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Hiking: Rhode Island

A Walk Into Newport History

June 16, 1996|JOHN McKINNEY

Newport is already known for its sailing, jazz festival, Gilded Age mansions and International Tennis Hall of Fame. If Anita Rafael has her way, the resort town will add walking to its list of attractions.

"Newport is a great place to walk because you can get almost anywhere in 20 to 30 minutes maximum, get an intimate view of Colonial history, plus see parts of the town banned to commercial traffic," says Rafael, the guiding force behind Newport on Foot, a walking tour company. "Of course, another good reason to walk Newport is that it's impossible to drive here," she adds.

While many visitors enjoy Rafael's guided tours or strolling through town on their own, some will no doubt wind up walking against their will, because driving, at least in the historic district, is so difficult. With summer traffic jams and a scarcity of parking, the best advice offered to someone contemplating a drive in this town of 17th century streets is "Don't."

Religious refugees from England settled in Newport in 1639. The freedom of religion advocated by Rhode Island founder Roger Williams is a major theme of one of Rafael's tours, called, "What Style Is That Church?" Walkers visit several churches, a Quaker Meeting House and Newport's Touro Synagogue, the nation's first, founded by Spanish Jews fleeing the Inquisition.

History in its various interpretations comes alive in Rafael's other specialty tours, which include a waterfront jaunt "Merchants, Mariners and Molasses," the "Cliff Walk Tour," and "Ghost Stories and Graveyards," which includes a demonstration of proper gravestone-rubbing technique.

This summer, the Newport Historical Society is placing costumed guides in the streets to lead short walking tours. The visitors center offers maps and brochures to help with a self-guided walk of Newport.

A century after the Revolutionary War, what was once down and out became rich and famous. Newport was reborn a resort during the Gilded Age when the nation's very, very rich constructed ornate mansions and villas along Bellvue Avenue and upon the dramatic cliffs overlooking the ocean. Ten of these mansions are open to guided tours (with a fee for each).

Cliff Walk is a three-mile stroll along the oceanfront bluffs that front these magnificent homes. It was a grand promenade 100 years ago, and remains a terrific walk today. For a fictional account of the Gilded Age, look at "Death on the Cliff Walk" (Zebra Books, $4.95) by Mary Kruge. In this mystery, homicide detective Matt Devlin confronts high society as he tries to solve the murders of several maids done-in along the Cliff Walk.

Along with views of the rich real estate, Cliff Walk also boasts some natural attractions. Beach rose, goldenrod, violet (the state flower) and sweet-smelling honeysuckle splash the cliffs with color. (Do watch out for some tenacious clumps of poison ivy that managed to survive eradication efforts.)

Use caution because some stretches are on a narrow walkway high on the precipitous cliffs. The first mile is mostly paved, the second mile is sporadically paved, and the third mile requires some rock-hopping down by the shore. Cliff Walk, awarded National Recreation Trail status by the National Park Service, is (sometimes) maintained by the Army Corps of Engineers, as well as state and local governments.

The first mansion on your right is The Breakers, usually regarded as Newport's most splendid. Built in 1895, the 70-room summer cottage of Cornelius Vanderbilt is a late Renaissance-looking edifice that includes extensive grounds overlooking the Atlantic.

Cliff Walk passes Astor's Beechwood Mansion, one of Newport's oldest summer cottages, owned by queen of society Caroline Schemerhorn Astor, who formed "The 400," America's first social register.

The walk ends at Bailey's Beach, onetime private beach of the elite. You can double your pleasure by returning the way you came or improvise a route along the pricey residential streets back to town.


Cliff Walk

WHERE: Newport Rhode Island.

DISTANCE: 3 miles one-way. Guided tour of Newport is a one-mile walk.

TERRAIN: Historic Newport and its ocean shore.

HIGHLIGHTS: Colonial and Gilded Age history.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Newport on Foot at (401) 846-5391; Newport County Convention and Visitors Bureau, 23 America's Cup Avenue, Newport, RI 02840 or tel.(800) 326-6030.

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