With its gorgeous location on Aquidneck Island, fleets of polished yachts, rose-coloured sunsets and long-standing association with America’s fine and fabulous, NEWPORT is straight out of a fairy tale. The Kennedys were married here (Jackie was a local girl); and though F. Scott Fitzgerald set his novel The Great Gatsby in Long Island, it’s no surprise that the iconic 1974 movie version was filmed in Newport. Indeed, many of the town’s opulent fin-de-siècle mansions – former summer homes of the likes of the Astors and Vanderbilts – are still owned by America’s current crop of mega-wealthy.
Stroll beyond the extravagant facades, though, and you’ll find much more. The streets are laden with history, and sights commemorate everything from the town’s pioneering role in religious freedom in America to the landing of French forces during the Revolutionary War. Newport’s prime seaside location also means that the views are often, if not always, free – a short drive and you’re greeted by unrivalled shores, with rugged seascapes and long swaths of sand.
There’s always something afoot in Newport, particularly in August for the Newport Folk Festival (where Bob Dylan got his start in 1963; 401 848 5055, newportfolkfest.net) as well as the high-profile Jazz Festival (newportjazzfest.net). The Newport Music Festival (401 849 0700, newportmusic.org) in July boasts classical music performed at the mansions, while the Waterfront Irish Festival in September is one of the region’s biggest Irish events (newportwaterfrontevents.com).
When sociologist Thorstein Veblen visited Newport at the turn of the twentieth century, he was so horrified by the extravagance that he coined the phrase “conspicuous consumption”. From the 1880s, this had been the summer playground of the New York elite, with wealthy families competing to outdo each other with lavish mansions and annual parties. The Gilded Age lasted just a few decades; beginning with the introduction of US income tax in 1913, by the early 1940s most of the mansions had closed for good; the Preservation Society of Newport County maintains the bulk of the dozen or so houses open for public viewing today.
The mansions each boast their own version of Gilded Age excess: Marble House, built in 1892 for William Vanderbilt with its golden ballroom and adjacent Chinese teahouse; Rosecliff, with a colourful rose garden and heart-shaped staircase; the ornate French The Elms, known for its gardens; and Cornelius Vanderbilt II’s The Breakers, an Italian Renaissance-style palace overlooking the ocean and the grandest of the lot. Besides those, a number of earlier, smaller houses, including the quirky Gothic Revival cottage Kingscote, built in 1841, may well make for a more interesting excursion. Note that many houses can only be seen on hourly tours; unless you’re a mansion nut, viewing one or two should suffice to get a glimpse of the opulence.
One way to see the mansions on the cheap is to peer in the back gardens from the Cliff Walk, which begins on Memorial Boulevard where it meets First (Easton) Beach. This spectacular three-and-a-half-mile oceanside path alternates from pretty stretches lined by jasmine and wild roses to rugged rocky passes.