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Newport makes for one great day ashore. There are simply so many dimensions to enjoy, from the well-known Gilded Age mansions to the colonial-style houses of a much earlier Newport. Fine early churches, the oldest synagogue in North America, historical centers dedicated to tennis, the America's Cup and yachting and the largest coastal military fortifications in the U.S. make Newport a fine destination for any history buff. Newport's famous 3.5-mile Cliff Walk that winds between the mansions and the sea, super-scenic Ocean Drive and Bellevue Avenue, in addition to several accessible beaches, harbor and ferry excursions, and a myriad of shops and seafood restaurants along the wharves off Thames Street are popular tourist destinations in the costal town.
Newport has enjoyed a long and complex history and was originally a haven for religious freedom, in contrast to puritanical Boston. Quakers and Jews arrived in Newport in large numbers and their meeting house and synagogue are among the very oldest buildings surviving today. The Baptists were responsible for the separation of church and state in Newport's bylaws. By the 1760's, Newport was one of the five largest ports in Colonial America and was a major producer of fine furniture and exporter of fish. Newport was also very much involved in the slave trade at this point in history. A building boom produced many of the fine wooden houses seen in town today.
During the Revolutionary War, Newport suffered at the hands of the British. Prior to the Civil War, the first summer colony residents began to appear and by the late 19th century, Newport became the Gilded Age resort for both the elite and nouveau riche. The mighty Fall River Line sidewheel steamers gave Newport residents and visitors easy and stylish access to the town by connecting New York and Newport with nightly sailings. The New York Yacht Club moved its headquarters here and the America's Cup followed.
The U.S. Navy established itself in Newport during the Civil War and later added a torpedo base on Goat Island (opposite the tender landing), extant through the end of World War II. Owing to the present-day Naval War College and Naval Undersea Warfare Center, Newport became a Navy town and the now touristy Thames Street developed a bawdy reputation. When I went to boarding school in Newport we were not permitted to frequent Thames Street.
When the elite largely abandoned Newport, many of its mansions (locally known as summer cottages) and 18th and early 19th century houses fell into disrepair until the Newport Preservation Society and Doris Duke's Restoration Foundation arrived and turned things around. Newport again became a popular summer resort, although now much more egalitarian, and is currently the destination for an estimated 2.4 million annual visitors, including thousands from cruise ships -- especially during the fall foliage months. Lines that frequent Newport include Carnival, Celebrity, Crystal Cunard, Holland America, Fred. Olsen, Norwegian Cruise Line, P&O, Princess, and Royal Caribbean.
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Other Canada & New England Cruise Ports:
Bar Harbor • Bayonne (Cape Liberty) • Boston • Charlottetown (Prince Edward Island) • Halifax • Montreal • New York (Manhattan) • Newport • Portland (Maine) • Quebec City • Saint John (New Brunswick) • St. John's (Newfoundland)
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, (www.scrimshanders.com)
Where You're Docked
Most cruise ships anchor in Narragansett Bay off Newport and use tenders to take passengers to the landing that lies within easy walking distance of the tourist information center and local public transportation. You will get a harbor tour on the way in and again on the way back to your ship. America's Cup Drive, passing in front of the landing, is the conduit to Thames Street and Memorial Blvd., leading to the Bellevue Avenue mansions.
For families with strollers, the wharves, many shops and restaurants and the 18th- and 19th-century historic district are within easy walking distance from one another. More serious walkers can reach the start of Bellevue Avenue and its mansions, the International Tennis Hall of Fame and the Cliff Walk in 25 to 30 minutes. Bus #67 operates every 20 minutes from the Gateway Visitors Center to the Bellevue Avenue mansions. An all-day pass is $5. Single fare is $1.50. Viking Tours of Newport (www.vikingtoursnewport.com) has three tour offerings ($23 - 49) departing throughout the day, which include a scenic drive through Newport and sometimes one or two mansion visits. Phone: 401-847-6921.
Newport is a busy boat port for yachting and excursions. Walk along Thames Street (pronounce the “TH” as in the), the harbor front street lined with a myriad of shops and restaurants and when you see something that interests you on one of the cobblestone wharves (Bowen's, Bannister's, Perry Mill, Brown and Howard), turn right and go exploring. Find a seat and watch the harbor traffic, the sailboat races, and the ferries plying out of Narragansett Bay to Block Island and under the sweeping Jamestown-Newport suspension bridge to Providence. To see the more familiar New England clapboard town aspect, as opposed to the opulent mansions, turn left or inland off Thames Street and zigzag along the narrow names. These houses, forming an important historic district, are owned by full-time and summer residents and a few have been turned into attractive bed and breakfasts for weekend getaways.
Eleven fabulous Newport mansions (www.Newportmansions.org) are operated by The Preservation Society of Newport ranging in age from the 1748 Hunter House, which exhibits Newport-designed colonial furniture, to The Elms, a 1901 French-style chateau with a ten-acre park and beautiful sunken garden.
Most visited are The Breakers, the 70-room Italian Renaissance-style villa built by the famous architect Richard Morris Hunt for Cornelius Vanderbilt II; Marble House, built in 1892 by Hunt for William and Alva Vanderbilt, which features a dazzling Chinese tea house facing the sea; The Elms, built for a Philadelphia coal merchant; and Rosecliff, a 1901 Stanford White house modeled after the Grand Trianon at Versailles, which was the setting for the films Armistad, True Lies and the Great Gatsby.
If you are not taking a ship's tour, it is advisable to book house tours online for a specific starting time. Mansions open at 10 a.m. (The Breakers at 9 a.m.) and last tours are at 5 p.m. Tickets are available that include up to five properties. It is a good idea to allow about 30 minutes' walking time between any two mansions. The carriage house at The Elms has delightful indoor and outdoor cafes for light meals. Phone: 401-847-1000.
The best mansion to visit for outstanding and original artwork and furnishings is Doris Duke's Rough Point (www.NewportRestoration.org), located near the far end of Bellevue Avenue. Until her death in 1993, the tobacco heiress 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. In 2007, exhibition rooms displayed Doris Duke's clothing fashions. The house's landscaping is by Frederick Law Olmsted of Central Park fame. Duke also established a foundation to save and preserve 83 Newport properties dating from the 18th and early 19th centuries.
The International Tennis Hall of Fame & Museum, (www.tennisfame.com)
housed in McKim, Meade and White's 1880 National Historic Landmark shingle-style original Newport Casino, traces the history of the game of tennis (lawn tennis and court tennis) and its most famous players through films, memorabilia and photographs. The beautiful site has grass, clay and indoor tennis courts, a grandstand and cafe that are open to the public. Open daily at 9:30 a.m. Phone: 401-849-3990.
The Museum of Yachting, Fort Adams State Park. (www.museumofyachting.com). With Newport's heavy focus on yachting and two private yachting clubs nearby, a museum dedicated to the sport is right on target here. See the Courageous, two-time America's Cup winner and America's Cup Gallery; Classic Wooden Boat Collection and The Single-Handed Sailors' (39 of them) Hall of Fame. Open daily mid-May through October ,10 a.m.-5 p.m. Phone: 401-847-1018.
While visiting Fort Adams State Park (www.fortadams.org), you can also tour the largest coastal fortifications in the U.S., garrisoned from 1824 to 1950. From the bastions, there are great views and one has the opportunity to explore the tunnels and casements within to see where the soldiers lived. Visits are free and an admissions fee is charged for guided tours. A beach and picnic area adjoins. A ferry links the Newport waterfront at Bowen's Landing with Fort Adams and across Narragansett Bay to Jamestown Island, an attractive yet low-key summer resort. Open mid-May-Oct 10 a. m. - 4 p.m. Phone: 401-841-0707
Been There, Done That
The famous 3.5-mile Cliff Walk is a must see even if one only samples a short stretch. From Thames Street, follow Memorial Blvd. to the beginning (a 15-20 minute walk) and turn right along a gentle footpath that hugs the cliffs above the Atlantic Ocean breakers. On good surf days, the young set will be surfing off nearby Easton's Beach (First Beach). This path passes in front of the mansions, some of which are more visible than others, as many of the houses are obscured by lines of bushes or fences.
Salve Regina, a college housed in two mansions, has grounds that open to the footpath. For a short 45-minute walk, leave the path at Narragansett Avenue or a bit further along at Ruggles Avenue and go two blocks to Bellevue Avenue. For more serious hikers, the rewarding full walk takes over two hours and offers the best mansion and rugged shoreline views, including passage through a tunnel under the colorful Chinese tea pavilion at Marble House. The last section is over rough stony terrain and ends just a block away from the south end of Bellevue Avenue near the start of Ocean Drive.
Wharf Area (Thames Street)
The Mooring Seafood Kitchen- Sayer's Wharf (401-846-2260) www.MooringRestaurant.com. The Mooring provides good harbor views, fresh seafood, locally grown organic produce and a terrific wine list. The Black Pearl, Bannister's Wharf (401-846-5264) www.blackpearlnewport.com is located along the busy waterfront and is one of Newport's best-known and longest-serving restaurants, famous for its clam chowder.
Bellevue Avenue(near International Tennis Hall of Fame and start of Mansion Row)
LaForge Casino Restaurant, 186 Bellevue Avenue (401-847-0418). www.lagorgerestaurant.net is a Newport institution with an Irish atmosphere serving pub fare as well as more upscale food. Newport Creamery, 181 Bellevue Avenue (401-846-6332) www.newportcreamery.com serves sandwiches, salads and diner food. The Awful Awful is their signature shake.
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) at 300 Spring Street. Another option is the Empire Cafe, located at 22 Broadway, which charges $2.00 for first your 20 minutes. Jack and Josie's, located at 111 Broadway, charges $2.00 for every 15 minutes.
Scenes of Newport - One and a half hours. An excellent option for those who just want an overview of Newport's coastline and summer cottages, this motorcoach tour follows the wide open seascapes of Ocean Drive then travels slowly along tree-lined Bellevue Avenue passing many of the famous Gilded Age Mansions. $29.
The Vanderbilt's Newport - Four hours. By motorcoach, visit two of Newport's most famous “summer cottages”: Marble House with its Chinese tea house and The Breakers. $59.
Doris Duke's Mansion at Rough Point - Two hours. Travel by motorcoach to the Newport mansion that a tobacco heiress lived in for much of her life, furnishing it with art treasures from all over the world. See also the special temporary exhibit that changes every season. $66.
For More Information
On the Web: www.GoNewport.com
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--by Theodore W. Scull, a New York City-based travel writer with more than four years at sea on cruise ships, ocean liners, cargo ships, cruise ferries, barges and river boats.