NEWPORT, R.I — Seldom will you find a more comfortable and relaxed combination of rich and patrician America mixed with the simple, small-town New England life than here on an island in Narragansett Bay.
Newport, erstwhile permanent home of the America's Cup yacht races, has seen it all, from the courtly manner of that perennial challenger, the Scottish tea mogul Sir Thomas Lipton, to the rambunctious antics of yet another mogul, Ted Turner.
From the Colonial era, when more than 500 trading ships sailed from its harbor, to Victorian and turn-of-the-century days, Newport grew in prestige to become the de rigueur playground of the rich and powerful, with legendary mansions going up that cost as much as $200,000 for yearly upkeep.
Yet while the Vanderbilts and Astors built "cottages" as costly as $11 million and as large as 72 rooms, played tennis in flannel whites and sipped cool drinks on the aft decks of glistening yachts, other members of the community led a more commonplace existence.
And so it is today, with some of the mansions still lived in and luxurious yachts still riding in the harbor. Yet on every other block it seems that kids are selling homemade lemonade, kite flying is a civic craze and you might just see a jaunty sailor entering Buddy's Tattoo Parlor downtown to have a girlfriend immortalized with a pectoral portrait.
Getting here: Fly USAir to Providence, R.I., and take a regularly-scheduled shuttle van to Newport in 45 minutes. Or fly to Boston and take a Bonanza bus for the 90-minute ride.
How long/how much? Two days should do it, but just barely. Lodging costs are moderate, dining moderate and up.
A few fast facts: If you drive into town, park your car at the Gateway Visitors Center for $8 a day, then walk the town or take a trolley; driving the narrow, congested streets is difficult. Early spring is rainy but it gets drier in May, while foliage season is later than in northern New England.
Getting settled in: The Victorian Ladies (63 Memorial Blvd.; $75-$115 B&B double) is one of the most charming B&Bs we've ever seen. Innkeepers Donald and Helene O'Neill are enthusiastic and gracious hosts, in addition to being superb cooks.
Bedrooms, which were decorated by Helene in soft, flowered fabrics, have antiques, crystal and lots of plants. The sunny and cheerful dining room also has lots of fresh flowers to go with a typical breakfast of fresh fruit compote, egg casserole with peppers, homemade sausage patties, an irresistible rice pudding and two kinds of home-baked bread. Victorian Ladies is a real find.
The Viking (One Bellevue Ave.; $79-$149 double) is a hotel in the Federal Colonial style built in the 1920s at the end of famed Ocean Drive, where many of the old mansions are, so that owners would have a suitable place to put guests who had stayed beyond their welcome.
It has recently been completely renovated into a fresh and comfortable hotel, with heated pool and sauna, exercise room and a very fine restaurant. Ask about The Viking's many special seasonal packages.
La Forge Cottage (96 Pelham St.; $75-$125 B&B double), owned and run by a German husband and his French wife, is a century-old, imposing house with international flags flying from the facade and award-winning flowers cascading from window boxes. Full breakfasts of bacon, eggs, omelets and such are taken to the large rooms in continental fashion, and the Christmas season here is said to be most festive.
Regional food: Being on the coast you'll have your fill of fresh and marvelous New England seafood, particularly chowders, lobster, swordfish and scrod.
There's a substantial community of Italians and Portuguese here, which means excellent sausages and breads. Yet a Rhode Island specialty is its renowned johnnycake, made of white flint cornmeal.
Good dining: Muriel's (Spring and Touro streets) has, for the last three years, won the award given for turning out the best chowders in Newport. It's an informal place, with manikins dressed in stylishly seasonal clothing sitting at tables or draped over the piano, all very fetching. The menu is heavy on seafood, pastas, chops and chicken.
White Horse Tavern (Marlborough and Farewell streets), built in 1673 and said to be America's oldest tavern, is all charm and atmosphere, with uneven wooden floors, original fireplaces, candles and hurricane lamps.
Start with the tavern's ratatouille of wild mushrooms, then move on to medallions of veal with sweetbreads, beef Wellington or lobster sauteed with fresh basil, brandy and cream. Main-course prices run $18 to $26.
La Forge restaurant (186 Bellevue Ave.) is a sister building to the Victorian Newport Casino (see below), built in 1880. La Forge has The Casino Room (a pub in the Dublin style) and The Porch, where you dine at terrace tables overlooking the grass tennis courts of the Tennis Hall of Fame next door.