Newport, Rhode Island is known its notable music scene with world-renowned folk and jazz festivals, as an epicenter of sailing culture (longtime home of the America’s Cup) and the party town any sailor would want in a home port, for the Tennis Hall of Fame, but mostly, Newport is famous for its mansions. Those mansions, built as summer “cottages” by wealthy families like the Vanderbilts, are massive and interesting to tour if you want to get a sense for how the wealthy lived in the Gilded Age of 1870 to 1910. Industrial titans and savvy global traders moved here to be where other wealthy people lived—to be amongst their peers in net worth.
The phrase “The Gilded Age” was coined by Mark Twain, and not as a complement. He was pointing to the thin veneer of wealth that hid a lot of problems underneath it. It has taken on a romanticized connotation since then, but we ought to remember that these were just people with the same issues we all face in families and relationships, with the blessing and curse that money layers into the mix. I’m not a fan of wealth politics or keeping up with the Jones as a lifestyle choice, but I can appreciate the craftsmanship of the mansions and the wealth required to build and maintain them.
The strip of land between this collection of Gilded Age and modern-day mansions and the sea is public domain. It’s here that you’ll find the Cliff Walk. Sections of the Cliff Walk are meant for everyone to traverse. You could easily walk or roll a wheelchair on most of the paved sections between Memorial Drive and 40 Steps, the staircase that descends to the ocean. The section between Salve Regina University and The Breakers is equally well-suited for accessibility. Beyond that the path becomes best for the sure-footed. If you don’t love hopping between boulders there are sections of the Cliff Walk that aren’t for you. But there’s something for everyone.
For me, the magic of the Cliff Walk isn’t just the glimpses of manicured lawns and mansions, it’s the diversity of the walk itself. At times paved walkway, other times rock scramble or beach sand. Even a couple of tunnels to move the public quietly through the historic and high end real estate above. It’s a fascinating place to traverse, taking you from one beach to another past billions of dollars of American wealth.
The Cliff Walk is officially 3 1/2 miles long, but we extended it to almost 6 miles, from Old Town to the Eaton’s Beach starting point, and from the end at Baily’s Beach along Bellevue Avenue to Rosecliff Mansion. On a crisp and sunny November day it wasn’t crowded but it was surely beautiful. From Rosecliff it’s an easy walk to The Breakers, the largest of the mansions and the flagship of Newport’s Gilded Age “cottages”. The fact that they called them cottages tells you all you need to know about the vast wealth of the families who visited Newport each summer.
Ultimately, a stay in Newport is never quite long enough. I didn’t have a summer to mingle with the locals, but a mere weekend. The Cliff Walk was a great lynchpin stringing together an epic walking day in the Celestial City. It justified some of the great dining experiences we had, and have us thinking about a return trip sometime soon.