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NEWPORT, RHODE ISLAND

by Marlene Fanta Shyer

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Unlike many American coastal towns, glamorous Newport offers more than beaches, boats, and boutiques, al­though they’re bountiful here too. It’s an end-of-the-rainbow vacation spot to which the gold of progress has come, but history has left its indelible mark on this city of 80,000. Cobblestones, quaint streets, and restored 18th-century cottages are juxtaposed with the latest and sleekest hotels and spas. At a nearby farmers’ market the rainbow flags fly, while potential Democratic or Independent candidates for governor of Rhode Island have all pledged to support same-sex marriage if elected.

Visitors to this seaside Shangri-La will appreciate the new eco-friendly hotel 41° North (351 Thames Street. Tel: 401-846-8018. www.41north.com). It’s all cutting-edge modern sparkle inside, while the outside has maintained and honored the city’s colonial heritage. The place is wall-to-wall elegant and the epitome of cool, so even if you don’t stay here, try stopping in for a drink.

Renovated and re-imagined, the opulent 1909 Vanderbilt Hall (41 Mary Street. Tel. 401-846-6200. www.vanderbilthall.com) is worth a look if only for the new eye-popping amenities and American Illustration art collection. Check out also the award-winning Stillwater Spa at the redone, 264-room Hyatt Regency Newport Hotel and Spa (1 Goat Island. Tel: 401-851-1234. www.newporthyatt.com). It’s part of a stunning, state-of-the-art resort complex. There’s also a fresh start for The Hotel Viking (1 Bellevue Avenue. Tel: 401-847-3300. www.ho­telvi­king.com), which mixes “Old World charm” with today’s 21st-century spa facilities. Ever try an infrared sauna? The hotel is just a short walk from town.

Of course, Newport’s world-famous mansions are as popular as ever. In Doris Duke’s former home, you’ll stand under crystal chandeliers the size of planets that illuminate Joshua Reynolds paintings and hang above Portuguese needlepoint carpets. That’s part of the fun in Newport, struggling with your inner show-off who wishes to be able to afford a pair of mother-of-pearl torchieres or just one gilded swan flower vase, like Doris Duke’s. Here it sits in her summer place on Rhode Island’s platinum coast. Mariners named it to describe the sea at this inlet, probably never dreaming that one day the richest woman in the world would live here. Rough Point (630 Bellevue Avenue. Tel: 401-849-7300. www.newportrestoration.org) is Duke’s “cottage,” the euphemism for every one of the eleven mega-mansions on view here from April to November (fewer are open the rest of the year).

Most of these over-the-top homes periodically feature new exhibits, and if you can, see them all. Doris Duke’s home is the most authentic: every George VI chair, Italian gilded door, vase, and wine vessel (early Ming, not just ordinary Ming), was her selection. Here’s the couch on which Elizabeth Taylor lounged, and the Parquet de Versailles floor on which Martha Graham taught Doris dance steps. Wouldn’t you also like your own resident tapestry person to care for three centuries of wall hangings? How about a gardener to trim the topiary camels in the front yard?

No camels are to be found at the legendary Breakers (44 Ochre Point Avenue. Tel: 401-847-1000. www.newportrestoration.org). Built by Cornelius Vanderbilt, it’s the largest of the mansions. Seventy rooms (33 for staff) are spaces filled with rare marble, alabaster, gilded walls, and red cut-velvet draperies. The kitchen alone was big enough to accommodate a normal size house, but the two-and-a-half story Great Hall is what you’re not likely to forget.

William Vanderbilt, Cornelius’ younger brother, built The Marble House (596 Bellevue Avenue. Tel: 401-847-1000. www.new­portrestoration.org) as a present for his wife on her 39th birthday. More than half the eleven million dollars was spent on imported marble, and the house was later filled with medieval and Renaissance art treasures. On the property is an incongruous, charming Chinese tea house, where you can have a light lunch coupled with a direct ocean view.

On to The Elms (367 Bellevue Avenue. Tel: 401-847-1000. www.newportmansions.org). If gardens, sunken or not, are your thing, these are considered the best. They are neoclassical with a terrace, fountain, and formal drive. Also of interest here is the Behind-the-Scenes Tour, which shows how the staff lived. The “have-nots” were busily keeping out of sight as they tended to the “haves” in the coal and wine cellars, the boiler, laundry rooms, and the hallways, carefully hidden from view.

If the mansions inspire you to enhance your own cottage, head to The Drawing Room (152 Spring Street. Tel: 401-841-5060. www.drawrm.com). Owned by Federico and John, long-term partners in life and in retail, this shop rocks. There is a diversity of treasures new and centuries-old to be found here. Barbra Streisand stopped in and so did designers Kenneth Jay Lane and Mary McFadden. You can spend days looking at everything from a one dollar postcard to a $65,000 Zsolnay piece of pottery. Check out the Lucite mid-century ice bucket, the silver butt sculpture, or the books that deal with homoerotic art, all here and much more.

The new owners at Armory Antiques (365 Thames Street. Tel: 401-848-2398. www.armoryantiquesnewport.com) have upgraded the quality of the merchandise in this huge space, a collective of sixty dealers. Need a bronze mermaid? How about purple glass doorknobs? If you’re really flush, maybe a $25,000 grandfather’s clock?

While you’re still in a decorating mood, a local collaborative of artists who work in glass has a shop filled with hand-blown pieces. New are the clear seascape bowls and glass-wave paperweights to sparkle on your tables or serve as gifts. Anchor Bend Glassworks. (16 Franklin Street. Tel: 401-849-0698. www.anchor­bend­glass.com).

Should shopping make your feet hurt, perhaps an up-to-the-minute pair of shoes? Head for the new Active Sole (16 Bowen’s Wharf. Tel: 401-619-5709), gay-owned and packed with sports shoes you won’t see anywhere else. You can give them a workout on the three-and-a-half-mile-long Cliff Walk. (Tel:401-845-5300. www.cliff­walk.com). This somewhat rugged path offers views of the mansions from the ocean side and was once also reputed to be a pickup area for sailors at the nearby naval base. Maybe it still is. Be careful of poison ivy, though.

Continued

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