How Newport Became the Most Exciting Beach Town in New England

Beyond the Gilded Age mansions, a playful, bohemian spirit is stirring in the storied Rhode Island seaside city.
March 15, 2018

Everyone says the best way to see Newport is by boat, and less than two hours after arriving in town, I was invited onto one. Not one of the luxury yachts I associated with this famously tony summer destination, but a 21-foot center-console fishing boat belonging to Tom McGowan, one of the owners of a local gluten-free vodka brand called Keel. I’d met him through his girlfriend, Jill Rizzo, a florist whose boho arrangements might be described as Dutch Masters meets farmhouse. 

It was August, and the sun was just beginning to set as we opened up a bottle of Prosecco and cruised around Narragansett Bay. "There's Harbour Court, the summer outpost of the New York Yacht Club," McGowan yelled over the motor, pointing at a rambling stone manor fronted by an expanse of immaculate grass. Just to the left, built over a limestone ledge a little ways from shore, was the clubhouse of the Ida Lewis Yacht Club, named after a Victorian-era lighthouse keeper famous for how many people she rescued. Farther along was the Forty 1° North, a gracious luxury hotel cofounded by the late Campbell Soup heiress Dorrance "Dodo" Hamilton, and the 19th-century spire of St. Mary's Church, where in 1953 John F. Kennedy married Jacqueline Bouvier.

History in Newport is ubiquitous — and enjoyable. The identity of the little New England town, beyond the beaches and the lobster shacks, has long been tied up with its Gilded Age mansions, its fancy boats and cars. People come here to gawk at how America's elite — the Vanderbilts, the Astors, the Morgans — lived more than a century ago. But Newport is more than a well-preserved relic. Beyond the touristy fudge shops and T-shirt stores on Thames Street, there's a city with real personality waiting to be discovered, one with chic bistros, craft-cocktail bars, and the same kind of authentic blending of surf and fishing culture for which Montauk, on the eastern tip of Long Island, has long been known. 

"Don't tell me Newport is trendy now," groaned Camilla Hammer, a friend who grew up summering there, when I told her I was writing a story about the city. Perhaps not yet, but Newport is becoming an increasingly appealing Northeastern beach alternative to the overcrowded Hamptons or Cape Cod. That's thanks in part to newcomers, like McGowan, who've set up businesses in Newport after being drawn in by the natural beauty and quality of life. There are also plenty of native Newporters who've returned after getting burned out by big-city life — like Rizzo, who brought home Studio Choo, the flower shop she cofounded in San Francisco. Rizzo grew up in the Fifth Ward, a working-class Irish neighborhood where many of the domestics who worked in the great mansions settled in the 19th century. When she was younger, the city felt alive to her only during summer, when it filled with visitors who came for events like the celebrated annual jazz festival. "Now it's a year-round town," she told me.

Floral designer Jill Rizzo of Studio Choo prepares an arrangement at one of Newport’s historic estates.
Brian W. Ferry

Given Newport's Montauk vibe, perhaps it's not surprising that an actual Montauk business has recently arrived in town. Last spring, Gurney's, the hotel and spa known for its brand of carefully disheveled luxury, opened a second location here. It's in a former Hyatt on Goat Island, which is connected to downtown Newport by a short bridge and was once inhabited by, yes, goats. I got there by taking a train to Kingston, Rhode Island, followed by a short car ride, though high rollers can access the property via seaplane from Manhattan in less than an hour. When I arrived, two couples in the lobby were sipping Aperol Spritzes and snacking on avocado tartines while debating the finer points of the Bruce Springsteen catalogue. After getting settled in my room, which had a view of the harbor and Newport beyond, I went on my sunset boat trip with McGowan and Rizzo before making my way back to Gurney's for dinner at Scarpetta. This is another New York import, the sixth outpost of the sophisticated Italian restaurant with locations in Manhattan and Montauk. I sat outside and let the charmingly bossy Italian waiter talk me into a tasting menu that included tuna crudo with preserved-truffle oil, seared scallops with English peas, roasted beet salad with ricotta, and spaghetti with fresh tomato and basil. 

The next morning I woke up early to meet up with Rizzo on Bellevue Avenue, Newport's fashionable main thoroughfare. She was tending to the floral arrangements at La Forge Casino Restaurant. A Newport institution that overlooks the grass courts of the neighboring International Tennis Hall of Fame, it is undergoing its own transformation. "New owners took over here a few months ago and started replacing the dusty tchotchkes and pink tablecloths and frozen food," Rizzo explained. The menu has gone from nachos and quesadillas to burrata from Narragansett Creamery and locally grown squash blossoms stuffed with house-made ricotta. Rizzo was combining some big, architectural monstera leaves with a bouquet of gladiolus and sunflowers grown on a flower farm just north of town.

From left: A surfer arrives for an afternoon session at Sachuest Beach, a.k.a. Second Beach, a local favorite; guests at Castle Hill Inn, a historic Newport estate, take in the view of Narragansett Bay.
Brian W. Ferry

Rizzo's penchant for loose arrangements and unexpected combinations — instead of the hydrangeas and rose balls that were once de rigueur in a place like Newport — has proven popular. Because the town is one of America's premier wedding destinations, she's especially busy in summer, but she is in demand all year long. From La Forge Casino, we walked a few doors down to the Audrain Automobile Museum, another of her clients, which showcases some of the rarest and most precious cars on earth. (Another automotive palace, the Newport Car Museum, opened last summer in a former missile factory.) While Rizzo went to work, I crept around the museum before it opened, checking out the collection. There was a 1963 Corvette with a glittery copper-and-silver exterior customized by George Barris, who designed the Batmobile from the 1966 Batman TV show; a 1930 Duesenberg Model J that belonged to the mother of Doris Duke; and a 1953 Ferrari Europa that David de Muzio, the museum's director, later described to me as "the queen of the collection." 

Rizzo's next stop was a 15-bedroom Georgian Revival mansion on six acres owned by a private client. (She made me promise not to reveal his name or the name of the estate.) There she worked out of the flower pantry, a room off the kitchen lined with hundreds of vases. As we made our way through the ground floor, replacing flowers and picking up fallen leaves, I noted the embroidered bathroom towels, the lawns mowed in perfect lines, and the hurried house manager in a polo shirt who spoke in hushed tones and didn't seem all that comfortable with my presence.

So I took an Uber back to Bellevue Avenue. On the way, my driver casually mentioned that he winters on a 4,000-acre ranch in Texas. Only in Newport, I thought. My next destination was the retail location of Farmaesthetics, a local natural-beauty line whose chlorophyll-infused Vapor Bath Elixir I had picked up at Saks and fallen in love with. Owner Brenda Brock opened the shop eight years ago. She's a seventh-generation Texan who was living in New York and acting on the soap opera One Life to Live when she visited Newport for the first time: "I remember coming over the bridge and taking a deep breath of salty air, and I was completely moved," Brock said. She met a Newport native, a mechanical engineer and designer, whom she dated long-distance until they bought and restored a farmhouse and then married. 

That was 26 years ago. In a sense, Brock is the godmother of Newport's next generation of lifestyle entrepreneurs. But even after all this time, she doesn't feel like she completely fits in. "If you weren't born here, you're not a native, no matter how many businesses you start or kids you have here." She said this without frustration. "Everyone is really supportive of the new businesses, new blood, new restaurants. It's not just the Top-Sider set. I love the blue blazers and tennis clubs, but it all exists together here."

From left: Seared yellowfin tuna, one of the entrées at the restaurant at Castle Hill Inn; the view of Narragansett Bay from a room at Gurney’s Newport, on Goat Island.
Brian W. Ferry

Back at Gurney's, I changed into a cocktail dress to meet Rizzo and McGowan at a fund-raiser for the local Boys & Girls Club at the Newport Shipyard, the hub of Newport's legendary regatta circuit. Women in floral palazzo pants and men with Hermès pocket squares sipped spiked punch and toured the yachts while a band played a steel-drum cover of "I Shot the Sheriff." I heard a guy in a seersucker suit casually ask the bartender if a yacht called Where's Waldo? was for sale. "Every yacht is for sale," said the bartender with a tinge of heard-it-all boredom. "But I don't know the listing price." Several, I learned, could be chartered for around $50,000 a week. 

After wandering through the leather-upholstered galleys and past the master suites and hot tubs of a dozen yachts, I began to feel a little exhausted by all the ostentatious displays of wealth. I walked through town, past Cardines Field, one of the oldest baseball stadiums in America, where Babe Ruth and Satchel Paige both played, and the White Horse Tavern, which claims to be the oldest in America. Just off Broadway, home to a strip of restaurants and bars beloved by locals, I went into a casual burger joint called Mission (named after a speakeasy that operated in town during Prohibition) and ordered a slaw dog. I sat down outside to eat it with Newport native Anna Jenkins Burnley, who cofounded the restaurant with her identical twin sister, Julia Jenkins Hoffer, after returning home following stints living in California and New York. Their husbands are, adorably, the co-chefs.

I explained that I was wearing silk because I had just escaped a gala. She giggled. "We call them the yachty la-di-das," she said. She espouses a more populist view of her town. "It doesn't matter what class you're in," she went on. "Everyone wants a burger. People come to see the wharf and water and mansions, but I push people to come to Broadway and see places run by people born and raised here. We get university students, ship workers, seasonal employees, young kids out at the bars." Inside, as if to prove her point, a pair of Navy officers were making small talk with a middle-aged couple who looked like NPR listeners. 

Jenkins Burnley admitted that one thing she's never done in her town is tour the Breakers, the historic Vanderbilt mansion. I went to see it the next day. On the way, I passed great homes with names like the Elms, Marble House, and Chepstow. Some are now inns, some schools, and some, like Rosecliff and the Breakers, museums. I had signed up for a new tour called "Beneath the Breakers" that took a cue from Downton Abbey to show how the mansion was actually run, winding through the tunnels the servants used to keep the 70-room house functioning. The tour paid surprisingly close attention to the various pipes and fittings used, which fascinated the structural engineer in my group, but after a while I decided to explore on my own. I love a really over-the-top estate, like Graceland or Hearst Castle, and this one did not disappoint. There were John Singer Sargent paintings, ornately carved settees and screens, dining rooms with fresco-covered ceilings, and everywhere a relentless kind of opulence.

From left: The greenhouse and garden at Newport’s Castle Hill Inn, where many of the restaurant’s vegetables are grown; a display at Farmaesthetics, a beauty shop on Bellevue Avenue.
Brian W. Ferry

From the Breakers, I continued on to Castle Hill, another great home from the late 19th century; it's now a Relais & Châteaux inn and restaurant. After a glorious massage in the spa, I walked to the garden, where Lou Rossi, the young executive chef, was picking radishes and turnip greens for dinner. A Massachusetts native, Rossi did a stint in the kitchen at Per Se in New York before returning to New England to cook. The garden is his pet project to bring sustainable flair to the menu. "Get the loose ravioli with sweet corn and tomatoes," he told me. "They're really good right now." I took his advice, then tried the seared tuna with sambal sauce, followed by the clams and fennel. The couple at the table next to me ordered champagne. They toasted each other and then invited the staff and me to have a glass with them. When I remarked on what an idyllic summer evening it was, the wife replied, "You should come in the winter. The fireplace is lit. It's really intimate." 

The next morning, I braved the very strong fish smell in the air at the Newport Shipyard to go to Belle's, a café with excellent coffee and organic eggs and a view of the harbor. Afterward, I walked past the colonial homes of the Point neighborhood just across the street. Most are wood and were built in the 18th century and painted black, slate gray, or pastel shades. Some had carvings of pineapples, a symbol of prosperity popular in that era. Others had plaques that identified them as things like prayer shop under a grant from King George II.

From left: The lobster roll at Newport Lobster Shack; out on a fishing boat on Narragansett Bay.
Brian W. Ferry

I hadn't yet had a proper beach day, so I took an Uber to Second Beach, which I'd heard was far nicer although a bit farther out than First Beach. I swam for a while, then sketched a group of teenagers hanging out nearby. When I got hungry, I headed back into town to the Newport Lobster Shack, which is collectively owned by local fishermen who grew up catching crab and lobsters off of Aquidneck Island. The lobster roll and chowder were fresh, and the whole experience was heightened by sitting outside on a bench, sniffing the salty air, looking at the wooden houses and seagulls and watching boats bob on the water in the harbor. I began walking slowly over the bridge to Goat Island one final time, smiling at a father and son who were fishing off of it. And then a young couple on a vintage metallic-green Vespa zoomed by me and parked at Gurney's. They took off their helmets and headed inside, just two more newcomers eager to find out what Newport is all about. 

This story was produced with assistance from Gurney's Newport. 

How to Experience Newport, New and Old

When to Go

Newport is most vibrant during the summer season, which runs from Memorial Day through Labor Day, but this is also when the crowds are thickest and the hotel rooms most expensive. The town is increasingly a year-round destination, one that’s also quite wonderful in early spring or October, when the leaves change. 

Lodging

Castle Hill Inn: Stay in the Shingle Style 1874 mansion or one of the newer beachfront cottages. Stop in for dinner to sample the excellent dishes made with vegetables grown on the property. doubles from $355 in the off-season, $835 in summer.

Gurney’s Newport: The hoteliers behind the original Gurney’s in Montauk, New York, transformed an old Hyatt into a comfy resort with terrific coffee, an outpost of the Italian restaurant Scarpetta, and Porsche Cayennes available to ferry guests around town. doubles from $149 in the off-season, $700 in summer. 

Food

Belle’s Café: Head to this brunch spot at Newport Shipyard for fluffy pancakes or a sandwich with the catch of the day, plus a view of the marina. Closed in winter. entrées $6–$22. 

La Forge Casino: A Newport cornerstone since 1880, the restaurant serves classic, seafood-focused New England comfort food done right. entrées $16–$32.

Marina Café & Pub: Get a strong drink and snack on quality bar food at this hideaway on Goat Island with views of the marina and the city beyond. Closed in winter. 

Mission: Visit this casual joint in the Lower Broadway area for burgers, dogs, hand-cut fries, and house-made ice pops. entrées $4–$9. 

Newport Lobster Shack: This classic New England lobster house is owned by a collective of fishermen who get their lobsters, crabs, and conch from the waters around Aquidneck Island. 

Shopping & Activities

Audrain Automobile MuseumA collection of luxury vehicles housed in a beautiful 1903 building downtown

The Breakers: If you’re going to see just one mansion in town, it should be this former Vanderbilt estate. Between the museum-worthy paintings and billion-dollar views, you’ll get a true taste of that Gilded Age lifestyle.

FarmaestheticsPick up the Vapor Bath Elixir, a concentrated green blend of chlorophyll and essential oils that’s a lifesaver after a long workout (or a late night out).

Sachuest Beach: Locals swear by this spot, better known as Second Beach, that’s a short drive from downtown Newport. Sachuest Point Rd., Middletown.

Studio Choo EastFloral designer Jill Rizzo is available by appointment; you can also sign up for one of her seasonal workshops.