Before the Hamptons and Malibu were America’s out-of-town proxies for rigorous social networking, Newport, a quiet city in Rhode Island, was the go-to destination for the summering elite from the Northeast’s business hubs. Bastions of the Industrial Era’s nouveau riche, Newport’s lavish estates were thrown up by a new guard of barons who made their fortune by exploiting the nuts and bolts of the modern world: steel and coal. Their mansions, unholy mishmashes of architectural paradigms, spared no expense, effectively becoming America’s first McMansions.
When the glory days of Newport’s pseudo-aristocrats waned, many of the properties turned into historical relics. And while academics debate the estates’ aesthetic value, these museums now recount a moment in time — a nadir of American capitalism — in vivid detail. Whether historical buffs or curious weekenders, scores of tourists visit the vacant mansions each year to appreciate the era when beach-going was hardly about scoring a tan.
Today, visitors can stay at the Chanler at Cliff Walk for the ultimate in immersive mansion experiences. The furnishings and decor are period-appropriate throughout the property; the ocean villas are particularly charming, with private terraces overlooking the bay below and direct access to the coastal trailhead. The burnished wood and thick coats of navy paint give the Nantucket suite a fitting nautical vibe — don’t miss the soothing bubbles of the secreted jacuzzi tucked beneath the stairway up to your room from the gardens.
Sparkling wines with faint notes of orchard fruit — produced exclusively for the Chanler on a private reserve in California — are generously poured for guests throughout their stay. Most guests — and stoppers-by — wind up at the hotel’s bar for an extended wine list and signature cocktails like the Spiced Pear Martini amid hunting-lodge-style surrounds.
Complimentary shuttle services usher guests from the hotel to the local winery. Though it may come as a surprise, Newport Vineyards has been actively producing an array of red and white varieties since 1977, capitalizing on the long, cool growing season fostered along the banks of the Narragansett. New England’s largest grape grower is regularly open for tastings and tours, and the unexpected complexity of the terroir should guarantee that a bottle will find its way into your suitcase.
Follow the coastal Cliff Walk down from the Chanler toward the sea to find the dozen or so mansions on offer from the local preservation society. Each property boasts a unique design and an interesting history of conspicuous consumption; your first stop should be at the largest estate of them all — the Breakers, filled to the brim with Italian frescos, tortoiseshell accents, and crystal chandeliers.
The Breakers was the summer headquarters of the prominent Vanderbilt family, and tours today provide excellent insight into the upstairs-downstairs society that the Vanderbilts and their neo-aristocratic kin sought to replicate from across the pond. Summer in Newport was hardly a break from the Big Smoke, as the women of the house maintained exhausting social calendars, hosting dozens of soirees and banquets. The ballroom at the Breakers was full throughout the warmer months, accommodating 400 guests at a time.
The other “cottages,” as they were known with a winked eye during the Industrial Revolution, are also worth a snoop, such as Rosecliff, which was built by the heiress to Nevada’s Comstock silver lode. An unlikely fixture in Newport’s decidedly Northeastern society, Tessie, as she was known, was the daughter of Irish immigrants and brought a certain air of casualness to the area’s social register. Today, Rosecliff — inspired by the architecture of Versailles — has been featured in numerous Hollywood films, including The Great Gatsby, Amistad, and 27 Dresses.
But beyond the imposing stone of the faux-French facades, it should not be forgotten that Newport is a star among the constellation of New England’s colonial burgs, and it readily flaunts its Georgian brick along the inner harbor. The city’s best homage to the time of the Pilgrims is dinner at the White Horse Tavern, the oldest tavern in the country. Erected in 1652, the venue has hosted countless notable figures throughout its history, from the Founding Fathers (including George Washington) to Jackie O, when the Kennedys used to summer in town during JFK’s administration and dubbed Newport “the Summer White House.” The restaurant has also been credited with creating the so-called businessman’s lunch, but today, diners enjoy the signature beef Wellington by candlelight, and a crackling fire warms the hearth in the colder months.
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