Return to Newport: You Can Go Home Again
The morning sun shone on the harbor, brightly illuminating a row of 18th century homes in Newport's Point neighborhood facing the Newport Bridge. The bells of St. John Evangelist chimed eight, already a late hour; the lobster boats had hours before set out to sea and were now visible only as shadowy figures in Narragansett Bay, bobbing past Beavertail light, its solitary beacon blinking in the bright morning light.
When you grow up in Rhode Island, as I did, and you return to Newport, you bring a perspective that is steeped in nostalgia yet tempered by a response to changes, good and bad, that you notice as you amble down familiar streets.
Newport is all about history, a history that stretches back to the days before and during the founding of the Republic, when Native Americans camped in the thickets surrounding the town, and when the occupying British fleet was docked on the wharves off Thames Street.
While much of that pre- and post-Colonial history has been preserved, a lot has been lost. And what has been lost has been reclaimed by a plethora of condominiums, marinas, shopping plazas, boutiques, and trendy nightspots. But there is also an independent spirit in Newport as residents continue to restore and reclaim that which has been worn down or ravaged by the passage of time.
Cliff Walk, Mansions, Local Fare
Newport is a sought after vacation spot, and rightfully so: it is accessible by foot or bicycle, and there are wonderful beaches never so crowded that you can’t lay back and take in the sand, surf and sky.
For those not interested in the surf, there’s a breathtaking seaside walk, the Cliff Walk (http://www.cliffwalk.com/), which, thanks to a costly renovation over many years, is now well maintained.
The 3.5-mile ramble takes you past mansions built during the Gilded Age, when the Industrial Revolution gave birth to a privileged class who set about rivaling Europe by constructing their own castles along Bellevue Avenue. These mausoleums (http://www.newportmansions.org/), open for touring, are garish examples of extravagance, yet one still marvels at their ornate usages of imported Italian marble and lavish interiors, and their generous landscaped acreages that roll down to the edge of the sea. Each mansion has its own manicured gardens, cherubic fountain statuary, and wonderfully cared for copper beech trees.
Along the route there are many places available for spring and summertime picnicking. The Cliff Walk is free and open to the public, but the mansions require an admission fee. If you purchase a single ticket, you have access to several properties, all within an easy walk. A shuttle bus is also available.
Despite its history of religious tolerance (Jews and Quakers, persecuted elsewhere, were allowed to practice their faiths in Newport since the 1600s), Rhode Island is still intolerant to granting same-sex couples the legal right to marry.
Newly sworn in January of this year, U.S. Rep David Cicilline, an openly gay man (he also happens to be a distant cousin of mine), has pledged to take a leadership role in the debate. He has many supporters. According to his website, (http://www.cicilline.com/accomplished.cfm?ID=17), he expects to continue the lead the fight until the Rhode Island legislature adopts marriage equality for all its citizens.
Weddings in Newport are a big business, with the city hosting almost a thousand weddings during the spring and summer. Same-sex couples have had to find inventive ways to utilize the picturesque seaside city for their wedding destinations.
"We hosted a gay wedding reception here last summer," says Geremie Callaghan, co-owner with her husband Jeff of Fluke (http://www.flukewinebar.com/) a fabulous restaurant on Bowens Wharf in downtown Newport. "The couple chartered a boat. They sailed from Newport to Massachusetts waters, and somewhere off Fall River, the couple was legally married. Then they sailed back to Newport, docked nearby and had a wonderful catered party here."
Jeff Callaghan tells me that the scrumptious fare at Fluke comes from local growers and that his chef, Neil Manacle, changes the menu daily according to what’s available from local growers, including local fishermen. While farms on Aquidneck Island are not as plentiful as they once were, Fluke has an arrangement with Rhode Island Nurseries (http://www.farmfresh.org/food/farm.php?farm=77) in nearby Middletown, which supplies them with fresh produce daily.
Seated upstairs in the dining room (Fluke occupies three levels), I order locally harvested scallops, pan seared to a golden color and served with Brussels sprouts, while my partner ordered a tasty risotto made with locally grown wild mushrooms.
From the window I could see the entire length of Bowens Wharf and the harbor. As the sunset turned the harbor into a palette of color, crowds strolled under the twinkling lights suspended in the branches of the trees down the pedestrian-only wharf with its shops, restaurants and bistros.
Where to Stay: Hyatt Goat Island
Just a minute’s walk from Fluke the shuttle bus waits to take passengers back to Goat Island, a five-minute drive from downtown Newport. The shuttle runs all day until midnight, and brings you to the newly refurbished and affordable Hyatt Hotel.
Goat Island, connected to Aquidneck Island via a bridge, was used by the U.S. Navy during the last century as a torpedo factory, and many photographs adorning the walls of the hotel show men at work manufacturing these weapons.
My spacious room, which included a balcony, faced the Point neighborhood across the harbor, and from my side window I could see Jamestown, Beavertail lighthouse, and the town of Narragansett, where I spent many summers as a youngster. For me, it had all the accoutrements (and memories) of home.
Downstairs, the common room affords a wonderful view of the Newport Bridge. Down a corridor from the front desk is the Stillwater Spa, where one can book a full array of services designed to restore and rejuvenate.
For those seeking an affordable sampling of services, the Stillwater has a tapas menu, including facials, massage, eye treatment, and hand exfoliation, and features a soothing atmosphere in a warren of quiet rooms facing the water.
Dinner is served nightly at the Hyatt in the Windward (www.thewindwardrestaurant.com), a spacious harbor side restaurant. Service is attentive and never rushed. Fresh caught lobster, served steamed or baked, is available, as well as an array of other fresh seafood, including a scrumptious choice of raw shellfish available on the half shell. Like the Fluke restaurant in town, Windward orders its produce from local farms in Middletown, and changes its menu frequently.
While many of the funky streets, like Washington Street across the bridge from the Hyatt Goat Island, have been renovated and have lost their original sea town flavor.
I miss Mack’s Clam Shack, for example, a seedy hole-in-the-wall that once sold soft shell clams by the peck, or cooked up lobster-in-the-rough served with Narragansett draught beer. The town’s only gay bar, Castaways, has long since closed, as have Salt’s, a folk/rock club, and the Blue Pelican. And conspicuously missing are many of the bait and tackle shops selling sea worms and mackerel as you head out on one of the many chartered boats for a day of deep sea fishing. You might have to go to Pt. Judith for that experience, across Narragansett Bay from Newport.
You can find the soul of Newport, but you need to get away from busy Thames Street. Take any side street and you’re in the old neighborhood. There’s a wonderful breakfast place on the corner of Franklin and Spring streets, the Franklin Spa, for instance, where the clientele is strictly local and the service is friendly. And there is a lively local arts scene worth exploring, too, with music, gallery tours, theatre performances, comedy improvisation and more (www.newportarts.org).
As summertime beckons, head to Newport, park your car at Breton Point State Park, or elsewhere along Ocean Drive, and walk along the rugged Atlantic coastline. This is where the true salty spirit of Newport is found. It is here, against the elements, where the waves, rolling in relentlessly, make you glad you’ve taken the time to enjoy Newport’s ample supply of fresh air, open sky and foamy surf.