Cottages and Castles in Newport, R.I.

June is the cruelest month in Southern California. The fog descends and so do my spirits, so I was determined to be on the East coast this month. Never mind that we arrived to several days of deluge in NYC. We were looking forward to our time in the city and our planned three-day driving trip to Newport, Rhode Island.

Just as I had wished to make a pilgrimage to Thomas Wolfe’s Asheville, I have long been curious about novelist Edith Wharton’s Gilded Age lifestyle in Newport and how it informed her work, including The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence. Wharton spent a few apparently desultory summers in Newport during the early years of her ultimately unhappy marriage.

Edith Wharton's "cottage", Lands End, as it appears now. (image from washingtonlife.com)

Edith Wharton’s “cottage”, Lands End, as it appears now. (image from washingtonlife.com)

Newport was the acknowledged summer playground of the wealthy at the close of the 19th century. With no income tax to nibble away at the immense fortunes of the Vanderbilts and their like, they built palatial “cottages” along Newport’s ocean cliffs where the very serious business of maintaining social prominence could be conducted during the summer seasons.

The greatest of these “cottages” is, of course, The Breakers, commissioned by Cornelius Vanderbilt, II in 1893.

Yes, they referred to this as a "cottage".

Yes, they referred to this as a “cottage”.

The dining room at The Breakers (image from antiquesjournal.com)

The dining room at The Breakers (image from antiquesjournal.com)

We also toured The Marble House, extracted from William K. Vanderbilt by his ambitious (and perhaps scheming?) wife, Alva, in the late 1880’s at the cost of $11 million dollars to be her sole property as a 39th birthday “gift”. She divorced her husband a few years later to marry one of his best friends, making a case that her decision to divorce before such things were socially acceptable was consistent with her work on behalf of Women’s Suffrage. Her progressive beliefs did not, however, dissuade her from engineering what would be a deeply unhappy marriage for her daughter, Consuelo, to the 9th Duke of Marlborough.

Alva Vanderbilt Belmont (image from britannica.com)

Alva Vanderbilt Belmont (image from britannica.com)

Alva Vanderbilt's bedroom at The Marble House. (image from squaredawayblog.bc.edu)

Alva Vanderbilt’s bedroom at The Marble House. (image from squaredawayblog.bc.edu)

The Tea House on the property of The Marble House

The Tea House on the property of The Marble House

We only toured a few of the mansions, but several more are open to the public through the efforts of The Preservation Society of Newport County

From The Breakers, we explored Newport’s famous Cliff Walk. Parts of it are currently closed due to damage from Hurricane Sandy, but there is still a long strand of walkway along the cliffs affording spectacular views of Narragansett Bay.

A view from the Cliff Walk (polloplayer photo)

A view from the Cliff Walk (polloplayer photo)

We also visited Bannisters Wharf, the centerpiece of the town of Newport. Like wharves in every seaside tourist town, it is lined with souvenir shops, bars and only adequate restaurants. One of the better meals we had in Newport was lunch at The White Horse Tavern, where they have been serving hungry diners since 1673.

Bannisters Wharf

Bannisters Wharf

The White Horse Tavern (image from newportsrestaurants.com)

The White Horse Tavern (image from newportsrestaurants.com)

We stayed in a cottage during our visit to Newport, and although it was nothing like the “cottages” we toured, we couldn’t have been happier. Ours was a cozy cocoon at Castle Hill Inn and it was an ideal retreat. Referred to as a “Beach House” by the property, it was one in a row of charming bayside bungalows where we were lulled to sleep each night by the sound of the waves lapping against the rocks.

Our little house at Castle Hill Inn

Our little house at Castle Hill Inn

Cozy interior of our Castle Hill Inn "beach house"

Cozy interior of our Castle Hill Inn “beach house”

View from our deck

View from our deck

A sweet little path frequented by bunnies and butterflies led from our room up to the Inn, which was once the site of an 18th century watchtower and much later served as a retreat for actress Grace Kelly while she filmed High Society.

The path from our room to the main Inn.

The path from our room to the main Inn.

The Castle Hill lighthouse

The Castle Hill lighthouse

The Inn

The Inn

Another view from Castle Hill

Another view from Castle Hill

The lawn at Castle Hill is a favorite place to relax and watch the sunset.

The lawn at Castle Hill is a favorite place to relax and watch the sunset.

Changing fortunes and societal mores led to the outsize mansions at Newport being viewed as “white elephants” within just a few decades of being built. But the rocky coast of the Narragansett Bay still lures sailors and travelers to drink in its beauty. I wouldn’t trade my life with the Vanderbilts for a second, but I hope someday to return and listen to the waves from that little bungalow by the beach.

ocean through yellow

About polloplayer

Empty nester searching for meaning of life through the occasional chicken epiphany.
This entry was posted in Music/Art/Literature/Culture, Travel and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Cottages and Castles in Newport, R.I.

  1. Phyllis says:

    Nice travels, good pictures, wonderful food, now get back home and tend to your chickens!!!!

  2. pollo amigo says:

    Beautiful place and engrossing descriptions — as usual!

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