Looking for a late-summer-early-fall vacation? Our trip to Newport, R.I., had it all – historic tours, shopping and more. The only regret? Not enough time.
To get the lay of the land, we started with a scenic overview tour from Viking Tours ($25; It departs from the excellent Discover Newport Visitor Center, at 23 America’s Cup Ave.; discovernewport.org). The staff here can get you organized with information and tickets. The trolley, meanwhile, runs along part of Newport’s iconic Ten Mile Drive (oceandrivenewport.com), and gives riders a peek at the city’s famous mansions and points of interest. Here’s what we saw and did.
Bellevue Avenue Mansions
It’s summertime, and the living is easy. It was, at least, for the ultra-rich of the Gilded Age who summered in Newport.
Pesky things like taxes, “servant shortages” and social change led to the demise of this way of life. But some of the “cottages” and “summer homes” of these wealthy industrialists and financiers (think Vanderbilts) were rescued from developers by the Preservation Society of Newport County.
Tour the unbelievable abodes to see stunning architecture, art, furniture and landscaping. If America had royalty, these were its summer palaces.
Audio tours guided us with in-depth looks at the homes, the residents and societal rules that governed them. For instance, did you know that at a dinner party, one must chat 15 minutes to the right, followed by 15 to the left? Or that we gals might change clothes up to seven times per day, depending on our plans?
There’s a lot to take in. Two homes a day is doable. Research beforehand what you’d like to see. The Breakers, the Elms and the Marble House are the main homes, but others are just as fascinating. Individual house tickets cost $15.99 ($20.99 for the Breakers). A two-house ($25.99) or five-house ($32.99) combo ticket is the way to go. Youth tickets (ages 6-17) are less expensive.
Don’t miss the Servant Life Tour, a separate, timed ticket at the Elms ($15). Downton Abbey fans will love it! Climb the stairs to the servants’ rooms above, then go below to the laundry, kitchen and basement where they – often immigrants – worked. A guide tells their stories. For information, tickets and more, visit newportmansions.org.
Doris Duke’s Rough Point
Not part of the Preservation Society of Newport County’s mansions is heiress Doris Duke’s amazing Rough Point. The fascinating Duke inherited her father’s fortune at an early age. She was a collector of priceless art and furniture. Yet you’ll see unexpected items, like a dollar store pail she bought because she liked it. The home remains almost the same as when the modern-thinking woman died in 1993. (We wanted to look in the closets, which still hold her wardrobe.) Learn about her quirky love of dogs (she often had 10 at a time) and her famous camels. The 75-minute guided tour is $25. Saturdays offer $10 self-guided tours. Visit newportrestoration.org.
Hit the high seas
Newport is synonymous with sailing. Colonists sailed for trade and commerce. They were followed by the rich and famous, who sailed for pleasure. An exhibit called “Splendor at Sea: The Golden Age of Steam Yachting in America” runs at the Rosecliff mansion through January.
We hit the high seas twice, starting with the 72-foot schooner yacht “Madeline,” created in the style of a 19th-century vessel. With the breeze in our hair, we toured Narragansett Bay, gawking at super yachts from around the world and unbelievable private homes along the coast (for tickets, visit cruisenewport.com). The “Rum Runner II” is a fun option, too. This historic high speed boat tells the tale of Prohibition mobsters.
On the Northeastern lobster boat, we learned about the fine art of lobstering and the crusty creatures themselves from a marine biologist. Donning rubber gloves, we filled bait nets (yick!).
Strict regulations guide lobster fisherman. Alas, “Pinchy” (named by a darling girl on our tour) was tossed back out to sea for being too small. The company also provides 3-hour fishing trips that include rod, tackle and bait.
Return to Camelot
On the “Madeline,” we passed Hammersmith Farm, the site of John and Jacqueline Kennedy’s wedding reception. It was the home of Hugh D. Auchincloss, her stepfather. On Sept. 12, 1953, the future president and his bride were wed in the tiny St. Mary’s Catholic Church on Spring Street. Using pictures and video, the Rev. Kris von Maluski presented a remembrance of the wedding, while music director Cody Mead provided accompaniment from St. Mary’s organ. Built by Irish immigrants, the church is stunning on its own. Brides and grooms are surprised to learn they use the same kneelers the Kennedys did. Presentations run Sundays from 1-2 p.m. and Tuesdays from 3-4 p.m. ($15) through September. Tickets at returntocamelot.org or the Newport Visitor Center.
Cliff Walk and beaches
For those who miss the gym, we offer Cliff Walk (cliffwalk.com), a national recreation trail. At 3.5 miles, the trail has paved and unpaved surfaces. You’ll see gorgeous views of the water, as well as the mansions. Public access via streets. Another option is the new 2-mile Bay Walk at Fort Adams State Park (fortadams.org).
Newport has wonderful beaches. While my friend shopped, I took in the sun and sand at the beautiful and popular Easton’s Beach. Parking can be limited and expensive ($10 weekday/$20 weekend), so I used our hotel shuttle. The next time, I’d try Gooseberry Beach along Ocean Drive.
Food, drinks and shops
Our pledge to only eat seafood in Newport started at the historic White Horse Tavern (whitehorsenewport.com), open since 1673. We went right for the raw clams and tavern’s signature clam chowder.
The Top of Newport rooftop lounge at historic Hotel Viking (hotelviking.com) features live music and daily specials, like Tuesday’s Lobster Love dinner ($24.99).
For a casual walk-in meal, Jo’s American Bistro (josamericanbistro.com) and Sardella’s Italian Restaurant (sardellas.com) – near each other on Memorial Boulevard – were great choices, too.
Following a tip from our Viking trolley tour guide, we sipped drinks at sunset on the rooftop bar of the swanky Vanderbilt Grace hotel (gracehotels.com). We heard the sunset cannon from Goat Island’s Hyatt Regency Newport, where guests can enjoy the tradition of a champagne toast, as well.
Simply wandering the streets leads to unexpected treasures. Shopping along Spring Street, we stumbled across the historic Trinity Church cemetery, with graves that predated the American Revolution.
You’ll find tons of shops and restaurants along routes like Thames Street, as well as at Bannister’s (bannistersnewport.com) and Bowen’s (bowenswharf.com) wharfs. ALEX AND ANI’s first retail location sits on the latter.
Newport is a 7 1/2-hour drive from Buffalo. Once you get there, parking is scarce. Some mansions have parking lots, but we didn’t want to chance it. Instead, we made the Discover Newport Visitor Center our base.
The center’s proximity to the wharfs and access to the No. 67 trolley, which loops the mansion area, was worth it ($24.50 per day). Unlimited rides on the “hop on and off” trolley are $6 per day. Walking is a big part of the equation, too.
We stayed at the Mainstay Hotel & Conference Center (151 Admiral Kalbfus Road; mainstayhotelnewport.com), a short ride to the Visitor Center. The simple, clean hotel also has an $8 all-day shuttle service that runs until late at night, with drop-offs at main areas.
Newport also has Uber, ideal for going out after a long day of touring. Our driver, Tyler, was a Patriots fans, but we didn’t hold that against him.