By Matthew Barber, Leslie Brokaw, Paul Karr, Herbert Bailey Livesey, Marie Morris and Laura M. Reckford
75 miles S of Boston; 115 miles NE of New Haven
“City by the Sea” is the unimaginative nickname an early resident unloaded on Newport. At least it was accurate, because for a time during the Colonial period it rivaled Boston and even New York as a center of New World trade and prosperity. Newport occupies the southern tip of Aquidneck Island in Narragansett Bay and is connected to the mainland by three bridges and a ferry.
Wealthy industrialists, railroad tycoons, coal magnates, financiers, and robber barons were drawn to the area in the 19th century, especially between the Civil War and World War I. They bought up property at the ocean’s rim to build what they called summer “cottages” — which were, in fact, mansions of immoderate design and proportions patterned after European palaces.
The principal toys of the Newport elite were equally extravagant yachts meant for pleasure, not commerce, and competition among them established Newport’s reputation as a sailing center. In 1851, the schooner America defeated a British boat in a race around the Isle of Wight. The prize trophy became known as the America’s Cup, which remained in the possession of the New York Yacht Club (with an outpost in Newport) until 1983. In that shocking summer, Australia II snatched the Cup away from Liberty in the last race of a four-out-of-seven series. An American team regained the cup in 1987, but in 1995 a New Zealand crew took it away. The strong U.S. yachting tradition has endured despite the loss of the Cup, and Newport continues as a bastion of world sailing and a destination for long-distance races.
The perimeter of the city resembles a heeled boot, its toe pointing west, not unlike Italy. About where the laces of the boot would be is the downtown business and residential district. Several wharves push into the bay, providing support and mooring for flotillas of pleasure craft. Much of the strolling, shopping, eating, quaffing, and gawking is done along this waterfront and its parallel streets: America’s Cup Avenue and Thames Street. (The latter used to be pronounced “Tems,” in the British manner but was Americanized to “Thaymz” after the Revolution.)
The navy pulled out its battleships, causing a decline in the local economy, but it hasn’t proven to be the disaster predicted by some, and Newport has been spared the coarser intrusions that afflict so many coastal resorts. T-shirt emporia have kept within reasonable limits — a remarkable feat, considering that Newport has nearly 4 million visitors a year.
Immediately east and north of the business district are blocks of Colonial, Federal, and Victorian houses of the 18th and 19th centuries, many of them designated National Historic Sites. Happily, they are not frozen in amber but are very much in use as residences, restaurants, offices, and shops. Taken together, they are as visually appealing in their own way as the 40-room cottages of the super-rich.
So despite Newport’s prevailing image as a collection of stupefyingly ornate mansions and regattas of sailing ships inaccessible to all but the rich and famous, the city is, for the most part, middle class and not too immoderately priced. Scores of inns and B&Bs ensure lodging even during festival weeks, at rates and fixtures from budget to ultraluxury level. In almost every respect, this is the “First Resort” of the New England coast.