Travel 2022: A seaside resort rich in history, scenery in Newport, R.I.

A visit to Newport isn’t complete without a spin down Ocean Drive. - Discover Newport
A visit to Newport isn’t complete without a spin down Ocean Drive. - Discover Newport

SUMMER TRAVEL 2022 To visit Newport is to be surrounded by water.

That’s literally, since the seaside city sits on Aquidneck Island. But beyond that, this renowned resort and playground for the wealthy sits on a peninsula at the southern end of the island, right at the point where the Atlantic Ocean gives way to Narragansett Bay.

The peninsula’s scenic beauty, sheltered harbor and strategic importance have been recognized since 1639, when Englishmen who had immigrated to the Massachusetts Bay Colony set out to establish a place of their own. (FYI, Aquidneck Island’s original name was Rhode Island, before the entire colony took that name.)

Today, the region’s largest single employer is a Navy base just north of Newport, but the city thrives on a summer tourism scene, just as it did on the robber barons of a previous century.

Depending on what they want to do, visitors can take a scenic walk along rocky cliffs that face the invigorating ocean; tour ostentatious Gilded Age mansions; ponder a complex and nearly four-century local history; or attend outdoor concerts. There’s a booming shopping, hospitality and restaurant scene downtown, around Newport Harbor.

For those interested in sports, Newport is home to both the National Tennis Hall of Fame and National Sailing Hall of Fame. This year there’s a new museum, one devoted to competitive sailing. (The America’s Cup was held in the waters off Newport for many years.)

Now let’s get into a little more detail.

Among the most popular things to do is the Newport Cliff Walk. The walk extends 3.5 miles along the cliffs that form the boundary between the pounding Atlantic surf and many of the historic mansions that line Bellevue Avenue. The walk isn’t a new idea: It has been developed in sections since the 1880s, and not without disputes with adjoining landowners. But state laws protect public access to the shore and the Cliff Walk takes advantage of that promise.

The Cliff Walk was designated a National Recreation Trail in 1975. Speaking from personal experience, it is spectacular. But fair warning: Some sections are more primitive than others, weather and walking conditions can be unpredictable, and one section near the eastern terminus has been closed for the past several years due to an earthen bank’s collapse. But the price of admission is right: It’s free.

Newport is known for its many stunningly large historic mansions — what the rich at the end of the 19th century called summer “cottages” — that were often styled after the palaces and grand residences of Europe. A dozen of those mansions are now open to the public under the auspices of the Preservation Society of Newport County.

Among the mansions one can gawk their way through or walk the grounds of is The Breakers. It was built between 1893 and 1895 for Cornelius Vanderbilt II, a favorite grandson of “Commodore” Cornelius Vanderbilt, the man who made the family fortune as an early 19th-century pioneer in commercial shipping and rail transportation. The Italian Renaissance-inspired mansion has 70 rooms.

Also open for touring is Marble House, designed around 1890 by noted New York City architect Richard Morris Hunt and built for another of the Commodore’s grandchildren, William Vanderbilt. (While the senior Vanderbilt was known for summering in Saratoga Springs, his descendants seem to have preferred the ocean.)

Across the peninsula, overlooking the harbor, is Fort Adams, which opened as a U.S. Army fort guarding the harbor in 1799 and is now a state park. It was named for President John Adams. It’s the location each summer of the Newport Jazz and Newport Folk festivals.

The Jazz Festival this summer will be held July 29-31, with a lineup of dozens of acts that will include Norah Jones, Esperanza Spalding and Angelique Kidjo. The Folk Festival will take place the preceding weekend, July 22-24, and include performances by Mandy Moore, Rhiannon Giddings and Taj Mahal, among many others.

Aside from its cultural and scenic offerings, the city has a fascinating history. Newport welcomed Jewish immigrants fleeing a European pogrom in the 1600s — a time when most communities in North America weren’t so tolerant.

Consequently, the city has the oldest synagogue in the Western Hemisphere. A further wave of Jewish immigration from Portugal in the mid-1700s helped make the city a center of trade — including trade in slaves.

Newport was also one of the first places to implement commercial uses of sperm whale oil.

The Newport Historic District has one of the highest concentrations of colonial homes in the nation, and to this day there are many cobblestones on the downtown streets, where both pedestrian and vehicle traffic can be heavy.

Seasonal resident the late Doris Duke, heiress to her family’s tobacco fortune, spearheaded preservation of the city’s colonial architecture during the 1970s and 1980s, and today visitors can be glad she did.

Newport was also a haunt of John F. Kennedy, both before and during his presidency. Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy had close family ties to the area, and she and the then-senator from Massachusetts were married in 1953 at the city’s Roman Catholic Church. A historic marker outside the church notes the occasion.

On the dining front, there are a lot of locally owned restaurants, many of which — unsurprisingly — feature seafood. Well-rated breakfast cafes such as Annie’s and the Corner Café abound, and the lunch and dinner spots include small chef-owned farm-to-table and dockside-to-dinner plate establishments, many with views of the harbor. Larger spots like The Mooring Seafood Kitchen & Bar and The Red Parrot are geared to the visitor trade: They have plenty of tables, and reservations are always a good idea. Many restaurants offer outdoor dining during the season.

A ”Weekend of Coaching,” when horse-drawn coaches fill the streets, happens only once every three years, but 2022 is one of those. The celebration will be held Aug. 19-21.

Hotels in the downtown harbor area are generally independently owned and pretty costly, but several of the national hotel chains have franchises in Middletown, the next town north along the bay and just a short drive away.

The separate community of Newport Beach is located a mile or so east of downtown and offers its own charms, perhaps a little quieter than downtown’s. People who stay here have the advantage of being located within a short walk of Easton Beach, the largest public beach in the Newport area. It is also within sight of the eastern start of the Cliff Walk.

As far as COVID protocols, Rhode Island doesn’t mandate indoor masks, but Newport tourism officials say individual businesses might require them and visitors are asked to respect the rule where there is one.

Local tourism officials say they are expecting a good year.

“People are excited to travel and reconnect,” said Evan Smith, CEO and president of Discover Newport. “The pandemic impacted us initially and then the drive market came out in droves. That enthusiasm for travel continues to build and we expect an amazing season. Our special event calendar is packed with some of the best events in the country including folk, jazz and classical festivals.”

Newport can be reached from the Capital Region in four hours or less, traveling by interstate highway through either Hartford or via the Massachusetts Turnpike and through Providence.

Correction 5/26/22: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the architect of Marble House and the approximate date of its design.

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