Newport Times Nine

There's more to this Rhode Island town than yachts and mansions-it's nine separate cities rolled into one.
Text by Peter Mandel

A visit to Newport, Rhode Island, takes time. You were thinking a quick walk through The Breakers or another summer mansion? Think again. Newport, you see, has nine cities to explore.

The "Nine City" legend comes from Theophilus North, a novel by Thornton Wilder published in 1973. The Pulitzer Prize winner drew on his experience living in the town as a young man. To tour his domain, lace up your best sneakers. You're going to be padding around nine worlds layered within this resort town of 26,000 people.

Wilder describes Newport's First City as what remains of the town's earliest life. Historic homes show off cornices and clapboard built by English settlers (Newport was founded in 1639). But a simple cylinder of stone presents more drama. Known as The Viking Tower or Old Stone Mill, this 24-foot fieldstone structure in Touro Park is a mystery. Some say Vikings built it when they landed here 1,000 years ago. Others date it to around 1660 and credit Governor Benedict Arnold, great-grandfather of the famous traitor. Visit and decide for yourself.

Fast-forward a few years to Newport's Second City, an "18th-century town." You must see Touro Synagogue, the country's oldest, built 245 years ago. Touro's clean lines interest architecture fans, and it's famous as a symbol of American religious freedom. Shortly before the Bill of Rights passed, President George Washington sent a letter to the worried congregation promising the new government would "give to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance."

Experiencing Newport's Third City, which is all about yachts and regattas, means getting out on the water. One easy way: a tour on Adirondack II, a traditionally rigged 60-passenger schooner built of cedar, teak, fir, and mahogany. Daily sailings breeze across Narragansett Bay, past historic lighthouses and near Hammersmith Farm (Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis' childhood home). Sign up for sea spray, a whiff of fresh varnish, and $1 glasses of sparkling wine.

Newport's Fourth City shows its military side. For history and views, check out Fort Adams, the nation's largest coastal fortification, which was pressed into service during the Civil War, Spanish-American War, World War I, and World War II. Now it's a mecca for summertime crowds snapping photos of tall-ship flotillas and attending the world-class JVC Jazz Festival Newport.

Always preppy, Newport would seem the last place for a Greenwich Village-style artists colony, its Fifth City. Henry James' family lived here, as did Julia Ward Howe, author of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." To slip into this world, attend a chamber music concert at the Newport Music Festival. The July event fills grand salons of Gilded Age summer "cottages" with arpeggios and grace notes, not to mention eager listeners.

You might think you know Newport's Sixth City: the lineup of mansions built for resident Astors, Vanderbilts, and others. But see its scandalous side at Clarendon Court, which became infamous in the 1980s when owner Martha "Sunny" von Bulow was found sprawled on the floor in an irreversible coma. Her husband, Claus, was convicted (and then, in a second trial, acquitted) of trying to kill her with an overdose of insulin. The case, featured in the 1990 movie Reversal of Fortune, still provokes debates today.

Servants who, in Wilder's words, "never enter the front door of the house in which they live except to wash it" make up the Seventh City. The best way to see it is to stroll the coastside Cliff Walk. Near the southern end, you'll find "the 40 steps" leading to a platform above the sea. These steps once hosted a crowd: Butlers and footmen came to take breaks out of view of their employers.

Newport's Eighth City consists of gate crashers, fortune hunters, and "prying journalists." You'll find them all at Bannister's Wharf, a cluster of upscale shops along the city's waterfront. Scan the scene from Clarke Cooke House restaurant―the second floor provides a seagull's-eye view.

Finally there is Newport's Ninth City, "the American middle-class town ... with little attention to spare for the eight cities so close to it," Wilder writes. Seeing it means no big hotels and no bus tours. Find a small inn within walking distance of the places where locals eat and shop. Try the Almondy Bed & Breakfast Inn, a restored 1890s house in downtown Newport. Around it you'll find normal houses, normal people. Newporters, like Theophilus North. And―now that you've been to all Nine Cities―like you, too.

Set Sail With Us

Each year, the "sailing capital of the world" hosts New England's largest, longest-running multiclass boating event. The race, which becomes the Coastal Living Newport Regatta this year, draws yachtsmen from the United States and abroad to the waters of Narragansett Bay for a weekend of competition and tradition. It's organized by Sail Newport, a nonprofit group dedicated to spreading the sport beyond the yacht club to include those of all ages and economic brackets.

The regatta holds firmly to the organization's public-access mission. "Anyone can participate," says Sail Newport executive director Brad Read. "You duke it out with some of the best sailors in the world."

Spectators can watch more than 300 boats leave and enter the harbor each morning. Landlubbers can also view offshore racing circles from the tip of Fort Adams and from the Goat Island and Jamestown shorelines. "It's an exciting time," Brad says. "Whether on land or on the water, you feel the high energy of sailing." ― Allen B. Bunting

For an event schedule and more information, visit coastallivingnewportregatta.org.