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HC Travel Guide: Newport, Rhode Island

by habituallychic

09 . 05 . 19

I had a busy summer of travel and I’m finally sitting down to work on my travel guides. Many of the places can be visited year round so don’t worry about feeling like you missed out. First up is Newport, Rhode Island. I haven’t visited the “City by the Sea” since college so it was a completely new experience. While it is best explored in the summer, Newport isn’t just a summer sailing town. The mansions decorated for Christmas are a big attraction for visitors and Newport hosts wonderful events all year round.

It takes three hours to get out to the Hamptons and that’s the same amount of time it takes to travel from Penn Station to Kingston Station in Rhode Island which is the closest train station to Newport. I took an Uber from there to Gurney’s Newport which is located on Goat Island that has amazing views of the Newport Bridge, historic houses, and marinas, as well as the flotilla of boats that sail past all day. You could also take the train to Providence and include both towns on a trip. Or you could drive, in which case, I’d suggested adding Watch Hill to your agenda.

Gurney’s Newport has a modern and masculine feel but it’s definitely a family friendly place with a pool, various restaurants, and even real goats that give the island its name.

Other hotels that get rave review include Castle Hill Inn that also has amazing views and is know as the place to watch the sunset. It’s a little more removed from the actual town so it would require a car unless you don’t mind spending an arm and a leg on Uber or just want to luxuriate in one of their romantic beach cottages.

The Chanler at Cliff Walk is another luxury hotel with lovely views and better proximity to town.

The Hotel Viking was recommended by many people I spoke with due to its reputation and central location in the middle of town. This is actually where I might consider staying on my next trip to Newport.

Gurney’s Newport is walkable to the 18th-century historic area across the bridge and the waterfront but the hotel offers a shuttle bus to and from Bowen’s Wharf every half hour. I didn’t realize that Newport is a bit hilly and walking down to the mansions was harder than I thought so I took Ubers back and forth. Newport has its own trolley shuttle that makes a loop around town and picks up and drops off down Bellevue Avenue near the mansions.

I arrived in Newport a little later than expected so I decided to explore the 18th-century historic area across from Gurney’s on Washington Street. You can see the hotel behind the house above.

The 18th-century Hunter House on Washington Street is one of the finest examples of Georgian Colonial architecture in Newport. It’s only open seasonally and requires a tour that is only offered a few times per day. The strict tour schedule is why I didn’t get to visit this house. The larger mansions allow for self guided tours with a headset but the small houses require a tour so make sure you are aware of the hours before you set off.

You can apparently take photos at the Whitehorne House Museum which “is the only museum in the world dedicated to displaying and exploring the artistry, history, and culture of 18th-century Newport furniture and related decorative arts.” I walked by but didn’t visit this one but it’s on my list for next time.

The gilded age mansions get all the attention in Newport but the 18th-century houses are definitely worth a visit.

Bowen’s Wharf is a charming harbor area filled with stores, restaurants, and slips for the boat tours. It also hosts events including Seafood Festival coming up in October.

If you are a fan of the preppy look, you will love the clothing and accessories available for men and women at Kiel James Patrick.

Scrimshaw was born out of boredom and the antique results can be worth a lot of money but many different styles can be found at Scrimshanders.

When I reached out for recommendations for Newport on Instagram, The Clarke Cooke House was mentioned by almost everyone. I did stop by for a lobster roll and didn’t find it to be that impressive. I don’t think I’d go back again so you’re on your own if you want to try it. They also recommended The Black Pearl, also on Bowen’s Wharf, for clam chowder.

I wish I had instead gone to The White Horse Tavern which was established in 1673 and is considered to be the oldest tavern in America. It came highly recommended by designer Daniel Richards who visited Newport before my trip.

While I was sitting on my balcony at Gurney’s, I noticed an old fashioned boat drive by. While reading over brochures, I realized it was the Rumrunner II from Classic Cruises of Newport. The classic motor yacht was built in 1929 during the height of Prohibition for two New Jersey mobsters to elude the Coast Guard while smuggling cases. Now the boat offers different tours of sights around the island of Newport. I didn’t have time to take a tour during my visit but it’s at the top of my list for my next trip.

While the Castle Hill Inn is the hotspot to watch the sun set in Newport, my room at Gurney’s had a perfect view too.

Classic Cruises of Newport also offers sailboat tours as well.

While at Gurney’s, I had a lovely lunch of fish tacos outside at The Pineapple Club and dinner at Scarpetta which both offer some of the only waterside dining in Newport.

I’m terrible at racquet sports but I throughly enjoyed myself at the International Tennis Hall of Fame. The building was the previous home of the Newport Casino which now houses a museum full of marvelous memorabilia from all the top tennis greats. The highlights include vintage clothing and uniforms, wooden racquets, and a wall of classic old tins of tennis balls. What’s even more amazing is that Hall of Fame Tennis Club members can actually play tennis on the classic grass courts.

If you can’t play, you can always enjoy a court side meal at La Forge Casino Restaurant or shop in the gift shop.

Just some of the old wooden tennis racquets on display.

Vintage tennis clothing including a blazer that belonged to René Lacoste.

A few doors down from the International Tennis Hall of Fame is the Audrain Automotive Museum full of classic cars and even a few motorcycles.

From October 3-6, 2019, Audrain’s will host Audrain’s Newport Concours and Motor Week with events all around Newport and the mansions.

This 1938 Packard Twelve-Landaulet by Rollston belonged to Doris Duke and would transport her from her Duke Farms in Hillsborough, New Jersey to her summer “cottage” Rough Point in Newport, Rhode Island.

Around the corner from Audrain’s is Cru Café. I grabbed breakfast at the very casual cafe one morning and picked up some delicious cranberry white chocolate cookies.

Don’t be put off by any cafe or restaurant in a parking lot or strip mall. Across the street in the shopping center is the Newport Creamery known for their casual menu and ice cream. I didn’t eat there but I did walk by and it looked very cute.

Before I left Newport, I stopped by Rosemary & Thyme for a sandwich for the train. I was a little skeptical of the tiny cafe but my sandwich was delicious and I was glad I had it since my train was delayed returning due to rain.

Every guide to Newport will tell you to visit The Breakers and you should but The Elms is my favorite of all the historic summer “cottages”. The Elms was designed by architect Horace Trumbauer for the coal baron Edward Julius Berwind of Philadelphia and New York and was completed in 1901. Its design was copied from the Château d’Asnières in Asnières-sur-Seine, France while the gardens and landscaping were created by C. H. Miller and E. W. Bowditch, working closely with Trumbauer.

“Construction of The Elms was completed in 1901 at a cost reported at approximately $1.4 million. The interiors and furnishings were designed by Allard and Sons of Paris and were the setting for the Berwinds’ collection of Renaissance ceramics, 18th century French and Venetian paintings, and Oriental jades.”

Mrs. Berwind died in 1922, and Mr. Berwind invited his sister, Julia, to become his hostess at his New York and Newport houses. Mr. Berwind died in 1936 and Miss Julia continued to summer at The Elms until her death in 1961, at which time the house and most of its contents were sold at public auction. It was almost torn down but the Preservation Society of Newport County saved The Elms by purchasing it and opening the house to the public in 1962. The Elms was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1996.

The Elms offers self guided tours with a headset but also offers a guided Servant Life Tour at The Elms. I toured The Elms in the afternoon and it wasn’t that busy.

The dining room at The Elms.

Portrait of Elizabeth Drexel Lehr painted by Boldini at The Elms.

The best part of every mansion is the butler’s pantry.

A bathroom at The Elms.

I was rushing at the end of my tour and I missed the beautiful gardens at The Elms. You should give yourself plenty of time to explore.

On the way back to Gurney’s to freshen up for dinner, my Uber driver informed me that this was the church in which Jacqueline Bouvier married John F. Kennedy.

There were a lot of sailing events during my trip to Newport that included evening events at the mansions. Some areas were closing early and being decorated which took away from my tours. You may want to double check the operating schedule before you plan your visit.

A special treat during my trip was a visit to the home of Bettie Bearden Pardee, the author of Private Newport.

Her garden was gorgeous and featured her famous parterre bench that she designed.

Bettie was kind enough to take me to the Castle Hill Inn to see the sunset and have dinner. We were talking so long at her house that we missed the sunset and could only eat in the bar but it was delicious. You can drive by Hammersmith Farm, the childhood home of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy and the site of the reception for her 1953 wedding to U.S. Senator John F. Kennedy.

I know what I’m about to say will be controversial but I consider the famous Cliff Walk to be overrated. I started at the beginning by the Chanler and walked down to The Breakers along the easy section. You can’t see much on this part of the walk and the harder part requires you to walk over boulders. I wish I had saved myself time and skipped it.

If you don’t want to do the Cliff Walk, you can walk around the back of The Breakers and across the lawn after your house tour or access the Cliff Walk via Ruggles Avenue to take photos.

The Breakers is the grandest of Newport’s summer “cottages” and a symbol of the Vanderbilt family’s social and financial preeminence in turn of the century America. 

Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt established the family fortune in steamships and later in the New York Central Railroad, which was a pivotal development in the industrial growth of the nation during the late 19th century. 

The Commodore’s grandson, Cornelius Vanderbilt II, became Chairman and President of the New York Central Railroad system in 1885, and purchased a wooden house called The Breakers in Newport during that same year. In 1893, he commissioned architect Richard Morris Hunt to design a villa to replace the earlier wood-framed house which was destroyed by fire the previous year. Hunt directed an international team of craftsmen and artisans to create a 70 room Italian Renaissance- style palazzo inspired by the 16th century palaces of Genoa and Turin. Allard and Sons of Paris assisted Hunt with furnishings and fixtures, Austro-American sculptor Karl Bitter designed relief sculpture, and Boston architect Ogden Codman decorated the family quarters. 

The Vanderbilts had seven children. Their youngest daughter, Gladys, who married Count Laszlo Szechenyi of Hungary, inherited the house on her mother’s death in 1934. An ardent supporter of The Preservation Society of Newport County, she opened The Breakers in 1948 to raise funds for the Society. In 1972, the Preservation Society purchased the house from her heirs. Today, the house is designated a National Historic Landmark.”

I’ve visited a lot of historic houses in the last year and have found them all fascinating and inspiring. If you are an interior designer, you should plan your own trips to historic homes for design inspiration.

The Breakers is the most popular mansion and therefor the most crowded. I suggest visiting in the afternoon if possible.

The Breakers also offers self guided tours with headsets but they also have two guided tours, Beneath The Breakers and The Breakers Family Tour.

The two story butler’s pantry at The Breakers was awe inspiring.

Since I had a pass, I also took a tour of Marble House, another Vanderbilt summer “cottage”.

“Marble House was built between 1888 and 1892 for Mr. and Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt.  It was a summer house, or “cottage”, as Newporters called them in remembrance of the modest houses of the early 19th century. But Marble House was much more; it was a social and architectural landmark that set the pace for Newport’s subsequent transformation from a quiet summer colony of wooden houses to the legendary resort of opulent stone palaces. 

Mr. Vanderbilt was the grandson of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, who established the  family’s fortune in steamships and the New York Central Railroad. His older brother was Cornelius II, who built The Breakers. Alva Vanderbilt was a leading hostess in Newport society, and envisioned Marble House as her “temple to the arts” in America. 

The house was designed by the architect Richard Morris Hunt, inspired by the Petit Trianon at Versailles. The cost of the house was reported in contemporary press accounts to be $11 million, of which $7 million was spent on 500,000 cubic feet of marble. Upon its completion, Mr. Vanderbilt gave the house to his wife as a 39th birthday present. 

The Vanderbilts had three children: Consuelo, who became the 9th Duchess of Marlborough; William K., Jr., a prominent figure in pioneering the sport of auto racing in America; and Harold, one of the finest yachtsmen of his era who successfully defended the America’s Cup three times. 

The Vanderbilts divorced in 1895 and Alva married Oliver H.P. Belmont, moving down the street to Belcourt. After his death, she reopened Marble House, and had a Chinese Tea House built on the seaside cliffs, where she hosted rallies for women’s right to vote. She sold the house to Frederick H. Prince in 1932. The Preservation Society acquired the house in 1963 from the Prince estate.  In 2006, Marble House was designated a National Historic Landmark.”

Marble House is currently hosting a site-specific installation by renowned artist, Nicolas Party. I’m not a fan of contemporary art exhibitions in historic houses.

The Newport Mansions are already a popular draw for tourists and most people who love old houses are not into weird art like this finger on the bed. I hope they don’t continue these types of exhibitions.

There are no restaurants down Bellevue Avenue since it’s a residential area. The only two places to eat or grab a drink while visiting the mansions are at The Breakers and the Teahouse at The Elms.

I went a little crazy touring houses on my last full day in Newport and decided to visit Doris Duke’s “cottage” Rough Point as well. I arrived after a guided tour had begun but I was allowed to walk through the house by myself. The camel topiaries refer back to the real camels that Doris Duke kept at the house.

“Rough Point is a mansion and a museum with an extensive collection of fine and decorative arts and a sprawling historic landscape with panoramic views of the Atlantic Ocean. The property is experienced today largely as it was lived in during the lifetime of its most famous owner, the heiress, philanthropist, and preservationist Doris Duke.”

Rough Point was much less crowded than the other mansions so I had most of it to myself. If you are a fan of antiques, it’s full of beautiful pieces with lovely patina.

The butler’s pantry at Rough Point was another favorite.

Rough Point feels much more intimate than all the larger marble mansions in Newport. You can read about all of the rooms including the Pine Room online.

It also includes a fashion exhibition of clothing belonging to Doris Duke.

Doris used to swim in the ocean in front of her home which was pretty brave considering the rocky coast.

Rough Point has a beautiful formal garden and a back kitchen garden.

I was lucky to visit while the roses were in full bloom.

On my last day, I took a little time to sit in the Adirondack chairs at Gurney’s and watch the sailboats. Now that I have the lay of the land, I’d really like to plan a return trip to see things I missed and spend more time in places I loved in the City by the Sea.

All photos by Heather Clawson for Habitually Chic except for Castle Hill Inn.