A Pandemic Visit to the Seafaring Capital of Rhode Island
By Max Hartshorne
I knew I could not stay home forever during this long period of 2020’s pandemic. I’d just have to remember my mask and my manners, and all would be fine. And it was.
Despite our collective sadness over the COVID 19 plague, two new hotels opened in sparkling and still-beautiful Newport Rhode Island in July 2020.
To make nervous travelers feel better, both properties observed proper social distancing, wearing masks, and other rules that enhanced everyone’s safety in the COVID era.
Both the Hammett’s Hotel and Brenton Hotel feature the waterfront, front and center, and both aim to bring a higher-end customer to experience this city known for its lavish oceanside mansions and the famous Cliff Walk.
Newport In Need of Good News
The city was ripe for those openings, having been decimated by the 2020 Pandemic: At Discover Newport, the official marketing organization for Newport and Bristol County had a substantial loss of revenue and was only able to bring back 5 employees from the 22 employed before March 2020.
Although the mansions have for the most part re-opened, the city suffered from the downturn. The Newport visitor’s center on America’s Cup Avenue, the main drag, has been permanently closed as well.
No Cruise Ships this Season
In 2019, there were 52 cruise ship visits to the City by the Sea. That’s thousands of visitors and dollars who won’t come near Newport until 2021. A net loss of over $14.5 million.to the community. Tough times indeed.
Despite these headwinds, the owners of both hotels are optimistic that their new properties will bring in guests who can’t resist being right on the water, and the many fun attractions that Newport has to offer.
We sampled many of Rhode Island’s attractions, starting in Portsmouth RI, where we visited the Newport Car Museum and ogled the 77 fabulous automobiles that live there. Gunther and Maggie Buerman, originally from Germany and Sweden, own all of the cars. website
We asked Maggie which car is her favorite and she answered sheepishly–“I like my Honda minivan that has TV screens for my grandchildren!” Gunther, however, did say that he recently took a spin in one of the supercars in the collection.
More Cars, Please!
Along with this large museum, located in a spacious former factory building, there is a second automobile museum in the city. The Audrain Automobile Museum is located on Bellevue Avenue, the same street as the famous mansions, and offers a curated collection of up to 15 cars from a collection of 112.
Besides the incredible cars at the Newport Car Museum, there is another fun rainy-day attraction next door in nearby Portsmouth, Newport Indoor Golf.
GM Max Buerman showed us around and demonstrated how players hit the balls at a screen and it shows the trajectory with perfect accuracy–you can display the exact look of some 200 different courses from around the world. Golfers come here to visit the eight stations all year long to prepare for future golf outings and tweaking their swings.
Riding the Rails
We had lots more fun in store–we were headed for Rail Explorers in Portsmouth, to take a pedal-powered ride on a former railroad track that’s now used for dinner trains and rail pedalers.
It’s the simplest kind of conveyance–four steel wheels and either two or four sets of pedals. Rail Explorers takes two and four-passengers down a 3-mile track and back with a nice little break in the middle where you sit next to the ocean.
On the 7:30 pm rides, the staff lights up a series of fire pits that give an attractive glow as you approach. After a 20-minute break, you set off to pedal back to the main station. website
Hammett’s Hotel in Newport
Hammett’s Hotel, located on Hammett’s Wharf, was once home to a cargo depot, lumberyard, bank, coal yard, temperance-oriented tea house, laundry, concert venue, ice rink, yacht basin and most recently, a parking lot.
The hotel was built in 2020 and reflects the city’s maritime and naval heritage. A bell out in front of the hotel is a reminder of this city’s glorious seafaring past and former America’s Cup glory.
With 84 rooms and most of them facing the water, it’s a medium-sized property with a great deck that overlooks the busy Newport Harbor. The rooms, however, are not spacious, there is just enough room for the beds and bathrooms.
It’s moderately priced and designed for the traveler who wants chic but isn’t going to spend a lot of time in the room.
The restaurant, which is large and spacious, wasn’t open during our visit but there are plenty of great choices for dinner on nearby Bowen’s Wharf, which teems with activity at nighttime.
Everyone we saw here observed the mask rule and it never felt unsafe for us in this strange time. At Hammett’s as well as many other hotels, to limit potential guest exposure, and to ensure safety of guests, no stay over service is provided for rooms.
Slated to open by mid-September 2020, the Hammett’s restaurant Giusto will feature an outdoor bar and expansive patio overlooking the Newport Marina, a private dining room, and semi-open kitchen.
Helmed by Chef Kevin O’Donnell, the cuisine will focus on regional Italian dishes with playful Rhode Island touches, including menu items from local farms and purveyors to support the community.
The bar will offer a mix of classic and freestyle cocktails, beer from local breweries, and a predominantly Italian wine list with featured natural selections.
Dining on Bowen’s Wharf
Our first night we walked a few blocks to Bowen’s Wharf and joined the enthusiastic crowd enjoying lobsters, fried clams, and other seafood treats at the Lobster Bar. I like a place with atmosphere, and boy, do they give this to you here!
We preferred to take all of our meals outside during this time, and at Lobster Bar the dining area had the floor of a real wharf, and the boats coming in reinforced the charming nautical feel. The fried whole belly clams were delicious, as was the key lime pie.
Despite the fact that Newport is a city with a legacy as the home of famous millionaires, we found a few places to dine when we needed to count our pennies on day three. Here, on the main drag, Thames Street, we found Il Forno Italiano, where slices go for less than $4 and truly satisfy.
Another Standout for Seafood
Another stand-out for outdoor dining is the Smokehouse Cafe, at 31 Scott’s Wharf. They have a sidewalk-facing outdoor bar, perfect for people watching.
My particularly picky granddaughter Sofie loved her chicken fingers, and my lobster salad was generous and delicious. Like many of the restaurants we visited, the Smokehouse points you to a symbol, a QR code, that puts their menu on your phone, making it easy to order.
Parking is perhaps the biggest challenge in Newport since the city was designed back in the Colonial era when horse carriages prevailed. Try to avoid using the car around the city. We found a parking space on Thames Street for $1.25 per hour instead of the $8/hour rate at most private parking lots.
Seeing Newport from the Air
Although a trip out into the harbor on one of the many harbor excursion tours in Newport brings you close to the impressive yachts and sailboats of the rich and famous, nothing gives you a better view than from the cockpit of a helicopter.
And yes, you can hire one for a 15-minute or longer buzz atop the mansions and view the entire city from above. Jeff Codman has been a pilot here for decades, and he provides these short tours daily, departing from the airport about 15 minutes from the center of Newport in Middletown. website
Those Famous Newport Mansions
Newport is known for its sailboats…and for the fabulously rich men who built their summer cottages along Bellevue Avenue in the city.
The biggest and most famous mansion, the Breakers, was built by Cornelius Vanderbilt II, and even modern-day tycoon Larry Ellison of Oracle Corp has one now.
Talk show maven and car nut Jay Leno also owns a mansion on Ocean Drive, we learned this on an interesting tour called the Newport Native Tour, in an airy trolley bus with open windows, another pandemic caveat.
The 1957 wedding of JFK and Jackie Bouvier was an event that put Newport on the map. The tour includes passing by the famous Hammersmith Farm where the fabulous reception was held, and the church where the couple tied the knot on Thames Street.
Ogling on Ocean Drive
Ocean Drive is a must-see if you’re interested in seeing houses you might never be able to afford which all overlook the waves of Narragansett Bay.
It was the perfect road for us to enjoy a three-wheeled, low power, two-person scooter jaunt. You can rent these at Scooter World in Newport.
Another must is the famous Cliff Walk, which takes you on a 3.5-mile hike right on the ocean and right in front of many of the mansions on Bellevue Ave, including The Breakers.
How the Servants Lived at the Elms
To get a better idea of what life was like during the gilded era when the 63 huge mansions were called cottages, we joined a group of eight to take a Servant’s Tour of the Elms, which was built and owned by coal baron Edward Julius Berwind.
We learned that Newport’s social season began on July 4, and ended on Sept 15, which was the day before the opera season began in New York City.
Out of the approximately 20,000 people who lived here, some 2400 were maids, butlers, chauffeurs, gardeners, or other staff catering to the fabulously rich who mostly played games, entertained, and summoned their staff to take off their boots.
At the Elms, there were 16 rooms for the staff, and a back stairway made of marble. The help never ever used the front door, or the front stairs, we learned. There was also a man known as the Underman, who served the servants their food and up until 1913, was responsible for making them comfortable. After this year, this tradition was abandoned.
The servant’s tour provides a lot of information about the lives of the mostly immigrant population who played such an important role in the city. The mansions are stunning, even from the back hallway view from the top floor of the Elms.
Brenton Hotel, Newport’s Newest
Only weeks after the opening of the Hammett’s Hotel, a new 57-room hotel called the Brenton Hotel also opened its doors. We took a tour of the property that was still under construction with manager Andy Ross, who has spent many years with the parent company, New England Inns and Resorts, who run hotels in Chatham and all over New England.
The Brenton’s clientele will be well-heeled for sure, with room rates between $425 and $850, depending on the view. There are some features such as a snack bar with free treats open 24/7, and a fabulous rooftop area with fire pits, corn hole, and foosball games, and bars doling out cocktails, wine, and beers.
The hotel has yacht-like feel, with white beadboard walls and a number of elements that feel like you’re on a friend’s boat. In fact, another perk that Andy told us about is the beautiful Hinkley yacht that the hotel makes available for the guests to charter. Talk about riding in style!
A New Era in Dining
The dining situation also reflects a new era….instead of retiring to the restaurant, you can dine in what is called the Living Room, a comfortable airy space where small plates come out of the invisible kitchen while you enjoy casual time with friends.
We sampled the dining and it was as impressive as it was pricey. The menu includes small bites like oysters, scallops, and lobster tortellini. The seared steak came with microscopic potato straws but had an excellent flavor. The Brenton impresses with its creative and comfortable decor, their own yacht, and a staff who strives to take care of its guests.
You’ll feel like you are in the company of your famous rich uncle, except the bill is still on you this time.
31 America’s Cup Avenue
Newport, RI 02840
4 Commercial Wharf
Newport, RI 02840
Reservations: 401) 324-7500
For more information on lodging, dining, attractions and transportation visit www.discovernewport.org. This story was written with the assistance of the hotels and Discover Newport, but the opinions are the author’s own.