October 20, 2007

Newport, Rhode Island

I had remembered from an afternoon’s visit years ago the charm and beauty of the town of Newport. Set on a small island that originally was “Rhode Island” and coupled to the mainland by the Jamestown Bridge, this seldom talked about jewel of the East Coast has much to offer. We were on our way to western Connecticut, when Kim suggested we double back and spend “a day” there to see the magnificent mansions of America’s richest families Bellevue and Ocean Avenue. In sounded easy enough and only a slight diversion from the plan, so the U-turn was made, trailer set in a isolated, country park only minutes from the old downtown, and, like so many times before, we find ourselves back on the road again tonight after four wonderful days and nights!

The most interesting aspect of this community is that while places like Boston, Salem & Plymouth are “billed out” as having old the old colonial charm, rich in history and unspoiled by modern encroachment, to our surprise, Newport IS the very definition of this type of place. As we drove day after day, the eye was treated to numerous examples of not only the quaint small sea town life of the 17 & 1800’s, but also stunning examples of wealth and opulence depicted in the “small summer homes” of the likes of the Vanderbilt’s, Rothschild’s and countless other multi-millionaires of that era.

The best known example of this culture is “The Breakers”, the 138,000 sq ft summer home of Cornelius Vanderbilt. Kim & I were enamored by the scale of this creation, from the massive front gates, the sprawling manicured grounds, the immense thickness of the front door, and the countless examples of gorgeous materials & craftsmanship throughout the inside tour. Although we were not allowed to take pictures of this beauty, I’m not sure they could convey the feelings one had when walking through the structure. (Which took a full hour to basically spend a few minutes enjoying perhaps a fourth of its 72 rooms!) http://tickets.newportmansions.org/mansion.aspx?id=1000

Our tour ticket included one other choice of the five open homes maintained by the Newport Preservation Association. On the recommendation of the tour guide we chose “The Elms”, the home of Mr. & Mrs. Edward Julius Berwind the “coal baron” of the US at the turn of the century. http://tickets.newportmansions.org/mansion.aspx?id=1002
I guess the word “smaller example” of these awesome creations (being roughly half the size of the Breakers), would be a poor choice. While different in style and choice of materials, still an immense structure to call one’s “home”. I certainly had a hard time understanding why someone would want to live in these. While impressive examples of workmanship, materials & quality, there is no feeling of “coziness”, “warmth” one gets from a normal sized home. It’s more like being in a large hotel, walking through ballrooms, meeting halls, commercial kitchens, and the like. The bedrooms were so large that the queen-size beds (yes, they had them back then!) appeared to be from a dollhouse rather than a mansion.
Kim & I were both taken by the massive trees in these estates, most brought in from Europe in the late 1800's. Note Kim is the tiny spot in the center of the gigantic weeping beech below.

The “Cliff Walk” is listed in the “1000 Places of the World to See” and it certainly lives up to this recommendation. Three and a half miles along the ledge with beautiful views of the Atlantic on one side and the rear grounds of fabulous homes on the other. Cormorants and gulls abound, but no new sightings for the birding life list.

Another highlight of the area was tour of Fort Adams, the largest fort in America by far from this era. The Fort tour is also unique in that portions of the Fort are restored, showing what it looked like when built, and other areas are left as tattered ruins, giving one a feeling of its age, and all it has been subject to over the years. http://www.fortadams.org/history.htm

Probably most unique is that the tour included a trip out to the end of one of its many listening tunnels, dug far underground and outward from the Fort to detect an enemy trying to tunnel into the well protected structure. It was truly an impenetrable design in its day, and thus, it was never attacked. http://www.riparks.com/fortadamshistory.htm

We were going to leave on Friday morning, but rainy weather along with the discovery that Beausoleil was playing in nearby Falls River, made us stay. And, what a great decision that was! They were playing at the Narrows Center for the Performing Arts, and old converted 3rd floor warehouse with excellent seating and acoustics. Open seating, and as luck would have it Kim & I walked in and got THE front row center seats, complete with cushions already in place on the old church pews! http://www.rosebudus.com/beausoleil/

Michael Doucet and the drummer were “really on”. I had seen them live years ago, but nothing like being 30 feet away! I’ve always loved his voice, but wow, what an incredible job on the fiddle! It also was a treat to see Mitch Reed as opposing fiddler. I had met Mitch in Lafayette a few years ago, when attending his Saturday afternoon Cajun jams there. He also plays with a good friend of mine, Joe Hall. http://www.lsue.edu/acadgate/music/hall.htm Three hours of fantastic music and a great dancefloor to boot! What a great way to end a delightful week in a beautiful setting…

On the drive out the next morning, we enjoyed the increasing fall colors that were really starting to paint the charming town of Newport. We will be back!