A Chance to Linger, Feel at Home
By Karen Rubin
As we discover, Newport, Rhode Island, is magical in winter and spring. More casual and uncrowded, peaceful and calm, it still displays its riches of fascinating points of interest and activities – some unique to the season, like the seal tours offered by Save the Bay and ice skating at the harbor rink.
We are in the kitchen at the Whitehorne mansion, tasting chocolate nibs and molasses and smelling tea leaves – just a few of the spices that were traded from all over the world when Newport was one of the major colonial ports.
We have joined the “Tastes of the Working Waterfront Walking Tour,” presented by the docents of the incomparable Whitehorne Museum. The tour had an added bonus: a chance to peek at some of the Whitehorne’s breathtaking collection of American Federalist furniture (most actually made in Newport) of Doris Duke that makes the Metropolitan Museum of Art drool. The mansion home of Whitehorne, one of the richest men in Newport, was acquired by Duke as a museum. Her own mansion, Rough Point, is used as a museum of her equally dazzling European collection of fine art and furniture, but both are normally closed in winter.
The walking tour itself provided a completely different appreciation for Newport and its colonial origin as a port economy. Starting in the Whitehorne kitchen, we taste chocolate nibs (good for the heart; wouldn’t that be better to give at Valentine’s day?) and molasses, smell tea (after the British imposed the Tea Act, patriotic households used a local herb tea rather than imported), and in every way perk up your senses before walking your way through history on this tour of the Lower Thames Street neighborhood.
Chocolate, spices, and rum flavored old Newport’s kitchens and commerce; liberal use of spices was also a sign of wealth.
I love when on such visits I learn something I had never known anything about before. And here, in Whitehorne’s kitchen, I learned about spermaceti candles and Aaron Lopez, one of the Sephardic Portugese Jews who had settled in Newport (Touro Synagogue, from colonial times, is an important landmark in establishing freedom of religion). Lopez invented the process of extracting the oil from the right whale in order to make these vastly superior candles – that burned brighter, longer and without smoke.
Newport kept the secret of making the candles as long as possible; at one point, half the world’s spermaceti candles were produced in Newport in nine factories just off the wharf.
The products are representative of Newport’s early globalized economy – ships from Newport acquired goods from China, Russia, South America, Middle East..
Newport was part of the colonial Triangle trade that brought slaves to the Caribbean in exchange for molasses. You explore the wharves where these goods were made and traded, while hearing lively stories about sailors and boat builders, pirates and merchants, and working women and immigrant families. Their lives became all the more real in this winter season.
There were 70 wharves in colonial times – mostly privately owned. Whitehorne not only owned the land, but all the attendant businesses – the bank, the wharves, the stables, the ships. There were 200 local ships that went from here to Europe; another 300 to 500 went up and down the American coast.
But in the 1840s, after two of his ships sunk, Whitehorne went bankrupt. Such tragedies had impact on the entire city – in the loss of lives, loss of breadwinners.
But leading up to the Revolutionary War, the British occupied Newport, decimated the economy and destroyed the trade. After the Revolution, the city more or less froze in time, and never came back.
By the 19th century, there was an influx of immigrants – this neighborhood on Thames is where working class Greeks, Jews, Italians, Irish, Blacks (freed slaves or people who had bought their freedom) all settled. You can still see the impact in terms of churches and restaurants.
Then, as the Gilded Age brought America’s millionaires to Newport, the city evolved service industries.
Ironically, the city’s historic areas were preserved by its poverty, but when the economy became more robust and the mansions were being built, these charming homes were targets.
Doris Duke, the only child of tobacco and electric energy tycoon James Buchanan Duke (for whom Duke University is named), became alarmed that the colonial buildings would be knocked down, so founded the Newport Restoration Foundation and purchased about 83 of them. As a result, Newport has the most colonial homes of anyplace – 200 homes over 200 years old.
Whitehorne House was built in those glory days when Newport was cosmopolitan, affluent, the fifth largest city in the colonies. But by the time Duke acquired the mansion, it was a wreck. She restored it to a house appropriate to her American collection, to become a furniture museum.
When you look at the pieces, your jaw drops – they are not just pieces of the period, they are the finest pieces produced -some worth millions of dollars apiece. Five pieces from the museum were exhibited at the Met Museum of Art.
Many were manufactured here in Newport, from 1700 to 1800, by three generations of Townsends and Goddards – furniture makers whose families intermarried (Whitehorne House Museum, 416 Thames Street, 401-847-2448,www.newportrestoration.org).
Newport is fantastic for walking, even in winter, and the Newport Historical Society and the Newport Restoration Foundation host many walking tours that originate from the Visitor Center or the Museum of Newport History (127 Thames St.) such as a Lantern Tour of Colonial Newport (reservations, 401-846-0813).
The wharves and the neighborhoods that radiated from them reflected the economy of that time. And as we make our way to the wharves, we see how the new economy – real estate, condos, tourism – have again transformed the working waterfront. There is still an ice company, but that is leaving. Two buildings that used to have textile mills (without a source of cheap water energy, they could not compete) will be turned into an arts center, next door to the International Yachting Restoration School and the Yachting Museum. Presently, you can see a project to restore the Coronet, a 1885 yacht built for Rufus T. Bush of Brooklyn, which beat the Dauntless in a famous transatlantic race.
Harbor Seal Tours
I get my own water-borne view of the harbor from aboard the 45-foot Aletta Morris, used by the Save the Bay and Rose Island Lighthouse Foundation for seal tours (offered December through April).
This is also the only time to see the seals that come to Newport to winter. Even though it was a fairly chilly day, the boat operated by Save the Bay had flaps, and if you dress appropriately, you will be thrilled for the chance to experience the harbor.
You pass by the Rose Island Lighthouse on the 18-acre island, where you can actually sign up to be the Keeper of the Week – where you get to raise the flag, monitor power, check the cistern for rainwater, live in the second-floor Keeper’s quarters, and have plenty of time to sit (you pay $900 in winter, $2000 in summer, and this pretty much sells out most of the time).
You can also just stay over for a night – two bedrooms are available ($195/day); the accommodations are extraordinary, very reasonably priced, and the funds go to preserving the Lighthouse. The lighthouse itself can be visited July 1-Labor Day; Rose Island is also a wildlife refuge (401-847-4242,www.RoseIsland.org).
No matter what the season or what the weather, for that matter, take time to stroll the Cliff Walk. Newport’s dramatic coastline and natural beauty are nowhere more charmingly on display than on this 3.5-mile paved path that winds between the sprawling lawns of the opulent Newport mansions such as The Breakers, and the pounding surf of the Atlantic. As we walked, with snow and ice still about, there were actually surfers riding the waves.
Take a ride on the Old Colony/Newport Railroad, with a 1904 Boston & Maine Railroad coach car and an 1884 Inter Colonial Ry parlor car – an 80-minute excursion that brings you through the U.S. Naval Base (you can see the decommissioned aircraft carriers USS Forrestal and USS Saratoga), and the coastline along the Narragansett Bay. The trip is offered mainly on Sundays year-round ($7.50/adults, coach; $5/child; parlor car $11, 401-624-6951, www.ocnrr.com).
You get a glimpse of the social life of America’s aristocrats visiting the International Tennis Hall of Fame. A visit here instantly makes it summer any time of the year. The Hall is home to a comprehensive and interactive tennis museum. This Gilded Age jewel is set on spectacular grounds (reminiscent of Louisville, Kentucky’s Churchill Downs), and was used as a country club and casino for Newport’s aristocrats. The exhibits are presented in a very engaging way, especially for anyone who plays or enjoys the game (194 Bellevue Avenue,www.TennisFame.com).
Fine Dining, Lodging
There is no better way to capture the essence of the Good Life and come out of the winter air than to dine at One Bellevue, the fine-dining restaurant at the historic Viking Hotel.
Here, chef Kevin Theile, just 26 years old, has a bold and exciting approach to seasonings – drawing upon Asian, French, and Italian – that put new twists and adds sophistication to traditional New England fare. But that is actually going back to the tradition – as we learned on the wharf, to use spices, gathered from around the world, was a sign of wealth.
There are surprising bursts of flavor with tastes and textures coming together, all exquisitely presented – as pleasing for the eye as the palate. You just want to savor every bite. We learn the secret – he toasts his own spices and grounds them; the food as local and as fresh as possible. He uses surprising combinations of flavor – like the crispy cob bacon, veal stock jus and melted leeks in the forest mushroom tortelloni.
The braised lamb potsticker offered an explosion of flavor with Chinese mutard and Asian BBQ. Even the freshly baked bread is rich with grain and flavored with rosemary and calamari olives.
His New England clam chowder – lighter and with a purer flavor – won 3rd place in the chowder competition in 2004 – he uses fried leeks and dill infused oil.
Go for the selections that show off his skill with seasonings – like Macademia-goat cheese crusted lamb chops with rosemary pesto or the grilled cumin-rubbed tuna with chickpea fritter, spinach, pepper coulis and kalamata vinaigrette.
For dessert, we wanted something light, and were served an apricot sorbet that was sheer heaven.
It is no wonder that the graduate of Providence’s Johnson & Wales was named Rhode Island’s Chef of the Year in 2007. One Bellevue is five-star in my book. To dine at One Bellevue is to feel rich indeed (401-848-4824 for reservations).
Built in 1926 by the citizens of Newport, the Hotel Viking offers the perfect Gilded Age atmosphere and has hosted Ella Fitzgerald, Will Rogers, John and Jackie Kennedy. It offers classic Georgian and Queen Anne furnishings, 250-thread count sheets, a world-class Spaterre, and afternoon tea among its accoutrements. A member of Historic Hotels of America, it is part of the Noble House group (800-556-7126,www.hotelviking.com).
Our accommodations at The Newport Harbor Hotel and Marina made us feel a part of the America’s Cup tradition – it is literally on Bowen’s Wharf and America’s Cup Boulevard and has its own marina. Newly renovated with 133 guest rooms, all with views of either the harbor or historic Queen Anne Square, it offers a gorgeous heated, indoor pool with a view of the harbor (fantastic way to break up the day), sauns and sundeck overlooking the harbor. The Pier 49 Seafood & Spirits restaurant was also very pleasant (the New England clam chowder was scrumptious).
The Newport Harbor is so centrally located (and has its own parking lot) – a block from the Visitor Center and walking distance of many attractions and restaurants. Its Winter Getaway Package (available through April 30) includes breakfast for two daily, two Gold Attraction Vouchers valid for admission to attractions or one of three spas; two Silver Attraction Vouchers valid for admission to attractions and a signature gift from Newport Chocolate, and a Destination Newport Coupon book (800-955-2558,www.newporthotel.com).
For breakfast, we strolled to Jonathan’s Caf� on Washington Square, popular with the locals and for good reason. There is stunning art and delightful jazz playing; the omelets are fantastic.
Expand Your Vistas
Spend the afternoon in Newport’s award-winning vineyards (there are tastings, seminars, and you can see wine production even if this isn’t the season to see grapes ripening on the vine). Sakonnet Vineyards, located in the quaint town of Little Compton, is the largest and oldest winery in the state (162 West Main Road, Little Compton, 800-919-4637, www.sakonnetwine.com). Minutes from downtown, Newport Vineyards’ offerings include a trendy ice wine (909 East Main Road, Middletown (401-848-5161, www.newportvineyards.com). In nearby Portsmouth, Greenvale Vineyards welcomes visitors with a tasting room in a picturesque hillside manor house (582 Wapping Road, Portsmouth, 401-847-3777, www.greenvale.com).
The Norman Bird Sanctuary is a 300-acre nature preserve with seven-miles of hiking trails. Birding is best during the winter months, and there are yoga classes and hikes with an incredible ocean view (583 Third Beach Road, Middletown, www.normanbirdsanctuary.com).
A Festival City
The Winterfest, which just had its 20th year, meanwhile, is the biggest of its kind in New England, with 150 events during the course of the week. They are whimsical and fun and sheer delight, like a Harry Potter Dress Up Day; the Annual Best Hot Drink in Newport Contest at The Red Parrot; a Festival Day at Easton’s Beach, with family activities including carousel rides, a children’s block hunt, sand sculpture contest and Polar Bear Plunge. You purchase a Winterfest button for $10 for free or reduced rate admission to events.
But then again, nobody does festivals like Newport does. Possibly because of its heritage with the grand balls of the Gilded Age, this city makes a party out of everything.
Coming up is the Newport Restaurant Week in April, when there are three-course, prix fixe menus at $16/lunch, $30/dinner, plus culinary events, wine tasting, rum tasting); May has the Boat Show and Piratefest; June has an International Film Festival, Secret Garden Tours and Flower Show; July has the Newport Music Festival, Hall of Fame Tennis Championships and Black Ships Festival; August has a Newport Folk Festival, JVC Jazz Festival, and Newport Waterfront Irish Festival The calendar culminates with a magical “Christmas in Newport” festival throughout December. (For festival info, 800-976-5122,www.NewportEvents.com).
For more information about attractions and packages, contact The Newport County Convention & Visitors Bureau, 800-976-5122, www.GoNewport.com.
Saturday, 15 March, 2008
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