Things to Do in Rhode Island
The Breakers, the crown jewel of the Newport mansions and the summer estate of Cornelius Vanderbilt II, is an architectural and social archetype of the Gilded Age. The 70-room, four-story structure was built in 1895 and designed by architect Richard Morris Hunt, who modeled it after 16th-century Italian Renaissance palaces.
The breathtaking Rhode Island shoreline unfolds along Ocean Drive, a 10-mile (16-kilometer) scenic road along Newport’s southern coast. Points of interest include the New York Yacht Club, Fort Adams State Park, Hammersmith Farm (where President Kennedy had his wedding reception in 1953), Brenton Point State Park, and Gooseberry Beach.
The 50-room Marble House, one of the first Beaux-Arts structures in the US, was built between 1888 and 1892 as the Gilded Age summer cottage for William and Alva Vanderbilt. Inspired by the Petit Trianon in Versailles, the $11 million mansion made mostly of marble became a National Historic Landmark in 2006.
Leafy Bellevue Avenue and its surrounding streets are home to some of the most exclusive properties in New England. The affluent area is mostly residential, and encompasses many of the Gilded Age summer “cottages” built by such iconic names as Vanderbilt and Astor. These include the Isaac Bell House, The Elms, Marble House, and Kingscote.
Built as a summer residence, The Elms is one of almost a dozen properties cared for by Rhode Island's Preservation Society of Newport County. It was designed and constructed in 1901. Modeled after the mid-18th century French chateau d'Asnieres (c.1750) outside Paris, it cost the Berwind family approximately $1.4 million to build. (Calling both Philadelphia and New York home, Edward Berwind made his fortune in the coal industry.) After the house was finished, elaborate gardens were planted in the early 1900s.
The house remained in the Berwind family until 1961. The Preservation Society of Newport County purchased The Elms in 1962 and opened it to the public. In 1996, it was designated a National Historic Landmark.
Set among the many mansions on Newport’s Bellevue Avenue, Rosecliff was often the setting of lavish parties, including an evening featuring famous magician Harry Houdini. But the property wasn’t always quite so grand. The story begins in the late 1880s when Nevada silver heiress Theresa Fair Oelrichs spent a summer in Newport and met her husband Hermann Oelrichs at Rosecliff. A year after they were married, the couple bought the mansion and additional property along Bellevue Avenue.
In 1899, the couple hired an architect and commissioned a home modeled after the Grand Trianon, the garden retreat of French kings at Versailles. It took three years to complete at a cost of $2.5 million. Rosecliff’s last private owners, Mr. and Mrs. J. Edgar Monroe of New Orleans, later donated the furnished home to The Preservation Society of Newport County in 1971.
If you find the estate looks amazingly familiar on your first visit, don’t be alarmed. Scenes from many movies, including The Great Gatsby, True Lies, Amistad and 27 Dresses, were shot here.
Rhode Island’s Newport Cliff Walk traces the perimeter of the southern edge of Newport town, high above the crashing surf of the Atlantic Ocean. The 3.5-mile (5.6-kilometer) public walkway fronts many of Newport’s famous Gilded Age mansions, such as Astor’s Beechwood, Rosecliff, Marble House, the Breakers, Ochre Coure, and Rough Point.
The birthplace of American tournament tennis, the International Tennis Hall of Fame showcases an eclectic collection of memorabilia, including videos highlights of famous matches, gleaming trophies, vintage tennis equipment, and modern and vintage tennis clothing. The Hall of Fame also stages many traveling exhibitions, all designed to chronicle the history of tennis.
The site is also home to the Newport Casino, which opened in 1880. The historic building – with its lavish Shingle-style edifice featuring verandas, turrets, and an interior piazza with a permanent grass court – was designed by McKim, Mead & White. The facility has 13 grass tennis courts and one clay court, all open to the public for play. In July, the Hall of Fame Tennis Championships are held here, followed by an induction ceremony for new hall of famers.
One of the many impressive Newport Mansions, Chateau-sur-Mer calls famous Bellevue Avenue home. Completed in 1852, it had a reputation for its parties, including the "Fete Champetre," an elaborate picnic for more than two thousand guests in 1857, and the 1889 debutante ball for Miss Edith Wetmore.
Chateau-sur-Mer was built for China trade merchant William Shepard Wetmore. When Wetmore died ten years later he left the Italianate-style villa and much of his fortune to his son, George Peabody Wetmore.
The son, who went on to a distinguished political career as Governor of Rhode Island and as a United States Senator, married in 1869. He and his wife, Edith, spent a stretch of the 1870s on extended trip to Europe. During their travels, architect Richard Morris Hunt remodeled and redecorated the estate in the Second Empire French style. It was then purchased by the Preservation Society of Newport County in 1969 and designated a National Historic Landmark in 2006.
Located on Newport’s exclusive Bellevue Avenue, Rough Point is the oceanfront summer estate of philanthropist and 20th century heiress Doris Duke. The only child of James Buchanan Duke, (a founder of the American Tobacco Company, the Duke Power Company, and a benefactor of Duke University) she inherited an estate estimated at $80 million when she was just 12 years old.
Doris Duke founded the Newport Restoration Foundation and spent much of her fortune restoring colonial buildings in the area. She also traveled the world, collecting art and furniture, some of which was used to furnish Rough Point. Duke left the estate to the Newport Restoration Foundation to be opened as a museum. Rough Point is still decorated as it was when she called it home. Duke also donated more than $400 million to assorted charities during her lifetime.
Group tours are offered April through November. They last approximately 75 minutes and cover the first floor, Doris Duke’s bedroom and special exhibition galleries. Along with touring the mansion’s interiors, be sure to spend time exploring the Rough Point Gardens. The Formal Gardens feature more than 35 different varieties of dahlias. Vegetables grown in The Kitchen Garden are shared with local food banks, staff and used in educational programs.
More Things to Do in Rhode Island
Set against the picturesque backdrop of Newport Harbor and Narragansett Bay, Fort Adams State Park is a popular recreation area for swimming, sailing, fishing, and field games. The park also has a historic character thanks to sprawling Fort Adams, and is the home of major music festivals each summer.
This fascinating museum specializes in the display of illustration artworks, as designed for books and other print media. Over 150 artists have featured works on its walls, including Norman Rockwell, NC Wyeth, Maxfield Parrish, and Howard Pyle. In fact, it’s the largest collection of illustrated masterpieces in the world.
The museum is housed in a former mansion, a stately American Renaissance building with architecture that is worth a visit alone. Vernon Court was designed in the style of a French chateau, and has a ballroom, marble hall, and other elegant rooms now filled with art. The illustrations offer lots of insight into American society at the time they were created, and often reflect social change, attitudes, and behaviors.
The art that remains from this era captures a moment in time before electronics, when books and magazines were the main form of entertainment. The mansion even displays period furnishings and decorative arts to create an immersive experience that provides context and reflects the time of the art. Self-guided and guided tours are available.
Newport’s only ocean beach, Easton’s Beach, also called First Beach, is a spacious nearly-1-mile stretch of sand and surf. The city’s longest beach, it draws visitors and locals for swimming, sunning, and strolling the boardwalk. In summer, a 1950s carousel and weekly concerts are popular draws.
On the beach, you can rent beach chairs, cabanas, surfboards, boogie boards, and umbrellas. There’s also a children’s playground for when the kids need a break from the water, and a beach store with souvenirs, beach ware, and accessories. And if hunger pangs set in, head to the Snack Bar for the famous twin lobster rolls. For a break from the sun, the Save The Bay Exploration Center and Aquarium holds some 14 exhibits and more than 140 species of Narragansett Bay sea life.
Named for colonial Governor William Brenton, Brenton Point State Park is located where Narragansett Bay meets the Atlantic. Midway along Ocean Drive, it’s the stretch of land furthest south on Aquidneck Island. Be sure to bring a camera to capture the views.
The land became a park in 1976. Complete with tables, it has all the makings for a perfect picnic spot. For visitors hoping to stretch their legs a bit, there’s hiking and walking trails. Strong ocean breezes make for great kite flying conditions. Wandering through the gardens and fishing are also popular activities. There aren’t any playgrounds, but plenty of open space to run makes it a nice spot to visit with kids.
Considered one of the best examples of shingle style architecture in the United States, the Isaac Bell House is one of the almost dozen Newport mansions maintained by the Preservation Society of Newport County.
The house was built in 1883 for investor and cotton broker Isaac Bell. It had a number of owners over the years, until it was purchased by the Preservation Society in 1996. Today, the house can be toured as a work in progress. The exterior has been renovated, but interior work continues.
A Jewish synagogue located on Touro Street, just north of Bellevue Avenue, Touro Synagogue is the oldest existing synagogue in the United States. In 1658, more than a dozen Jewish families, mostly refugees from Spain and Portugal, founded a Sephardic community. A century later, British-Colonial architect and local resident Peter Harrison designed a two-story Palladian house of worship for this community.
Completed in 1763, and still serving Newport’s Jewish congregation today, its elegant 12-columned interior remains virtually unchanged. A mural on the east wall depicts the Ten Commandments in Jewish; below it is an ark containing the Torah. Legend has it that a small trapdoor in the platform upon which the Torah is read symbolizes the days of persecution when Jews had to worship in secret; it also was supposedly a stop on the Underground Railroad.
The John L. Loeb Visitors center has two floors of multimedia exhibits that explore the history of Newport’s Jewish community.
Located west of Bellevue Avenue, Ballard Park is Newport’s only nature reserve. In sync with its affluent residential surroundings, the 13-acre park is an elegant oasis, ringed with a dense forest with plenty of green spots for sun and shade. It’s also the site of many events (e.g. Yoga in the park), picnics, and other festive gatherings.
Inside the park, visitors will discover a diverse natural refuge, with walking paths, two 19th-century quarries, and a variety of flora and fauna---birds, turtles, and deer frolic in its tall grasses and trees. The park is also home to streams, a vernal pond, rocky ledges, and wooded ravines. Parts of the park even offer views of the Atlantic Ocean.
New England’s largest estuary, more than 12 million people visit Narragansett Bay every year. Covering just short of 150 miles, small parts of the bay extend into Massachusetts.
Life in these parts seems to center around Narragansett Bay. Protected inlets and harbors create great conditions for sailing, fishing, kayaking and just about any activity that requires possibly getting wet. You don’t need to own a boat to get on the water. All sorts of recreational equipment ranging from canoes, to kayaks, boats and jet skis are available to rent.
Narragansett Bay is home to marine mammals and more than 60 species of fish and shellfish, as well as more than 200 bird species.
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