NEWPORT, RI JUNE 2011
Newport is a historic New England town founded in 1639, which quickly became a haven from religious persecution, Rhode Island having been founded in Providence on the principle of the separation of church and state by those fleeing religious oppression in Massachusetts. Rhode Island was the first name of the island upon which Newport resides, which is now known by the name of Aquidneck Island to distinguish it from the state name, even though Pocasset was the original Native American name of the island. Newport was named the capital of the newly formed colony of Rhode Island and the Providence Plantations in 1663, with Benedict Arnold, great-grandfather of the infamous traitor, as Governor. It remained the capital until 1790, when Rhode Island joined the union as the 13th state and Providence became the state capital.
While not the first Jewish congregation in the U.S., the community established in 1658 by Portuguese and Spanish Jews escaping the Inquisition lead to the building of the Touro Synagogue in 1763, which is the oldest standing synagogue in North America, and the only remaining synagogue from the colonial period. It is the second wave of Portuguese Jews who emigrated to Newport in the middle of the 18th Century that is credited with establishing Newport’s reputation as a major commercial port, largely due to the success of the manufacture of sperm whale oil.
However, Newport was also the hub of the slave trade in New England. Referred to as the “Triangle Trade”, the molasses by-product of sugar production in the Caribbean was distilled into rum in Newport, which was exchanged in West Africa for slaves to work in the Caribbean sugar cane plantations. Slave ownership was common among prosperous Newporters during the colonial era.
The Industrial Revolution in the 18th C swept through New England leaving Newport relatively untouched, and it evolved into a holiday destination rather than an industrial powerhouse. One of our guides attributed the preservation of so many colonial era buildings to this turn of fortune. Homeowners could not afford to raze the old buildings and rebuild, so they maintained and renovated them instead.
During the Gilded Age from the mid-19th Century to early 20th Century, wealthy planters and industrialists, such as the Vanderbilts and Astors, began building opulent mansions along the aptly named Bellevue Avenue to take advantage of the seaside climate, and summering in Newport became de rigueur for affluent society.
Due to its prime location in Narragansett Bay, Newport has long been known as the sailing capital of the U.S. It was the location of the America’s Cup yacht races for decades, during which time the New York Yacht Club held the trophy from 1851 until 1983 when the Royal Perth Yacht Club ‘s Australia II, with its innovative winged keel design, ended the NYYC’s unparalleled winning streak.
Newport is also proud of being the site of the first free public school in 1640, having the oldest lending library in the U.S., being the first to illuminate its streets with gaslights, enacting the first law against slavery, and being the home of the first airplane passenger line in the U.S., perhaps due to all of the captains of industry commuting to and from their summer mansions.
I started with a light overview of Newport history because it provides a foundation for the course of our exploration over the next 4 days.
THE OLD QUARTER
Because of the rich history of Newport, Stu and I began our exploration of the town at the harbor, peaceful in the early hours before the shops open, followed by a walking tour of the charming old quarter, joined by three other couples, 2 from the U.S. and one from the U.K. While waiting for the tour to start, we browsed through the Museum of Newport History in the old Brick Market building, which houses a small but interesting collection of well-annotated artifacts and a trove of information about the city and its founders.
Among the most compelling items was a handwritten letter by George Washington to the Jewish Congregation of Newport in 1790 in response to their question about the rights of Jews as citizens of the Republic. Washington famously reinforced the principles of religious freedom in the letter, penning the statement: “For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens”.
Our guide, a native of Newport, reviewed the key highlights of Newport history before leading us across the road to Washington Square. Distinguished from other New England town squares, no church dominates the commons. You find instead the seat of civil government, the 1739 Colony House, thus reinforcing the principle of religious freedom and its separation from the state.
We continued to the site of the red, barn-like White Horse Tavern, built in 1673, and touted as the first tavern in the U.S., though perhaps it’s the first built U.S. tavern that is still in operation. Our guide unlocked the door to the austere Quaker Great Friends Meeting House, the oldest surviving house of worship in Newport (1699), and pointed out the original roof and other original architectural features while she described the Quaker community of the 17th and 18th Centuries. Though a historic landmark, the building is still used for Museum functions and meetings.
We strolled down narrow lanes where virtually every house had a plaque proclaiming its historical pedigree, ranging from 1628-1899. Most were beautifully maintained and are privately owned and occupied. Our guide explained that stone and brick were rare so that most buildings were built of wood, the most expensive with wood siding all around while others made do with shingles on the side and back walls. In some cases, the wood is carved in a trompe-l’oeil fashion to resemble stone and it’s only by getting a very close look that you realize that they are actually wood planks. She spent some time in front of the Wanton-Lyman-Hazard House (circa 1697) describing its history and role in the 1765 Stamp Act riot. Its owner at the time, Martin Howard, a Loyalist, was hanged in effigy from the roof while a mob destroyed the interior and tried to pull down the chimney.
We stopped in front of the Touro Synagogue to learn about the Jewish community, the elegant Trinity Church (1726), and the 7th Day Baptist Meeting House (1730), the oldest surviving Baptist church in the U.S., but did not enter any of them. The tour ended at the Museum, where we met our next guide, a student of architecture, for a site tour of the Colony House and the Wanton-Lyman-Hazard House. This time we were the only tour participants. Two school groups were touring these buildings as well, but we were able to coordinate our visits with them so that we did not miss anything.
We started in the handsome English Georgian-styled Colony House, Rhode Island’s first government building and state house. Among the momentous events that took place here, the death of George II in 1761 and ascension of George III was announced from its balcony and on July 20, 1776, the Declaration of Independence was read from its front steps. Although Rhode Island was the first state to declare independence from Great Britain in May 1776, it ended up being the last of the original 13 colonies to achieve statehood.
In 1782 General Rochambeau threw a banquet in the Great Hall on the ground floor to honor George Washington and there’s a portrait of Washington by Gilbert Stuart on the second floor. The building served as the State House until the seat of government was moved to Providence but continued to be used for meetings, trials and social functions. Both of our guides mentioned that the Colony House was the site of the courtroom scene in the anti-slavery film Amistad. The building is owned by the Historical Society and is still used for functions.
On this tour we entered the Wanton-Lyman-Hazard House, the oldest surviving private house in Newport, and learned much about its inhabitants and how they lived. The house had been expanded and modified to suit the needs of the different families who occupied it and it has been meticulously restored, down to the composition of the paint on the walls, retaining both original and added sections so that visitors can see how the structure evolved. It is filled with typical furnishings and implements of its time, though little remains of the original articles in the house, particularly after the rain of destruction in 1765.
After the tour we walked back to the harbor and snagged a table on the patio overlooking the harbor at The Moorings for lunch. I savored delicious, briny oysters and lobster salad with a glass of white wine from a Sakonnet R.I. vineyard which matched well with the seafood. Stu enjoyed tuna tartare and a salmon burger.
When we finished lunch we walked to Touro Park to see the Old Stone Mill, aka the Newport Tower, a round stone structure with arches that stands about 28 feet high. Controversy surrounds the origin of the tower, with some claiming that it was built by Norse explorers, however carbon dating suggests that it was built between 1635 and 1698, and there is a credible theory that it was constructed by the first Newport Governor, Benedict Arnold, on his farm. Whenever it was built, there is evidence that it was once used as a windmill and as an observation tower during the Revolutionary War. Now it appears to function mainly as a romantic tourist attraction and nesting site for birds.
We overlooked the renowned Redwood Library and Athenaeum on the edge of the park, but we returned there on Saturday. Established by Abraham Redwood in 1747 and opened in 1750, the library has been in continuous operation since then and retains about 90% of the 750 original books purchased in England to start its collection. Notecards on the bookcases describe the provenance of the tomes and the nature of the covers (vellum and other skins). In addition to the original books and modern books, there is a fine collection of rare books and manuscripts as well as painting and sculpture collections and antique furniture. The librarians are very helpful and informative and while we were there we witnessed a poetry reading in the old reading room.
THE CLIFF WALK
The weather was glorious, sunny and mild, and it was late enough in the day that the sun was not bearing down too hard, so we thought it was a perfect time to experience the Cliff Walk. No one comes to Newport without walking at least part of the 3-1/2 mile trail that runs behind the grand mansions on Bellevue Avenue affording stunning views of the Atlantic Ocean. The first couple of miles are well paved and easy to navigate and between the rear estate and ocean views, there is plenty to admire. After that the trail runs up and down the cliff side and you have to hop from stone to stone in places to progress. It’s not exceptionally difficult, however, it’s not suitable for anyone with difficulty walking or keeping their balance. We were lucky that there were not great crowds of people, though it is clearly an exercise venue for locals as we saw a teen boy nimbly sprinting the length of the trail and back and a young woman jogging the trail with her dog. The trail starts just behind our hotel, The Chanler at Cliff Walk, and ends at the southern end of Bellevue Avenue. Many people only walk as far as the 40 steps, which take you down to the rocks at sea level, but we continued to the very end.
Except for lunch, we’d been on our feet all day and were pretty tired by the time we finished the trail, but we couldn’t find any transportation back to our hotel, so we walked all the way back along Bellevue Avenue, stopping for water and a rest in a small strip mall.
We had arrived early in the morning and our room was not ready yet, so we left our bags and armed with a street map walked across town to take the Old Quarter tour. On the way we passed St. Mary’s Church on Memorial Avenue where John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Jacqueline Bouvier wed, but the doors were locked so we didn’t see the interior. When we returned around 2:30, the room was still not ready so we headed off to the Cliff Walk. We stopped at the front desk after the Cliff Walk to quaff a complimentary glass of delicious sparkling pear wine and continued directly to our room. We were pleased to confirm that it met our high expectations. The Chanler, constructed in 1873 on the Cliff Walk as a summer home for New York Congressman John Winthrop Chanler and his wife, a descendant of John Jacob Astor, was known as Cliff Lawn. It went through different incarnations over the years, and was eventually converted into a hotel after World War II. The hotel was renovated in 2000 in grand style and renamed The Chanler at Cliff Walk.
The hotel has 20 rooms, each with decor based on a different historical era or theme, such as the Gothic Room or English Tudor. We had booked the Louis XVI with its opulent pale blue and cream colored fabrics, crystal chandeliers, antique-style furniture and paintings of the unfortunate French King. The room features a king-size canopy bed, lovely sitting area with fireplace by the large windows, a Jacuzzi tub and separate dual-head shower and, best of all, a wide balcony with a spectacular view of nearby Easton beach and the Atlantic extending as far as the eye can see. It features a classic ambience with all of the modern amenities, including an iPod doc and free Wi-Fi. Every evening a sweet treat was delivered during turndown along with a card inscribed with a fact from Newport history. Fortunately, occupancy of the room does not include beheading at the hands of French revolutionaries.
Every evening except Friday, when we had a bit of rain, we spent a couple of hours or more on our balcony relaxing and enjoying the view. Seas were calm and surprisingly flat on Wednesday and Thursday, but the surf picked up after that, and it was fun watching the surfers off Easton Beach (aka First Beach) ride the waves clad in wetsuits. We were surprised at how many people were swimming on the weekend wearing only bathing suits. I was shivering just at the thought of taking a dip in water around 63 degrees F.
That evening we cleaned up and had dinner at the Chanler’s fine dining restaurant, The Spiced Pear. Our server was very personable, but a bit forgetful, and we thought that service was somewhat slow. The meal was very good, but not exceptional. However, the room was lovely with a scenic ocean view and we experienced a spectacular moonrise as the enormous full moon climbed in the sky casting its glow on the placid sea.
A full breakfast is included with the room and the breakfast choices were also well varied and very good with sweet freshly squeezed orange juice and good coffee, plus your choice of omelette, French toast, oatmeal or granola, pastries, etc. Service was exceedingly slow, we think mainly because of the kitchen, because one of our servers was very attentive, but it was still a long wait to get food. Fortunately we weren’t in a great rush any of the mornings.
The front desk ladies were uniformly friendly and helpful and the young bell staff were charming. The Chanler offers free car service in black SUVs around town. They will drop you off at dinner and you just have to call and they will pick you up afterwards so that there’s no need to drive. Parking by the harbor never seemed to be a problem while we were there, however, we visited before the start of the summer season, when we imagine that traffic is much more congested and parking is harder to find. Parking at the hotel is also included whether you park yourself in the nearby lot, or use the valet parking service.
We couldn’t visit the sailing capital of the U.S. without going sailing. I investigated the tourist harbor cruises, but none of them offered the experience we were looking for. Then I found the website for Quintessence. The owner and captain, Don Miller, takes small groups out on the Narragansett Bay in his 44-foot sailing yacht. We made all of the arrangements by email prior to our visit for a full day sail, about 7 hours, and were overjoyed that the weather on our chosen day was perfect for sailing, sunny, low 80’s with smooth seas and plenty of wind to fill the sails.
After a leisurely breakfast, we drove over the bridge to Jamestown, located on Conanicut Island, and crossed the island to the Town Pier, where Captain Don greeted us and took us in a dinghy to Quintessence. I’ve been on sailboats before but have never sailed one, though Stu had some experience sailing small boats on Lake Mohawk in NJ. Not long after motoring out of the harbor, Don gave me some brief instructions and passed the wheel to me while he unfurled the sails and prepared the boat to switch from motor to wind power. It took awhile to get used to steering, especially the slight lag between moving the wheel and changing direction. Later, I would get lessons on reading the telltales, the strips of fabric hanging off the sails, used to determine that you’re on the right course to keep the sails filled. It was especially exciting when changing tack, which involved a hard steer to port or starboard while the boom and sails flipped over. I needed correction many times, but didn’t do badly for a novice, and was greatly thrilled to guide the boat. It didn’t take long before we picked up the wind and were keeled over, cruising along at high speed toward the tip of the island.
We spent the day circumnavigating Conanicut Island, heading South first towards the mouth of the bay and around the tip of the island to the strait between Jamestown and Newport. On the way around we saw several lighthouses, most built in the 19th C, starting with the square white Dutch Island, and including tall granite Beavertail which stands among a cluster of red-roofed white buildings, stubby Rose Island squatting behind a protective stone wall, cheery red & white Plum Beach hunkering near the Jamestown Verrazano bridge, classically proportioned all white Goat Island, and handsome brown and white Castle Hill built into the rocks at the water’s edge on Aquidneck Island. For a lighthouse lover, like me, this was a key highlight of the voyage.
We were exceedingly fortunate because as we headed back north after getting a close look at Beavertail on the southern tip of Conanicut, we saw the towering silvery Kevlar sails of two J-Class yachts preparing for a race. The J-Class Regatta was scheduled to run Wednesday through Sunday. We had hoped to see some of it, but never expected to view the action from such an ideal vantage point. An official boat pulled up to us to advise us about the rules and the distance we had to maintain from the racers, dropping a flyer that outlined the spectator guidelines and mapped out the race course.
We arrived just in time to see the boats race to the Castle Hill Buoy before turning back towards the finish point. This was considered a very special regatta since it is not common to see these large but fast and graceful boats from a bygone era. J-class yachts were designed between 1930 and 1937 to compete in the America’s Cup races and very few of the originals remain, many having been sold for scrap during WWII. There were two yachts in the race, Velsheda and Ranger. Velsheda, built in 1933 for W.L. Stephenson, the Managing Director of Woolworth’s, was named for his three daughters, Velma, Sheila and Daphne. In her day, Velsheda won more than 40 races. She was refitted in 1984 for charter use, but not restored to pristine racing condition until 1997. She boasts the tallest one piece carbon mast in the world at 56 meters (183 feet). Ranger is a 2004 replica of Harold Stirling Vanderbilt’s yacht, which was reputed to be the fastest in the J-Class, capturing the America’s Cup in 1937 and defeating her famous challenger, Endeavour II.
During our sail we viewed the racers from various perspectives, including with their spinnakers fully inflated, a glorious sight. Ranger was the victor of the 2011 regatta. We also got a close look at a seriously sexy carbon fiber racing sloop in the Volvo Open 70 class. These beauties are built to compete in round the world open ocean races. The one we saw had sleek black sails made of Kevlar yarns laminated on Mylar films which featured a Puma on the mainsail pouncing out of a crashing wave on the jib. Using the most advanced technology, these boats are extremely light and fast, achieving speeds up to 40 knots, yet strong enough to sustain rough ocean conditions.
During our voyage, Don took over the wheel while we shared the picnic lunch that the Chanler had packed for us with him. After passing beneath the Newport Bridge, we continued north near the bay islands of Prudence, Providence and Hope before heading back south to our mooring. Don was an excellent skipper and companion, with loads of interesting stories to tell. We truly could not have enjoyed the day more. We returned to shore glowing with exhilaration, intoxicated by sunshine and sea breezes. It’s no wonder that sailing can be such a powerful addiction.
That evening we dined at Bouchard’s, a family-run inn and restaurant near the harbor on Thames St. We were greeted by the lovely Sarah Bouchard, whose husband, Albert, is the chef. Sarah lead us to a terrific table in the front room. Everything about the restaurant is classic, from the décor to the tuxedoed waiters to the menu. The room had a warm, inviting ambience and most guests were casually dressed. Our waiter was delightful from start to finish, and service was attentive, well-paced and friendly. While we greatly appreciate nouvelle cuisine, it’s a real treat to find lovingly prepared traditional French cuisine. I could not resist the foie gras poêlé, served with a fruity, but not cloyingly sweet, sauce framboise, well accompanied by a fine glass of sauternes. Stu started with the tuna carpaccio, followed by tender lamb and I enjoyed the moist duck, with its surprising coffee crust and cognac sauce and a glass of cabernet sauvignon. We would have loved to try the signature soufflé for dessert but we’d had soufflés the night before and felt that twice in a row might just be too much.
The chance of scattered showers in the weather forecast looked more like steady rain, so we decided that it was a good day for indoor activities and decided to tour the Newport mansions. While there are still many privately owned mansions along Bellevue Avenue, some of the most grand have been restored by the Preservation Society of Newport County open to the public as museums, as well as being available to rent for private functions, such as weddings.
After breakfast our bellman dropped us at the gate of the Breakers, the summer home of the Vanderbilt family, which is widely considered to be the most opulent of the Newport estates. Cornelius Vanderbilt II commissioned notable architect Richard Morris Hunt and interior decorators Jules Allard and Ogden Codman to build the 70 room Italian Renaissance styled palazzo in 1893 and it remained in family hands, inherited by the Vanderbilt’s youngest daughter, Gladys, the Countess of Szechenyi, until it was sold by her heirs to The Preservation Society in 1972. The furnishings still belong to the family. I had purchased a membership in the Preservation Society, so while other visitors were directed to the ticket kiosk to pay the entrance fee, we proceeded straight to the mansion to collect our headsets and begin our self-guided tour. We had at least 15 minutes head start on our tour so we managed to have the rooms entirely to ourselves for the duration of our visit.
We suspect that the term “over-the-top” may have been coined by visitors to the Breakers. There was barely any surface of the interior that was not gilded, carved or ornamented in the most lavish way. The kitchen alone is larger than many modern Manhattan apartments.
The narration was excellent, providing detail not only about the architectural and ornamental details of the rooms, such as the dolphin motif which symbolizes hospitality, but describing the nature of life among the ultra-rich at the time, including the extravagant parties, the menus, the wardrobes, the household staff and more. We learned that the pejorative term “Gilded Age” was coined by Mark Twain in the title of a satirical novel about the excesses of the era. The phrase derives from Shakespeare’s King John with its famous line decrying the wastefulness of gilding the lily.
Unfortunately the Breakers Stables and Carriage House, located about two blocks from the mansion on the other side of Bellevue Avenue, were still closed for the season, so we only saw the exterior and a glimpse inside through an open door. We continued to Rosecliff, modelled after the Grand Trianon at Versailles by illustrious architect Stanford White and completed in 1902 for silver heiress Theresa Fair Oelrichs and her husband. This was our favorite of the mansions, airy and elegant with its white terracotta exterior, arcade of windows and soaring spaces. Although it looks as if there are only two stories, the architecture cleverly conceals the recessed third floor which housed the staff. In the spectacular ballroom, Newport’s largest, the recorded guide pointed out that Rosecliff was used in the filming of the Hollywood movies High Society, The Great Gatsby, True Lies, Amistad and 27 Dresses, among others. We could just picture the elegant parties spilling through the French doors onto the great back lawn overlooking the sea. The landscaping was also lovely though we didn’t spend much time exploring the grounds in the rain.
From Rosecliff we continued down Bellevue to Marble House. William K. Vanderbilt, younger brother of Cornelius II who built the Breakers, also used architect Richard Morris Hunt to design his summer cottage, this one, true to its name, composed of 500,000 cubic feet of marble. It cost about $11 million, which would amount to over $250,000,000 in today’s dollars. Versailles’ Petit Trianon inspired this mansion, though the final result resembles its royal model in only some aspects. It contains our favorite room in all of the mansions, the impressive Gothic Room, a library and study that contains a wealth of Medieval and Renaissance art.
While the house and grounds are as magnificent as you might expect, it was the family story that was most intriguing. William’s wife, Alva, who received the house as a 39th birthday present, was very active in women’s suffrage and held rallies here. You can see the special dishes and cups that she had imprinted with Votes for Women slogans in the china chest and buy replicas in the gift shop. Alva and William had three children, the boys William K. and Harold becoming renowned sportsmen, William in auto racing and Harold in yachting, successfully defending the America’s Cup in the J-Class yachts Enterprise, Rainbow and Ranger (the original).
Alva was determined that Consuelo, their only daughter, marry European royalty and bred her for it, subjecting her to mortifying treatment, such as forcing her to wear a steel rod to improve her posture, while Consuelo longed to be a painter. She acquiesced to her mother’s demands, marrying the 9th Duke of Marlborough, even though she was in love with another man whom she hoped to marry. The marriage didn’t last and she subsequently remarried a French pilot.
Alva also divorced and remarried Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont. The Belmont stakes are named for his father, August Belmont, and his mother was daughter of Commodore Matthew Perry and a relative of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, for whom he was named. They moved to Belmont’s Belcourt estate, but Alva reopened Marble House after his death and built an authentically designed Chinese Tea House overlooking the sea. After our tour we had a truly awful sandwich in the café in the Chinese Tea House. We would have liked to have our car so we could have driven somewhere better for lunch. All of the mansions have parking and at this time of year there was no problem finding a spot, and traffic was light, though we imagine that it might be much harder at the height of the tourist season.
We had just enough time for a guided tour of Château-sur-Mer before heading to the National Museum of American Illustration. Château-sur-Mer, as its name suggests, mimics the style of a French château, though its original style was Italianate and it was completely remodelled to its current form in the 1870s by Richard Morris Hunt, who was apparently a very busy man. Built by the Wetmore family, it was the most regal mansion in Newport in 1852 until the Vanderbilts set out to outdo the rest of the neighborhood. Our guide described the original footprint of the house and showed how it was transformed by Hunt. This is a charming mansion and interesting tour, we’re glad that we didn’t skip it.
The National Museum of American Illustration has limited open hours, except for pre-booked group tours on Wednesday and Thursday, so we did not want to miss our opportunity to visit. It offers a guided tour on Friday afternoons at 3 and is open to the public from 11-5 on Saturday and Sunday. The tour started with a short film about American illustration, highlighting the work of Leyendecker, Parrish, NC Wyeth and Rockwell. We learned that what distinguishes illustration from other painting is that it is created for the purpose of reproduction, often for commercial purposes, such as books, advertisements and magazines. Our guide then led us through the rooms, describing the major pieces. The museum, occupying Vernon Court, a mansion on Bellevue Avenue, is a true gem, with period furnishings as well as the marvelous collection. It was well worth viewing, though it was very crowded, making the small rooms often feel cramped. There was an extensive collection of Norman Rockwell paintings as well as a special exhibit of illustrations by the author Tom Wolfe on the lower level near the gift shop. We especially enjoyed the Maxfield Parrish suite of Renaissance-themed murals titled A Florentine Fete covering all of the walls in the light-filled Rose Garden Loggia. In addition to discussing Parrish’s trademark blue palette, the guide spoke about Parrish’s mistress, whose lovely image is repeated throughout the murals in both male and female incarnations.
We still had time to tour the Elms after the museum tour so we headed right there. The Elms is the house that coal built, its owners, the Berwinds, having earned their fortune in the Pennsylvania coal industry. It was modelled after the Château d'Asnières in France by architect Horace Trumbauer at the end of the 19th Century and bears no resemblance whatsoever to a coal mine. The family spaces were as luxurious as you might imagine, but it was most interesting seeing the designated delivery areas and the special passageways for the staff, designed to keep them hidden from the guests at all times, except for the male butlers and wait staff who served the guests directly. It was one of the first homes in the U.S. to be wired for electricity and was equipped with many modern conveniences.
We were lucky that by the time we finished our inside tour the rain had ceased and we were able to enjoy the splendid grounds awash in late afternoon sun, which included a sunken garden, sculptures, a carriage house and stables, colorful flower beds and huge, dramatic weeping beech trees. We finished just before the site closed at 6 and walked back to the hotel.
I had heard good things about a relatively new restaurant called Tallulah on Thames and had booked a table at 8. We were directed upstairs to the bar room and ordered a glass of Prosecco while our table was prepared. The crowd downstairs was largely young and stylish and we had a good view of the kitchen, and the up-and-coming chef with his forearms blazoned with chef’s knife tattoos. We really wanted to like the place, but the food was mediocre and the service was worse. Even though the kitchen was probably backed up, our waitress didn’t bother to come over to explain the interminable wait for our main courses. Even with the leisurely service at the Spiced Pear, we had a 6 course tasting menu in about the same time as 3 courses here and it cost much more than Bouchard’s, which we enjoyed infinitely more.
The next morning the skies had cleared and we decided it was a perfect time to visit Fort Adams. Breakfast was served indoors rather than on the terrace because a wedding was being set up on the lawn. You can take a water taxi to the fort area form Newport harbor, but we drove, enjoying the views along Ocean Drive on the way, and having plenty of time to stroll around the area before the ticket office opened. While waiting for the tour guide, we met a nice fellow visiting from Seattle and passed the time chatting. We were joined by a couple of families moments before the guide lead us through the gate onto the fort parade grounds. Our guide was well versed in the history of the fort and the region and the tour was engrossing.
Fort Adams is named for John Adams, the second President of the United States of America, though fortifications were first established there in 1776 before his tenure. The fort was expanded in 1799, and on July 4 was christened Fort Adams in the President’s honor. In 1825 the fort was further developed and strengthened after the threat of the War of 1812 made the country reassess its defense capabilities. The second largest fort in the U.S., Ft. Adams’ 6 acre parade grounds are so large that the next 3 largest forts on the East Coast, Ft. McHenry, Ft. Ticonderoga and Ft. Sumter, together could fit inside its walls with room to spare. We learned that forts are not built in a square or rectangular shape because it would make it easy for invaders to hug the walls and escape fire. The irregular shape allows shooters on the walls to reach those attempting to approach from any side. Our guide described the lives of the soldiers and officers who lived at the fort over the years, the weaponry and defenses, how it was designed to be impenetrable from sea and land and much more. There’s a small museum with interesting historical exhibits, but we only had a brief amount of time to spend there. We especially enjoyed a visit to the tunnels used to thwart those who might try to breach the fort from the land side by tunnelling beneath the fort walls. Soldiers learned to navigate them in pitch dark so they could remain undetected by intruders.
MUSEUM OF YACHTING & INTERNATIONAL YACHT RESTORATION SCHOOL
After the fort tour we walked across the lawn to the Museum of Yachting, which included some small boats as well as an exhibit about the Coronet, a 133 foot schooner launched in 1885 that circumnavigated the globe twice. The Coronet is being restored across the harbor at the International Yacht Restoration School (IYRS), our next stop. But first, we walked down to the water’s edge to watch the J-Boat race, which had just begun, so the boats were very near to shore and we got an excellent view of them again as they sliced through the chop.
We parked in a lot near the IYRS and entered the building, a restored 1831 Mill. IYRS teaches boatbuilding skills to students while restoring historic wooden boats. Unfortunately we visited either on a day when school was not in session, or everyone was off to lunch because we didn’t get to see any of the craftsmen at work. You can learn about the history of the school, see a collection of model boats and watch the work on the Coronet. There is still a lot of work to be done to fully restore it, but there are placards describing the work.
We drove back to our hotel for a quite disappointing lunch, and then walked over to tour the Redwood Library. There are lots of interesting boutiques on this end of Bellevue Avenue, on the opposite side of Memorial Blvd. from the mansions. Afterwards, we still had plenty of time and could have visited another mansion, but we decided to just relax, listen to music and enjoy the view from our balcony. The wedding was winding down and we watched children playing on the lawn, the family pose for photos and the guests slowly head off.
This evening we drove to Castle Hill and had dinner at their fine dining restaurant. This is a lovely seaside resort at the southern end of Aquidneck Island, not far from Fort Adams. We had requested, and received, a fabulous table overlooking Narragansett Bay. It was just before sunset and the bar was jammed with people who’d come to see it. The hotel staff chased away any visitors who tried to stand in front of the restaurant windows blocking the view of restaurant guests, which we thought was a nice courtesy. The blazing red sun slipped below the low profile of Conanicut Island, but did not illuminate the sky with much color.
We ordered the tasting menu, with wine pairings for me, to try a variety of dishes and were glad that we did. Every course was superb, the wines were very good, service was flawless and friendly, and the atmosphere was romantic. There was a mix of locals and visitors in the dining room. We couldn’t have been more pleased. It’s not an inexpensive meal, but well worth the price. We decided that if we return to Newport we’d probably stay here, if only to enjoy their wonderful restaurant. We drove home the next morning after breakfast, so that exceptional dinner was a perfect ending to a wonderful visit.
The CHANLER at CLIFF WALK 117 Memorial Blvd http://www.thechanler.com/
NEWPORT MANSIONS http://www.newportmansions.org
- **Kingscote 253 Bellevue Avenue 10-6 (last admission at 5)
- **Isaac Bell House 70 Perry Street at Bellevue (Closed)
- **The Elms 367 Bellevue Ave 10-5 Carriage House Café 11-4 SG
- **Chepstow 120 Narragansett Ave. (Closed)
- **Chateau-sur-Mer 474 Bellevue Avenue 10-6
- **The Breakers 44 Ochre Point Avenue 9-6 SG
- **Rosecliff 548 Bellevue Avenue 10-6 SG
- **Marble House 596 Bellevue Ave 10-6 Chinese Tea House 11-5 SG
- Belcourt Castle 657 Bellevue Avenue
- Rough Point 680 Bellevue Avenue (Doris Duke)
- **Green Animals Topiary Garden 380 Cory's Lane, Portsmouth 10-6
- Linden Place 500 Hope St. Bristol, Thu-Sat 10-4
**Included with Restoration Society Membership, SG = Self-guided Tour
NEWPORT OLD QUARTER http://www.newporthistorytours.org/
Discover Colonial Newport Walking Tour
10:00 am Daily (Sundays at 11:00 am), June-October; 75 mins.
Colony House & Wanton-Lyman-Hazard House
11:30 am Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday & Sunday, June-October
- Newport Historical Society Museum 1762, 127 Thames St. 10-6
- Redwood Library & Athenaeum 50 Bellevue Avenue, Wed-Th 9:30-8, Fri-Sat 9:30-5
- Touro Synagogue 72 Touro St. noon-2, closed Sat.
- The Great Friends Meeting House 1699
- White Horse Tavern 1673
- The Wanton-Lyman-Hazard House 1697 17 Broadway
- 7th Day Baptist Meeting House 1730
- Colonial Jewish Burying Ground 1677
- The Old Stone Mill, Touro Park 1660
- Trinity Church 1726
- Private Colonial homes 1628-1899
- Hunter House 54 Washington Street 10-5
National Museum of American Ilustration Vernon Court 492 Bellevue Avenue 401-851-8949. Sat. & Sun. 11-5. Fri. Guided Tour at 3 pm http://www.americanillustration.org
Quintessence Charters 401-423-0612 http://www.yachtquintessence.com/info.htm
Cliff Walk 3.5 miles
Ocean Drive 10 miles Bellevue to Ocean
Brenton Point State Park Ocean Drive
Fort Adams State Park Harrison Avenue
Fort Adams Tour Daily 10-4 every hour on the hour http://www.fortadams.org
Museum of Yachting Ft. Adams Daily 10-5:30 except Tues.
International Yacht Restoration School 449 Thames St., 10-5 www.iyrs.org/
Newport Harbor Shuttle http://www.newportharborshuttle.com/
Castle Hill Inn and Resort 590 Ocean Dr. 888-466-1355, 401-849-3885 http://www.castlehillinn.com/Rhode-Island-Dining/rhode-island-dining.htm Very highly recommended
Restaurant Bouchard 505 Thames St. 401-846-0123. http://www.restaurantbouchard.com/ Highly recommended
The Mooring 1 Sayer’s Wharf 401-846-2260. Recommended
Spiced Pear Restaurant – in Chanler http://www.thechanler.com/dining/ Recommended with some reservations
Tallulah on Thames 464 Thames St. 401-849-2433 - http://www.tallulahonthames.com/ Not recommended.