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A stop at Newport makes for a great day ashore. There are simply so many dimensions to enjoy, from the well-known Gilded Age mansions to a Historic District that is one of the best preserved Colonial neighborhoods in the United States, boasting more than 200 structures that predate the American Revolution.
Fine early churches like the 1726 Trinity Episcopal Church, the oldest synagogue in North America, historical centers dedicated to tennis and yachting, the nation's oldest library and the largest coastal military fortifications in the U.S. make Newport a fine destination for any history buff. Newport's also an exceptional destination for its famous 3.5-mile Cliff Walk winding between the mansions and the sea, the super-scenic Ocean Drive and Bellevue Avenue, plus several accessible beaches, a magnificent harbor and myriad shops and seafood restaurants along the wharves off Thames Street.
Newport, Rhode Island, has enjoyed a long and complex history. Unlike puritanical Boston, it was a haven for religious freedom, welcoming Quakers and Jews whose meeting house and synagogue are among the historic buildings surviving today. By the 1760s, Newport was one of the five largest ports in Colonial America and was a major exporter, as well as part of the infamous slave trade. Many fine Colonial homes went up during this period, and Newport-made furniture was among the finest in the colonies. The first American Navy was established there in 1775, but this prosperous period ended when the British burned the harbor and fleet, once during the Revolutionary War and again during the War of 1812.
The scenic beauty of the town and its beaches began to attract summer residents. By the late 19th century, Newport had become a mecca for the wealthy. Families like the Vanderbilts and Astors put up opulent palaces by the sea, which they called "cottages," to be used for a feverish six-week summer season that was America's most elaborate social scene. Though wealthy residents remain, that legendary Gilded Age died out with changing times. The mansions, saved and restored by the Preservation Society of Newport County, serve as major tourist attractions drawing millions of visitors each year.
The Navy kept its ties to Newport over the years, and the U.S. Naval War College and Naval Undersea Warfare Center still are headquartered here, but the naval base that had helped support the local economy was closed in 1973. It was after the naval destroyers moved out that the yachts began to move in. The city fathers turned their attention to tourism, the waterfront wharves were restored, shops and restaurants bloomed, and visitors flocked.
With its many assets, Newport has emerged as one of New England's most popular resorts and a major stop for cruise ships, especially during the fall foliage season.
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Other Canada & New England Cruise Ports:
Bar Harbor • Bayonne (Cape Liberty) • Boston • Charlottetown (Prince Edward Island) • Corner Brook • Halifax • Montreal • New York (Manhattan) • Newport • Portland (Maine) • Quebec City • Saguenay • Saint John (New Brunswick) • St. John's (Newfoundland) • Sydney (Nova Scotia)
Nautical souvenirs are the best reminders of Newport. For something fun, you can find pillows in the colors of signal flags at Custom Canvas Newport (6 Bowen's Wharf; 401-847-4977) and more pricey original Newport scrimshaw by the owner and artist at Scrimshanders (14 Bowen's Wharf; 401-849-5680).
English is spoken in Newport.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
ATM machines are available at the visitor information center, one block from the tender dock in Perrotti Park. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Bank of America also has several centrally located ATMs -- at 62 Americas Cup Avenue near Bowens Wharf, 514 Thames Street and 181 Bellevue Avenue.
Where You're Docked
Most cruise ships anchor in Narragansett Bay off Newport and use tenders to take passengers to Perrotti Park, within easy walking distance of the visitor center and local public transportation as well as shopping.
There's lots to do within an easy walk of the docks in Perrotti Park. Walk along Thames Street (pronounce the "TH" as in the), the harborfront street lined with shops and restaurants. When you see something that interests you on one of the cobblestoned wharves (Bowen's, Bannister's, Perry Mill, Brown and Howard), turn right and go exploring. Find a seat and watch the busy harbor traffic, sailboat races and ferries plying out of Narragansett Bay to Block Island and under the sweeping Jamestown-Newport suspension bridge to Providence.
By Bus and Trolley: Newport offers excellent public transportation for visitors. RIPTA (Rhode Island Transportation Authority) buses and trolleys leave from the visitor center to most of the popular attractions in town, including downtown, the Cliff Walk, beaches and Fort Adams; No. 67 goes to the mansions. All-day passes are available for about $6. Viking Tours offers trolley and bus narrated tours from the center that include scenic drives along Bellevue Avenue and the spectacular Ocean Drive. Tours also can include mansion visits.
By Taxi: Cabs are available at the visitor center. A ride from town to The Breakers, the Vanderbilt mansion, is around $9.
By Boat: From Memorial Day to Columbus Day, you can sightsee by boat from Perrotti Park aboard the Newport Harbor Shuttle, which makes seven stops around the harbor. Riders can get on and off all day for $10.
Watch Out For
You'll find little to worry about in Newport, but as in any popular port, it's best to keep your money stashed out of sight in a secure purse or inside pocket. Leave excess cash in your stateroom safe.
The Newport Mansions: Eleven fabulous Newport mansions are operated by The Preservation Society of Newport County, ranging in age from the 1748 Hunter House, which exhibits Newport-designed colonial furniture, to The Elms, a 1901 French-style chateau with a 10-acre park and beautiful sunken garden.
The Breakers: If you have time for only one property, this 70-room Italian Renaissance-style villa, built by the famous architect Richard Morris Hunt for Cornelius Vanderbilt II, is the most popular. Other popular homes are Marble House, built in 1892 by Hunt for William and Alva Vanderbilt and featuring a dazzling Chinese tea house facing the sea; The Elms, built for a Philadelphia coal merchant; and Rosecliff, a 1901 Stanford White house that was modeled after the Grand Trianon at Versailles and served as the setting for the films Amistad, True Lies and the Great Gatsby. The Elms offers a fascinating specialized tour of servant life that takes you where few visitors go -- up the back stairs to the quarters where the servants slept. Photos and memorabilia bring to life the differences between the upstairs-downstairs lives in the mansion. If you're not taking a ship tour, book house tours online to avoid lines onsite. Other than specialized tours requiring reservations for specific starting times, tickets are for general admission at any time and can be printed at home. Tickets are available from one to five properties; the more you book, the lower the average admission fee. It is a good idea to allow about 30 minutes' walking time between any two mansions. (Mansions open at 10 a.m., The Breakers at 9 a.m., and last tours are at 5 p.m.)
Doris Duke's Rough Point: The best mansion to visit for outstanding and original artwork and furnishings is Doris Duke's Rough Point located near the far end of Bellevue Avenue. The only heir of tobacco billionaire James B. Duke, Doris made her 1930 debut in this house, which was originally built by Frederick Vanderbilt and acquired in 1922 by James Duke. Until her death in 1993, Doris Duke collected paintings by Gainsborough, Van Dyck and Renoir, mid-18th century Louis VI furniture, Belgian tapestries, and Chinese porcelain from before the Ming Dynasty through the 19th century. The house's landscaping is by Frederick Law Olmsted of Central Park fame. (680 Bellevue Avenue; 401-847-8344; guided tours from 10 a.m., last tour at 3:45 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday, mid-May to early November; 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Thursday to Saturday, mid-April to mid-May)
Whitehorne House: Doris Duke also founded the Newport Restoration Foundation to save and preserve nearly 100 Newport properties dating from the 18th and early 19th centuries, and she was an avid collector of 18th-century Newport and Rhode Island furniture. Her own priceless furniture collection is on display at Whitehorne House, a Federal-style mansion with a splendid formal garden. (416 Thames Street; 401-847-2448; guided tours 10:30 a.m. and 3 p.m. Thursday to Monday; self-guided tours 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Thursday to Monday)
The Cliff Walk: The famous 3.5-mile Cliff Walk is a must-see, even if you only sample a short stretch. From Thames Street, follow Memorial Boulevard to the beginning (a 15- to 20-minute walk), and turn right along a gentle footpath that hugs the cliffs above the Atlantic Ocean breakers. On good surf days, you'll see surfers off nearby Easton's Beach (First Beach). This path passes in front of the mansions, though some are partially obscured by lines of bushes or fences. The damage to one section of the walk caused by Hurricane Sandy should be completely repaired by 2014.
Been There, Done That
National Museum of American Illustration: Newport's newest museum features works from the period known as the Golden Age of American illustration, from the 1880s to the 1940s, by Norman Rockwell, Maxfield Parrish, N.C. Wyeth and other major artists. Many of the illustrations chronicle life during this era. The museum is housed in Vernon Court, an 1898 Gilded Age mansion with grounds designed by legendary landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. (492 Bellevue Avenue; 401-851-8949; open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday to Sunday, Memorial Day to Labor Day; rest of the year, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday)
The International Tennis Hall of Fame & Museum: Tennis fans should not miss this museum housed in McKim, Meade and White's 1880 National Historic Landmark shingle-style original Newport Casino. It traces the history of the game of tennis (lawn tennis and court tennis) from its beginnings through films, memorabilia and photographs. The hall of fame is home to all the greats and features interactive exhibits where you can learn about your favorite players. The beautiful site has 13 grass courts where the first lawn tournament was played in 1881, the forerunner of today's U.S. Open. Visitors can rent court time and see what it's like to play there. (194 Bellevue Avenue; 401-849-3990; open 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily)
The Museum of Yachting: With Newport's heavy focus on yachting, a museum dedicated to the sport is right on target. Ensconced on the top floor of a handsomely restored space inside the 1831 Aquidneck Mill on the campus of International Yacht Restoration School, the museum offers extraordinary harbor views and continually changing exhibits of sailing ships, art and historical artifacts. Visitors can walk around the school to see students at work, learning the art of building and restoring boats. (449 Thames Street; 401-842-0669; open noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday)
Touro Synagogue: America's oldest synagogue, dedicated in 1763, is a Colonial-style beauty. The pristine white interior with graceful columns and balconies was designed by Peter Harrison, one of America's most famous 18th-century architects. It is still active, the home of Congregation Jeshuat Israel, with approximately 140 member families. (85 Touro Street; 401-847-4794, ext. 201; tours on the half hour from 10 a.m., last tour 3:30 p.m., July 1 to Sept. 1; last tour 1:30 p.m. Sept. 2 to Nov. 1; rest of year, from noon, last tour 1:30 p.m., on Sundays only)
Fort Adams State Park: While visiting Fort Adams State Park, you can tour the largest coastal fortifications in the U.S., garrisoned from 1824 to 1950. From the bastions, there are great views and the opportunity to explore the tunnels and casements to see where the soldiers lived. Visits are free, but an admissions fee is charged for guided tours. A beach and picnic area adjoins. The Harbor Shuttle makes stops at Fort Adams. (401-841-0707; open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily, mid-May to October)
The Redwood Library & Athenaeum: Anyone who loves books will want to look into this lovely library. Founded in 1747 and opened in 1750, it's the oldest lending library in America and the oldest library building in continuous use in the country. Its classical design was a bold conception for its time. Architect Peter Harrison was inspired by a drawing of a Roman Doric temple with portico and wings. The library holds many valuable books and early portraits. (50 Bellevue Avenue; 401-847-0292; open 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday to Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday)
Newport is known for seafood, especially lobster, chowder and catch-of-the-day entrees. Try a johnnycake, Rhode Island's version of cornbread.
While touring the mansions, sandwiches and salads in delightful surroundings are offered at the Carriage House and patio at The Elms (11 a.m. to 4 p.m., late May to mid-October) and the Chinese Tea House at The Breakers (open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, mid-May to late October).
La Forge Casino Restaurant (186 Bellevue Avenue; 401-847-0418) at the Tennis Hall of Fame is a Newport institution with an Irish atmosphere, serving pub fare and more upscale food with views of the grass courts. (open 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday)
In the wharf area, the Mooring Seafood Kitchen provides good harbor views, fresh seafood, locally grown organic produce and a terrific wine list (Sayer's Wharf; 401-846-2260; open 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday to Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday) The Black Pearl is located along the busy waterfront and is one of Newport's best-known and longest-serving restaurants, famous for its clam chowder. (Bannister's Wharf; 401-846-5264; open 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily)
If the day is fine, for a splurge (and the best view in town away from the crowds), take a cab for lunch on the lawn of the Castle Hill Inn, Newport's Relais and Chateaux property. The menu includes crab cakes, lobster rolls, native fish wrap sandwiches, catch-of-the-day entrees and burgers (590 Ocean Drive; 401-849-3800; open for lunch 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday to Saturday, brunch with live jazz 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Sunday, dinner 4:45 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday to Thursday and 4:45 p.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday)
Staying in Touch
Your best bet for keeping in contact is the Newport Public Library, which has 20 computers in the adult section (and a few more in the children's section). (300 Spring Street; 401-847-8720)
Best for First-Timers: The three-hour Grand Mansions of Newport tour includes an overview of the town's beauty on a 30-minute drive that includes scenic Ocean Drive, followed by a tour of one of the popular mansions.
Best for Active Cruisers: Combine two of Newport's most popular sights with a one-hour cliff-top walk above the waves, followed by a tour of the town's most famous mansion. The three-hour tour leaves ample time for strolling and shopping in town.
Best for History Buffs: Touring on foot with a knowledgeable guide during the Colonial Walk is the best way to appreciate one of America's largest collections of 18th- and early 19th-century homes. The leisurely 90-minute stroll is not taxing.
Best for Repeat Visitors: The Rose Island Lighthouse and Harbor Cruise will take you through busy and beautiful Newport harbor to the nearby 18-acre island and a tour of the 1869 lighthouse, now restored and in working condition. The 2.5-hour excursion includes the restored keeper's quarters.
For More Information
On the Web: Discover Newport at GoNewport.com or DiscoverNewport.org
Cruise Critic Message Boards: New England
IndependentTraveler.com: New England Travel Guide
--Updated by Eleanor Berman, Cruise Critic contributor
Photo Credits: Main by Enfi/Shutterstock, Thumbnails (from left, clockwise) by Ritu Manoj Jethani/Shutterstock, Anthony Ricci/Shutterstock, xiaolin zhang/Shutterstock and Pete Spiro/Shutterstock.