You will have plenty to see and do in Newport, RI this summer.
Fresh Breeze for Newport
By DEBORAH MARCHINI| Friday, May 18, 2012| Barron’s Online
The America’s Cup World Series, promising lots of thrills, chills, and spills in fast, small boats, is coming this summer to the Rhode Island resort famous for sailing — and huge showplace “cottages” put up by the Gilded Age elite.
Where salty breezes blow, money often follows. Europeans have the French Riviera. Asians have Bali. The American equivalent may well be Newport.
As far back as the 1800s, this Rhode Island coastal town was a favored summer resort for prosperous Southerners trying to flee the heat. Later came still-wealthier members of New York society; the cream of Mrs. Astor’s 400 whiled away July in the era before air conditioning. One could call it the Hamptons of the Gilded Age, except that the wealth on display in Newport makes today’s Hamptons look downright democratic.
New England’s Riviera has more than warm breezes going for it. The bluffs make a magnificent showcase for impressive houses. The Atlantic delivers up fresh seafood daily. And thanks to an accident of geography, the region is full of sheltered harbors that lead to wide open bays, eventually flowing all the way to the Atlantic. Which is why, if you enter the phrase “sailing capital of the world” into a search engine, Newport is the first thing to pop up.
Well, Newport and its sailors are about to get a lot of attention. The region will soon be the site of a series of special races designed to make competitive sailing, once the exclusive province of the fabulously wealthy, into a spectator sport for the masses. As Keith Stokes of the Rhode Island Economic Development Corp. describes it, “It looks as much like Nascar as sailing. A lot of spills, a lot of thrills, a lot of excitement.”
A few Newport dowagers must be nervously knotting their pearls. Not Nascar, but the Formula One of sailing, the America’s Cup, is what one normally associates with Newport. The America’s Cup famously pits the best designers and seafarers the world over against each other, and is run every three to four years in the home port of the ship that last won the trophy. For much of the 1930s through to 1983, the cup resided in Newport, until Australia took the title. In 2010, Larry Ellison and his BMW Oracle Racing Team won it back for the U.S.; Oracle will defend the cup in September 2013 at the Golden Gate Yacht Club in San Francisco Bay.
To generate new interest in the sport, the America’s Cup Event Authority has cooked up a World Series of sailing, using smaller versions of double-hulled racing boats called catamarans, in 16 regattas world-wide. And the last of these, running June 26 through July 1, will take place between Newport and its sister island, Conanicut, better known for the village of Jamestown. Unlike other regattas, this one features shorter races — lasting 20 to 40 minutes — that are visible from dry land, namely the bleachers and skyboxes at Fort Adams, where a major spectator setup is under construction (AmericasCup.com). The facility will make heavy use of technology — including video feeds from helicopters and boats, and graphics showing who’s ahead and by how much. Paul Harden, executive director of America’s Cup Rhode Island, compares the result with “going to a football game, and watching a lot of the plays on the JumboTron.”
If Newport had a spectator sport before sailing, it was social climbing, with the winners — and losers — chronicled in the society pages of the New York Times and elsewhere, followed as avidly as today’s celebrities. The monuments to this sport take the form of “cottages” built by the supremely wealthy for the sole purpose of entertaining one another during the six-week summer season, and showing off in the bargain.
Precisely what was a “cottage”? The grandest, with 70 rooms, is the Breakers, summer home of Cornelius Vanderbilt II. Cornelius wasn’t taking any chances. Because the original Breakers burned to the ground in 1892, no wood was used in the structural elements of its replacement — just stone, brick, and steel. Rooms were constructed in Paris, from paneling to pilasters, and shipped to Newport. Silverware had to be stored in a vault 10 feet deep. Bathroom taps ran both rain and salt water, warm or cold. The inspiration for the Breakers was to outshine the cottage built by brother William and his wife Alva out of 500,000 cubic feet of marble, creatively christened Marble House.
Trudy Coxe, chief executive of the Preservation Society of Newport County, is dedicated to keeping all the cottages in good repair and open to the public. A typical summer entertainment budget, she says, was $300,000 in today’s dollars, and the season required genteel women to bring from Paris perhaps a dozen custom dresses, including designs by Charles Frederick Worth, the Karl Lagerfeld of his day. “It was competitive,” says Coxe, “not only what Newport ‘outsiders’ you had at your parties, but the theme of the parties — Harry Houdini, Mother Goose — and the party favors: maybe silver buckets of sand with gems hidden inside.” She adds, “Can you imagine the gossip?”
Fortunately, you don’t have to. Self-guided audio tours will tell you, in the residents’ own words, the secrets used by Alva Vanderbilt to prep her daughter Consuelo for marriage to royalty. Modern royalty may arrange a private tour, as Tyra Banks and some Harvard classmates recently did. For the truly flush, some of the cottages can be rented for private functions (NewportMansions.org).
Of course, all things must come to an end. The advent of the income tax in 1913 made the cottages of Newport expensive to keep up, even for a Vanderbilt, and when the market crashed in 1929, the glory faded. Still, wealth continued to migrate to Newport, even if in more modest waves, and even in our Nascar Age.
Rough Point, for example, was the oceanfront home of tobacco heiress Doris Duke, and is now a museum in its own right. Before her death in 1993, Duke filled it with antique furniture, art, and Ming porcelain that would be impossible to acquire today. The Newport Restoration Foundation (NewportRestoration.org) oversees Rough Point and some 80 other historic buildings Duke was active in preserving, and it arranges tours. The museum’s exhibits mirror Duke’s interests; currently the focus is on her love of international travel. Although, as director of collections Bruce MacLeish notes, while the art may be authentic, “Not all the Louis Vuitton luggage is the real thing. Some are knockoffs, probably bought by the butler.”
Duke kept a low profile compared with Newport’s earlier residents. Today, many do the same. You’d have to follow a paper trail as long as Bellevue Ave. to confirm what everyone seems to know; Oracle co-founder and CEO Ellison owns Beechwood, former home of the formidable Mrs. Astor. It’s locally reported he is planning to convert the first level into a museum for his art collection, the upper floors into a residence.
Those who want even more privacy decamp to Jamestown, on the mile-wide island between Newport and the mainland. Musician James Taylor rented last year on the eastern shore, facing Newport. Homes in exclusive areas like Shoreby Hill or the Dumplings go for $7,000 to $10,000 and more for the week of the America’s Cup World Series, and provide views of the races. There is little in the way of lodging in Jamestown, which helps it retain its exclusive and reclusive aura. Dan Shapiro of Island Realty (islandrealtyri.com) seems to speak for the locals when he says, “People drive over the bridge to Newport, and they just totally miss this, and it’s so wonderful that they do.”
Of course, probably the best way to visit Jamestown or Newport is to bring your own boat. Picturesque, quiet marinas abound. And then there’s Newport Harbor’s newest boutique hotel for boat owners, Forty 1° North (41north.com). Rooms priced from $550 to $1,500 per night in the summer are decorated in a style perhaps best described as “militant green.” Paper is frowned on; newspapers and room-service menus are all summoned up on the room’s iPad and iPod.
If you’re more salty dog than eco-friendly hipster, go directly to the marina and adjoining bar. The docks have handled yachts up to 250 feet. Folks there will swab the decks while you see the sights, then serve you dinner onboard from the Grill — where the crisp truffled fries are de rigueur.
Left your boat in Bermuda? Seascope Yacht Charters (seascopenewport.com) is among several outfits that will take you sailing — on a fully restored, America’s Cup yacht from days of old. For those who want to stay in a Newport “cottage,” the Chanler at Cliff Walk offers rooms done up like period-piece stage sets; the “beach butler” will drive you to the waterfront and set you up with chairs and lunch. In season, such luxury will run you $649 to $1,599 a night. The complimentary transportation to town saves tussling over parking.
Downtown is worth a trip. Rhode Island has become a dining destination, where local fish and seafood often wind up on local plates the same day. That was a big draw for Chef Jake Rojas, a California transplant who opened Newport’s Tallulah on Thames. The menu changes depending on sources and seasons; on a recent visit, local butternut squash was the basis for a delicate velouté, a classic French sauce, and the fluke flopped in from Block Island Sound. The purveyor of every entrée was listed on the menu.
One island over, Jamestown Fish has folks hooked. Chef Matt MacCartney survived three stints working for Top Chef’s top judge, Tom Colicchio, including at Craft and Gramercy Tavern, and came to Jamestown partly to be closer to his food source. “We have commercial fishermen on the island we’ve become friendly with,” he says. The linguine with clam sauce is this writer’s all-time favorite anywhere, while a seafood stew similarly draws raves.
Other ways to play high society include a game of tennis on grass courts at the International Tennis Hall of Fame (tennisfame.com); the Newport International Polo Series (nptpolo.com); Tall Ships to be seen in early July; and, finally, for the musically inclined, the classical Newport Music Festival (newportmusic.org) or a swing through the Newport Jazz Festival (newportjazzfest.net).
Or one could simply attend “A Weekend of Coaching,” Aug. 16-19, sponsored by the Preservation Society. Unknown to most, Coaching was a 19th-century sport, that largely involved dressing up and joining your friends in a horse-and-buggy convoy. The point of which, so fittingly for Newport, was to see and be seen.