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What’s New in Newport?

Originally Published in MotorHome Magazine

Our motorhome would fit in his broom closet. Our income would fit in his change purse. My
train set fits on a table in my basement; his train set was called the New York Central,
and it sprawled all the way to Chicago. He strolled with presidents and potentates,
upper-crusters who bought and sold the likes of me with pocket change. Ah, but today we
commoners boldly strolled right across Cornelius Vanderbilt’s front lawn. And what a lawn
it is! You could play football on it, with a spectacular ocean view for a halftime show —
rocks, cliffs, crashing surf, and white sails against a blue Atlantic horizon. Cornelius
Vanderbilt II knew how to build not just railroads, but a 70-room palace fit for one of the
mega-millionaires of the late 1800s — the Gilded Age. He named it The Breakers, but in
Newport, Rhode Island, such mansions were known simply as “summer cottages.” Want to stroll
big as life right across that rich guy’s front lawn? Play croquet with an heiress? Pet a
shark? Jump in the ocean? Tour a tower some say the Vikings built? Come to Newport. A
sailor named Giovanni da Verrazano did, and he liked the place so much he stayed awhile.
That was way back in 1524, before there was ever a town here. But the explorer’s visit was
America’s first two-week vacation, and sailors, campers, shoppers, millionaires and
vacationers of every stripe have been coming here for a couple of weeks of adventuring ever
since. C’mon, we’ll show you what Giovanni missed. He missed a lot. But you won’t,
especially if you come in from the west and get yourself into a seacoast mood as you drive
past fishing villages, lighthouses, wildlife preserves, wonderful swimming beaches and, of
course, the inevitable resorts and tourist magnets. Make sure you’re on Route 1 when State
Route 138 comes in from the west to join it near Saunderstown. There’s a 100-foot-tall
wooden tower by the intersection, and you don’t want to miss the view from the top.
Sprawling at your feet is one of the world’s great sailing grounds — Narragansett Bay,
taking its liquid bite out of this smallest of states with the biggest of names (it’s
officially the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations). You’ll see two bridges
from up there, and you’ll cross them both as Route 138 splits off from Route 1 and takes
you east toward Newport. The near one is Jamestown Bridge, arching proudly beside its
rusting predecessor as it bears your coach over the water to Conanicut Island, a rural
steppingstone on the way to those magnificent mansions. Feeling lucky? Start digging. The
legendary Captain Kidd visited his fellow brigand Thomas Paine on this island in 1699, and
local lore says he buried some of his treasure here. True or not, there are treasures
aplenty on this nine-by-one-mile swatch of homes, parks and farmlands, with its one small
village of Jamestown. The island is sprinkled with crumbling forts and gun emplacements
from two world wars, and most are now parks. Fort Getty is also a campground, and a popular
one with RVers who have another set of wheels for the run into Newport. Whether you camp
here or at one of the campgrounds in the Newport environs, don’t miss Beavertail State Park
at Conanicut Island’s southern tip, where you can surf-cast from wave-battered rocks or
just clamber around on them for a good photo of the 1856 lighthouse, the third on this
rugged land’s-end since 1749. Some say the views of ocean and sunset from Beavertail are
the best in all Rhode Island. We won’t argue with that. But come; we mustn’t be late for
that croquet game. Eastward we go on Route 138, then skyward on the soaring Newport Bridge
— and there’s Newport, spread before us like a smorgasbord. Big freighters, grim gray
warships, fishing boats and pleasure craft under sail and power drag their white wakes
beneath the graceful span. Elegant yachts nod in the harbor. A steeple older than America
balances the dome of the sky on its spike. The 1763 Touro Synagogue, the nation’s oldest,
anchors another faith in this state founded on religious freedom. And down there in the
heart of it all stands the mysterious arched cylinder of the Old Stone Mill, built by
farmers in the 1600s … or was it by Leif Ericson’s Vikings a thousand years ago as they
explored what some say is the “Vinland” in his chronicles? Vinland or not, fine vintages
from nearby wineries grace many a menu today in more than 150 pubs and restaurants, each
ready to tempt you with anything from sushi to souvlaki. Shops and houses that were old
when your grandfather’s grandfather was young jostle each other for breathing room along
streets as wide as they needed to be for a horse-drawn carriage to pass. Fear not; most
streets are wide enough for the buses and tour vans that may be your choice for getting
around town without searching for a parking space. Hang a right off the Newport Bridge onto
Farewell Street, and when you emerge from the cemetery, hang another right onto America’s
Cup Avenue. If you haven’t guessed by now that this is a town under full sail, that name
will give it away. Blue-water sailors race from here to Bermuda. Tall ships gather like a
flock of great white gulls for frequent festivals of sail, including the Black Ships
Festival in July, when the whole town goes Japanese. The famed Newport International Boat
Show in September is the biggest in New England. And you can almost walk from boat to boat
across the harbor to the grim battlements of old Fort Adams, a granite bastion begun in
1824 and brooding ever since of wars and rumors of wars on the tip of its grassy peninsula.
Or is it bracing itself for the riffs and rhythms of the Newport Jazz Festival that rattles
its stones for two days every August? America’s Cup Avenue takes you right to the Newport
Visitor Center, a must-stop trove of brochures, displays and insider advice. Buses and
tours leave right from here, and there’s a parking garage and lot behind it for your rig or
dinghy. We were just crossing the street when a baseball fell from the heavens and thudded
at our feet. Sure enough, there’s a squat old baseball stadium right across the street, a
green wooden relic of the 1930s where teams still play for a reason that’s also a relic:
They just love the game. If you play tennis for love, you’ll appreciate the International
Tennis Hall of Fame. Come dressed in white and you can rent a historic grass court to play
where stars of yesteryear played. For a sport more sociable than sweaty, there’s croquet —
oops, we almost forgot that croquet date! Quick, hurry south on Bellevue Avenue. No time to
visit all the mansions that are open to the public along this baronial boulevard; just turn
left into the long driveway when you come to Beechwood, the summer cottage of the
aristocratic Astors. Well, we’re late. We’re told that Mrs. John Jacob Astor had to leave
for tea with the Belmonts. But her daughter-in-law is here, and she’ll show us around the,
er, cottage, and share some juicy gossip about the family. And she’ll have us almost
believing it’s 1891 again as she and the other professional re-enactors bring to life the
maids and butlers and heiresses and lords of finance and industry who once enlivened this
stately mansion. It was the finest on the block, she sniffed, until that upstart William K.
Vanderbilt, Cornelius’ brother, put up an even finer one next door. He called it Marble
House. Imagine — half a million cubic feet of marble! Why, he even built a Chinese tea
house on the cliff edge, just for parties! If you saw the movie The Great Gatsby, you’ll
recognize Beechwood’s other neighbor, Rosecliff. As we toured the halls and chambers of
that classic showpiece, our guide paused in a bedroom. “This is the bed where Robert
Redford slept during the filming,” he said. We moved on, but one woman stayed back. With a
faraway look in her eye, she gently stroked the coverlet, then hurriedly rejoined the
group. If you’d rather gaze at nature’s magnificence than man’s, you can find both on the
famous Cliff Walk, a 3-1/2-mile cliffhanger that starts at Easton’s Beach — also known as
First Beach — and takes you on foot between the mansions and the sea to Bailey’s Beach to
the south. Or, go the other way and end with a swim at Easton’s Beach, a ride on the
carousel and a visit to Newport Aquarium, where you can pick up a fiddler crab and tickle a
dogfish shark if one is currently in residence. It all depends on what’s been snared in the
shallows or rescued from the fishermen’s nets and brought here for display. Each September,
at season’s end, kids gather to pick up a specimen, run down the beach and toss it back
into the ocean, until the creatures of sea and shoreline have been returned to their home.
Next spring the gathering of specimens begins again, and it may even include a tropical
fish or two brought northward by the warm Gulf Stream just offshore. To see twice the shore
with half the effort, pick up Ocean Avenue where Cliff Walk ends and drive its 10-mile
length to the park at Brenton Point. There’s almost always a brisk sea breeze here, and a
squadron of kites of every size, shape and color dancing on it. Modern-day mansions dot the
hills and coves along the way, and stunning vistas keep you reaching for your camera at
every turn of the road. There’s no finer place than Newport to wander the downtown wharves
and look over the fleet of big schooners, little sailboats, commodious tour boats and sleek
powerboats that wait to take you out for a day’s charter, a dinner cruise, a sailing
lesson, an outing at Rose Island Lighthouse or a wave-side seat at the annual New York
Yacht Club Regatta. That is, if you can get past the lobsters at Aquidneck Lobster on
Bowen’s Wharf, a seafood market where fishermen and lobstermen still offload the catch of
the day, bound for the restaurants or your rig’s galley. Aquidneck is an
apron-and-shirt-sleeves reminder that this is still a hard-working seaport and always has
been. In the 1700s, it rivaled Boston and New York. The town withered under British
occupation during the Revolution, leaving residents with neither the will nor the
wherewithal to modernize their aging homes or tear them down to build something new. Today,
the Newport Historical Society counts more than 500 buildings that survived from the
colonial era — more than New York, Philadelphia, or Boston. Many are newly restored and
ready to show you that, even back then, folks knew how to build with style. Styles may
vary, and one man’s relaxation is another man’s rat race. But from Verrazano to Vanderbilt,
from Astor to anyone, Newport has always known what the word “vacation” means.

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