (but be sure the red tide isn’t in before they do). Beach-goers will need to take note that some Newport beaches are residents-only. Easton’s Beach is public and there is no fee to use it. Take a guided tour of Newport’s Fort Adams, built in 1824 and the largest coastal fortification in the U.S.
Shopping and dining is mostly concentrated in the area down by the Visitors Center. Some shops offer interesting reproductions of decorative items used in the mansions. One-of-a-kind finds in the bookshops include a primer on Victorian etiquette and a guide to the “language of the fan”, which debutantes waved to secretly communicate with young men under the noses of their chaperones. Seafood is the order of the day in Newport restaurants. Most offer New England’s version of “comfort food” – lobster, scallops or scrod in a butter or cream sauce under a blanket of crushed Ritz crackers.
And – as long as you’re in the area and you have a car, you should be aware that there are several interesting places to visit within short driving distances, including the Connecticut casinos, New Bedford’s Whaling Museum, Mystic Seaport and Aquarium, Plimoth Plantation and, of course, Cape Cod.