Newport, Rhode Island: A Lightly Salted Charmer

The spirit of the Gilded Age still thrives in Newport, Rhode Island.

Don't let the gilded estates of Bellevue Avenue blind you. There’s much more to Newport than fancy architecture and unbridled wealth.

At the turn of the 20th century this seaside city on Rhode Island’s Aquidneck Island famously doubled as a summer resort for the nouveaux riche: Cornelius Vanderbilt II was a well-heeled industrialist—and TV news anchor Anderson Cooper’s great grandfather—who took up seasonal residence in a mansion called The Breakers.

Today, a decade and a half into the 21st century, not much has changed.

Thames Street
Thames Street (©Aimintang/iStock Photo)

Natty Nautical

Stroll along Thames Street on a Saturday afternoon, and dodge throngs of 20- and 30-somethings dressed head-to-toe in a uniform I like to call “natty nautical.” Men straddle the day-to-evening line 24-7 in button-down shirts tucked into khakis, properly secured with whale/flag/anchor emblazoned belts. Women wear stripes on dresses, stripes on monogrammed purses and stripes on scarves. Flat leather sandals—because who can walk on cobblestones in heels? And this is an island after all—are paired with designer sunglasses.

The pastimes of choice for the luxe maritime crowd are—no surprise—shopping and socializing, first at upscale boutiques like Island Pursuit, FatFace, Primavera on Bowen’s Wharf, Helly Hansen, Island Outfitters and Shore Soap Company—where scents are named Cast Away, Ocean Rain and Mermaid Kisses.

Then Midtown Oyster Bar for fresh seafood and live music; 22 Bowen’s with its portside patio for watching sailboats bob in the waters of Newport Harbor; and The Mooring, where the raw bar menu offers 12 oysters and a demi of Veuve Clicquot for a cool 70 bucks.

Overnight guests stay up the street at Hotel Viking, the Grace Vanderbilt or The Chanler at Cliff Walk. There’s also Castle Hill Inn, with its sloping lawn and Relais & Chateaux status, and the OceanCliff I & II hotel that often plays host to sails on its own tall ship, the Schooner Aurora.


Newport Tower
Newport Tower (©Leigh Harrington)

Mysterious Tower

There is one place this crowd likely doesn’t frequent, and that’s the Newport Tower in Touro Park.

Rumor once had it that the round stone structure was either an astronomical observatory or watchtower built by any of the following potential masons: 15th-century Chinese sailors, medieval Scottish Templars or the Vikings. According to the Newport Tower Museum, the structure was actually built in the 16th century by alchemist John Dee during a 1583 Elizabethan colonization attempt. The museum across the street delves deeper into the tower’s history and its legends.

Near the tower, Megs Aussie Milk Bar whips up killer Australian-style meat pies and sausage rolls using pasture-raised beef and pork from Rhode Island farms.

Pierre Cardin exhibition
Pierre Cardin exhibition (©Leigh Harrington)

Vintage Style

A couple miles from the waterfront, Broadway boasts a burgeoning ‘scene’ along a six-block stretch packed with personality. Vintage is all the rage at Vinyl Guru Record Shop and Closet Revival. If you’re into vintage fashions, detour to the Rosecliff mansion on Bellevue to see the “Pierre Cardin: 70 Years of Innovation” exhibition featuring the designer’s trademark runway fashions from the 1950s forward.

Broadway’s Newport Bicycle offers rentals—and cycling is a great way to get around Newport—and guided tours centered on Newport’s ‘hidden history.’ Snag an iced cherry and rose petal sencha at Empire Tea and Coffee before pedaling off.

The hourlong tours at Fort Adams are pretty cool, venturing into the underground listening tunnels of the former U.S. Army post and coastal fortification. And if you really like to walk, a 2.5-mile loop trail journeys around the entire Fort Adams State Park, offering fabulous views of Narragansett Bay. Every summer, Fort Adams also serves as the site of the multi-day Newport Folk Festival.

On Goat Island at the just-opened Gurneys Newport hotel, guests can have a cocktail at the 533 Lounge near sunset—the panoramic views of the Newport Bridge and the bay are the best in town.