Newport still touched by America’s gilded age

The Marble House, Newport, Lunch Magazine

Newport, Rhode Island brings visions of sailboats bobbing in water the colour of dark sapphires, bright skies, and polo-clad, sun-tanned preppies. However, winter is a great time to visit this coastal New England city – one of the historic summer playgrounds for America’s wealthiest families. In December, three historic mansions are dressed for Christmas and the public is invited to see how the other half once enjoyed the holidays.

The Breakers, The Elms, and Marble House are festooned with period decorations celebrating the season. A self-guided tour includes a headset delivering background about the house and its furnishings, as well as those who possessed such glamorous lifestyles. Cornelius Vanderbilt II built The Breakers as a 70-room summer “cottage.” Select the “family” version of the audio guide, and an engaging narrative is read in the first person, advising the listener of the daily habits and routine of the house and its inhabitants. For example, once we arrive in the children’s rooms, we hear how the kids of the ultra-rich, at one time, were required to make more outfits changes than Madonna during a concert at Wembley Stadium. First, they must dress for breakfast, before returning to dress for swimming, then returning again to dress for lunch, followed by naps, then dress for tennis or horseback riding in the afternoon, and return once more to dress for dinner before they dress for bed. I don’t know who’s more exhausted at the end of a day – the children or their nannies.

In Marble House, one sees that local garden clubs decorated each room for the prized blue ribbon. Alva Vanderbilt, another member of the dynasty, designed and decorated the house. The first woman of that set to divorce her husband and host “Votes for Women” rallies on the back lawn, good old Alva would have been delighted to see the local women filling her home with their arrangements – so long as they voted. The decorations stay up for a month, with several accompanying musical concerts and other events, so planning ahead is advised.

On the far east side of Aquidneck Island sits the 325-acre Norman Bird Sanctuary. Its multiple trails are open year round with two-hour guided walks every Sunday to view the feathered residents. Cliff Walk provides wonderful views of the ocean but is best avoided in bad weather. If one wants a bit of nature without the work, try Ocean Drive. You don’t have to get out of your car (but you will want to) to see great views of the Atlantic Ocean. Still wanting a nature fix? Just off Ocean Drive, you’ll find Ballard Park. In February, the park will hosted its 12th annual Illuminated Garden. Thousands of lights were displayed on trees which spread over three acres of a quarry meadow. The Newport Skating Centre is a great back-up plan if the snow wreaks havoc on outdoor plans.

Winter Festival and Carnival

If you are interested in good food combined with good entertainment, one can attend the Winter Festival. This year’s festival featured a chilli cook off and a concert by the Jimmy Buffet Tribute band. Newport also hosts a Winter Carnival that is a hoot. Catch their wife carrying contest, the cardboard race or the Yankee Luau. For another place for good food you can try a new twist on classic favourites at Christies which serves lobster and crab devilled eggs along with their fried oysters. Annie’s serves only breakfast and lunch in a tiny restaurant decorated at Christmas time with hundreds of Christmas tree balls hanging from the ceiling. It takes them five hours to put them all up. The service is quick and friendly; the food delicious. Try their lobster bisque and you’ll want to take some home with you. The Brick Alley Pub is practically a Newport institution where you can get a classic lobster roll year round. Another choice is spending an afternoon in front of a roaring fire with a hot toddy in The Chanler, a dramatic mansion hotel perched on the edge of a cliff. Overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, it is one of the most historic hotels in New England.

Amy Hughes

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