The mansions are what make Newport, RI, such a special vacation destination. I don’t mean the huge homes on Ocean Drive, although staying in one of those would certainly make for a memorable getaway. I’m talking about the Newport Mansions, 10 magnificent “cottages” held in public trust by The Preservation Society of Newport County.
These Great Houses are open to the public and offer an unparalleled window into America’s Gilded Age, which was when Newport was the hottest destination for the captains-of-industry crowd. This is world-class sightseeing — these houses have been amazingly restored to every detail.
Here are some tips for making the most of your visit to Newport.
1. If you’re only going to see one mansion, see The Breakers. It’s the most famous for a reason — it’s the biggest (138,000 square feet!) and the best of the bunch. The Vanderbilts certainly did not embrace the theme of minimalism.
2. If you’re only going to see two, see The Breakers and The Elms. The Elms boasts spectacular gardens and grounds (see below), probably to make up for not having oceanfront property.
3. If you’re going to see more than one, save The Breakers for last. It’s the classic “save for the best for last” mentality, but it really works in this case because you’re going to keep saying “It’s not as good as the Breakers” if you don’t follow this advice. Newport society was extremely competitive, and that’s exactly the kind of sentiment the Vanderbilts were hoping you would have.
4. Some of the mansions can only be seen on a guided tour. We had planned to see all of the mansions, but then we found out that some of them (Kingscote, Chateau-Sur-Mer, Isaac Bell House, Hunter House and Chepstow) require that you arrive at certain times throughout the day to take a guided tours. The others (The Breakers, The Elms, Rosecliff and Marble House) just give you an audio tour, where you type in the number of what you’re looking at. The Green Animals Topiary is sort of a hybrid in this case — the main attraction is the garden, which you see on your own time, but you can take a guided tour of the house there too.
5. No strollers are allowed in the mansions. Thank goodness for the Baby Bjorn… If strollers were allowed then we might have attempted those guided tours. We felt that we could not handle carrying a baby for that long.
6. No photos are allowed inside the mansions. So just walk through, listen to the commentary and enjoy not seeing the world through your camera lens for a change.
7. If you make it to all 10, then you’re a better sightseer than I. We had hoped to, but it just wasn’t feasible due to the guided tours. But make sure that you don’t ignore Newport’s other attractions, like the beaches and the International Tennis Hall of Fame and Museum, in your quest to see all of the mansions.
8. Consider becoming a member of The Preservation Society of Newport County. Depending on how many houses you plan to see, this could be a much cheaper option than just buying tickets. Also, all memberships are fully tax-deductible.
9. Here’s an 11th mansion to add to to your list: Rough Point. Doris Duke’s impressive home is not under the auspices of The Preservation Society of Newport County, but rather the Newport Restoration Foundation, a non-profit which she founded. You can only see the the tobacco heiress’ house via guided tour, which I did the last time I was in Newport in 2008.
Comped But Never Compromised: I received a VIP Courtesy Card from the Newport and Bristol County Convention and Visitors Bureau that granted me entry into the area’s attractions, but I am free to write whatever I want.