Length of stay: 2 days
Visited: June 2017
Rhode Island may be the smallest state in the United States, but it sure has a big history for being a luxurious summer retreat for the the rich and powerful during the height of the Gilded Age. With its close proximity to the ocean (and of New York) many of the wealthy – including the Vanderbilts, spent the summer vacationing here during the late 1800s. Many of these elaborate Newport mansions, complete with their original furnishings and decoration, have been preserved and (for a small fee) are open to the public to catch a glimpse into the lifestyles of the rich and the famous from over a hundred years ago.
After visiting Newport in December during the height of the Christmas at the Newport Mansions we made plans to return. But when the weather was nicer. Plus, all eleven of the Preservation Society of Newport’s mansions are operational and open to the public during the entire summer. We purchased a five house ticket (for $35). In retrospect we should have just purchased a household membership back when we visited in December as it would have been cheaper plus we would have been able to visit all eleven of the historic properties. Oh well, the extra money is going to a good cause.
We timed our visit to Newport to coincide with the WaterFire festival. Held every year since 1994, a number of braziers along three rivers in downtown Providence are lit on fire. This event usually takes place on a number of evenings from early spring to mid fall.
With nice weather on the forecast we were pretty pumped to return to Rhode Island for the weekend.
Day 1: Newport by day; Providence by night
We woke up bright and early to make the drive up to Newport from Boston. We arrived near the start of the Cliff Walk – a 5.6km trail that hugs the shoreline and overlooks onto many of the backyards of Newport’s gilded mansions, just after 9a.m only to find limited parking. Given that we didn’t want to fork over $18 for all-day parking, we decided to save this scenic hike for tomorrow morning.
Instead we drove down Bellevue Avenue to Rosecliff. This elaborate summer cottage was commissioned to be built by Theresa “Tessie” Fair Oelrichs back in the late 1890s. A large number of extravagant and lavish parties were hosted here. Perhaps inspired by its history, Rosecliff served as a filming location for the Great Gatsby.
Included with admission is a free self-guided audio tour of this elaborate property that lasts about 35 minutes. After the tour we went through a temporary exhibit that showcased the clothing of fashion designer Pierre Cardin from the 1905s to 2016. That part was … interesting. Clever use of space I suppose.
From there we drove down the road to Chateau-sur-Mer. Commissioned to be built by the Wetmore family in the mid 1800s, this was one of the few gilded mansions that was intended to be inhabited year round rather than just for the duration of the summer. We wandered around the grounds for 15 minutes or so while waiting for our tour to start. Unlike the previous mansions that we visited the guided tours at Chateau-sur-Mer are by an actual guide (every hour on the hour), which we much preferred over the audio tours.
The remainder of the mansions we planned to visit all offered in person guided tours. And they’re all held on the hour every hour, so we had to strategically think about timing in advance. We arrived at the Isaac Bell House about 15 minutes past noon and had about 45 minutes to kill before the start of the next tour. We briefly walked around the house then returned to car to eat the wraps we packed for lunch.
The Isaac Bell House was probably our favourite gilded mansion that we visited today. As an added bonus we were accompanied by only one other couple on our guided tour. Unlike the other mansions that are maintained and managed by the Preservation Society, this summer cottage has no furnishings. Because the property changed hands over the years many of the original furnishings could not be retrieved. Either way, it was interesting to just admire the architecture and design.
Afterwards we continued a little further up Bellevue Avenue to Chepstow. Unlike many of the other Newport mansions, many of the furnishings inside this Italian-style summer cottage are quite modern making it easy to forget that this house was built in 1860. It would also make any hoarder feel at home. With so many trinkets and objects scattered throughout this cottage defiantly felt more cozy in comparison to all the other summer “cottages” we toured.
The final mansion we hit up on our ambitious 5-house tour was Kingscote. This Gothic Revival mansion was one of the first summer cottages to be constructed in Newport.
After we finished up we headed down to the Newport Vineyards for dinner. And to sample some local homemade wine after a long, but enjoyable day in Rhode Island. We even left with a couple of bottles of our favourite wine that we tried. And with a name like Great White, how could we resist?
From there we hopped back in the car yet again and drove down to Providence. We arrived shortly before 8p.m and spent the next 15 minutes or so navigating through the streets on the prowl for a parking space. We were just about to give up and turn into a parking lot and pay $10 to park when we spotted a (free) opening along the road. Success.
The WaterFire Festival is hosted by a nonprofit arts organization in an attempted to reinforce community engagement and foster creativity and an appreciation for art. Since its creation in 1994 the festival has expanded significantly and the number of permanent braziers that are lit on fire have doubled. There are a number WaterFire festivals that are held each season from early spring to late fall. We attended a full lighting where over 80 braziers along the three rivers in downtown Providence are lit up. The lighting takes place shortly after sunset, which in our case was just after 8:45p.m.
We showed up just before dusk and scored an awesome spot along one of the bridges that provided great views into the below river. We watched in anticipation as a boat lazily drifted down the river igniting each of the braziers.
We watched the event for maybe about an hour or so walking alongside the canal. But we were pretty exhausted. We returned to our car and drove back towards our accommodations just outside of Newport.
Day 2: Cliff Walk
Despite our action-packed day yesterday we woke up pretty early to secure a highly coveted parking space at the start of the Cliff Walk. This incredibly scenic trail hugs along the side of a cliff. As you’re walking, a panoramic view of the ocean is to the left and the backyards of several extravagant mansions are to the right.
We parked alongside Memorial Boulevard by Eaton’s Beach. There are parking metres located along this stretch of roadside parking that allow for a stay of up to 3 hours. This is a much more affordable option than forking over $18 for an all-day parking pass at a nearby parking lot. When we arrived the parking metre for our spot was still good for just under two hours. We contemplating topping it up, but in the end we just left it. Just under two hours seemed like more than enough time to cover 5.6km, take a bunch of pictures along the way, and then take the trolley (or an uber) back to our car.
The Cliff Walk starts at the Chanler hotel and ends at Baily’s Beach. The first part of the trail is paved and wide enough to walk side-by-side. About mid-way through the terrain becomes quite rocky, but the views are nonetheless nothing short of spectacular. Many of the backyards from the luxurious and elaborate gilded mansions that we toured – like The Breakers, Rosecliff, Marble House, and Chateau-sur-Mer, can easily be viewed along the trail.
The trail ends at Baily’s Bay. From here it wasn’t immediately clear where the bus stop for the trolley service that shuttles you back to the start of the Cliff Walk was located. So in the interest of time we just called an uber. We made it back to our car in the nick of time because (a) we had no time remaining on the metre and (b) there was someone going around writing up tickets … and they were in the process of writing up a ticket for the car in front of us. Talk about good timing. We hopped in and high-tailed it out of there.
Even after spending just a short amount of time here, it’s abundantly clear why Rhode Island is referred to as the “Ocean state”. As was the case back in the 1800s, tourists today are still flocking Newport (and the surrounding towns in Rhode Island) for some rest and relaxation by the ocean.
L & K