Report from Rhode Island: Spring in Newport


Pell Newport Bridge, Newport, RI, at sunset

By Robert Israel

The morning sun shone on the harbor, illuminating a row of 18th century homes in Newport’s Point neighborhood facing the Pell Newport Bridge. The bells of St. John Evangelist chimed eight, already a late hour; the lobster boats had hours before set out to sea and were now visible only as shadowy figures in Narragansett Bay, bobbing past Beavertail light, its solitary beacon blinking in the bright morning light.

When you grow up in Rhode Island, as I did, and you return to Newport, especially in the spring, you bring a perspective that is steeped in nostalgia yet tempered by a response to changes, good and bad, that you notice as you amble down familiar streets.

Newport is all about history, a history that stretches back to the days before and during the founding of our Republic, when Native Americans camped in the thickets surrounding the town, and when the occupying British fleet was docked on the wharves off Thames Street, the central artery that runs along the waterfront.

While much of that pre- and post-Colonial history has been preserved, a lot has been lost. And what has been lost has been reclaimed by a plethora of condominiums, marinas, shopping plazas, boutiques, and trendy nightspots. To say that Newport embraces the chic and expensive is an understatement. There has always been a proclivity toward the splendors that money can buy in this seaside city. But one can also enjoy this place without breaking the bank.

But there is also an independent spirit in Newport as residents continue to restore and reclaim that which has been worn down or ravaged by the passage of time.

Newport’s Cliff Walk

Newport is a sought after vacation spot, and rightfully so: it is accessible by foot or bicycle, and there are wonderful beaches never so crowded that you can’t lay back and take in the sand, surf and sky.

For those not interested in the surf, there’s a breathtaking seaside walk, the Cliff Walk (http://www.cliffwalk.com/), which, thanks to a costly renovation over many years, is now well maintained.

The 3.5-mile ramble takes you past mansions built during the Gilded Age, when the Industrial Revolution gave birth to a privileged class who set about rivaling Europe by constructing their own castles along Bellevue Avenue. These mausoleums (http://www.newportmansions.org/), open for touring, are garish examples of extravagance, yet one still marvels at their ornate usages of imported Italian marble and lavish interiors, and their generous landscaped acreages that roll down to the edge of the sea. Each mansion has its own manicured gardens, cherubic fountain statuary, and wonderfully cared for copper beech trees.

Along the route there are many places available for spring and summertime picnicking. The Cliff Walk is free and open to the public, but the mansions require an admission fee. If you purchase a single ticket, you have access to several properties, all within an easy walk. A shuttle bus is also available.

Farm-to-table Dining

Several restaurants are now boasting farm-to-table menus. Jeff Callaghan tells me that the scrumptious fare at Fluke comes from local growers and that his chef, Neil Manacle, changes the menu daily according to what’s available from local growers, including local fishermen. While farms on Aquidneck Island are not as plentiful as they once were, Fluke has an arrangement with Rhode Island Nurseries (http://www.farmfresh.org/food/farm.php?farm=77) in nearby Middletown, which supplies them with fresh produce daily.

Seated upstairs in the dining room (Fluke occupies three levels), I order locally harvested scallops, pan seared to a golden color and served with Brussels sprouts, while my partner ordered a tasty risotto made with locally grown wild mushrooms.

From the window I could see the entire length of Bowens Wharf and the harbor. As the sunset turned the harbor into a palette of color, crowds strolled under the twinkling lights suspended in the branches of the trees down the pedestrian-only wharf with its shops, restaurants and bistros.

Just a minute’s walk from Fluke the shuttle bus waits to take passengers back to Goat Island, a five-minute drive from downtown Newport. The shuttle runs all day until midnight, and brings you to the newly refurbished and affordable Hyatt Hotel.

Goat Island, connected to Aquidneck Island via a bridge, was used by the U.S. Navy during the last century as a torpedo factory, and many photographs adorning the walls of the hotel show men at work manufacturing these weapons.

My spacious room, which included a balcony, faced the Point neighborhood across the harbor, and from my side window I could see Jamestown, Beavertail lighthouse, and the town of Narragansett, where I spent many summers as a youngster. For me, it had all the accoutrements (and memories) of home.

Downstairs, the common room affords a wonderful view of the Newport Bridge. Down a corridor from the front desk is the Stillwater Spa, where one can book a full array of services designed to restore and rejuvenate.

For those seeking an affordable sampling of services, the Stillwater has a tapas menu, including facials, massage, eye treatment, and hand exfoliation, and features a soothing atmosphere in a warren of quiet rooms facing the water.

Dinner is served nightly at the Hyatt in the Windward (www.thewindwardrestaurant.com), a spacious harbor side restaurant. Service is attentive and never rushed. Fresh caught lobster, served steamed or baked, is available, as well as an array of other fresh seafood, including a scrumptious choice of raw shellfish available on the half shell. Like the Fluke restaurant in town, Windward orders its produce from local farms in Middletown, and changes its menu frequently.

Exploring Newport

Ambling down Newport’s streets, like Washington Street across the bridge from the Hyatt Goat Island, I noticed there has been considerable renovation, and some of the formerly funky streets have lost their original seatown flavor.

I miss Mack’s Clam Shack, for example, a seedy hole-in-the-wall that once sold soft shell clams by the peck, or cooked up lobster-in-the-rough style and served it with Narragansett draught beer. The town’s colorful bars like Castaways, Salt’s, and the Blue Pelican have long been shuttered. And conspicuously missing are many of the bait and tackle shops selling sea worms and mackerel and everything else you need as you head out on one of the many chartered boats for a day of deep sea fishing. If you are looking for an authentic seafaring experience aboard a charter boat that will take you out past Block Island, I recommend driving to Pt. Judith for that experience, which is a 30-minutes away across the Pell Newport Bridge into South Kingstown.

You can find the soul of Newport, it just takes a bit of exploring. I promise it will not be pricey, but you will need to first distance yourself from busy Thames Street. Take any side street and you’re in the old neighborhood. There’s a wonderful breakfast place on the corner of Franklin and Spring streets, the Franklin Spa, for instance, where the clientele is strictly local and the service is friendly. And there is a lively local arts scene worth exploring, too, with music, gallery tours, theatre performances, comedy improvisation and more (www.newportarts.org).

Spring is always less crowded in Newport. The crowds descend upon the town once school vacation begins, and all the local spots become impossible to enjoy. But in spring, you will easily find a place to park your car for free at Breton Point State Park, or elsewhere along Ocean Drive, for a seasalt walk along the rugged Atlantic coastline.

The true spirit of Newport is here, away from the tourist spots. On Ocean Drive, walking briskly, exposed to the elements, you will be greeted by the waves, rolling in relentlessly, and an open sky. It will make you glad you’ve taken the time to enjoy Newport’s ample supply of fresh air and foamy surf.

**
Robert Israel first visited Newport as a youngster and returns each year. He can be reached at risrael_97@yahoo.com.
A previous version of this piece appeared in Edge Magazine (Boston).

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