Travel Spotlight

Newport: The New Gilded Age

Think you’ve seen Newport? Think again. The summer center of the American Gilded Age is back in the spotlight with new hotels, restaurants, breweries, spas, plus buzzy real estate acquisitions driving interest. Annie Fitzsimmons assesses the scene.

Like Downton Abbey before it—which inspired a new love for England’s grand, stately homes like Highclere Castle—HBO’s The Gilded Age has brought forth a resurgence of interest in Newport, Rhode Island. During the actual Gilded Age, a period of immense American economic and social evolution from around 1870 to 1910, Newport was an important outpost for the nouveaux riches, with glittering, golden mansions built to show off as much wealth as possible for families like the Astors and Vanderbilts. (John D. Rockefeller preferred upstate New York.) Season one of the show was filmed at many of these mansions, which are run by the Preservation Society of Newport County.

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Long before the Gilded Age, Newport was founded in 1639 on religious freedom by Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson, bringing a diversity of thought and culture that still exists today. It’s consistently voted among the top small towns in America to live in and to visit—historic and cultural attractions like the Touro Synagogue, the oldest in the U.S., bring people from all over the world.

“There is a whole new interest in coming to see the American castles of Newport,” says Evan Smith, who has been CEO of Discover Newport for 35 years. “Once upon a time, travelers might have said, I’ve seen The Breakers, so I’ve seen it all. But the Preservation Society has done a great job of modernizing the tour experiences to be more experiential and to tell stories in different ways.” Ten of the Preservation Society mansions are also now open year-round.

A slate of new hotel openings in the last few years have given visitors new options, joining old favorites like Castle Hill Inn. And with splashy real estate acquisitions, there is also renewed interest in Newport for second, third or fourth homes. “There might be a certain saturation point in places like the Hamptons, Nantucket or Martha’s Vineyard,” says Smith. “People are saying that the greater Newport area has what they’re looking for. It’s happening on the whole Rhode Island coast, with $10 million, $20 million, $30 million properties being sold.” You could point to Taylor Swift buying High Watch (formerly known as Holiday House) in Westerly in 2013 as the start of a new Rhode Island real estate obsession in and around Newport—from Watch Hill and Weekapaug to Little Compton and Tiverton.

In 2021, one of Newport’s most magnificent private homes sold to billionaire Steven Schwarzman—the Neoclassical oceanfront Miramar, with interiors inspired by the Palace of Versailles, was completed by Titanic survivor Eleanor Elkins Widener, whose husband and eldest son died on the fateful voyage. They had been on a scouting trip in Paris to find furnishings and artwork for their new home being built.

Another sign that the ultra-wealthy have rediscovered Newport? The opulence on display in the harbor, with some of the most impressive yachts in the world coming to Newport Shipyard. “The inventory of yachts in Newport Harbor has gone up multiple notches,” observes Smith. He recommends visiting the International Yacht Restoration School, founded in 1993, to learn and watch the art of wooden boat restoration.

For a town of around 25,000 year-round residents, there is a lot going on. The Preservation Society, one of the most well-funded such organizations in the U.S., has introduced marquee summer events, like the Newport Flower Festival, at the end of June, and the Newport Food & Wine Festival, from September 22 to 24 this year. Two of summer’s most beloved sports—tennis and sailing—each have world-class museums here: the International Tennis Hall of Fame and the Sailing Museum. For car and art enthusiasts, there are two special institutions showcasing private collections—the Audrain Auto Museum (where Jay Leno is very involved) and the Newport Car Museum. Summer visitors may also want to look at the schedule for newportFILM, with screenings of documentaries at outdoor locales on Aquidneck Island.

Newport Hotel Scene: Where To Stay

Castle Hill Inn

: Set on 40 acres with views of Newport Bridge, this classic Relais & Châteaux property merges the feel of a summer mansion with a New England farm.

The Chanler at Cliff Walk: Overlooking Easton’s Beach on the edge of Newport’s famous Cliff Walk, this is a grand country-house-style hotel.

The Vanderbilt, An Auberge Resort: For those who want to stay in a Georgian-style mansion within walking distance of restaurants and sights, this former historic residence, built in 1909 by a Vanderbilt, is the right choice.

Forty 1 North: This marina-front boutique hotel in Newport is a chic option for those looking for a bit of South Beach-style buzz.

The Brenton Hotel: Opened in summer 2020, this center-of-town property still feels brand-new, with yacht-inspired interiors. Visit the beloved Brick Alley Pub nearby.

Hammetts Hotel: A stone’s throw from popular Bowen’s Wharf, this is an elegant and low-key property.

This article originally appeared in Indagare Magazine’s Summer 2023 edition, available exclusively to Indagare members.

Contact your Trip Designer or Indagare, if you are not yet a member, to start planning a trip to Newport. Our team can match you with the itineraries, accommodations and reservations that are right for you.

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