It's a crisp September morning and sunlight gleams on the long banquet table in the dining room of Ivy Lodge. Tantalizing smells drift in from the kitchen and soon guests are greeted by innkeepers Daryl and Darlene McKenzie, who describe our choice of hot breakfast entrees: ginger pancakes with lemon sauce, or an egg quesadilla with peppers and tomatoes. Blessed with a hearty and (usually) adventurous appetite, I choose the quesadilla and find it a rich and savory way to start a busy day. Then my hostess treats me to a small side serving of the pancakes, so light and airy they float in my mouth. All this comes after a bowl of homemade granola with fresh fruit and real cream, and other culinary delights.
Have I died and gone to heaven? No, but I've landed in lovely Newport, Rhode Island, also known as the City-by-the-Sea. The salt air is whetting my appetite, not only for food but for ocean vistas, harbor views, and the sight of fabulous homes -- or rather "summer cottages," so called because their staggeringly rich owners, among them the Vanderbilts and the Astors, set up lodging here at the turn of the twentieth century, for a mere month or so each year.
In 1980 my husband and I took a driving tour of New England and visited Newport for a day. Ever since, its charms continued to beckon, and here we are again within a short drive (or a not-too-long walk, if you prefer) to all those attractions we enjoyed. Better yet, we're settled in an elegant Victorian-era B&B complete with turrets and gables and a spacious foyer crafted of old oak that soars to vaulted heights. It's operated by the affable McKenzies, who left careers as mortgage bankers in Ohio to try their hand at tending this New England inn. Ivy Lodge (which sports not a tendril of ivy, though we understand it once had a vine-covered piazza) features eight guest rooms furnished with every modern amenity, a parlor where you can sit and chat with other travelers, and several cozy porches just begging us to curl up with a good book on a comfy wicker sofa.
But who has time for that? We're off to Bellevue Avenue, home of the "summer cottages."
First, however, a brief history. You may remember that what is now called Rhode Island was founded by a band of English settlers led by a woman named Ann Hutchison, who fled Boston and the shackles of Puritanism to exercise religious freedom. Within a year, a group broke off from Hutchison's party to form Newport in 1639. Over the next century, the town became famous for its religious diversity (it's home to the oldest synagogue in the nation) and its prominent seaport. But after its occupation by the British from 1776 to 1779, Newport and its mercantile economy suffered long after the Revolutionary War. By the end of the nineteenth century, though, it had acquired a new raison d'etre: to serve as a summer resort for the leisured class during "The Gilded Age."
Which brings us to Bellevue Avenue, and The Breakers, the summer retreat built by architect Richard Hunt for Cornelius Vanderbilt II and his family. A veritable monument to architectural excellence and erected in just over two years, this limestone "cottage" boasts 70 rooms (33 for servants) and was laid stone by stone by hundreds of European craftsmen who then shipped their masterpieces to Newport for reassembly. As I stand in the 2,400-square-foot Great Hall (which in itself is larger than my entire humble abode), my eyes linger on the ceiling -- 50 feet high, trimmed in 22-carat gold, adorned with cherubs and angels that frolic in a windswept sky -- rest briefly on the emblems of acorns and oak leaves (the Vanderbilt crest, representing strength and longevity), then move down to the maroon-carpeted staircase, which young Gertrude Vanderbilt descended during her coming-out party in 1895, and finally to the huge east window that overlooks the ocean and a distant ridge of rocks.
Each room at The Breakers holds marvels: the two-story dining room's rose-alabaster columns and its massive table that can seat 34; Mrs. Vanderbilt's bedroom with several invisible doors; the double loggia, or gallery, with a ceiling hand-painted to resemble a canopy. Some of us (including myself) may sniff at such opulence. But for anyone who appreciates the awe-inspiring craftsmanship and eye for meticulous detail achieved by workers -- all without the aid of modern technology -- seeing The Breakers is a must.
Another Bellevue mansion we visit is Rough Point, which opened to the public in July 2000. Built for the grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt, this 39,000-square-foot home was acquired in 1922 by tobacco magnate James Buchanan "Buck" Duke, whose endowment founded Duke University. His daughter and only child, Doris Duke, inherited the house, along with her father's vast fortune, at the tender age of 12. Dubbed by the press as the Million-Dollar Baby, Duke grew up to weather various scandals, including one that involved the death of her interior decorator; entertain the likes of Elizabeth Taylor and Imelda Marcos; indulge in affairs with General George Patton, actor Errol Flynn, and surfing champion Duke Kahanmoku; and own numerous estates, including Falcon Lair in Beverly Hills, once home to Rudolph Valentino.
Duke also indulged her passion for Newport's beautiful old houses, and in 1968 she started the Newport Restoration Foundation. On our tour, we enjoy hearing details of her life, loves, and the mansion she inherited, as told by our docent, Spencer Berger. It so happens he lived in Memphis during the late 1970s, while working with a firm hired to redesign Holiday Inn's headquarters on Lamar.
Today, Berger regales us with Duke's eccentricities: how she insisted on having Rough Point's numerous fireplaces always ready to light; and if that lighting took more than one match, "the help would be called to task." He tells of Duke's fondness for animals and for a good bargain, and how they once coincided to her advantage. During her negotiations with a Middle Easterner for a Boeing 747, "things weren't going well," says Berger. "The Saudi knew she liked animals, so he said, 'I'll throw in two camels." Those animals, later named Princess and Baby, came to live at Rough Point and were incorporated into Duke's menagerie that included numerous large dogs and a pet leopard. When a hurricane threatened Newport, Duke ordered the staff to clear the mansion of its furnishings, give shelter in the solarium to Princess and Baby, and provide them with water, hay, and their favorite snack, graham crackers. After the storm, relates Berger, the staff realized they'd forgotten to remove two Queen Anne mirrors. Apparently Baby and Princess, upon seeing their reflection, butted one of the mirrors, damaging its fine trim. "So you see there," says Berger, "the one on the right with a crack -- that's camel damage."
Throughout Rough Point we see evidence of Duke's incredible wealth, taste, and whims: French chairs; Chinese porcelains; pieces by Tiffany, Baccarat, Limoges; her purple-accented bedroom with its mother-of pearl furniture; and a cabinet holding several trophies, including a first-place award for a tango contest.
Out on Rough Point's sprawling grounds, we inhale the ocean air and head for the Cliff Walk, a 3.5-mile paved pedestrian path named one of 50 "Places of a Lifetime" by National Geographic Traveler . On one side lie the expansive lawns of the Newport mansions, on the other, the vast Atlantic. The Cliff Walk is busy today, with people jogging, strolling, or simply standing to savor the views. Some, like me, take a moment to smell wild climbing roses and various late-summer wildflowers that border the walk.
Next we're back in the car and motoring down Ocean Drive, which curves 10 miles around the coast and affords sweeping vistas. We see many new condos and mansions and get a glimpse of Hammersmith Farm, now privately owned, where the wedding reception of JFK and Jackie was held. (The church where they wed, St. Mary's Catholic, is in downtown Newport.) We also see the Newport Country Club golf course, which in 1895 hosted the first American Open Golf Association tournament. In fact, Newport claims several "firsts" in the sporting world -- including, in 1891, the first U.S. National Lawn Tennis Championship, which evolved into the U.S. Open; it was held at what is now the International Tennis Hall of Fame & Museum.
Later, at downtown's Bowens Wharf, we climb aboard the schooner Adirondack for an afternoon sail. Our skipper tells of Newport's history as a yachting community -- it has more yacht clubs than any other city in the nation -- and its fame in the sailing regatta known as America's Cup. The trophy stayed in the hands of the New York Yacht Club, which is based in Newport, from 1852 to 1983, when the Cup was won by the Australians, ending the longest winning streak in the history of any sport. He also points to Fort Adams, a coastal fortification named after President John Adams, where each August thousands of music lovers turn out in force for the world-famous Jazz Festival.
With nights as full as our days, we enjoy one evening at a "Speakeasy," held at Beechwood Mansion, once owned by William Astor and his wife Caroline, the unparalleled queen of American society. Young men in tuxedoes and women in flapper dresses sing and dance to music of the Cole Porter era -- songs written more than 60 years before these talented kids were born.
Another night we're led on a Ghost Tour of Newport by a lively guide named Amy Smith. Clad in a long black skirt and jacket, a cloud of black curls framing her face, she navigates the dark streets telling of hanged pirates who "haunt" a downtown square, a vanished boy whose drumbeat is still heard in an alley, a theater where employees see a misty figure, a woman who convinced a judge of how she really died.
And of course we stroll on the cobblestoned waterfront, where shops and galleries line the wharves, and linger over marvelous meals in eateries around town, including a lunch of crabcakes in lobster sauce at the historic White Horse Tavern. Built in 1673, this red-painted clapboard structure was a restaurant when Rhode Island was a colony; indeed, the story goes, members of the general assembly held meetings there -- and charged their meals to the public treasury.
On our final morning at Ivy Lodge, we enjoy one last memorable breakfast and bid farewell to those who have shared our table, including a Pennsylvania couple, and several from other New England states. We've traveled the farthest to revel in Newport's beauty. We won't wait another 26 years before we come again.
for more information, visit gonewport.com
IF YOU GO
Not everyone visits Newport to tour its lavish mansions. Some stay at a lighthouse and become its keeper for a week.
Built in 1869 a mile off Newport's coastline, the Rose Island Lighthouse operated until 1970, spent the next two decades as the target of vandals, and was finally restored in the early 1990s by a group of concerned lighthouse lovers. "I didn't want to see it turn into condo land," says Charlotte Johnson, head of the foundation that saved it from that fate.
Since 1993, hundreds of keepers have managed the wind-powered electric system that runs the beacon, performed seasonal chores such as gardening or painting, and greeted guests to the lighthouse's first-floor museum. For this opportunity, they're willing to pay from $165 to $195 a day, depending on the season. The money supports the Rose Island Lighthouse Foundation.
"It's truly turn-of-the-century-style living here," says Johnson -- and she's not kidding. Washbowls, pitchers, and gathered rainwater are used for bathing. An indoor toilet off the kitchen is pumped by hand. Outside are low-flow toilets -- with explicit rules for when you can flush -- and solar-run showers that water the gardens. Keepers cook on a single propane gas burner or an outdoor gas grill. Guests are advised to "reduce, re-use, and recycle."
Rose Island Lighthouse seldom lacks for keepers or overnight lodgers, who are brought to the island by Johnson in a lobster boat, often accompanied by the resident dog, Wiggins. And books filled with notes from guests attest to the island's appeal, with its breathtaking views of Narragansett Bay. Because electricity is limited, few electronic devices can be used -- but even kids write long descriptions of the "cool" times they had.
In mid-September, Jim DeMoss served as a "keeper" with his wife Kathy, a lighthouse buff. He expected to miss modern conveniences, but doing without them offered new opportunities. "[I could] read, take daily walks on pristine beaches, and plan meals based on what was available on the island," says DeMoss. "And the evenings were the best -- watching the sunsets, and settling down next to a warm fire in the wood-burning stove with my favorite novel. It does not get any better," he declares. DeMoss hopes to return with friends or family: "I'd love to show it off!"
for more information, go to www.roseisland.org
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