NEWPORT, Rhode Island – The dining room was built of red marble, the Gothic room of European medieval oak panels, the grand salon of 22-karat gold.
My 9-year-old daughter and I met eyes as we ogled the opulence of 1892-built Marble House, Alva Vanderbilt’s summer cottage.
This was Newport at the turn of the 20th century: home of “the 400,” New York’s most elite families, at least for the six-week summer season during the Gilded Age.
The Gilded Age mansions still draw a million visitors a year, lured by the Atlantic Ocean and history of the City by the Sea, founded in 1639.
There’s still plenty of money in Newport now, as evidenced by 180-foot mega yachts docked at the city’s wharves, some with their own hot tubs, swimming pools and basketball courts.
We took it all in on an end-of-summer girls trip to the so-called “Classic Coast” with our neighbors, where we toured Marble House and the most famous Newport mansion, the Breakers. Over four days, moms and daughters kayaked, beached, shopped, played tennis on the gorgeous grass courts of the International Tennis Hall of Fame, ate loads of seafood and drank champagne on a sunset cruise around Narragansett Bay, where a delightfully dorky tour guide regaled us with stories of the moneyed set, both then and now.
“That yacht has two hot tubs,” said Patrick, in a fake snob voice. “Because it’s just too far to walk to the other side of the boat.”
We made “ginormous” the word of our weekend: ginormous houses, ginormous boats, ginormous eight-scoop peanut-butter-fudge ice cream sundae my daughter and I ate for dinner one night.
The trip was everything I had been dreaming of, since my next-door neighbor and I hatched the idea after devouring the HBO series “The Gilded Age” (scenes of which were filmed in Newport).
We booked a JetBlue flight from Cleveland to Boston, rented an SUV and drove 90 minutes south to Newport, at the southern end of Rhode Island’s Aquidneck Island. We split a reasonably priced hotel with a pool in next-door Middletown, a Wyndham with a view of Easton’s Beach and the mansion-dotted cliffs beyond.
If you want to go, here’s what to know.
During America’s Gilded Age, roughly 1870-1900, Newport was the summer playground of the country’s most elite families: many of whom inherited wealth from robber barons who made their fortunes in shipping and railroads.
They spent their inheritance lavishly on homes and yachts and parties. Take Marble House, the Beaux Arts mansion built by Alva and Willie Vanderbilt. It cost $11 million to build in 1892 – the equivalent of $332 million in 2021 dollars. The opulence and the one-upmanship are mind-boggling.
Three years after Willie and Alva opened their 50-room cottage, his brother Cornelius and his wife, Alice, unveiled the 70-room Breakers. (It had platinum walls in the morning room.)
By the 1960s, neither branch of the family could afford to keep them as single-family homes, though a Vanderbilt descendent lived on the top floor of the Breakers until 2018.
The Preservation Society of Newport County maintains the Vanderbilts’ homes and four other mansions, which you can tour with an audio app for $29 ($38 for two houses), or $10 for kids 12 and younger.
You can also glimpse the mansions from one of Rhode Island’s most visited tourist attraction, Cliff Walk, a 3.5-mile public trail over private land on the precipice of the ocean. The path, a National Recreation Trail, is fairly narrow and mostly paved, though there are some sections that require scrambling over rocks. The vantage gives you a wonderful vista of the Atlantic Ocean, though in most spots the mansions are hidden from view.
Many of these masterpieces along Bellevue Avenue and Ocean Drive beyond are still private homes, either single-family or condominiums. One example: Hammersmith Farm, where Jackie Kennedy grew up before she married JFK at St. Mary’s Church, also in Newport.
We marveled at mansions as we cruised around Aquidneck Island and stopped for lunch at Castle Hill, a home-turned-inn where a plate of oysters, a sea of umbrellas and a view of sunshine-sparkling blue felt like stepping into a vacation brochure.
The Gilded Age set summered in Newport because of the water, and water is still attracting tourists. Founded in 1639, the city is a sailing epicenter that for decades hosted the America’s Cup race (won three times in the 1930s by a Vanderbilt, natch). Now, it has a Sailing Museum.
Narragansett Bay, on the west side of Newport, is dotted with sailboats, motor yachts, fishing boats, even tall ships.
The harbor has 900 mooring balls, three-quarters of which are reserved for residents. If you put your name on the waitlist now, you could get a space in a decade.
We got to see the boats up close when we rented a double kayak from Island Adventures. We were the only kayak out on a sunny Saturday morning, where a north wind and waves made our way slow-going. The shop also rents stand-up paddleboards and bikes, though I didn’t want to try that on the narrow streets clogged with cars.
Boat rides are an easier way to get on the water, with lots of options leaving from the city’s wharves. I’d highly recommend our Gansett sunset cruise, which for $38 included a quahog clam “stuffie” snack and a champagne toast.
You can also dive into the waves at Newport’s beaches. There are several public beaches, including First, Second and Third beach, and private beach clubs, like the exclusive Bailey’s for the Bellevue Avenue set and Easton’s Beach Club at the otherwise public Easton’s Beach (aka First Beach). We could walk to Easton’s from our hotel, which I did for early-morning open-water swims.
The water was 71 degrees, with virtually no waves, and the saltwater made me feel effortlessly buoyant as I freestyled along the shore, taking in the marvelous homes. Until I realized this wasn’t Lake Erie, and should I worry about sharks?
A friendly swimmer I asked later assured me that no, she’d never seen a shark.
I did see a crab. But the most formidable animal I spotted was a horde of seagulls.
On our boat cruise, we saw five weddings, from a venue on Goat Island to a tent at Fort Adams. There were three weddings just at our hotel over the weekend. And we saw a surprising number of bachelorette parties, including several with the bride-to-be sporting a captain’s hat and veil.
Weddings are big business in Newport, with the Discover Newport tourism bureau reporting more than 1,300 weddings in 2015. I bet the number has only grown.
One gorgeous wedding venue is the International Tennis Hall of Fame, built as the Newport Casino on Bellevue Avenue in 1880. The United States Lawn Tennis Association held their first championships there a year later, through 1914.
The Hall of Fame has a museum and a tennis club, where the public can also play, provided they wear all white. My neighbor and I, who regularly hit on hard courts by our community library, rented an hour on grass, surrounded by green-and-white-striped awnings, hanging flower baskets and stadium bleachers. The surface felt like a putting green, and the hushed atmosphere felt like I was on Wimbledon’s Center Court. At $150, the experience was pricey, but sublime.
We had been dreaming about seafood all summer, and we ate it for just about every meal on the coast, where a few restaurants even spelled clam chowder with an A.
We ate lobster rolls, raw oysters, fried shrimp, clams, scallops, calamari and more: We ate fancy meals on patios overlooking Narragansett Bay, but our favorite might have been Flo’s Clam Shack, across from Easton’s Beach, where you wait in a pleasantly shaded line to place your order at the counter, then find yourself a table.
I shared a giant fisherman’s platter of fried seafood with my daughter, with an extra helping of clam cakes, which taste like hushpuppies, only better. But even together, we couldn’t finish it all. So we took the leftovers to the beach, where the gulls ambushed the Styrofoam and demolished it all.
I bet that never happened to the Vanderbilts.