Escape NYC for a Weekend in Newport, Rhode Island
Take a break from the city and step back in time, touring the seaside resort's famous Gilded Age mansions.
Photo By: Onne van der Wal
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Photo By: Newport Restoration Foundation
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Photo By: Erin McGinn
Photo By: Discover Newport
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Step Back in Time
Newport is located just off the coast of Rhode Island on Aquidneck Island. This seaside village has been a popular tourist destination since the early 19th century, but it's become best known for its Gilded Age mansions, summer homes that were built by some of the country’s wealthiest families (Astor, Vanderbilt) in the late 19th century. The Preservation Society of Newport County maintains 10 of the properties, and eight are within walking distance along Bellevue Avenue. Both guided and self-guided tours of the mansions are available.
Must-See: The Breakers
The Breakers is the most famous of the Newport mansions due to its sheer grandiosity. Railroad baron Cornelius Vanderbilt II modeled the 70-room estate after a 16th century Italian palace, and the opulent interior, which is literally covered in gilt, is the very definition of gilded. A self-guided audio tour allows you to explore at leisure, while providing first-person narratives from the manse’s inhabitants.
Must-See: Marble House
Marble House is another testament of the Vanderbilt’s wealth, and though not the largest, it set the precedent for all the society homes that followed. True to its name, it contains $7 million worth of marble; it's also a classic example of Beaux Arts architecture that was favored by the French.
Must-See: The Elms
The Elms (pictured) was also inspired by a French chateau, and though more “modest” in size than some of its neighbors, its art collection rivals many a museum. The Servant Life Tour is unique to The Elms, and includes tales from the butler and a maid while exploring everything from the basement kitchens to the servants’ quarters on the third floor—which entails climbing a cardio-worthy 82 steps.
If parts of Rosecliff look familiar, it might be because it’s been featured in major films such as "The Great Gatsby." Silver heiress Theresa Fair Oelrichs loved to entertain, and as a result Rosecliff boasts the largest ballroom of the Newport estates.
Must-See: Rough Point
Sprawling Rough Point is famous for being the summer home of billionaire tobacco heiress and philanthropist Doris Duke, whose extreme wealth and unconventional lifestyle drew media attention her entire life. The 115-room residence has remained the same since her death, filled with an impressive art collection and surrounded by formal gardens. Unlike the other estates along Bellevue Avenue, Rough Point was modeled after an English manor; it was also the site of Duke’s debutante ball.
Chateau-sur-Mer was the first on the Newport society scene, and the site of many a grand party. Its Victorian decor is markedly toned down compared to later arrivals, but rest assured its dark wood paneling and hand-painted murals are by no means boring.
Must-Do: Newport Cliff Walk
Beyond touring the mansions, the 3.5-mile-long Newport Cliff Walk meanders along the shore line, and provides unparalleled views of both the ocean and the stately grand dames holding court along Bellevue.
Downtown, Thames Street is just a block from the waterfront, and the mile-long strip (along with the surrounding area), is the main destination for shopping and restaurants. Expect to find an assorted mix of independents stores and chains.
Bowen’s Wharf and Bannister’s Wharf are also popular destinations for shopping and dining downtown.
Where to Eat
Dozens of good options exist: Corner Café is a popular spot for breakfast and brunch among locals and tourists alike; just be prepared for a wait. The Clarke Cooke House is located in a historic Colonial home, and is considered a must stop for notables passing through. Work off dinner by dancing at the downstairs Boom Boom Room.
The Mooring Seafood Kitchen & Bar has been a Newport mainstay for 25 years. This upscale waterfront eatery is where to splurge on Maine lobster, or oysters washed down with a bottle of Veuve Clicquot. Smoke House is only open during peak tourist season from May to October, but its offerings—from baby back ribs to corn and crab chowder—are the best of both the barbeque and New England worlds.
Where to Stay
The only thing harder than deciding where to eat is deciding where to stay. Channel the Gilded Age at Castle Hill Inn, a Relais & Chateaux property. Its lodging options range from a luxurious room in a 19th-century Victorian mansion, to cottages and houses on a private beach, to a separate property overlooking the harbor. On-site dining and spa services complete the relaxation trifecta.
Boutique hotel Gilded is a quirky take on the era and a must for lovers of architecture and design, from furniture in bold colors and shapes to wallpaper and accents that beg for your attention. Breakfast is included and might involve homemade baked goods such as cheddar-scallion scones or small plates with melon balls and cucumbers. The Vanderbilt Grace boutique hotel resides in a historic mansion, and yes, it was built by a Vanderbilt. It's near the attractions on Thames, and counts two restaurants, two pools and a spa.
The suite-only Mill Street Inn is ideal for families, and located in a 19th-century mill that’s been designated a National Historic Landmark. Or stay right on Thames in The Francis Malbone House, the former residence of shipping magnate Colonel Francis Malbone. The decor channels an earlier era, and provides the proper setting for an afternoon tea of homemade macaroons, cookies and more.
Getting There and Around
Newport's peak season occurs between Memorial and Labor Day. However, the holidays are also a great time to visit, since The Breakers, The Elms and Marble House are decked out in their Christmas finery.
A car is your best bet both for getting there and around, and the trip from N.Y.C. can be done in less than four hours without traffic.