Most people associate Newport with the great Gilded Age “summer cottages” that began to appear on Bellevue Avenue in the mid-1800s, but its roots are much more humble. In 1636, colonists of various faiths seeking religious freedom first settled on Aquidneck Island, and Newport was established three years later. Some of the oldest religious buildings in the country can be found in Newport, including the Great Friends Meeting House (1699), the Touro Synagogue (1763), and the Seventh Day Baptist Meeting House (1730).
Newport’s early economy depended on trade and export, but the town was largely destroyed by the British during the Revolutionary War. Its recovery took a new path, and by the early 19thcentury Newport had become a resort and yachting destination. Many yacht clubs were established, including the prestigious New York Yacht Club, which brought the America’s Cup sailing competition to Newport in 1930. The Cup remained in Newport until a loss to Australia in 1983, a defeat bemoaned by Newport yachtsmen to this day.
But Newport is more than mansions and yacht clubs. Indeed, the town routinely lets its hair down at events like the Newport Jazz and Folk Festival, where boaters from all over the region enjoy front-row seats to this open-air extravaganza by anchoring in front of Fort Adams.
If you like to gawk at boats, a cruise through Newport Harbor will leave you with strained eyeballs and a sore neck. Virtually every type of craft, from gritty commercial lobster boatsto restored wooden schooners, can be seen bobbing on the moorings and along the wharves and docks. Meanwhile, inflatables, water shuttles, sailing dinghies and jet skis zip around the harbor, adding tothe frenetic scene. Somehow Newport manages to accommodate them all—mostly.
Newport is home to more than 15 marinas and boatyards, but these facilities are usually crowded during the peak summer season. While the marinas will make an effort to accommodate spontaneous arrivals, reservations are highly recommended.
Among the biggest facilities is Newport Shipyard. Located at the northern end of the harbor, it operates the largest Travelift in New England, with a 500-metric-ton capacity. That hoisting power was recently used to gain access to the bottom of Rhode Island’s first Tall Ship, the 132-foot Oliver Hazard Perry. The steel-hulled sail-training and education vessel travels to different ports around the country as her crew experiences the life of a 19th century mariner.
If docking at Newport Shipyard is too pricey for your wallet, you can still drool over the visiting vessels during a dock-and-dine breakfast or lunch at Belle’s Café, which serves delicious sandwiches and salads, and features indoor and outdoor seating (dockage is free to café patrons). The facility also hosts several regattas throughout the summer months, including the Newport-to-Bermuda Race and the Newport Brokerage Boat Show in September. And speaking of boat shows, the Newport International Boat Show, held at various locations along America’s Cup Avenue in September, is one of the region’s biggest and best.
If you’re only interested in visiting Newport for the day or a few hours, the city has you covered in a couple of ways. In the northeast corner of the harbor is Perrotti Park, which has public restrooms, short-term dockage and dinghy tie-up. It’s also home to the harbormaster’s office, where you need to check in before leaving your boat here.
Another terrific public facility is the Newport Maritime Center, which opened in 2012. Located in the heart of the Thames Street shopping district in the historic 1884 Armory building on Saint Anne’s Pier, the center offers showers, laundry facilities, a lending library, a TV, free WiFi, lifejacket loaner program and an information desk to help plan your visit. Best of all, it has a dock where boats up to 40 feet can tie up for a reasonable hourly fee, as well as a free dinghy dock and dumpsters for trash and recycling.
Once ashore on Thames Street, you’ll find everything from high-end boutiques to kitschy souvenir shops, upscale restaurants to grab-and-go places selling cookies, ice cream and cupcakes, along with a small arcade for the little ones and moped and scooter-car rentals that are perfect for taking a scenic drive along Ocean Avenue. After dark, hit the Boom Boom Room at the Clarke Cooke House for dancing or, for a more intimate dinner, try the SkyBar. Enjoy acoustic guitarists on The Landing’s waterfront patio or dance to Top 40 music in its Waterfront Room. A notable addition to the waterfront is the Aquidneck Lobster Company, which features an extensive raw bar and seafood menu, with tables overlooking the harbor.
If yachting is your passion, you’ve come to the right place, and it only gets better. In May 2015, Newport will be the only port in North America to host the Volvo Ocean Race. A few teams have already made practice runs here; if you’re lucky, you might be in town when another competitor tests the waters.
Of course, many of the city’s yacht clubs also hold their own regattas and races. The Newport Yacht Club co-hosts the bi-annual Bermuda One-Two (single-handed start to Bermuda and double-handed back to Newport) and the Jester Challenge to Plymouth, England. It also hosts Race Week, which showcases classics, one-design and handicap racing. Another local race, the Ida Lewis Distance Race, is a 30-hour competition hosted by the Ida Lewis Yacht Club. It features four different routes that take sailors to Montauk Point, Martha’s Vineyard and Block Island.
Whether sailboat or powerboat, all vessels must pass below the watchful presence of Fort Adams, which has guarded the East Passage to Narragansett Bay since 1857. Fort Adams isthe largest and most complex fort in North America. Used for military training until the Korean War, the fort is now part of a historical site that offers tours (including a “ghost walk”), lectures, concerts and other events. The sprawling park is also home to Sail Newport, a community sailing center that holds youth and adult sailing lessons, racing and regattas, sailboat rental and two boat launches with lots of free parking. It’s also home to Sail to Prevail, an organization that teaches people with disabilities how to sail.
A must-see for the hands-on boater is the centrally located IYRS School of Technology & Trades, which teaches boatbuilding and other marine trades skills, and is also home to the Museum of Yachting. The current exhibit highlights the Coronet, a 133-foot schooner yacht originally launched in 1885. Visitors can view artifacts from the yacht then walk around the actual ship as it is being restored. “The work that continues to be done makes it pretty interesting and accessible to the public,” says IYRS President Terry Nathan. “The plan for Coronet is very much like how Cangarda[a restored luxury steam yacht] is being used. It’s a private yacht, and it largely visits communities where there are organizations related to maritime history, so the boat will be a bit of a floating museum.”
The restoration is expected to continue for another three years, so you have plenty of time to check on its progress—and yet another reason to visit Newport.