NEWPORT, R.I. — This seaside resort community is like the proverbial onion; peel off one layer and there is another under it, and another under that. Most New Englanders know Newport for its mansions where Vanderbilts, Astors, and other turn-of-the-20th-century commercial royalty made their summer homes. There are a healthy dozen such mansions — or cottages, as they were known — open to the public, and they have always been the leisure city's top draw.
But Newport offers plenty to visitors who don't know their Vanderbilts from their Astors and don't care. Under that layer is sporting Newport, home of tennis' first U.S. Open and yachting's America's Cup. Peel off another layer and there is colonial Newport — downtown is rife with colonial structures, and is home to the nation's oldest synagogue. Peel off another and there is recreational Newport, with beaches and boating and biking. Peel another and there is commercial Newport, where antiques sell side by side with modern handcrafts.
Following are 10 ways to experience quintessential Newport. But it wouldn't be a real Newport article if we did not start off with mansions.
1. Homes of the Fabulously Wealthy
Here is what's new. Over the last few years, four properties of the Preservation Society of Newport County — the Breakers, the Elms, Marble House, and Rosecliff — began offering self-guided audio tours. This year, the Elms updated its audio tour to reflect the points of view of the staff. When done right, they can be more insightful than human-guided tours. At Cornelius Vanderbilt's palatial Breakers, visitors hear straight from the Vanderbilts' mouths the reasons Vanderbilt women often had to change outfits seven times daily, which Vanderbilt child resentfully locked her sister's birthday guests in the dining room, and what servants gossiped about in the kitchen. The Breakers also offers an audio tour for kids. www.newportmansions.org; 401-847-1000.
Belcourt Castle, one mansion not part of the Preservation Society, is up for sale and its status as a visitor attraction for this season is uncertain. If it is open, try to visit to see a touch of medieval Europe in Rhode Island. www.belcourtcastle.org; 401-846-0669.
Rough Point, owned and operated by the Newport Restoration Foundation, is the former home of famed heiress Doris Duke, lover of dogs, antiques, and jazz. Rough Point has been a public museum since 2000. www.NewportRestoration.org; 401-847-8344.
A tip: To try to see more than two mansions in one day can lead to a case of visual indigestion. Seeing one mansion per day is ideal.
2. Get Lost
Newport has one of the nation's largest concentrations of colonial houses, and most are located in the downtown labyrinth of cobblestoned and angled streets. Some are open to the public as museums, some are the private domain of families, some contain office space and specialty shops, and some are inns and/or bed and breakfasts. Clarke Street, Spring Street, and Thames Street are prime places to leisurely amble and get lost — but bring with you one of the many complimentary maps available throughout the city to avoid getting lost literally as well as figuratively. www.TheOldQuarter.org.
3. The Nation's Oldest Synagogue
Unlike Massachusetts Bay Colony, which offered freedom of religion to all who believed exactly as they did, Rhode Island vowed religious freedom for all. The evidence still stands in the form of Touro Synagogue National Historic Site downtown, dedicated in 1762 and the oldest synagogue in the United States. None other than George Washington wrote, "To the Hebrew Congregation of Newport," the United States "would give to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance." The Loeb Visitors Center, opened in 2009, is next to the synagogue. It offers a high-tech interpretation of the tenets of religious freedom in colonial times. Push buttons to hear virtual residents of 1700s Newport discuss their approaches to differences of religion. www.tourosynagogue.org; 401-847-4794
4. Ghosts, Pirates, and a Bottle of Rum
Guided and self-guided Newport walking tours take on themes, focusing on ghostly, epicurean, pirate, tavern heritage, and more. We took a Ghost Tour, offered nightly, introducing us to haunts where people have encountered the supernatural from the 1600s to modern times; some are in the 337-year-old White Horse Tavern, home to spirits of more than one kind. Our guide Tom used a remote thermometer to access the presence of ghostly spirits in a cemetery and hovering around a colonial church steeple. Boo! Ghost tours in 2012 are offered May 1 to June 16 at 8 p.m., June 17 to Sept. 3 at 8:30 p.m., Sept. 4 to Halloween at 8 p.m., November Saturdays at 8 p.m. www.GhostsofNewport.com; 401-841-8600
5. Newport by Segway
Foot power has been getting people around Newport since the first powdered-wigged merchant stepped onto Thames Street 350-odd years ago. The antithesis is the self-propelled modern Segway. For the last several years, brothers-in-law Ryan Maccione and Andy Segalini have operated Segway of Newport and at any given time you are likely to see Segway riders on the streets, following their guide in single file like ducklings in line behind their mother. Our guide, Ryan, halted for several stops on Ocean Drive, including Fort Adams State Park and a spot offering a view of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy's Hammersmith Farm, where the current owners raise rare Dutch Belted cows, with a thick white stripe sandwiched in the middle of two wide brown stripes, earning the nickname "Oreo cows."
How hard is it to learn to ride a Segway? Not very. One manipulates the Segway with his or her posture. But stay sharp. Drift off and expect a jarring role reversal, with the Segway controlling you. www.segwayofnewport.com; 401-619-4010.
6. Tennis' Cooperstown
Newport was the site of the forerunner of the U.S. Open from 1881 through 1914. Because of that historic connection, it is the home to the sport's hall of fame. And because of the sport's nature, the International Tennis Hall of Fame is one of few halls that enshrine both genders along with citizens of numerous nations. The venue bespeaks the Gilded Age, with its Victorian shingle-style design, latticework, and riveting dark green and weathered clapboard exterior. Inside, a painting of a medieval tennis match with biblical overtones is a hallmark of tennis' infant days. A racket mold, a tribute to the 1973 circuslike Bobby Riggs-Billie Jean King tennis match, and a look at the Grand Slam tourneys take visitors to the modern day. Each of the 220 inductees is memorialized on a humble rectangular plaque, but a computer touch screen lets visitors read their biographies and watch match highlights. Visitors are invited to play on the hall's 13 grass courts. www.tennisfame.com; 401-849-3990.
7. Green Animals Topiary Garden
A property of the Preservation Society of Newport County, yet not a mansion per se, Green Animals is a menagerie populated by creatures of all sizes and crafted from all forms of shrubbery. It's also not in Newport, but 10 minutes to the north in Portsmouth. Some first-time visitors say they are disappointed at how small it is; others are surprised at how big they find it; so I'll refrain from prejudging for you. I will say it covers seven acres overlooking Narragansett Bay. More-traditional gardens supplement the beasts in green while the adjacent Brayton House, where the former owners lived, is home to original family furnishings and toys that any 19th-century child would have coveted. www.newportmansions.org; 401-847-1000.
8. Reach the Beach
Several Newport beaches are private, and if you have to ask how to join them, you are obviously not eligible for membership. Two beaches are public. Easton's Beach, owned by the City of Newport, meets the Atlantic Ocean off Memorial Boulevard, just below the start of Newport's famed Cliff Walk. Easton's is a full-service beach with lifeguards, wheelchair-accessible restrooms, changing rooms, showers, a playground, picnic tables, concession stands, sports opportunities, concerts, and a working antique carousel. www.cityofnewport.com; 401-845-5810. Fort Adams State Park has a smaller beach along Newport Harbor. It has lifeguards, wheelchair-accessible restrooms, showers, concession stands, and a boat ramp. www.RIParks.com/fortadams.htm; 401-847-2400
9. Go Sailing
Rhode Island is the Ocean State and it has some of the best sailing around. It also has Narragansett Bay. Charter companies will take you out for sightseeing tours on America's Cup yachts or classic schooners. Or, you can take a class to learn to sail. If smaller watercraft are to your liking, rent a kayak or canoe. For a list of companies, visit www.GoNewport.com.
10. Till You Drop
There are plenty of antiques shops in Newport, offering top-end American and continental antiques as well as homespun collectibles. Most are located among the maze of narrow downtown streets, with five alone on Franklin Street. Art galleries are in abundance, and, surprise, not all feature nautical themes. Most are on busy Thames Street and Bellevue Avenue. Some are on Bowen's and Bannister's wharves, also home to shops offering the latest in fashions and oddities such as Scrimshanders at 14 Bowens Wharf, where both modern scrimshaw on piano keys and antique scrimshaw on ivory are sold. Deep pockets help; bargains are rare. For a list of shops, contact www.GoNewport.com; 1-800-976-5122.