A weekend in Newport, Rhode Island, heralds the promise of many things. Mansions doubling as magnificent windows into the life of the rich and famous in centuries past. Mega-yachts meticulously maintained and polished to perfection.
Beaches beyond beautiful and beautiful people basking in a golden glow. Cavernous cottages reigning unrivaled over the oceanfront Cliff Walk. Cocktails and canapes atop Castle Hill. Harbor-front haunts and seafood chowders impossible to resist. And a host of privileged pastimes that welcome summertime guests eager to be seen in the hottest scene in New England.
The allure of Newport dates back centuries to the gilded age of the 19th century when the likes of the Roosevelts, the Vanderbilts, the Astors and the Morgans summered here with their private staffs in tow to cater extravagant parties for their well-heeled guests. In between their lavish brunches and sunset soirees, they played tennis, raced yachts and sailed along the storied shores of Narragansett Bay, carefree and coddled, fashionably dressed, cocktails in hand and fair winds at their backs.
With a few notable exceptions that may have the blue-blooded scions of Newport rolling over in their graves, it’s not all that different today. Visitors can make their way inside the once-private halls of the Marble House, the Breakers and Rose Cottage without a hand-embossed personal invitation. Multimillion-dollar yachts are now available for charter and elaborate dinners are readily served in tony restaurants inviting with chef-prepared haute cuisine in elegant settings. No matter if it’s your first time in Newport or your next time, a real-life taste of its privileged parties never fails to evoke a Cinderella-effect that lingers long after you return home.
I had the good fortune of spending three August nights in Newport this year in a hopeful post-pandemic reverie, mingling with mariners, cocktailing with the country club set, and wining and dining to my heart’s delight in a mansion built by Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt in 1909 at the height of the Gilded Age. Avoiding crowds of tourists who ventured here to partake in all the portside pleasures of Newport Harbor after a forced year-long quarantine was made infinitely easier by the itinerary and invitations we had in place for our visit. A sunset cruise aboard a private sailboat in the Bay, an exclusive lobster luncheon aboard an elegant Trumpy yacht, a cocktail reception at the esteemed New York Yacht Club, and a VIP dinner at The Vanderbilt, Auberge Resorts Collection worthy of writing home about.
Nautical passions take center stage here both on and offshore. Sails unfurled, our little sailboat glided us effortlessly past fabled oceanfront estates that fortunes built, sharing star-lit views once reserved for the likes of Jackie Kennedy and Jay Leno whose grand homes line the shore. The Trumpy yacht we had lunch on the next day was a study in elegance. In their heyday, Trumpys were de rigueur for members of aristocracy, among them aviation pioneer Howard Hughes, the Chrysler family and the Duponts. Today, with just 400 in existence, these yachts are gleaming in mahogany and meticulously cared for by live-in crews and a captain who make sure their guests indulge in the good life. The owners of the Enticer sent a tender to pick us up as they ferried us to another time and place, where freshly made Aperol spritzes, chilled champagne and seafood freshly caught welcomed us aboard. Underdressed in borrowed bathing suits in preparation for an impromptu unexpected swim back to our sailboat, moored nearby, we made an unforgettable entrance that is the stuff of stories yet to come. But our hosts remained politely unfazed, reflecting an unpretentious snapshot of the Newport of yesterday and the Newport of today.
The New York Yacht Club is equally positioned at the top of the social scene, counting among its members the captains of industry, senators and presidents as well as the owners of racing yachts vying for the coveted America’s Cup, the pinnacle of yachting. Cocktails here are a festive black-tie affair, with ladies decked out in designer dresses and dress whites for the gents, making a fashion statement that needs no words. We enjoyed cocktails on the terrace overlooking the harbor as night fell and the lights at sea twinkled like diamonds. That there was a major hurricane brewing and expected to hit Newport the next morning was not on our minds or agenda. We were definitely someplace else, far away from worldly cares.
Dawn broke in shattered trees, scattered leaves and sailboats stranded on rocky beaches where we spent the night in nearby Jamestown. Winds gusted at 65 miles per hour, closing the Claiborne Pell Bridge between our island retreat and Newport across the bay for a good part of the day. Gratefully, Hurricane Henri made a quick appearance on land before making a fast getaway out to sea. Newport was spared save for a stray branch or two and rain-soaked streets that puddled in cobblestoned pools. And, lucky for us, our dinner reservations at The Vanderbilt that evening were still standing too.
Overlooking 18th-century Trinity Church, the Vanderbilt sits on an unassuming side street in the heart of Newport’s historic district, where a small sign quietly announces your arrival at the Beaux Arts mansion on Mary Street. Blink and you might miss it. Built in 1909 by Alfred Vanderbilt, the great-grandson of Cornelius, who made his fortune in shipping and railroads and made his family one of the wealthiest in the nation and the world, the house was meant as a summer retreat for a lady love. When she tragically passed away, a grieving Vanderbilt donated the property to the city of Newport, just a few years before he perished, heroically it is said, aboard the ill-fated Lusitania. The mansion was reborn as a Grace hotel, before becoming part of the Auberges Resorts Collection of distinctive properties after a strategic partnership with the luxury hospitality group in 2018.
The Vanderbilt legacy lives on inside this boutique hotel, in the portraits and maritime artwork that line the walls, in the wainscoted wood paneled walls, in the well-stocked library lined with books of all genres, in the billiards room blazing in red, in the parlor with its secret bar, in the nooks and crannies tucked away throughout for intimate tête-a-têtes. Outside, a perfectly posed patio, lush with manicured gardens and chaise lounges at the ready for breakfast and tea by day, sits off the window-walled Conservatory, where lighter fare and turn of the century cocktails are served up for casual dining pleasures.
We were shown to our table inside the newly redesigned Dining Room in the front of the house, a mecca for inspired gastropub fare with special menu items creatively curated by Auberges Resorts Collection’s Mayflower Inn chef-in-residence, April Bloomfield. Bloomfield’s forward-thinking cuisine pairs the bounty of the sea and land with an innovative take on approachable New England classics that upends any preconceptions you may have about hotel dining.
Dressed in navy blue, almost black, walls, with original hardwood floors richly patinaed over the centuries, and lit by golden-shaded sconces and a wood burning fireplace, everything about this culinary tavern exuded a club-like ambiance, right down to its handsome leather chairs. Not surprisingly, the staff, attentive and amiable, made us feel like honored guests, sharing knowledgeable tidbits about the menu that upped our expectations of our dining experience.
We began the evening with drinks like the locals do. The cocktail culture in Newport is as sophisticated as its affluent locals. The Apricot Spritz and the Turkish Expresso we sampled hit a new high as far as before-dinner drinks go. We were smitten at our first sips. Were it not for the addicting Puffed Beet Chips that hinted at the food yet to come, we could have been happy drinking our dinner.
Our first course celebrated seafood in ways we had never before tasted. Think Rhode Island’s signature clam chowder, but lighten it up with clear broth, flavor it with hints of leek oil and fish fume, add potatoes, bacon and a few well-chosen succulent clams and get ready to reimagine a local soup staple that rendered us speechless. Our rendezvous with the Blue Hill Mussels on toast, crisp baguettes topped with tomato, smoked paprika and aioli that seduced Maine’s coveted mollusks, left us in ecstasy. The Smoked Salmon, wrapped around deep-fried duck fat potatoes, candied coriander and topped with decadent crème fraiche, is a telling chef specialty. Exceptionally exciting, it serves as the perfect calling card for the culinary innovations April Bloomfield is known for.
Senses soaring, we chose down-to-earth, pub stand-bys for our main course, but they too were anything but ordinary. Bedded on smoked chick peas, sautéed kale and kissed by limes, my chicken was bathed in yogurt and infused with cilantro, green mango and warms spices for melt in your mouth memories. Scott ordered the Vandy Burger, hand-pattied beef smothered in Harvest Moon cheese sauce, bacon and garlic aioli and served with house made French Fries, that ramped this go-to American comfort food up a notch by anyone’s standards.
Dessert manifested in a traditional cheese plate and bite-sized beignets, dream-coated in chocolate hazelnut and trimmed with fresh berries. We sat there in sated silence, dazzled by the Newport spin on dining like the locals do.
We returned home to our bed and breakfast across the bay in a hidden gem of a New England coastal town. Lisa Sallee, the owner of the Lionel Champlin Guest House in Jamesport and a 20+-year veteran of the hospitality business, had left her freshly baked cookies out for us. Her recipes are locally sourced, pretty much sugar free and made from thoughtful ingredients that turned our late-night indulgence into a healthful habit that moms everywhere would approve of. We took a few and headed upstairs to bed.
As we hugged our hostess goodbye the next morning, she warmly invited us back as all the grand hostesses of Newport did ever since they first opened their summer “cottages” to guests in the Gilded Age. We’ll be back we promised her, eager to reimagine another weekend in Newport. ☐
About Dining at The Vanderbilt, Auberge Resorts Collection
Located at 41 Mary Street in Newport, Rhode Island, The Vanderbilt is home to 33 designer-inspired guest rooms, a luxury spa and three distinctive dining venues, The Dining Room at the Vanderbilt, The Garden and The Conservatory, along with a refreshed menu and eye-catching design at the popular Roof Deck. For more information and to make a reservation, visit aubergeresorts.com/vanderbilt or call +1-401-846-6200.