American history and Gilded Age opulence define America’s picturesque city by the sea. by Paul Rubio
Newport. It’s a name that conjures up images of sparkling seascapes, historic lighthouses, Gilded Age opulence, regattas, and high society. From centuries-old mansions dotting the coastline to storied coastal forts and narrow streets brimming with history, Newport is a stunningly beautiful place that never fails to impress.
Originally founded as a colony for religious freedom in the 17th century and evolving into America’s society capital by the 20th century, Newport tenderly embraces its rich past. Throughout the centuries, this city by the sea has held claim to several historic firsts: America’s first synagogue, circa 1763 (Touro Synagogue); lending library, circa 1747 (Redwood Library and Athenaeum); and tavern, circa 1673 (The White Horse Tavern), all of which remain in operation. Newport was also site of the first U.S. Open tennis match in 1895, an achievement detailed in the city’s International Tennis Hall of Fame & Museum.
By the late 19th century, fortunes from the Industrial Revolution were mounting, and a newfound American elite endeavored to find a summer social playground. Enter Newport, with its picturesque coastlines, idyllic summer weather, and proximity to major economic centers. The likes of the Astors and Vanderbilts were soon entertaining the rest of the Who’s Who of American high society in colossal summer “cottages,” now part of the famous Newport Mansions portfolio.
Across Newport, the peak of America’s Gilded Age opulence has been frozen in time, thanks largely to the Preservation Society of Newport County (newportmansions.org). The society owns and operates 14 historic oceanside mansions, none more spectacular than The Breakers. The pinnacle of early-20th-century wealth, The Breakers headlines Bellevue Avenue’s Historic District and reigns as Newport’s most-visited attraction. The five-story, 65,000-square-foot, 70-room mansion formerly owned by the Vanderbilt family dazzles with its epic Great Hall, sculpted iron gates, Italian Renaissance influences, and lavish interiors. Also on this well-heeled avenue, the extraordinary Elms mansion offers a home and grounds tour completely unlike its neighbors. Inspired by the raging popularity of the television series “Downton Abbey,” the new “Servant Life Tour” at The Elms explores the back lots of this fabled estate and the behind-the-scenes drama of Elms’ servants.
Behind the collection of mega mansions lies Newport’s Cliff Walk, a 3.5-mile walking trail nestled alongside the ocean. Walk south and reach remote swaths of craggy coastline; head north to see surfers hanging 10 on Easton’s Beach (even in the dead of winter).
Much like it has since the early 20th century, modern-day Newport erupts in full bloom during the summer. Socialites young and old vie for space with jet setters at the city’s myriad boat
races, luxury hotels, legendary restaurants, and other iconic attractions. They arrive in droves for Newport’s annual outdoor festivities, like the Newport Jazz Festival, the Newport International Boat Show, the Newport Folk Festival, the Sunset Music Festival, and the Newport Regatta. Private beach and golf clubs welcome back their returning members, while non-members head to Gooseberry Beach for a bit of fun in the sun.
Boat enthusiasts, aspiring photographers, and those in the know spend summer evenings at Castle Inn, a century-old mansion turned Relais & Châteaux hotel on its own 40-acre peninsula. From its sprawling Adirondack chair-dotted lawn to its fine dining restaurant, Castle Inn brings to life the quintessential postcard-perfect image of New England. It also provides a front-row seat to the best sunset in Newport. Order Champagne or the signature oyster martini from your alfresco lounger, or elevate the experience over a multi-course meal. Award-winning chef Karsten Hart dishes out experiential gastronomy with locally inspired dishes, like pan-Seared Georges Bank scallops with crispy blood orange slices, pistachio dust, and Maltaise sauce and pan-seared Georges Bank lemon sole, accompanied by Maine lobster, potato gnocchi, and tempura artichokes.
The Newport experience isn’t complete until you’ve indulged in an overnight stay at one of the town’s gloriously restored mansions. The Golden Age is alive and well at the aforementioned Castle Inn and the wildly popular Chanler Inn at Cliff Walk. Moreover, the former Vanderbilt Hall from 1909 has been completely restored and reinvented as the luxurious Vanderbilt Grace. Ample acreage and design foresight have translated to a wide array of amenities uncommon to Newport’s other boutique mansion hotels—think oversized rooms, a dining atrium, a sumptuous spa, a subterranean indoor pool, an outdoor pool surrounded by manicured gardens, and a rooftop bar where patrons can enjoy sunset cocktails and Wednesday movie nights come summertime.
The Vanderbilt Grace experience begins at check-in with a glass of bubbly served in bespoke flutes. From there, it’s a stroll through the hotel’s majestic common spaces—past fireplaces, grand staircases, exquisite vases, and period furnishings—to one of its 33 rooms and suites, which marry modernity with tradition for a look of understated elegance. In the 700-square-foot VIP Suites, for example, a brick-hewn fireplace and classic portrait art stand opposite a bedroom framed by plentiful windows and white walls and decorated with design-savvy furnishings and accents like lanterns and salmon-tinted linens. Whether visiting for the first or the fifth time, history-steeped Vanderbilt Grace charms visitors with a peek inside this city’s grand past.
The Chanler Inn at Cliff Walk - Newport’s elegant mansion by the sea keeps history in style.
A celebration of Gilded Age glamour, The Chanler Inn at Cliff Walk offers guests the true experience of Newport mansion life. Twenty unique rooms and suites represent various periods of European and American history through design. The imperial English Tudor room, for example, would serve Henry VIII proud with its dark, masculine, and ornate décor. Likewise, the Louis XVI room captures the essence of 18th-century regal opulence, bedazzled with gold trim, blue-and-mustard furnishings, and old-fashioned clocks. Regardless of décor, all 20 of Chanler’s bespoke sanctuaries embody a common theme of romance.
The boutique hotel was originally constructed in 1873 as the summer home of John Winthrop Chanler and Margaret Astor Ward. Nowadays, the Chanler is also connected to the 3.5-mile Cliff Walk path, granting immediate access to Newport’s other famed mansions and nearby Easton’s Beach.
Upon arriving in their rooms or suites, guests are greeted with a box of gourmet cookies, perfect to help digest the “wow factor” of the interiors. After a day spent roaming around Newport, the Chanler’s Spiced Pear restaurant delivers gastronomic greatness from its showroom-style open kitchen with specialties such as butter-poached Maine lobster with truffled leeks, candied beets, and sunchoke purée, as well as Rohan duck breast in blood orange jus.
The service is always top-notch at the Chanler Inn at Cliff Walk, and the front desk staff bears a wealth of knowledge of Newport and its surroundings. The complimentary on-call luxury SUV shuttle moves guests around within three miles of the hotel, putting nearly all of Newport in the palm of their hand.
Planning your next Newport trip? Make time for these must-see spots while you’re in town.