For home tour enthusiasts, the Bellevue Avenue mansions of Newport, Rhode Island are a must-do trip. We visited last July but will return this summer because we needed more time to explore the wonderful city.
Technically located on Aquidneck Island, the city has a rich history. Founded in the mid-1600s, Newport played important roles in the Revolutionary War before it became the playground of the rich and famous of the Gilded Age.
Devise a game plan to make the most of your time. Start with the Viking Tours Scenic Overview Tour ($25/$20 Mondays) to get oriented. The trolley runs along part of Newport’s iconic Ten Mile Ocean Drive and gives riders a peek at the city’s famous mansions and points of interest. The tour departs from the Discover Newport Visitor Center (23 America’s Cup Ave.) where the excellent staff gets visitors organized with information, tickets, restaurant suggestions and helpful tips.
Bellevue Avenue Mansions
The mansions are the stars of the show. Nine properties represent the “cottages” and “summer homes” of wealthy industrialists and financiers. Taxes, servant shortages and social change led to the demise of this way of life, but The Preservation Society of Newport saved the homes from developers.
Each residence represents stunning architecture, art, furniture and landscaping of various time periods. Besides the splendor of the décor and gardens, audio tours provide in-depth looks at the residents and societal rules that governed them. There’s a lot to take in, so research what you’d like to see. Two homes a day is doable.
The Breakers, The Elms and Marble House are the most well-known, but others are just as fascinating. Don’t mess around with individual house tickets ($17.50 each; $24 for The Breakers; $30 Hunter House). A five-house combo ticket ($35/$12) is the way to go. (A two home ticket is $27/$9 youth.) You can take as many days as you like exploring.
The Elms is the stunning home of late coal magnate Edward Julius Berwind. It was modeled after an 18th century French chateau. A modern thinker, Berwind installed the latest and greatest in technology for the time period, like an elevator, electricity and an electric ice machine. Berwind — now an investment management company — is one of the few to survive and today is owned by the fifth generation.
The Breakers belonged to the Vanderbilts, who made their money in railroads. The home is in the Italian Renaissance style.
Inspired by the Petit Trianon at Versailles, The Marble House is another Vanderbilt home. A gift to Alva Vanderbilt for her 39th birthday from husband William K. Vanderbilt, she added a Chinese Tea House where she hosted rallies for the women’s right to vote.
Ironically, she divorced Vanderbilt and moved down the street with new hubby, Oliver H.P. Belmont, to Belcourt, currently in the process of being restored by Rhode Island native and Alex and Ani founder Carolyn Rafaelian.
Two of these homes offer separate “must” guided tours: Downton Abbey fans will love The Elms’ “Servants Life Tour,” ($18; $7.50 youth). Climb the (many) stairs to servants’ living quarters above, then go below to the laundry, kitchen and basement where they worked. New this year is The Breakers’ “Below the Breakers Tour.” Guests can view the “modern” construction of a century ago along with cool stuff like giant boilers. ($25 adults, $10 youth.) For planning, visit The Preservation Society of Newport.
Doris Duke’s Rough Point
Not part of the Preservation Society’s homes (but equally worth visiting) is heiress Doris Duke’s Rough Point. The fascinating Duke inherited her father’s fortune at an early age. Compared to the other glittering homes, hers is understated. A collector of priceless art, furniture (and men), you’ll also see the unexpected, like a dollar store pail she bought because she liked it.
Duke died in 1993. Much of the home remains the same. (Closets still hold her wardrobe.) Learn about her quirky love of dog and camels. The 75-minute guided tour is $25; on Wednesday and Saturday you can take a $10 self-guided tour. For 2017, a new exhibit called “Nature Untamed in the Landscapes, Gardens and Collections of Rough Point” will include examples of Duke’s fashion inspired by the natural world. Visit Newportrestoration.org.
Hit the high seas
Newport is a sailing capital, where colonists once sailed for trade. Now the rich and famous sail for pleasure. You’ll see unbelievable super yachts and spectacular homes out on the water. A leisurely 90-minute tour of Narragansett Bay on the 72-foot schooner yacht “Madeline” is ideal for relaxing. Cost is $32; $41 for a sunset sail with champagne.
For something more exciting, the “Rum Runner II” — a 1929 Elco Motor yacht — tells the tale of Prohibition mobsters sneaking hooch. The Smugglers Cocktail Cruise is $35. For tickets, visit Cruisenewport.com. Discounts for seniors, kids and active military.
For families, the Fish’N Tails lobster boat tour is fun. Learn all about the crusty creatures from a marine biologist and find out how lobsters are fished. You’ll never look at lobster dinner the same way. Price is $26 (senior/child discounts). Information at Fishntalesadventures.com.
Return to Camelot: The Kennedy Wedding at St. Mary’s
While on the “Madeline,” we saw Hammersmith Farm, the site of John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Lee Bouvier’s wedding reception. The ceremony took place in 1953 at the tiny St. Mary’s Catholic Church on Spring Street. Using pictures, video and an organ accompaniment, the church priest tells the story of how the wedding ended up at St. Mary’s. The presentation runs Sunday 1-2 p.m. and Tuesday 3-4 p.m. ($15) through September. Tickets at Returntocamelot.org or the Newport Visitors Center.
Outdoors: Cliff Walk and beaches
Cliff Walk is a National Recreation Trail. The 3.5-mile trail has paved and unpaved surfaces and provides gorgeous views of the water and mansions. Do part or all of the walk, whatever you have time for. Public access is via various streets.
Newport has several wonderful beaches where you can spend the day soaking up sun and sand. Discovernewport.org has details about all the beaches and how to access them. Parking at the popular Easton’s Beach can be limited and expensive during peak tourist months. See if your hotel has a shuttle or use Uber.
Food, drinks and shops…
Pledge to only eat seafood in Newport (we did!). Open since 1673, the historic White Horse Tavern serves raw clams and the tavern’s signature clam chowder.
The Top of Newport rooftop lounge at historic Hotel Viking features live music and daily specials, like a Lobster Love boiled lobster dinner we had for $25.
Thanks to a tip from our trolley guide, we sipped drinks at sunset on the rooftop bar of the swanky Vanderbilt Grace hotel.
Just strolling along Spring Street, we stumbled across the historic Trinity Church cemetery with graves that pre-dated the American Revolution.
More to check out…
America’s oldest synagogue — Touro Synagogue — is located in Newport.
The Newport Film & Celebrity Tour visits famous Newport movie locations.
The Newport Gulls host cheap summer collegiate baseball games at the historic Cardines Field, one of the oldest in America where legends like Satchel Paige played.
Newport Polo runs matches through September. There’s also the International Tennis Hall of Fame, Audrian Automobile Museum and the oldest lending library in the country — Redwood Library and Athenaeum.
Newport’s parking is horrendous, so avoid wasting precious time driving from place to place. Some mansions have parking lots, but they fill up fast. Instead, make the Discover Newport Visitors Center your base. Whether you get there by hotel shuttle, cab, Uber (or drive and pay $25 for all-day parking), it’s worth the extra expense. Walking is a big part of the equation, so wear the right footwear.
At the Center you’ll be in the thick of it. Within walking proximity to the wharfs, shopping and boat tours, the Center is also the place to get on the #67 trolley, which loops the mansion route. Unlimited rides on the “hop on and off” #67 trolley are $6 per day.
We stayed at the modest Mainstay Hotel & Conference Center (151 Admiral Kalbfus Rd.), a short ride to the Visitors Center. The simple but clean hotel also has an $8 all day shuttle service that runs late night with drop offs at main areas. The drivers are great.
For the best pre-visit information on everything Newport, go to Discover Newport.
Story topics: Travel