Newport, R.I.: Indulge in luxury living and the best of jazz

Newport's Cliff Walk takes strollers past the summer homes built for wealthy families in the late 19th century. Marble House, is one such mansion, seen here from the road.


By KORKY VAN | The Hartford Courant | Published: August 2, 2017

If you're looking for a vacation with sights and sounds you won't find elsewhere, Newport, R.I., is hard to beat.

Throughout the year, "the city by the sea" as it's called, draws fans of "Downton Abbey" and the Gilded Age, who come to tour spectacular turn-of-the-century mansions, feast on fresh seafood, ogle luxury sailboats in the picturesque harbor and shop the trendy stores on Bowen's Wharf and Thames Street.

Each August, jazz lovers join that mix, drawn by the internationally renowned Newport Jazz Festival, (www.newportjazz.org). This year, more than 20,000 visitors are expected for the three-day event, which runs Aug. 4 through 6, at the International Tennis Hall of Fame at the Newport Casino and in Fort Adams State Park.

The 2017 festival pays homage to the 100th birthdays of Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, Mongo Santamaria and Thelonious Monk.

"When you think of all of the jazz greats who would be celebrating their 100th birthday this year, you can't help but get into party mode," says Christian McBride, the festival's artistic director.

The lineup also includes Tony- and Grammy-award winner Leslie Odom Jr., who played Aaron Burr in the blockbuster Broadway play "Hamilton." In all, there will be more than 40 acts on the festival's three stages.

If jazz is not your jam, you'll want to visit Newport's famed "summer cottages," the palatial mansions that were the warm-weather getaways of turn-of-the-century American aristocracy, including the Vanderbilts and the Astors. A drive along Bellevue Avenue, where most are located, provides glimpses of the homes, but if you really want to experience lifestyles of the rich and famous, touring the mansions is where it's at.

"Summer is one of our busiest seasons," says Andrea Carneiro, spokeswoman for NewportMansions.org. "We do a full calendar of events at the houses, including movies, lectures, children's activities and special tours."

New this year is "Beneath the Breakers," a tour that explores the underground tunnels, boiler room and basement of The Breakers mansion.

"The tour showcases the domestic technology and the cutting edge innovations, including electricity, plumbing, heating, the elevator and laundry facilities of the time," says Carneiro.

Also new this summer, "Pierre Cardin: 70 years of Innovation," at the Rosecliff mansion. The exhibit, on display through Jan. 1, 2018, features 42 original designs from Cardin's private archives, and representing the designer's career from the 1950s through 2016.

You can buy a two-house ticket, which gives access to The Breakers and one other home of your choice, for $29, or a five-house ticket for The Breakers plus four others for $35.

For one of the best free activities in Newport, walk the iconic Cliff Walk. The public access trail offers stunning views of the coast line and closer looks at historic houses that line the cliffs. While about two-thirds of the trail is easy walking, some areas are more rugged, with 70-foot drops down to the sea. (Check www.cliffwalk.com for updates on trail conditions.)

When it's time for fortifications — and libations — look for off-the-beaten-path eateries. Tony Venetucci, a furniture and home accessories designer who relocated from Connecticut to Newport, says there are some hidden gems that won't break the bank.

"If you're in town for the weekend, go to the Cliff Walk early in the morning, then go to Cru Cafe (www.crucafenewport.com) for coffee and pastries," says Venetucci. "For lunch or dinner with a view, you can't beat The Port Seafood Bar & Grille (www.theportnewport.com) on Thames Street. And while upstairs at the Clarke Cooke House is fancy, the first floor is casual and has a great summer sushi bar (www.clarkecooke.com)."

For dinner with a side of history, try the White Horse Tavern (www.whitehorsenewport.com). The restaurant, which bills itself as "America's Oldest Tavern," was opened in 1673 by a pirate named William Mayes. If you like to eat dessert first, head to Kilwins (www.kilwins.com/newport). The place has dozens of ice cream flavors (kids will like the multiflavored, tie-dye colored "Superman;" adults should try the banana fudge pie) along with handmade chocolates and fudge.

The town's famed Castle Hill Inn (www.castlehillinn.com), located on a 40-acre estate with a private beach, is the ultimate Newport lodging. Other accommodations range from historic inns and bed-and-breakfasts to chain hotels. Head down the road a few miles to nearby Bristol, where you'll likely find more moderately priced accommodations.

Schedule your visit for September and you may be in town for the Newport Mansions Food & Wine Festival (www.newportmansions.org/events/wine-and-food-festival). The annual event, which takes place this year from Sept. 21 through 24 at The Elms, Rosecliff and Marble House mansions, includes gala champagne receptions, dinners, tastings, brunches, celebrity chef appearances, cooking demonstrations and seminars.

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