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Mike Yardley: A gilded escape to Newport, Rhode Island

Mike Yardley,
Publish Date
Sat, 18 Feb 2023, 12:52pm
Photo / Discover Newport
Photo / Discover Newport

Mike Yardley: A gilded escape to Newport, Rhode Island

Mike Yardley,
Publish Date
Sat, 18 Feb 2023, 12:52pm

From its origins as a shipbuilding port to its place today as America's yachting capital, Newport is bonded to the ocean. Even those sumptuous mansions from the late 19th century were purposely built to maximize the sweeping sea views. With a wealth of signature sights and experiences, Newport’s treasury of attractions anchors its bragging rights as a star-powered destination in New England.

As a raving fan of Julian Fellowes’ acclaimed period drama, The Gilded Age, I was particularly excited to head to Newport, Rhode Island, where so much of the TV show is shot on-location inside its extravagantly palatial mansions. Get your fill of mansion-snooping, by heading to Bellevue Ave, where dozens of these dizzying residences are strung along the leafy avenue like an architectural beauty contest. You could spend days touring these properties, but with limited time, I plumped for two Gilded Age mansions that feature prominently in the TV show.

First up, The Breakers, built by America’s pre-eminent architect for one of the richest families in the world. Cornelius Vanderbilt and his wife spared no expense in building what would become - just as they intended - the definitive showpiece of Newport Gilded Age mansions. Architect Richard Morris Hunt designed the 70-room Italian Renaissance-style "cottage" for the commanding cliff-top setting to which the Vanderbilts and their staff decamped from their New York mansion each summer. Classical Roman influences are seen in the exterior columns and arches. The breathtaking central Great Hall, with its 50-foot-high ceiling, was inspired by the open-air courtyards of Italy but exudes the grandeur of the Gilded Age. It’s instantly recognisable from the TV show.

The exquisite tile mosaics in the Billiard Room and double loggia were hand-set by European artisans. The Music Room was constructed by Allard & Sons in France then disassembled and shipped to the United States for reassembly inside the house. As you do. The Breakers décor includes the finest materials in the world, including Baccarat crystal for the chandeliers in the Dining Room and platinum leaf in the Morning Room.

The mansion is so overwhelming in its grandeur that it's easy to miss the fine details of its decoration, from the finely carved wood to the stucco flourishes, lavished on almost every available surface. The Breakers has entertained presidents, royalty and guests from across the world for more than 125 years and today is visited by hundreds of thousands of people each year. It is the flagship of the Newport Mansions and emblematic of the City-by-the-Sea.

I also headed to The Elms, which isn’t quite as ostentatious as The Breakers, but projects restrained opulence, with clean lines and a bright, airy feel. The stairway in the foyer is supported on marble columns and rimmed by a scrolled iron railing. Built to house the collections of a Philadelphia coal magnate and his wife, The Elms was modelled after an 18th-century French chateau but featured the latest technology of the Gilded Age. It houses an outstanding collection of paintings, statuary and tapestries, and its landscape features formal gardens, terraces, pavilions and fountains.

Also topping the mansion tick-list is Marble House, built by William Vanderbilt as a 39th birthday present for his wife Alva Vanderbilt. Designed by Richard Morris Hunt shortly before he did The Breakers, Marble House was built in 1892, a social and architectural landmark that set the pace for Newport's subsequent transformation from a quiet summer colony of wooden houses to the explosion of showy opulence. The ballroom was inspired by the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles and is almost completely encrusted in gold.

The TV production was actually shooting inside Marble House when I was in Newport before Christmas, with Season Two of The Gilded Age set to drop this year. Also closed for filming while I was in town, Chateau-sur-Mer. Epitomising High Victorian architecture, this was the most palatial residence in Newport until the appearance of the Gilded Age Vanderbilt houses in the 1890s. (Fun fact – the term Gilded Age was coined by Mark Twain.) Many of these historic trophy homes are now owned by the Preservation Society, who are sterling guardians of these high society treasures, opening them up to the world. www.newportmansions.org

Needless to say, Newport is home to its fair share of celebrities, who don’t swing open their doors for house visits, including Jay Leno, Judge Judy, Taylor Swift and Larry Ellison. He bought the mega-mansion, Seacliff, on Bellevue Ave, three years ago. Draped with Victorian-style street lamps, Bellevue Ave evokes an unmistakable sense of living history.

Some of the best views of the Newport mansions, including Seacliff, can be savoured for free along the stupendous Cliff Walk. This enchanting 5km-long trail has all the elements: panoramic ocean views, crashing waves, sea breeze and superb perspectives on those Gilded Age mansions, like The Breakers, Rosecliff (where Harry Houdini would be hired for entertainment) and Marble House. You’ll see the highly ornate Chinese teahouse that Alva Vanderbilt added to the grounds of Marble House. She would often host tea parties here, to raise funds for the campaign to give women the right to vote.

Newport's magnificent mansions don't end with Bellevue Avenue. At the end of this fabled street, marked by an abrupt turn and the whimsical turreted gatehouse of Rough Point, take to the road on Ocean Drive. Scenically, it’s a beautiful drive, with gorgeous sandy beaches like Bailey’s and Gooseberry Beach and dream homes by the truckload. Beyond Brenton Point, you can see Hammersmith Farm on the hillside, Jackie Kennedy's childhood summer home and scene of her wedding reception. Just past that, Fort Adams State Park and President Eisenhower's summer White House.

What better way to the self-described Sailing Capital of the World than by taking a sailing tour of Newport Harbor and Narragansett Bay? On a 75-minute narrated sailing tour, you'll see Newport's famous mansions, on the world's largest fleet of the America's Cup 12-metre yachts, available for scheduled cruises and private charters. The Sailing Museum does a great job chronicling the history of the America’s Cup. It’s also home to the America’s Cup Hall of Fame, established 30 years ago, to honour individuals for their outstanding achievements related to the America’s Cup. Over ninety legendary America’s Cup sailors have been inducted into the Hall, including plenty of Kiwis. The last New Zealander to be inducted into the Hall was PJ Montgomery, in 2021.

But Newport’s sporting heritage isn’t confined to just sailing. The town is also home to the International Tennis Hall of Fame Museum, in a historic building that was the site of the first US National Championships in 1881, forerunner to the US Open. For the original experience, the Tennis Hall of Fame's grass courts are open to the public for play. The lone Kiwi honoured in the Hall of Fame is Anthony Wilding.

Nestled just steps from the waterfront, Thames Street has been Newport's main commercial drag since the 18th century. Here you'll find a collection of local shops like Thames Glass and the fabulous Newport Fudgery, alongside a decent dining scene. The area also claims a high concentration of colonial homes and buildings from the 17th century. I loved exploring Trinity Church, in Queen Anne Square. Founded in 1698 as the first outpost of the Church of England in the Rhode Island colony, Trinity Church hosted George Washington for worship in 1781. Its gracefully tiered spire is a Newport landmark, and its interior is as fine as its exterior. You'll find box pews, a vaulted ceiling, and the gallery where slaves worshipped beside the organ loft. The 1733 organ was once played by none other than George Frideric Handel.

In such a history-soaked town, why not take your heritage-hopping one step further by enjoying dinner in a really old restaurant. The White Horse Tavern began serving guests in 1673, making it the oldest restaurant in the United States and the tenth oldest in the world. It serves a farm-to-table menu for dinner nightly, embracing the very best local artisan cheeses, honeys, prime cuts of beef and local fish right off the boat. www.visittheusa.com.au

Where to stay? Located by the Cliff Walk, the Carriage House Inn evokes the heady sense of history in Newport, in this great-value, supremely comfortable boutique hotel. Bag a great rate on Expedia. Create an account to become an Expedia member and save an average of 15% on thousands of hotels. Plus, earn points to help you save on your next trip. Earn air miles on top of Expedia points by entering your Frequent Flyer details at checkout, an easy way to double-dip and earn points even faster. Bundle your travel by booking your airfares, hotel and car at the same time to instantly unlock savings. Use the Expedia mobile app or visit expedia.co.nz

Fly to Boston from Auckland with Hawaiian Airlines, via Honolulu. Flights depart Auckland three times weekly on Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday and Hawaiian Airlines connects to 15 US mainland cities. Treat yourself to Extra Comfort, which is very reasonably priced. Hawaiian Airlines’ Extra Comfort seats on the Airbus A330 offer considerably more legroom, priority services and enhanced amenities to make your long-haul travel experience decidedly more comfortable. www.hawaiianairlines.com

Mike Yardley is our resident traveller on Jack Tame Saturday Mornings.

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