Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Road Trip: Road to (Newport) Rhode Island

Gilded Age mansions are hardly my thing. The level of ostentation, to me, feels rather outrageous and plainly absurd. Of course, that made a trip to Newport, RI a must, especially since it is such a short trip from the Boston area. With its wealth of history, New England seaside culture, and great boutique bed and breakfast options, Newport is a great place to go just to spend a nice weekend away from the hustle and bustle of work and school. Packing up the TSX for a weekend, my wife and I made some dinner reservations, booked a room at a nice B&B for a couple of nights, and took a scenic drive down to the seaport town that was once the summer home for America's wealthiest robber-barons and politicians.

Leaving from the Boston area just before noon, the sun shone brightly in the sky, although a stiff breeze kept the temperatures brisk. With tunes cranked, we weaved quickly through the lunchtime traffic clogging up the Big Dig and out onto the open road. The cool temperatures suit the TSX well as the car pulled strongly with the dense air and the manual transmission clicked smoothly into each gear. With the tires warmed up, I pointed the car south and carved through southern Massachusetts, headed for the coast.

Crossing the bridge into Newport, the seaport shimmering in the distance, a quiet tranquility settled over us as we enjoyed the view. The quaint homes on the edge of town soon gave away to larger cottages as we got closer to the waterfront. Tightly packed together, many of the homes sat empty, the cold weather predicted that weekend having clearly taken its toll on the transient populace that makes up a big part of the town's residents. Weaving through the narrow one way streets, we arrived at our accommodations for the evening and checked into our room for the night. Chatting with the innkeeper for a bit of guidance, we decided to take advantage of the remaining available sunlight and bundled ourselves up to take a walk through the town and see the seaport as the sun set out in the distance.

The next morning, another gloriously deceptive sunny day, we parked the car at the Chanler Inn and proceeded to take the Cliff Walk to the best known of the Newport Mansions, the Breakers. This enormous home, set along the rocky shoreline, embodies the ideals of the Gilded Age with its grand scale, gold-leafed everything, and over-the-top proportions. Touring the grounds, it is amazing to think of the titans of industry who have tread those very same paths, shared those very same views, although they would never deign to be at such summer homes during such bitterly cold temperatures. Probably one of the most shocking revelations is the fact that the summer season in Newport for many of the super wealthy residents lasted a mere 10 weeks. Many times, these massive homes were built purely for the purpose of 10 weeks of non-stop parties and social gatherings.

After stepping back into present and leaving behind the extravagance of the Gilded Age, we grabbed the car and took a scenic drive around the coast, a chance to see the magnificent seaside homes of the modern day wealthy. In between the large estates and historic sites are beautiful stretches of ocean views, periodically punctuated by private beaches or boutique hotels. At the far western end of the peninsula is the Castle Hill Inn, one of the most beautiful properties in the area. Its location offers nearly 180 degrees of unobstructed views and the private oceanfront lawn would be an amazing place to spend an afternoon during the summer months, watching the sailboats headed towards the harbor.

Our final morning in town, we stayed in bed a little late, enjoying the warmth of the sun streaming through the windows. After a delicious breakfast, we checked out and took the opportunity to visit one of the local vineyards. Tucked away on a dirt road on the eastern side of Aquidneck Island, Greenvale Vineyards produces a limited selection of wines from grapes grown on their property. The tasting room, housed in a restored barn, offers excellent views of the water and is a nice place to just hang out and enjoy a pairing of wine and cheese or, if you happen to visit at the right time of year, some great jazz music. Take a stroll over to the fence and you might just catch a glimpse of a couple of shaggy long-horned steers, basking in the sunlight.

Clearing our heads after a quick tasting and stroll in the afternoon sun, we collect our purchases and point the car back towards the Boston area. While the mansions are certainly an attraction, the entire region really offers a lot to couples seeking a bit of romance. All of the tiny boutique B&Bs offer plenty of choices for staying in and enjoying the warmth of your fellow travelers in cooler months or easy proximity to all manners of activities in warmer months. With all of the great scenery, I look forward to coming back at least once more, perhaps next time with two wheels, instead of four. The coastal drive would be great fun on the motorcycle and the various roads connecting the mansions would be great fun by bicycle. While this may have been a hangout for the Gilded Age robber-barons back in the day, it has become a gem for couples seeking a bit of peace and quiet and is a great destination for those in New England.

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