Newport Makes it Easy to Become Immersed in the “Simple” Pleasures of the Gilded Age

by Eric Leiberman and Lisa Ganz

The Breakers © 2011 Lisa Ganz/

The beauty of a trip to Newport, RI is in its simplicity. The destination appeals to families and young professionals alike for similar reasons. It’s a short car trip from the tri-state area and there’s a lot to see and do in a very small area. After a first attempt of getting from activity to activity in our car, we were amazed at how easy it was to forget the car and just walk/shuttle from place to place. Newport has something for everyone with the corresponding history to enrich those interests. Both enthusiasts and casual travelers can find something interesting or exciting with all of the maritime, military, and colonial history, as well as the shopping, architecture, beaches, sports, concerts, and shows.

One of the main attractions of Newport is the mansions. These Gilded-era “summer cottages” represent a period of near divine riches. Each mansion seems bigger than the next because the millionaire-owners attempted to outdo and impress each other. The mansions themselves are an exposé in extravagance. With their Sistine Chapel-esque ceilings, platinum dining room sets, and art collections fit for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the mansions are utterly breathtaking. And the automated walking tours that the popular mansions provide visitors is very well done and explores the historical context.

The Breakers mansion is unquestionably the most famous. It was built as the Newport summer home of Cornelius Vanderbilt II. His father was an American entrepreneur and one of the richest Americans in history. At the time, Cornelius Vanderbilt had more money than the United States government and was the richest man in the world. The 70-room mansion that was built for Cornelius Vanderbilt II cost more than $12 million (approximately $310 million in today’s dollars adjusted for inflation).

Like most of the attractions and activities in Newport, the mansions have wide appeal. History buffs get to show off their knowledge of the historical sites and figures, and they also get to learn some new tidbits as well. Young couples can find countless romantic spots. And kids get unrealistic expectations for what their houses could look like! But seriously, children love the mansions. There is so much aesthetic beauty that it’s hard to get bored.

In addition to the mansions, popular attractions include the International Tennis Hall of Fame, the Touro Synagogue, Sailing Tours, Fort Adams, and the Firehouse Theater. It is perfectly reasonable to see each of the popular attractions in as few as two days.

At the International Tennis Hall of Fame & Museum, visitors can learn about the history of tennis and its celebrities through a diverse collection of memorabilia, art, and video. Vistitors can also play on the only public grass courts in the country for $70 per 1/2 hour or $100 per hour.

The Touro Synagogue is the oldest synagogue in the United States. Built in 1763, Touro is the only surviving synagogue built in the colonial era. More than just a special landmark for Jews, Touro represents a message of religious freedom for all Americans. In 1790, the synagogue’s warden, Moses Seixas, wrote to President George Washington, expressing his support for Washington’s administration and good wishes for him. Washington sent a letter in response guaranteeing religious freedom to the “children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land.” Washington goes on to say, “While every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.” Each year, the Washington letter is read in a long tradition of preserving religious pluralism in the United States.

Touro Synagogue © 2011 Lisa Ganz/

Classic Cruises of Newport is the local favorite for sailing tours and sunset harbor cruises. These boats while intrinsically beautiful, also offer spectacular views of the Newport Harbor, Narragansett Bay, and the excitement of sailing in the Sailing Capital of America. For those less interested in sailboats, there is also the Amazing Grace Harbor Tours, which provides a smooth-cruising introductory water tour that is great for kids.

Fort Adams served as the headquarters for all fortifications in Narragansett Bay, as well as a training center in both world wars. Its history goes back even farther as it was established in 1799 as a First System coastal fortification. A guided tour of the premises allows visitors to see an engineering and architectural masterpiece, with its complex tunnel system and stunning casemates. The fort, with its picturesque location in a park with rolling green acres overlooking Narragansett Bay is also the site of two major summer music festivals in Newport: The Newport Folk Festival and The Newport Jazz Festival.

For some laughs, visit the Firehouse Theater, which offers performances in improvisational comedy. The venue is quaint and quite fun. It is also BYOB, and ideal for a night activity for visitors on an extended stay or a rainy night activity for all Newport visitors.

The dining options in Newport are eclectic, ranging from family friendly spots to romantic dining options on the Harbor. Clam chowder is easy to come by, as is ahi encrusted tuna and salmon, among other types of fish. Two restaurants in particular that captured the essence of Newport were The Mooring and Salvation Café. The Mooring is located downtown on the historic waterfront, providing spectacular views for diners. The food is just as fabulous as the views, and it’s without a doubt a top Newport spot for Clam Chowder. But The Mooring is not only a great place for families because of its ideal location and fabulous food, it is also wonderful for young adults and vacationing couples. The restaurant has a happening bar scene, in addition to an extensive wine list that’s presented on an iPad. Though Salvation Café cannot claim the same picturesque views of the Harbor, it does present a hip ambiance with plenty of outdoor seating. Most notably, however, is the food at Salvation Café, which is delectable with each and every bite. The restaurant is probably most known for its coriander and cumin encrusted tuna sprinkled with ricotta cavatelli, chorizo & curry parsnip puree, and its pad thai with shrimp, both of which were out of this world. Salvation Café is a must go.

The Admiral Fitzroy is a perfect place to stay when vacationing in Newport. Its location is key; you’re able to walk everywhere once you step out the door of the quaint bed and breakfast. It’s only a minute walk from the harbor and any of the wharfs, and it’s situated on the same street as most of Newport’s shopping and restaurants. The Owners were wonderful and always available, and the included breakfast every morning and afternoon cookies were very delicious. The rooms were clean and spacious, but book in advance because there are only 18 of them! To sum up Newport in a single sales pitch: it may be by far the easiest vacation to plan and the most fun for the investment (both time and money). Most destinations claim that they have “something for everyone,” but Newport really means it! Newport is ideal for a midweek or weekend trip during the summer for families and young professionals. There is a lot to see and more importantly, you can see most of it in just a couple of days. Book a trip to Newport and rest assured that it will be one of the easiest vacations you’ve ever taken.

For more information on planning a visit to Newport, contact the Newport County Visitors Center, 23 America’s Cup Avenue, Newport, RI 02840, 401-845-9123, 800-976-5122,

The picturesque view from the cliff walk - a 3.5 mile walk that winds along the Atlantic Ocean behind the grounds of the mansions © 2011 Lisa Ganz/

Doris Duke’s Sporty Side Revealed in New Exhibit at Rough Point

From the beach to the bowling alley, from surfing to skiing, Doris Duke was a woman who loved to play. A new exhibit at her Newport mansion Rough Point reveals the sporting side of the noted heiress and historic preservationist’s personality. Visitors can admire Doris Duke’s stylish sportswear alongside items of her personal sports equipment in Dressed to Play: The Sporty Style of Doris Duke.

The exhibit illustrates her athletic lifestyle, which included surfing in Hawaii and daily swims in Newport. Fun, playful fashions from the 1940s-1970s will make visitors nostalgic for the classic styles of their mothers and grandmothers era. A collection of her personal sports equipment, including a surfboard, tennis racquet, golf clubs, scuba gear, riding habit and bowling ball, is displayed along with never before seen images of Doris Duke in action. The exhibit opened on April 14, 2011.

Doris Duke lived an active life filled with sports well into her later years. She swam off the rocks of Rough Point, surfed at her home in Hawaii, and bowled and rode horses at Duke Farms in New Jersey. She studied dance with choreographers around the world and was a member of Martha Graham’s Dance Company in New York. She had tennis courts at each of her homes – a passion that began as a child playing tennis with her friend Alletta Morris on the courts at the Newport Casino. Daily swims were an important part of Doris Duke’s regimen of healthy living. For many years, she swam off the rocks behind Rough Point. Later, she had a salt-water swimming pool installed in the house’s basement.

Two of the exhibit’s highlights are equipment related to Doris Duke’s love of water sports. The first is a Velzy Surfboard, ca. 1960, made of foam polyurethane and fiberglass. Created by Dale Velzy, who is believed to have opened the first conventional surf shop in California in 1949, the surfboard was used by Doris Duke at Shangri La, her home in Hawaii. It is notable as one of the first boards Velzy created using the new foam polyurethane material; boards were previously made of balsa wood. The second item is a pair of wooden water skis, circa 1935, which measure nearly nine feet in length. The large size of the skis helped to maintain stability on rougher ocean water. Both pieces are on loan from the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art which runs Shangri La.

Soon after settling at Shangri La in 1938, Doris Duke became involved with surfing. She quickly became friends with the Kahanamoku family. Duke Kahanamoku, an Olympic diver and celebrated champion surfer, and his brother, Sam, taught her to surf. Her aptitude for the sport is evidenced by a gold and sapphire powder compact included in the exhibit, inscribed January 22, 1939, recognizing Mrs. James H. R. Cromwell (as Doris Duke was then known) and Mr. Sam A. Kahanamoku for winning first prize in a Waikiki tandem surfboard paddling contest. This piece is also on loan from the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art.

Doris Duke’s active lifestyle required a wardrobe that included comfortable, practical clothing to participate in a number of sporting activities. Sportswear, which began in the 1920s as specialized clothing for activities like tennis and hunting, became part of mainstream fashion during the 20th century. Social norms about public sports and activities for women expanded during this time, allowing sweaters, pants, skirts, blazers, and casual dresses to become regular items in a woman’s wardrobe. Exhibit curator Kristen Costa Francoeur explains, “These clothes may seem like everyday items to us now, but Doris Duke was on the cutting edge of fashion – she was wearing sportswear as it was being created and her busy lifestyle is shaping her wardrobe.”

Doris Duke’s wardrobe included a wide range of casual and active apparel made by American and European designers such as Jantzen, Valentino, and Giorgio Sant’Angelo. One of the clothing highlights of the exhibit is a 1958 sundress by Tina Leser, one of the earliest American sportswear designers. During the 1930s-1950s, the United States was producing some of the best sportswear in the world. This sportswear was designed by women and it was the first time female designers had their name in the limelight.

Rough Point, the mansion of Doris Duke ("the richest girl in the world") © 2011 Lisa Ganz/

Other notable pieces include a 1930s Forstmann wool ski suit, a 1936 custom made riding ensemble from Alfred Nelson Company, and four bathing suits that reflect her life and the changing styles of swimsuits from 1940-1975.

“Dressed to Play: The Sporty Style of Doris Duke” will be on exhibit in the galleries at Rough Point through early November 2011. Guided house tours, which last approximately 75 minutes and include the exhibit, cost $25. Tours are offered 9:45-3:45, Tuesday-Saturday. For those wishing to see only the exhibit, gallery hours are offered on Saturdays from 1:00-4:00 for $5. In addition, the galleries are open during a series of special evening events offered as part of Newport Gallery Night, held on the second Thursday of each month. Children 12 and younger are admitted for free. For more information or to buy tickets, or call (401) 847-8344.

Rough Point was bequeathed to the Newport Restoration Foundation by Doris Duke upon her death in 1993, complete with all of its contents. It was her express wish that it be opened to the public as a house museum. Founded by Miss Duke in 1968, the Newport Restoration Foundation, a non-profit institution, was formed with the express purpose of preserving, interpreting, and maintaining landscape and objects reflecting Aquidneck Island’s 18th and 19th century architectural

Thursday, 15 September, 2011

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