Newport, Rhode Island: A Journey into the Past

Visiting with my daughter Patricia in New York has always meant an adventure is in the horizon. Being much younger and bolder, Pat’s dream is to see and experience as much of this amazing planet as she possibly can, and having a compliant and indulgent mother in tow makes for the perfect partnership!

Through the years the two of us have ‘done’ Prague in a freezing cold winter, Paris and Provence in the mellow autumn of southern France, and Istanbul in the beautiful Mediterranean spring.   Last year, unable to make the necessary preparations for another European visit, we decided to ‘do’ a place in the US instead.   We decided on Newport, Rhode Island.

Newport is located on the eastern seaboard of the United States, and is well known as the playground of the (very) rich and prominent families in American society during the turn of the century.   The “summer homes” of these wealthy families are a favorite tourist destination for locals and foreign tourists alike, and its fame is well deserved.  

Getting there meant an early train ride from the suburb where Pat lives to downtown Manhattan Penn Station to catch the outbound trains from New York.  Not to discourage my readers, but Penn Station is like a marketplace, and I have developed a deathly fear of such places, including Port Authority and Grand Central Station.   Like a ‘probinsiyana’ I get confused with the complexity and intricacy of the comings and goings of the trains, never having learned the daring and independence of the New Yorkers. 

(So I was a very tense, fearful senior citizen on that spring morning, listening to the garbled announcements on the PA and ready to rush for our platform as soon as it was announced   It didn’t help that my senior ears could hardly make out what was being said, in what seemed to be a foreign language!  But God is good, and we made our train with time to spare, and we settled down for the ride to Rhode Island, to the seaside town of Newport!)
The train ride was a refreshing change from the dark tunnels and underground stations of the subway, which we took every day.   It was mostly above ground, and once we had passed the railway yards, the scenery turned green and beautiful with the fresh growth of new leaves and budding flowers.   We passed rolling, newly planted fields, small picturesque towns and leafy woods and everything looked peaceful and well ordered.  It was a truly relaxing ride and soon enough we had reached our destination.

A 15-minute cab ride brought us right into the center of Newport, which is a small walking town, neat and pretty with  quaint small shops and restaurants looking like  they had stepped out of a 1900’s catalogue.   The Victorian inn we had booked was only a 15 minute downhill (or uphill!) walk to downtown, good aerobic exercise for us.  We had chosen the master suite which had a huge four poster bed so high one needed a stepstool to get in.  A massive wardrobe could have swallowed four suitcases of clothes!  We even had an adjoining ‘sitting room’ with a fireplace and very un-Victorian amenities like an HD tv set, a fridge and an electric stove in the tiny kitchenette.   Everything was done up in traditional Victorian colors and decor – patterned wallpaper in dark mossy green with pink roses, with thoughtful and charming touches so characteristic of that period.   We were simply enchanted with our little room!

We didn’t bother to unpack, instead rushed out to catch the afternoon sunshine.  The houses we passed on our downhill walk looked to be hundreds of years old, but they were all well preserved and obviously well maintained, and most of them had been converted to inns.  Reaching the main street we noticed that all the restaurants and shops sported uniform old fashioned signs with gold lettering.  For me this added to the charm of the place, and I felt that we had been transported through time to the past!  Just beyond the main street you could see the quay, and many sloops and masted boats at anchor.   Obviously these were tourist boats today, but one could easily imagine how busy this port was many years ago, with those boats bringing products from other ports to this little town. 

But the weather changed, and it began to rain!   Pat and I were caught without an umbrella, so we rushed into the first souvenir shop to get one.   I got myself a “sou’wester” (jacket) as well, as I was already shivering from the cold.   Still we continued with our exploratory walk, wandering in and out of the lanes and alleys, until the rumblings from our stomachs told us it was dinnertime.    We sloshed back to our hotel in the rain, changed to warmer clothes, and braved the heavy downpour to walk to an Italian restaurant that had caught our eye earlier.  The food was excellent, well worth the drenching we were subjected to!

The next day was our “Mansions” day!   And the sun was out !!!   We boarded the $1.00 trolley-like shuttle and proceeded to immerse ourselves in this world of bygone wealth and luxury, epitomized by the grand, huge estates which were the “summer homes” of the industrial giants who made their fortunes at the turn of the century.    There are many residences large enough to be called mansions all over Newport and its suburbs, but 6 or 7 are famous for their splendor, architecture and luxurious interiors, The Elms, The Breakers, Marble House, and Rose- cliff among them.  These houses are located in a beautiful green part of the city called Bellevue Avenue, and all the streets are shaded by ancient oaks, maples and elm trees.  We chose to visit the Breakers, the 70-room  home of Cornelius Vanderbilt II and considered the grandest of the mansions, and The Elms, owned by coal magnate Julius Berwind, and was patterned after an 18th century French chateau outside Paris.  Both homes were built on the cliff side of Newport and therefore had an ocean view beyond the well manicured, extensive lawns and ornamental gardens.  The Breakers is built closer to the Cliffside, so that the sound of the ocean can be heard from its windows.   The Elms is named for the lovely and ancient elm trees scattered over its extensive grounds.  It’s impossible to describe the richly decorated halls and rooms, one has to be there to experience in some way the fabulous lifestyles of these families, the “nobles” of American society.   We tried to see and appreciate as much as we could, but it took the whole day just to do the two houses.   I must confess that after a while one gets jaded with all the gilt and glitter all around you.  

Our third day was R and R day, in other words, shopping and eating.  Newport’s famous clam chowder is everything they say it is, and we certainly gorged on the stuff.  For dinner we walked almost 2 kms to get to a seafood specialty restaurant, where we stuffed ourselves with two giant bowls of lobsters, clams, squid and shrimps.  We were certainly thankful for the long walk back to our hotel!

Shopping in Newport is surprisingly good; aside from the mandatory souvenir shops there are a number of high end stores for clothes, furniture and household accessories, and food.  After all, Newport is a known tourist destination for Americans, and we were told that in summertime the pedestrian traffic in the streets downtown is quite heavy.   Prices would also be sky high, of course, and long waits for seating in restaurants is to be expected.   But Newport is charming and full of surprises, and it is on my recommended list of places to see in America. 

It’s a welcome change from the stereotyped freeway-shopping mall- supermarket formula of most US cities and allows you an intimate glimpse into the lives and times of the industrial giants who helped to make the US a world power.   Don’t forget to put this quaint, lovely town on your bucket list!

By Tootsie Moreno Vicente