Bedazzled dresses, stylish butlers and unimaginable wealth were hallmarks of Newport, Rhode Island, in the late 19th century.
At several historic mansions in Newport, groups can glimpse extravagant lifestyles of America’s historic elite. These over-the-top mansions sit atop rocky cliffs overlooking crashing Atlantic waves. To see these homes and capture beautiful photos, visitors often explore breathtaking Ocean Drive or book a harbor tour, which also provides background information on the town’s days as a commercial whaling port.
“The City by the Sea” also boasts a sought-after culinary scene. Groups can sample the highlights of local food and drink on culinary walking tours through the heart of the city.
This legacy of wealth and iconic scenery makes Newport a favorite island destination for groups traveling in New England.
Gilded Age Mansions
When visiting castles in Europe, travelers often journey for hours from one to the next. In Newport, visitors can see the same number of impressive buildings in a matter of minutes.
During the Gilded Age, wealthy residents of Newport wanted to flaunt their wealth, so they built opulent building on top of opulent building.
“If a group is going to include one or two mansion tours, the great thing is they can drive by five more,” said Evan Smith, president and CEO of Discover Newport. “When people come here, the mansions are really bigger than life. When they get out of the bus, it is a wow moment. Sometimes things in brochures don’t meet your expectations. These American castles exceed expectations.”
The town offers several mansions to tour. Each features extraordinary architecture, furnishings and art. A tour can feel like an episode of “Downton Abbey,” with stories about the wealthy owners, butlers and maids. Shirley McClain’s recurring character on the British show represented the upper-class Newport residents.
Each mansion offers headset audio tours, so group members can walk through at their own pace. Optional guides in period dress tell visitors about how the town became a summer playground for America’s wealthiest families.
Among the most popular Newport summer mansions are Marble House, Rosecliff and The Elms. The Vanderbilt family constructed one of the grandest Newport homes, The Breakers, as a symbol of its social and financial standing.
Culinary Walking Tours
Colonial architecture mixes well with upscale cuisine. Two companies, Rhode Island Red Food Tours and Newport Foodies Stroll, offer culinary tours of Newport. Both companies make stops at five or more restaurants to sample the trendy culinary dishes.
“These walking tours take you deeper into the neighborhoods where the locals eat,” said Smith. “The tour guides have picked each spot because it has really good food and it is a unique place that people are going to remember. These tours show you the secret spots that travelers might not find on their own.”
Each tour chooses a mix of restaurant types, including a historic tavern, a French-inspired brasserie, a rustic pub, a hip hamburger joint and a mom-and-pop bakery. Guides share interesting tidbits about Newport history and culture along the way.
Newport Cocktail Tours offers a walking tour that maps out seven of the best craft cocktails in town. Each location boasts historic interest, with some connected to Newport’s past as a major rum producer 150 years ago.
The contrast between highly stylized mansions and rugged coastline makes for a stunning picture. Ocean Drive, a route on the southern end of the island, showcases some of Newport’s best rocky cliffs and palatial homes in the town’s high-rent district.
“Groups love this drive because the vistas are stunning,” said Smith. “There is one view after another of mansions and ocean waves crashing into the rocks. It’s a great place to dream.”
During the drive, step-on guides relate the history of each home they pass. They also point out celebrity-owned homes, including Judge Judy’s house. The route’s homes span three centuries of remarkable real estate. Homes built in the 1800s sit next to homes built last year and practically every decade in between.
Also known as Ten Mile Drive, the scenic route leads to stops along the Atlantic Ocean for photo ops, hikes, beach access and other activities. Brenton Point State Park features unparalleled ocean views where guests can relax while watching waves crashing onto the shore. Nearby, Fort Adams State Park offers historical tours of its preserved coastal fortification, which was active from 1841 to the first half of the 20th century.
To understand Newport and its connection to the sea, many locals recommend voyaging out on the water.
“In the must-see category for anyone I’m talking to, whether it’s an individual or a group, I tell them they have to get on the water,” said Smith. “The scenery is spectacular, especially if you are from an inland state. You are seeing the skyline of one of America’s most historic cities. People say their favorite part of their stay at Newport was the harbor cruise.”
This New England seaport town was once among the five largest ports in North America. The city’s seafaring legacy lives on in a strong fishing industry.
Newport offers eight vessels appropriate for group tours. Sailboats, schooners, powerboats and other vessels take groups out regularly for informative and scenic tours.
Excursions on Save the Bay’s 46-foot, 40-passenger Chesapeake Deadrise goes beyond the typical tour. Passengers can help crew haul up lobster traps for a hands-on way to discover sea life in Newport. The ship’s captain explains the history of Newport Harbor and Narragansett Bay’s underwater ecosystem teeming with shellfish and other creatures.
Groups can dine at a waterfront restaurant for views of the harbor and local delicacies. The Pier on Howard’s Wharf gives demonstrations on the proper way to crack and eat a fresh lobster.
For more information contact Discover Newport at 800-326-6030 or go to www.discovernewport.org.