Newport, Rhode Island

Rhode Island (the self-proclaimed “Ocean State”) beckoned us.  Rhode Island is a state we have never spent time in which is very surprising since we love ocean views draped with New England charm.  Our friends Rob and Linda (My Quantum Discovery) have touted the state and spend their summers on their boat in Rhode Island.  So it was time for us to stop and check it out.  

For sure Rhode Island is a big state and our four days was just going to give us a taste. We settled on exploring Newport and found a campground in the town of Portsmouth which was seven or eight miles to downtown Newport but also not too far away from Providence, another town we wanted to visit.
What is there to do in Newport, Rhode Island?  We quickly found ourselves saying, “LOTS!”  Touring mansions, eating at delicious restaurants, exploring the harbor, checking out the budding brewery scene, learning about tennis history, and gawking at gorgeous yachts. 

Arriving at the campground early in the day had advantages and meant we could start sight-seeing right away.  We parked the coach at Melville Ponds Campground got set up, ate a quick lunch, grabbed the dog and headed to the heralded Cliff Walk.  The Cliff Walk is where you meander along three and a half miles of pathway precariously perched between historic mansions of magnificent proportion and tantalizing ocean views.  The views make it pretty clear why America’s super rich came to the area and built their summer “cottages.”   


The history of the Newport Mansions is alive and celebrated as many are open for tours.  For $26 you can tour two mansions or for $33 you can tour five.  Authentic furnishings and informative audio tours tell the story of those with fortune and love for opulence.  One of the most famous mansions (or more like palaces) is The Breakers.  Built in 1895 this National Historic Landmark, is the lavish vacation home of the railroad magnet Cornelius Vanderbilt II.  The 70 room, 100,000+ square-foot dwelling is constructed with rare marble and alabaster and an opulent example of the Gilded Age with gold leaf adorning walls, staircases, furnishings, doorways, and just about any place else they could put it.  It was quickly apparent that the term “Gilded Age” meant gold leaf was put everywhere!  The Gilded Age (coined by Mark Twain) also described the time between the Civil War and World War I during which the U.S. population and economy grew quickly and when many very wealthy lived very fancy lives.


Our next tour selection was The Marble House (built between 1888 and 1892) built by Mr. William Vanderbilt as a 39th birthday present to his wife Alva.  This impressive stone-laden mansion that housed more than 500,000 cubic feet of marble was Alva’s pride and joy.  Alva became a women’s rights warrior in a day when women’s roles were merely to be socialites (which may actually be a hard job – which I wouldn’t know).  Not only did she make the stand for women’s liberation by divorcing her husband in 1895 but hosted many “Votes for Women” rallies on her back lawn.  Can you only imagine how she was the talk of the town?


Betsy and I decided one day to split our daytime activities as she opted for touring more mansions and I wanted to take in the International Tennis Hall of Fame and Museum.  This museum is very interesting and entertaining for even those mildly interested in tennis.  The Newport Casino (built in 1881) is home to the museum.  It claims to have hosted the first U.S. Nationals Tennis Championship (the predecessor to the U.S. Open) and remains America’s oldest grass court still open for competition.  The game of tennis dates back to 1874 when a British Army Officer patented tennis.  The mid-19th century inventions of vulcanized rubber and the lawn mower improved the conditions of lawn tennis.  Other improvements like ball cleaners, lawn markers and the oval head rackets furthered the game.  The museum is very well done with interesting artifacts, historical information, and interactive displays.  I would recommend it to anyone visiting the area – even if tennis is not your game. 


We took a side trip to Providence to visit the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) Museum and the Culinary Arts Museum at Johnson and Wales University.  Downtown Providence is a busy hub with Brown University students mixing among government officials set flanked by tall historic buildings.  Providence has been winning all kinds of accolades like “America’s Coolest City” by GQ magazine and named one of “52 Places to Go in 2016” by the New York Times and is recognized for its award-winning restaurants. 

The RISD Museum is an interesting mix of art – not just a place where paintings are hanging on the wall (sure they have the Monet, Gauguin, and Rothko) but where art comes alive with over 100,000 objects including furniture, costume, decorative arts, porcelain, sculpture and more.  


Before visiting the Culinary Arts Museum we had to eat lunch, otherwise, a food museum was sure to be sheer torture. Providence has become well know for its food and the choice of where to eat was tough.  We chose Parkside Rotisserie and Bar and enjoyed a magnificent lunch of pizza with caramelized onions, short ribs and garlic herb cheese sauce and lamb burger with Boursin cheese and hand-cut fries.


The Culinary Arts Museum is all things food boasting a collection of 500,000 items.  There is an eclectic mix of antique appliances, memorabilia, recipes, and exhibits relating to the food industry.  One of the most interesting exhibits was the “Dining Car” or as it is more commonly referred to today, “the diner.”   Just so happens the diner originated in Providence in 1872.  This precursor to the modern-day food truck was pulled by horses to various locations throughout a town.  As the concept became more popular the wagons stopped moving, increased their size and expanded their menus. 


Back in Newport we decided to spend a day walking around downtown exploring the galleries, shops and, of course eating.  There is just something about a New England harbor town in the fall that is perfectly charming and idyllic.  Downtown Thames Street and the bustling wharves may be a little to shopping crazy and touristy for some folks and on a Saturday afternoon with perfect weather the place was busy.  But venture down lower Thames and Spring Street and you will find a quieter side with galleries and beautiful Federal-style houses tastefully decorated in fall fashion. 


We highly recommend eating at 22 Bowen’s Wine Bar and Grille.  The menu is creative and the dishes plated beautifully.  The steak tartare adorned with horseradish aioli and truffle-citrus vinaigrette and the seared scallops, pork belly over sweet creamed corn were soooooo good.  We also had a delicious lunch at the White Horse Tavern (established 1673) which is the oldest continuously run tavern in the United States.     


Before we left Newport we were able to meet our friends Amanda and Tim Watson (Watson’s Wander blog) for a drink and to catch up on their travels.  The Watson’s spent the summer in New England and we were able to hook-up with them in Maine and Rhode Island, lucky us!  Since they are as game to try a brewery as we are we met up at Whaler’s Brewing Company – a hip hangout for local college students with some tasty brews.  The place was dog-friendly so Spirit was able to join in the fun.   

Whether you come to Newport to sail, visit mansions, learn tennis hitory or just aimlessly wander the cobblestone streets teaming with history, we think you will enjoy it.  It only took us four days to fall in love with the city and hope to make it back in the future and spend more time.   


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