There's more to this Rhode Island town than yachts and mansions—it's nine separate cities rolled into one.
Sara Gray

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

By Peter Mandel

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

The "Nine City" legend comes from Theophilus North, a novel by Thornton Wilder published in1973. The Pulitzer Prize winner drew on his experience living inthe town as a young man. To tour his domain, lace up your bestsneakers. You're going to be padding around nine worlds layeredwithin 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 Englishsettlers (Newport was founded in 1639). But a simple cylinder ofstone presents more drama. Known as The Viking Tower or Old StoneMill, 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 foryourself.

Fast-forward a few years to Newport's Second City, an "18th-century town." You must see TouroSynagogue, the country's oldest, built 245 years ago. Touro's cleanlines interest architecture fans, and it's famous as a symbol ofAmerican religious freedom. Shortly before the Bill of Rightspassed, President George Washington sent a letter to the worriedcongregation promising the new government would "give to bigotry nosanction, to persecution no assistance."

Experiencing Newport's Third City, which is all about yachts and regattas, meansgetting out on the water. One easy way: a tour on Adirondack II, a traditionally rigged 60-passenger schoonerbuilt of cedar, teak, fir, and mahogany. Daily sailings breezeacross Narragansett Bay, past historic lighthouses and nearHammersmith Farm (Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis' childhood home). Signup for sea spray, a whiff of fresh varnish, and $1 glasses ofsparkling 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 amecca for summertime crowds snapping photos of tall-ship flotillasand attending the world-class JVC Jazz Festival Newport.

Always preppy, Newport would seem the last place for a GreenwichVillage-style artists colony, its Fifth City. Henry James' family lived here, as did JuliaWard Howe, author of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." To slipinto this world, attend a chamber music concert at the NewportMusic Festival. The July event fills grand salons of Gilded Agesummer "cottages" with arpeggios and grace notes, not to mentioneager listeners.

You might think you know Newport's Sixth City: the lineup of mansions built for residentAstors, Vanderbilts, and others. But see its scandalous side atClarendon Court, which became infamous in the 1980s when ownerMartha "Sunny" von Bulow was found sprawled on the floor in anirreversible coma. Her husband, Claus, was convicted (and then, ina second trial, acquitted) of trying to kill her with an overdoseof 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 ofthe house in which they live except to wash it" make up the Seventh City. The best way to see it is to stroll thecoastside Cliff Walk. Near the southern end, you'll find "the 40steps" leading to a platform above the sea. These steps once hosteda crowd: Butlers and footmen came to take breaks out of view oftheir employers.

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

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

Set Sail With Us

Each year, the "sailing capital of the world" hosts NewEngland's largest, longest-running multiclass boating event. Therace, which becomes the Coastal Living Newport Regatta this year, draws yachtsmenfrom the United States and abroad to the waters of Narragansett Bayfor a weekend of competition and tradition. It's organized by SailNewport, a nonprofit group dedicated to spreading the sport beyondthe yacht club to include those of all ages and economicbrackets.

The regatta holds firmly to the organization's public-accessmission. "Anyone can participate," says Sail Newport executivedirector Brad Read. "You duke it out with some of the best sailorsin the world."

Spectators can watch more than 300 boats leave and enter theharbor each morning. Landlubbers can also view offshore racingcircles from the tip of Fort Adams and from the Goat Island andJamestown shorelines. "It's an exciting time," Brad says. "Whetheron 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.

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