By Debbie Tuma
Newport, Rhode Island is one of the oldest and most charming seaports in the America, and it has long been recognized as the social capital as well. Founded in 1639, it is a maze of hilly, one-way streets, with houses dating back to the 1700’s and 1800’s, cobblestones, gaslights and a spectacular harbor front.
During the Gilded Age, from the 1870’s to 1900, the Vanderbilts, the Dukes, and other prominent families built stately mansions along the oceanfront cliffs in Newport, and gave lavish parties for their guests, and elegant debutante balls for their daughters. After the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression, many of these mansions fell into ruin and became obsolete. Many were sold to the Newport County Preservation Society, which has maintained them and opened them up to the public.
One of the best things to do in Newport, besides touring the scenic harbor and the Cliff Walk, is touring these mansions, to get an education about a Golden Era gone by. They are located along Bellevue Avenue and Ocean Drive, and many of them are open into November.
On a recent fall visit, my friend and I toured the Breakers, owned by Cornelius Vanderbilt II; Rough Point, owned by philanthropist and art collector Doris Duke; Marble House, owned by William K. Vanderbilt and his wife Alva; and Rosecliff, owned by Hermann and Theresa Fair Oelrichs, a Nevada silver heiress who commissioned architect Stanford White to remodel it. Many movies were filmed at Rosecliff, including “The Great Gatsby,” “True Lies,” “Amistad,” and “27 Dresses.”
The Breakers mansion is the most popular tour, with its 70 rooms, five floors, and magnificent grand entrance and ballrooms, and its back terraces with sweeping views of the Atlantic Ocean. Doris Duke’s mansion is more personal to her eclectic style, and she left it just as it was, with her European art collection, French furniture, Chinese porcelain, and her high fashion clothes on display. Marble House is filled with gold treasures and Italian marble, and the huge dining room and winding stairs are truly spectacular.
In Newport, you can even stay in a mansion, called the Vanderbilt Grace Hotel. This red brick, stately four-star hotel is centrally located at 41 Mary Street in Newport, and boasts a four-star restaurant named “Muse.” It has a fascinating history, built by Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt in 1909 for his mistress, Agnes O’Brien Ruiz. This became a scandal in his prominent family, and he fled to Europe to avoid publicity. The Vanderbilt Grace is one of nine international Grace Hotels, and has a wonderful spa, two pools, a formal billiard room, and a rooftop deck overlooking the entire city. For more information or for tour dates call 401-846-6200 or 401-619-3500.
Another historic place to stay in Newport, and loaded with charm, is the America’s Cup Inn, at 6 Mary Street and Thames Street, in the heart of downtown. This cozy inn, beautifully decorated with art and antiques, has 17 rooms on four floors, and also two apartment and timeshares available. This 18th century inn used to house sailors from the Navy shipyards. Rooms come with a huge complimentary European-style breakfast, and they serve High Tea daily as well, in their comfortable tearoom. Managers David and Marina Drooker have done a marvelous job, paying attention to every detail. For more information or for tour dates call 401-846-9200, or 800-457-7803.
Many of Newport’s great restaurants are also located in historic buildings, and one of these is the popular new Midtown Oyster Bar & Grill, at 345 Thames Street. Its new owners, Patrick Kilroy, and Larry and Jessica Phillips, have completely renovated this massive 18th century, three-story building, formerly used for coal distribution. They have a seating capacity of 400, with several levels of dining rooms and outdoor decks, and even a Burger bar with flags from international yacht clubs. Some of the ceilings are over 28 feet high, and General Manager Charlie Holder and Executive Chef James Mitchell know how to serve up amazing seafood and steaks, with a creative flair. For reservations call 401-619-4100.