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Before We Became "The Hamptons" There Was Newport!

Douglas MacKaye Harrington

Newport summer "cottage" of the Vanderbilt's, The Breakers is the most visited mansion of the Gilded Age. (Photo: Douglas MacKaye Harrington)

Years before the Hamptons became the playground of the rich and famous, there was Newport! Resplendent in history, with an abundance of shopping, fine dining, first-class accommodations and attractions this beautiful harbor town remains a perfect getaway, as it was for the likes of the Vanderbilt's and the Astor's at the turn of the 20th Century.

Getting There and Getting Around
A three-hour drive from Manhattan, East Enders can take the Cross Sound Ferry from Orient Point to New London, Connecticut and be in Newport in an hour's drive. Theoretically, one could take a Viking Fleet ferry from Montauk to Block Island and then take another ferry to Newport. Quite the land/sea adventure I would think, but I would definitely give myself more than a weekend. Flying in from points' afar, best buys are going to be found flying in at either JFK or LaGuardia airports in NYC or Logan Airport in Boston, car rental necessary, as is the case for the closest but more expensive RI local hub Theodore Francis Green Airport just outside of Providence in Warwick, RI.

Arriving in Newport your first stop should be the Discover Newport Visitors Center, which not only has a wealth of resources regarding Newport, but eight other seaside towns along the Rhode Island coast. The Visitors Center is also the city's transportation hub for not only the municipal bus service and taxis, but the several guided tour bus services that are always informative and a great way for arriving tourists to acquaint themselves with the layout of the city. That said, Newport is a city where you can literally walk anywhere if you have the constitution for it. (http://www.gonewport.com)

Newport is called "The Sailing Capital of the World" with many sailboats still in the harbor mid-Ocotober. (Photo: Douglas MacKaye Harrington)

Newport has numerous fine hotels and many B&B choices, but I highly recommend a stay at the Vanderbilt Grace. Built in 1909 by Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt for his mistress Agnes O'Brien Ruiz, it was a relationship that did not last very long as the Vanderbilt family gave Alfred the ultimatum of love or fortune and Al went for the dollars, lots of them! The mansion was converted to a hotel and is now part of the distinguished Grace Hotels Collection of boutique properties worldwide.

The Vanderbilt Grace, one of Newport's 1st Class boutique hotels, offers superb accommodations within walking distance of all that Newport has to offer. (Photo: Douglas MacKaye Harrington)

Greeted with champagne and hot apple cider at check-in, the Vanderbilt Grace is absolutely splendid from top to bottom, and I do mean top as in a rooftop terrace that offers the most spectacular views of Newport and the harbor. By bottom, I mean an elegant year-round basement pool and luxury spa. There is complimentary valet service and once parked one can literally walk to almost anything Newport has to offer from this centrally downtown located hotel.

Off the lobby is the Conservatory restaurant where guests enjoy a substantial complimentary continental breakfast with a full menu also available for breakfast, lunch and dinner in this nautical décor glass solarium. I highly recommend the Eggs Vanderbilt and weather permitting take your meals in the beautifully manicured walled garden just off the Conservatory with a seasonal outdoor pool and weather-permitting fire pit for a nightcap single-malt scotch and cigar, with cigars available in a table-top lobby humidor. The hotel's gourmet restaurant is Muse by celebrated Chef Jonathan Cartwright with a bar resplendent in single-malts. I will go into detail later in this article, but suffice to say a reservation at Muse is a must when visiting Newport.

Of the 33 rooms, 29 are suites and although not period in décor like the lobby, the suites are beautifully appointed with clean uncluttered motifs and modern furnishings, along with soothing neutral palettes. The bed was as comfortable as any I have experienced in my travels and the linens and bath towels were absolutely luxurious, as were the guest toiletries and other amenities like bedside aromatherapy.

The hotel staff is simply superb! They are well trained, articulate, polite and attentive. General Manager Marina Aslanidou certainly has an eye for talent and I would particularly like to point out bellmen and valets Brandon and Kevin and Sarah at the concierge desk as standouts of an entire staff of hospitality pros. (http://www.gracehotels.com/Vanderbilt)

The Conservatory Restaurant and Breakfast Room of the Vanderbilt Grace. (Photo: Douglas MacKaye Harrington)

No visit to Newport would be complete without visiting the mansions that were erected by the American industrial titans of the Gilded Age, an era so named by Mark Twain and not meant as a compliment. These "cottages" make most Hamptons' mansions look like guest houses and frankly are larger that some state capital buildings. The cottages represent privileged family excess beyond comprehension. Distasteful considering the poverty among the average American worker at the time, but well worth the visit to understand the disparity of wealth in America at the turn of the 20th Century with art and architecture that will never be replicated again in any of our lifetimes. Yes, it is that unbelievable!

Of the 10 stops on the Newport Mansion Tour (www.newportmansions.org) I visited what probably would be consider two of the most popular, The Breakers and Rosecliff. The Breakers was the main Vanderbilt family cottage and considered the grandest of all the Newport Mansions. In 1893 Cornelius Vanderbilt II, son of the Commodore, commissioned architect Richard Morris Hunt to re-create a 16th Century Italian Renaissance palace which resulted in a 70 room mansion that is absolutely magnificent.

Rosecliff was designed by popular Hamptons architect Stanford White and completed at a cost of $2.5 million in 1902. (Photo: Douglas MacKaye Harrington)

Rosecliff's architect will be familiar to all Hamptonians, the infamous Stanford White who is credited with creating the iconic Hampton cedar-shingle mansions of the same era and was shot dead by the irate husband of his mistress on the roof garden restaurant of the original Madison Square Garden he designed. Modeled after the Grand Trianon, the garden retreat of French kings at Versailles and small by comparison to The Breakers, Rosecliff was commissioned by Nevada Comstock silver heiress Theresa Fair Oelrichs in 1899 and completed in 1902 at a cost of $2.5 million; imagine what it would cost today. The Rosecliff ballroom has been featured in several films, most notability the Robert Redford/Mia Farrow film of F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby."

All the mansions offer excellent audio tours that not only provide details of the stunning décor and construction, but historical perspective of the era and biographical information of both the owners that erected and the household help that maintained these monuments to an era of opulence and conspicuous consumption. Most mansions, including Rosecliff, are closed up for the season by November 23, however, The Breakers, The Elms and Marble House (another Vanderbilt family mansion and probably second only to The Breakers) are open and decorated for the holidays through January 5th with The Breakers open daily and The Elms and Marble House open weekends and holidays year-round. It is definitely an upcoming winter weekend getaway worth scheduling.

Thames Street is Newport's main thoroughfare, with many shops and restaurants. (Photo: Douglas MacKaye Harrington)

One can drive the 10-mile route of scenic Ocean Drive, but I highly recommend taking one of aforementioned narrated sightseeing tours. Viking Trolley Tours is an excellent choice with different packages that include admission to several of the mansions. The tours average 3 hours with the Deluxe Tour that includes stops at two mansions of choice lasting 4 hours. The guide/drivers are articulate, funny and very knowledgeable regarding the history of Newport. (http://www.vikingtoursnewport.com/sightseeing)

When it comes to history, Newport is as rich in it as any old city in America with more revolutionary era architecture than any city in the nation. The Newport Historical Society offers a walking tour that is superb. The tours leave from the society's headquarters and museum at the Brick Market at 127 Thames Street, which is essentially Newport's Main Street and filled with shops and restaurants.

The White Horse Tavern, the oldest tavern in America. (Photo: Douglas MacKaye Harrington)

Along the way the tour stops at many historical sites including the oldest bar in America, The White Horse Tavern established in 1673, Touro Synagogue, the oldest synagogue in America completed in 1762, and the Great Friends Quaker Meeting House built in 1699. The late Doris Duke, a long time Newport resident, is credited with the preservation of almost 80 historic residences in Newport with most available for year-round rental, but the waiting list is very long. The tour stops at several of these residences and should be on any visitor's Newport itinerary. (http://www.newporthistorical.org) Numerous other theme tours are available in Newport, including a Haunted Newport tour which I am sure, is well worth the walk.

The Cliff Walk is another must for visitors, although part of the trail sustained some damage from Hurricane Sandy and is presently undergoing renovation. As well as Touro Synagogue, Trinity Episcopal Church (1726) with its stunning stained glass windows and private boxed pews is one of many historic places of worship in Newport, along with Saint Mary's Roman Catholic Church which is where JFK married Newport socialite Jackie Bouvier. The city is also home to The International Tennis Hall of Fame and the oldest lending library in America, the Redwood Library and Athenaeum. Both on Bellevue Avenue which is definitely worth a stroll as this was the Fifth Avenue of the rich and famous during the Gilded Age and is still home to upscale shopping and gourmet delights. Although not as old as Shinnecock by only one year, Newport is home to the Newport Country Club that hosted the first U.S. Golf Open. Newport is also known as "The Sailing Capital of the World" and has hosted a dozen America's Cup races.

Touro Synagogue is the oldest synagogue in America founded by Spanish and Portuguese Jewish immigrants from Barbados that first arrived in Newport in 1638. (Photo: Douglas MacKaye Harrington)

As mentioned earlier in the article, Thames Street is the main thoroughfare in Newport with shops, galleries and restaurants, but the nightlife certainly is most humming on the harbor just across the street. A half dozen wharfs jute out into Newport Harbor, all distinctly named and filled with non-stop foot traffic with Bowen's Wharf probably the most popular. There are outdoor and indoor restaurants and bars, plenty of shopping options and special events, like the Seafood Festival that took place the weekend I was there. The summer-long live music concerts held on the harbor has a line-up that is incredible and will satisfy any taste and, of course, the Newport Jazz Festival in its 60th year in 2014 is not to be missed next August. Be sure to venture down Thames Street to the Antique Armory on the dockside of the street, antique bargains galore!

Numerous harbor tours leave from the Newport wharfs, both motor and sail. I had the pleasure of a sunset sail on the 72-foot schooner Madeleine which is docked at Bannister's Wharf. Complimentary champagne and beer is served onboard and the sunset views are spectacular. During the sail you will pass Fort Adams State Park which is certainly worth a visit with tours of this historical military battery built in 1824 offered at the top of every hour.

Full moon over the wharfs, taken from the 72-foot schooner Madeleine returning from our sunset tour of Newport Harbor. (Photo: Douglas MacKaye Harrington)

It is rare when in my travels that I don't have at least one disappointing dining experience, not so in Newport where in my short stay I was feted with perfection. Like another of my favorite historical American small cities Annapolis, Newport is seafood extraordinary and the options are bountiful.

Our first night's dining took us to Fluke Wine, Bar & Kitchen on Bowen's Wharf, a first floor entrance with a second floor dining room and third floor bar with a beautiful view of all the action on the dock and the harbor. Casual and contemporized in décor and ambiance, both cuisine and service was more than satisfying with waiter Dennis O'Connor attentive and well versed in all aspects of Chef Kevin King's extraordinary and inventive cuisine.

The entrance to Fluke Wine, Bar & Kitchen on Bowen's Wharf, definitely worth a visit! (Photo: Douglas MacKaye Harrington)

Our openers of Foie Gras Mousse and Almond filled Bacon Wrapped Dates were amazing, which followed with a shared plate of Crispy Wellfleet Oysters with a Mango Pepper Relish and Red Chili Mayo that offered late heat and really complimented as a great follow to the dates. I highly recommend any fresh seafood offered at Fluke, but we were particularly taken with the Atlantic Halibut and Seared Scallops during our visit that Chef King presents with sides that are both unique in combination and extraordinary in preparation. The dishes were fresh, well portioned and seasoned to perfection. Dessert is a must at Fluke with the Honeycrisp Apple Crostata and Goat's Cheesecake both winners.

Proprietor Geremie Callaghan was absolutely charming and assisted O'Connor with the wine pairing that complimented our dishes flawlessly. The wine list at Fluke is eclectic and a very balanced blend of great California selections and European standouts including a nice Port, Sherry and Dessert wine list that included a 2011 Paolo Saracco Moscato that was outstanding. Fluke Wine, Bar & Kitchen, a stellar culinary standout on the harbor! (http://flukewinebar.com)

Night two returned us to the Vanderbilt Grace and dinner at Muse, a property of celebrated British chef Jonathan Cartwright. White linen and first-class, the dining room is understated and absolutely tasteful. As a travel writer I must admit I am usually offered the best table in the house and dinner in front of the real wood burning, not fake gas ceramic logged, fireplace was lovely. Before describing our meal, let me first open by complimenting another member of the Vanderbilt Grace staff as Restaurant Manager Andrew Doolan orchestrated an absolutely extraordinary dining experience for us at Muse and his entire staff was flawless.

I opened with the Coffee Seared Beef Carpaccio and Tartar with Black Pepper Biscotti, Quail Egg and Bacon Jam. My note on the menu describes it best; all I wrote was "amazing" and the Seared Day Boat Scallops deserve the same praise and both were wine paired perfectly by Doolan, French and Finger Lakes, as he did throughout our entire culinary journey at Muse which he did without repeating a wine from any single country or province, bravo!

A Chef's Surprise course followed of Walrus and Carpenter Oyster with Osetra Caviar, Crème Fraiche and Red veined Sorel that was brilliant and paired wonderfully with the first wine I have ever tasted from New Mexico, a Gruet Blanc Noir. If not already enough before our main course, our intermezzo was a Cucumber Gazpacho and a beautiful plate of Puffed Atwell's Goat Cheese with Lobster and Ricotta Mousse, fabulous on both counts!

Fireside dining at Muse by Jonathan Cartwright at the Vanderbilt Grace Hotel. (Photo: Douglas MacKaye Harrington)

My addiction to Foie Gras influenced my choice of the Rohan Duck Breast, Foie Gras and Duck Confit Leg Purse with Duck Prosciutto, Almond and Plum Gastrique, simply unbelievable and paired with a wonderful 2010 Chilean Syrah. The Steamed Lobster, Shrimp Tortellini with Lobster Mushrooms, Orange Fennel and Cognac Coral Butter Sauce paired with a Donkey and Goat 2010 California Roussanne, literally had my dining companion shaking in her chair with delight.

We finished with the Carrot Cake in a Mascarpone Cream Cheese Jacket with Coconut Espuma paired with a Greek Muscat and a cheese board of lovely local New England artisanal and imported international cheeses paired with a fabulous Warre's 10-year Tawny Port from Portugal. Yes indeed, a very successful oenophile trip around-the-world paired to absolutely stunning cuisine.(http://www.gracehotels.com/vanderbilt/dining)

Our last evening's dining was at The Grill at Forty 1st North, a relative newcomer to the Newport dining scene, this restaurant/hotel/marina quite literally has it all and is definitely a destination for all Hamptons boaters looking for a weekend getaway sail from the East End next spring, summer and early fall. Absolutely stunning in modern artistic décor with probably the most striking views of the harbor, the cuisine matched the ambiance in eclectic interpretations of both Terre and Mer cuts and catches.

The very unique menu offering of "Yellow Fin Tuna vs. Foie Gras" at The Grill at Forty 1st North, both knockouts! (Photo: Douglas MacKaye Harrington)

Our first course included Wild Mushroom Crostini and the signature 41 N Wedge salad, both were exceptional, but Chef Chris Lee was not going to let us move on until we tasted the Madagascar Red Prawns with Iberico ham and parsnip in a warm black garlic vinaigrette and the Seared Diver Scallops with butternut squash, green apple, pumpkin seeds in a root beer gastrique. These were stunners in both execution and presentation. We chose for our entrees the unique offering "Yellow Fin Tuna vs. Foie Gras" and the White Marble Farms Pork Chop in sherry brown butter sauce. Regarding the former very unique pairing, I will call this a draw with both as absolute knockouts! Lily's chop was equally delicious and the cut was incredible. We finished off our meal with a Pumpkin Cheese Cake and a Maple Crème Brulèe, both delicious and presented beautifully.

The wine list was substantial, well chosen and designed brilliantly in a layout that was uber-specific to taste. I was particularly taken with the 2012 M. Chapoutier Bila-Haut, Pays d'Oc that accompanied our first course and the 2011 Mountain Door Malbec from Mendoza that complimented the pork chop entrée perfectly. Server Erin Gildey created an absolutely perfect evening for us at one of Newport's newest harbor jewels, The Grill at 40 1st North. (http://www.41north.com)

The pedestrian walkway between Bannister's and Bowen's Wharfs on the very charming and tourist friendly Newport Harbor. (Photo: Douglas MacKaye Harrington)

The Harrington Hamptons.com Destination Summation
A classic, historic American small city that is equally perfect for a couple's romantic getaway or a family educational and fun vacation. A very safe vacation destination, crime is low and the locals are friendly and understand that although they truly consider this very proudly their hometown, tourism improves their quality of life. Newport offers more than enough attractions, tours and recreational activities to fill a full week's vacation. Accommodations range from very upscale first-class to small affordable hotels and B&Bs, many of them Revolutionary Era landmarks. Restaurants are abundant with many creative interpretations of classic American cuisine, particularly French/American-fusion fresh seafood opportunities, but with only moderate strictly ethnic cuisine options compared to major cities like NYC or Boston. There are plenty of very affordable family food options and do not be afraid to bring the kids into what looks like the local Irish/Waterfront Pubs, the best food values for families on vacation in Newport. Dead of winter may not be the best time to visit considering the New England climate, but do not miss the opportunity to see the mansions dressed in their holiday best in December, it will be extraordinary. I absolutely love this charming New England destination. Imagine compressing all the Hamptons' villages into one small inviting city, it is called Newport!

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Frequently mistaken for the "Most Interesting Man in the World" from the Dos Equis commercials and the iconic gray-bearded Sean Connery, DMH is the Senior Contributing Editor at Hamptons.com. www.hamptons.com Hamptons HamptonsOnline HamptonsOnline

Added: December 3, 2013, 7:31 pm
Appeared In: accommodations >> escapes