You know you're in a town that is proud of its heritage when you come upon a house bearing this inscription: "Home of Felice Corne, who introduced the tomato into this country."
There are signs like that all over Newport Rhode Island's most famous seaport town. Pelham St., we discover, is "the first street in the U.S. to be lighted with gas." A few blocks away, the White Horse Tavern is "the oldest operating tavern in the U.S." And up the street stands Touro Synagogue, "the oldest Jewish house of worship in North America."But Newport is less famous for what it did for salads and religious freedom than what it did for opulence and leisure.
Newport was America's first resort, the place where the country's richest and snobbiest once summered. To visit Newport is to completely understand that the rich have different expectations. Cornelius Vanderbilt, for example, thought of his 70-room mansion there as a "cottage."
Known as The Breakers, Vanderbilt's cottage was styled after Renaissance palaces. It's not the coziest of summer homes but it was great for showing off one's possessions, from Italian mosaics to towering columns of pink alabaster. A tour of any of Newport's cottages is a glimpse at a degree of conspicuous consumption that few people, except maybe New York developer Donald Trump, indulge in anymore.
Most of Newport's famous villas were located on Bellevue Ave., which makes mansion-hopping easy for the tourist. Within just a few blocks you can visit nine summer cottages, including not only The Breakers but Marble House, Kingscote, Belcourt Castle and Beechwood, built in 1857 for Mrs. William Backhouse Astor.
Although Mrs. Astor, much to her dismay, did not own the most lavish of the Newport cottages, today Beechwood is the most unusual and entertaining of the mansion tours.
From the moment you buy your ticket you know you're in for something different here. The ticket-seller is a young woman who explains that she is Mrs. Astor's nanny. "Children should be seen and not heard, so you can see I'm doing a good job," she says.
At the front door you're met by "Maxwell Drayton, of the Philadelphia Draytons," dressed in a tuxedo and white gloves. He explains that Mrs. Astor will be receiving you in just a few minutes. "You are here for tonight's ball, aren't you?" he asks.
Mrs. Astor loved parties. She owned the largest ballroom in Newport, to which she invited only the richest and oldest families. It was Mrs. Astor, along with a Southern gentleman named Ward McAllister, who devised the famous "400" a list of families and individuals whose lineage could be traced back at least three generations. Four hundred, it is said, was also the number of guests who could comfortably fit into the ballroom of Mrs. Astor's Fifth Ave. home.
Mrs. Astor thought of herself as the queen of New York society and insisted that she be called The Mrs. Astor.
Although she died in 1908, her spirit lives on at Beechwood, where actors dressed as brothers-in-law and servants let us in on the details and secrets of life during Newport's Gilded Age.
The Mrs. Astor, we learn, so despised Mrs. Vanderbilt that she had one of Beechwood's marble fireplaces torn out because it reminded her of her wealthier neighbor.
The Mrs. Astor and her friends were known to change their gowns eight times a day. Some of those gowns weighed in at over 40 pounds, which is why Beechwood came equipped with an elevator chair from the main floor up to the bedrooms.
Newport during those days was an endless round of croquet, dinners and balls. Today the city is more egalitarian, although you can still spend lots of money if you want to. An advertisement for yacht rentals lists several at $30,000 per week. You can also rent small sailboats for $15 for two hours.
During the Gilded Age, Newport was a six-hour steamboat ride from New York City. Today the coastal town is more accessbile, especially since the completion of Newport Bridge over Narragansett Bay in 1969. It takes about an hour to drive south to Newport from Providence; about two from Boston.
Today, Newport's historic homes and churches overlook a booming waterfront full of trendy shops and expensive restaurants. If you like to stay out late partying, or you are deaf, you may want to stay at one of the new hotels along the docks. If you like to go to sleep before 1 a.m., you may prefer one of the charming bed and breakfast inns scattered throughout the old neighborhoods.
The heart of Newport is lined with house after house dating back to the early 1700s. One of America's oldest churches, Trinity, sits at the top of Queen Ann Square. George Washington prayed there.
If you drive south from the church, past the harbor, you'll be on Ocean Drive, which loops around past elegant homes and a great view of both Narragansett Bay and Rhode Island Sound. Or you may prefer the famous Cliff Walk, which hugs the shoreline above Rhode Island Sound - a peaceful three-mile excursion past the backyards of the Bellevue Ave. mansions.
Newport is perhaps best known today for its many yachting events, including the America's Cup. The Museum of Yachting includes an exhibit on yachting during the town's Gilded Age. Newport is also home of the International Tennis Hall of Fame and Tennis Museum.
In August, Newport is also the site of the newly resurrected Newport Jazz Festival. (It used to be home to the Newport Folk Festival, too, back in the days when folk music had not yet been totally eclipsed by rock and roll).
Newport is a great time, whether you're looking for good windsurfing breezes, first-hand history or a bustling night life. But if you're looking for a quieter, less trendy, less populated vacation spot, you might prefer Block Island, off Rhode Island's coast. Ferries leave several times a day from Point Judith, a 45-minute drive from Newport.
Block Island doesn't even have a movie theater, and a great many of its inns do not have private baths, or air conditioning. To my mind, the island is one of America's most beautiful spots - green, rolling hills overlooking Rhode Island Sound on one side, the Atlantic Ocean on the other. The hotels and restaurants are confined mostly to the harbor area, leaving the rest of the island to horses, cows and chickens.
The island's accomodations are fairly steep for what you get. At the Rose Farm Inn, for example, $140 buys you a double bed and two sagging cots. But it does at least include a private bathroom, plus breakfast in the inn's charming little dining room.
No matter where you stay, though, try not to miss having a drink at the Atlantic Inn at sunset. The view from the veranda - horses grazing on rolling pastures, and beyond those the Victorian roof-line of the harbor hotels, and then beyond that the sea - is a perfect antidote to modern life.