Newport surprised me as being accessible, historic, fun and upscale all at the same time. I had heard about it being a nice getaway where you can tour some mansions, so I was expecting a quiet, maybe even sleepy, seaside town. I then heard about the annual jazz festival being one of the country’s best, which sounded like fun as jazz has become a recent interest of mine after going to a few concerts at Jazz at the Lincoln Center in Manhattan.
That was the initial plan: spend a few nights at a moderately priced B&B, do the jazz festival the first night, and then get to know the town a little bit. I had no idea what a whirlwind of activity the trip would be, yet at the same time peaceful.
Transportation: The best way to take public transportation there is to take an Amtrak from New York’s Penn station to the West Kingston, RI station; you’ll be there in about three hours at reasonable rates. From the quaint West Kingston train station you can order an Uber which whisks you away across the Newport Pell Bridge straight into Newport and the front door of wherever you are staying (our cost: $30).
Lodging: the Yankee Peddler Inn is a well run bed and breakfast in a historic three story house with a front porch and sun deck. It’s a five minute walk from the downtown area and about a ten minute walk to the wharfs so we were able to see everything we wanted to see on foot. Breakfast is run by a warm and welcoming host and consists of a continental breakfast included in the nightly charge. Our room was painted a provincial sunny yellow, had a great bed and antique furniture. While the bathroom was a bit cramped, overall the room and hotel were incredibly charming.
Yankee Peddler Inn – 113 Touro Street, (401) 846-1313 www.yankeepeddlerinn.com
Jazz festival: It spans three days, starting on a Friday night. You can view the line up for each day online at www.newportjazz.org/lineup. You can also purchase tickets in advance on the site. The festival is located in Fort Adams State Park, which looks like its own little Island on the map. You can get there by car but I like the way we got there – on The Newport Harbor Ferry which leaves from 39 America Cup Avenue and takes you there for $12.
Once there, we wandered around the grounds where several tented stage areas were set up with various performers on each stage. The festival occurs mainly during the day, ending around 6pm. The atmosphere is laid back and dress is casual.
We noticed many people bringing their own beach chairs, which is a good idea as the seating in each tent is limited to first come, first serve. Food and drinks can be found at food trucks along the perimeter and consist of what you might find at a beach boardwalk: hot dogs, cheese steaks, French fries, lemonade. There is a beer tent that we visited but it’s located separate from the music tents and you are not allowed to take any alcohol with you outside the carded, taped off area.
Some of the performers we saw were Maceo Parker and Leslie Odom Jr.
The Cliff Walk: on Saturday the cliff walk was first on our list. As it was cloudy and rain was forecasted for later in the day, we hurried off to try and finish it in the morning. The Cliff Walk is well worth working into your plans, it is good exercise while you are surrounded by wild beauty and have stunning views of the ocean.
We were able to take the local bus (which is a clean and cute streetcar looking vehicle and cheap at $2 a ride) from the front of our B&B to the far top of where the walk begins. On this end you are climbing over rocks, so wear good walking shoes with soles that have good traction, and do a few stretches first! While the walk evens out into a nice cement walkway as you approach the mansions, I do NOT recommend attempting it in the rain as you could easily loose your footing and slip. Even without the rain, you often need both hands to steady yourself!
The Mansions: Extraordinary buildings made to exhibit the wealth of some the richest families of the early twentieth century, these mansions were meant to impress and entertain guests in the summer seasons.
There are several ways to see the mansions, including guided tour buses, by rented bike or on foot although the walk can be lengthy.
We started with the Breakers mansion, by far the largest and most impressive of the mansions, at the end of our cliff walk.
Elaborately decorated rooms, dramatic staircases and terraces with sweeping views characterize each mansion. Interesting as well were the glimpses into the kitchens, servants quarters and the life and divide between the rich and those who served them.
Each mansion provides a guided tour via headphones and guide you through each room, with options to hear more in depth stories if one chooses. Due to the work of the Newport Mansions Preservation Society and donations to it, they were able buy and restore the mansions which had been abandoned and fallen into neglect.
We divided touring the mansions into a couple of days – the Breakers on Saturday afternoon (a great rainy day activity), Rosecliff on Sunday and Marble House and the Elms on Monday morning.
Rosecliff is of The Great Gatsby fame, and deserves a reading or re-reading of the novel by Scott Fitzgerald, as well as a viewing of the movie made with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow.
Sailboats: one of the greatest pleasures of the trip was riding on a schooner! Newport is known for the America’s Cup and being a hub for those who love to sail. There are several companies that will take you and a small group out into the Newport Harbor and past sights like Jackie Kennedy’s old Summer residence, for around $35 per person.
Tickets are purchased in advance for certain times of the day they are scheduled to run, and can be bought right at the booths located along the wharfs. There are also champagne sunset boat rides available.
St. Mary’s Church: This is where Jacqueline Bouvier and John F. Kennedy were married on September 12, 1953. It is now a National Historic Landmark. Normally closed, we couldn’t go inside, but good to know that on Tuesdays it is open and offers a tour of the experience of the Kennedy’s wedding, named “Return to Camelot”, for a modest entrance fee of $15 per person. A link to buy tickets and more information can be found on www.returntocamelot.org
International Tennis Hall of Fame – 194 Bellevue Avenue, www.tennisfame.com
We took a quick stop at the International Tennis Hall of Fame. If you are a fan of tennis, you can find videos that talk about each of your favorite players from areas mounted to each wall on the 2nd floor. There are also rooms that go through the history of tennis and how it developed in the U.S., including the beginnings and development of the U.S. Open Championship.
Touro Synagogue – 85 Touro street www.tourosynagogue.org
On our last morning we visited the Touro Synagogue. We joined the morning guided tour, which was a short lecture given within the synagogue. A history of the synagogue is a history of Newport, and of the strength of its people in committing to diversity and freedom. Built in 1703, it is America’s oldest synagogue and believed to be the place where George Washington came to read his letter declaring religious freedom in America.
We did a lot in two and a half days, and there is still much to explore. Newport is full of early colonial history, sailing, the good life and charm, and lovely to visit.