By Ann-Marie Adams, Staff Writer
NEWPORT, R.I. — Travel guru Arthur Frommer once observed that tourists don’t go to a city that has lost its soul. True soul, he said, is embodied in the older buildings that render a place unique. Moreover, it’s the architecture and ambiance of the locale that distinguish one city from the next. And in Newport, R.I. that much is true.
On a crisp fall day, a trolley ride around this quaint city on the Narragansett Bay makes the area feel like someplace – and not just any place. When you hop aboard the Viking Tours trolley parked at the Rhode Island Visitors Center depot, immediately, you start to discover the history and histrionics that laid the foundation of this place. Nearby is the first settlement in Rhode Island, which dates back to 1639. The settlement marks the beginning of a major 18th-century slave port city, and has the highest number of surviving colonial buildings in the United States.
Less than a mile away are several remarkable buildings surrounding the trapezoid town square. One of the most significant architectural gems is the Touro Synagogue, the oldest standing synagogue in the country. Its origin traces back to the philosophy of George Washington, who helped craft tenets in the U.S. Constitution. In his August 18, 1790 letter to the growing Jewish population, whose forefathers emigrated from Barbados in 1658, Washington planted the seed of religious tolerance and encouraged the Hebrews to luxuriate in their difference. This founding father wrote his letter after Rhode Island ratified the constitution that year, saying: “Everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree. And there should be none to make him afraid.”
Moreover, the founding father and the first president of the U.S. disavowed bigotry and persecution because of difference or otherness: He writes: “For happily the Government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”
After learning such rich history that gives meaning to the present, it’s easy for the bosom to heave with pride and love for country as the trolley makes its way around what is now called Washington Square, Newport’s first town center. And there you can stay for at least two hours to marvel at a place and its past. In fact, the George Washington Tavern is only a stone throw away from the synagogue. Now restored and painted burgundy with white trimmings, the tavern serves as a central meeting location for today’s politicos, business people and curious tourists.
Also nearby is the first house of worship in Rhode Island, the Quaker Meeting House built in 1699. But the centerpiece of this tour is arguably the 18th century Newport Mansions. More than 300 years of America’s heritage – charming inns, a grand collection of great hotels, and iconic resorts, each with a treasured story to savor, celebrate, and share, including Jacqueline Bouvier’s residence at the Hammersmith Farm, a Victorian mansion on a hill that slopes toward the bay.
Some of the most impressive mansions include the Breakers, The Elms and Marble House, all historic Landmarks, which will be decorated with poinsettias and evergreens for Christmas at the Mansions now through Jan. 5, 2014.
Newport has long been a playground for the rich and famous with its gracious mansions lining the Cliff Walk overlooking Newport Beach. But for a relatively modest fee, visitors can stay at the Newport Beach Hotel. Built in 1940, the gracious gambrel-style inn overlooks Newport Beach. An indoor pool, whirlpool, roof-top hot tub, fire pit and spa services come with panoramic water views. Bordered by the famous Cliff Walk next to the crescent-shaped beach, the boutique hotel is close to the world-renowned mansions on one side and the beach cottages of the Esplanade on the other.
About 30 minutes from Newport is one of the most charming little cities in America: Bristol, R.I.
Bristol, the home the DeWolf Tavern, was one of the largest slave cities in New England. Like Newport, Bristol was a major stop along the Atlantic Slave Trade route. Ships sailed from that port to Africa and to the Caribbean and then back to New England, exchanging captured Africans or “black cargoes” for molasses, sugar and rum. In fact, Rhode Island, the smallest state in the union, had about 30 rum distilleries, more than Newport which had 22 alone. During the 18th and 19th century, the DeWolfs traded more than 10,000 enslaved Africans.
Today, Bristol is an exquisite tourist attraction along the Narragansett Bay with traces of its past. After a leisurely drive from Newport to Bristol, visitors will encounter red, blue and white medians in the narrow road that leads to the center of town. On the way is the first fine-dinning restaurant in the town, The Lobster Pot, where you can have an exquisite feast that is more than worth a stop to enjoy the double-barrel lobster, their Indian pudding or Jamaican coffee.
In search for a respite from the bustling cities, visitors can stay a night at the Bristol Harbor Inn, facingNarragansett Bay. The Harbor Inn is a boutique hotel near quaint shops and next to DeWolf’s Tavern, which serves a hearty English breakfast in the morning to visitors before they explore the shops along the bay.
For passing the time, sitting on the dock of the Bay brings serenity and can make anyone feel far removed from the site’s distant past, yet still reminiscent of its troubled history as boats glide along the bay toward the barn that once belonged to James DeWolf, head of the largest slave trading family in all of North America. That serene and hauntingly beautiful surrounding is now one of the most prized attractions in New England.
Knowing the region’s history and sensing its soul is only part of the joy that comes from a visit to America’s “most patriotic city.”
Photos by Jennifer R. Balch.
If you go,