NEWPORT, R.I. — You might think this is not the time of year to visit Newport — but you’d be wrong.
“We’re jammin’, the off-season is on!” said Andrea McHugh, marketing communications manager at Discover Newport (discovernewport.org) on America’s Cup Avenue. “It’s a quieter time and a whole different experience from the summer months,” McHugh said earlier this month, “but for many people it’s the best experience.”
For a start, the Newport Winter Festival — “New England’s Largest Winter Extravaganza” — is getting under way on Friday, Feb. 17, and runs through Sunday, Feb. 26. Some 150 events are scheduled, with highlights including the Children’s Fair, Chili Cook-Off, Princess Party and the Jimmy Buffett tribute band Changes in Latitudes. Check out newportwinterfestival.com for details.
Certainly basic logistics are relatively stress free at this time of year, notably the traffic, and parking meters are free. And it’s easier to get a meal in one of the city’s many restaurants. “The best seat in the house is typically available, with room on the calendars and room at the bar,” said McHugh.
Let’s start at the famed mansions on Bellevue Avenue, where a number feature special shows. “Beneath The Breakers” takes visitors into the underground boiler room and along a 360-foot passage to the basement of the Vanderbilt family’s 70-room summer “cottage.” It was set away from the main house because the original building burned down.
The two boilers consumed 250 tons of coal in 1916, heating, among other things, fresh and salt water for the baths, according to Sophia Facey, an associate team leader at the Preservation Society of Newport County (newportmansions.org), who was leading a tour on a recent Friday.
And The Elms (the current lack of foliage shows off the extraordinary topiary of the trees in front, by the way) is offering its “Servant Life Tour” of the servants’ quarters and the below-basement operations, including the boiler room, according to team leader Jennifer Loomis.
Meanwhile, Rosecliff, the gorgeous mansion designed by Stanford White, is showing “Fashion and Satire,” which features clothes from the Gilded Age, including a wool tuxedo and a woman’s cotton bathing suit, along with about 50 period illustrations — many very funny — by noted satirists Orson Byron Lowell and Charles Dana Gibson. It runs through May 7.
Check hours and times for all the mansions. Rosecliff, for example, is closed Feb. 17-18 and Feb. 28-March 5.
Also on Bellevue Avenue is the striking Audrain Automobile Museum (audrainautomuseum.org). The current exhibition, “Big, Bold and Brassy,” traces the “progression of technology and design, from horseless carriages to early assembly line production cars, to great bespoke coachwork touring machines of the 1920s.”
Next door is the historic International Tennis Hall of Fame (tennisfame.com), with interactive displays of all the major players of history. The museum offers exhibits tracing the history of the game, starting with the bright red army uniform of British Maj. Walter Clopton Wingfield (splendid name!), who is credited with inventing and patenting lawn tennis in 1873.
The museum is organized into three historical periods: the Birth of Tennis, 1873-1917 (the U.S. Open was played in Newport from 1881-1914); the Popular Era, 1918-1968; and the Open Era, 1968-present. The range of exhibits is extensive. Anne Marie McLaughlin, director of marketing and communications, pointed out such items as tennis-themed postage stamps (the museum has 4,000), personal items from championship players, the U.S. Open trophies and even a hologram of the 2017 Australian Open winner, Roger Federer.
Heading into town, a short walk along Spring Street leads to Trinity Church (trinitynewport.org), with its wineglass pulpit and box pews. Built in the early 1700s, it is situated at the top of Queen Anne Square, which was recently refurbished by architect Maya Lin of Vietnam War Memorial fame with mini foundations serving as sculptures and spaces to sit in.
The Newport Art Museum (newportartmuseum.org) is noted for its collection of works by Rhode Island and New England artists, and is currently displaying its annual members’ show, which attracts artists from throughout New England. Next door is the Redwood Library & Athenaeum (redwoodlibrary.org), which was built in 1750 and is one of the nation’s oldest libraries.
Down the road is the famed Touro Synagogue, the nation’s oldest, dedicated in 1763. As such, it serves as a shining symbol of the ideal of separation of church and state that Roger Williams, Rhode Island’s founding father, advocated for. Tours start in the Loeb Visitors Center with multi-media exhibits focusing on Jewish life in Newport and proceed on to the synagogue. Check tourosynagogue.org, as hours are limited.
With its close historical association with the Navy, Newport has the reputation of a party town and is full of restaurants, bars, live music and shops. Check out the eateries along Bannister’s and Bowen’s Wharves, including the Black Pearl, Clarke Cooke House, Diego’s, The Landing and 22 Bowen’s.
Other great restaurants — including the popular Midtown Oyster Bar — are on Thames Street and along Memorial Boulevard. Close by Washington Square are the Brick Alley Pub and Mexican restaurant Perro Salado (Salty Dog), and starting at the Fastnet, an Irish pub named after a famed rock off southern Ireland, there are a number of great restaurants up Broadway, including the Hungry Monkey Cafe, Norey’s and Salvation Cafe.
And then there is the White Horse Tavern (whitehorsenewport.com), 26 Marlborough St., where you can mix history with your meal. It is the oldest tavern in the nation, opening its doors in 1673, with Benjamin Franklin and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis counted among its clientele, according to executive chef Richard Silvia. That’s quite a spread!
“The challenge is to balance fine dining while respecting its history,” said Silvia. “I think of it as living history and our stewardship is extremely important.” The restaurant has five dining rooms, ranging from cozy rooms with small tables to the upstairs “Pub Room” dining area. The atmosphere at this time of year is augmented by four massive fireplaces, which Silvia said consume 1½ cords of wood to the tune $600 a week.
And speaking of food and drink, check out the Newport Storm Brewery (newportstorm.com), open for tours, on J.T. Connell Highway. Established in 1999 by four friends from Colby College who still run it, the brewery is known for its Hurricane Amber Ale. In recent years it has added a distillery and produces Thomas Tew Rum.
Theresa Malafronte, public relations and events captain, said Thomas Tew was known in the 17th century as the Rhode Island Pirate, and that in 1769 Newport had 22 distilleries producing rum.
Farther out of town, on East Main Road, is Newport Vineyards, which expanded its facility a few years ago to incorporate a cafe and Brix Restaurant in addition to its long tasting bar, and a large tasting area adjacent to the vineyard.
The vineyard also hosts events, the latest being its annual Wineterfest Weekend on Saturday, Feb. 18, and Sunday, Feb. 19, with “two days full of grape stomping, ice wine bar tasting goodness” along with live music from the Little Compton Band on Saturday and The Pourmen on Sunday. The event kicks off on Friday, Feb. 17, with the Wineterfest Speakeasy Soiree. Check newportvineyards.com for details.
Additional Newport attractions include the Cliff Walk, which winds along the coast adjacent to a number of mansions. Park next to Easton’s, or First, Beach and walk up Memorial Boulevard to the start, which is clearly marked. Or follow the tourists. “It’s fun to count the languages,” said McHugh, referring to the variety of folks on the popular walk.
Then there is Ocean Drive, the spectacular road that traces the rocky coast south of Newport, along with Fort Adams State Park (fortadams.org), which commands the entrance to the harbor. Both can be somewhat moody in a “Wuthering Heights” kind of way at this time of year. But you can figuratively and literally lift your spirits at the famed Castle Hill Inn (castlehillinn.com), overlooking the entrance to Narragansett Bay, and agree that Newport is indeed a fabulous place to visit at any time of year.
By: Peter C.T. Ellsworth, 9 February 2017, http://www.providencejournal.com/entertainmentlife/20170209/sunday-drive-newport-in-winter-has-its-own-charms