Without a doubt if you are a sailor, Newport, Rhode Island is the place to be in the summer. My very favorite way to spend a long summer's day is sailing completely around Aquidneck Island. Newport is located at the lower tip of that island, which is surrounded by Narragansett Bay, the Sakonnet River, Mt. Hope Bay and Rhode Island Sound.
Newport is also the departure point for some excellent weekend cruises. After you clear Brenton Reef, you can follow the line of boats sailing to the southeast for destinations such as Cuttyhunk, Martha's Vineyard or Nantucket. If you follow the boats heading southwest, you'll soon arrive at Block Island.
The environs of Newport offer much more than great sailing, the traditions of the America's Cup and the home port of Capt. Nate Herreshoff. Architecture from the Colonial Era through the Gilded Era surround you when you are ashore. Sailing in to Newport Harbor, the towering classic spire of Trinity Church offers a glimpse into the history of the Church of England in colonial America. Built in 1726, its wine glass-shaped pulpit still sits in the center of the aisle in front of the altar, which emphasized the importance of the sermon for Newport Episcopalians whose congregation formed in 1698.
Fifty years before the first Anglican minister arrived in Newport, fifteen Jewish families fleeing the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions landed in Newport from Barbados. After their arrival in 1658, they formed what is now the second oldest Jewish congregation in the United States. In 1763, just a short walk up the hill from Trinity Church, this congregation built a permanent house of worship, now called Touro Synagogue. Designed in the Palladian architectural style, it reflected the wealth of the growing Jewish community. Jacob Rodriques Rivera introduced the manufacturing of sperm whale oil and candles to Newport. It became a leading colonial industry, which Newport kept as a near monopoly until the American Revolution, and it made the fortune of many families. Just how valuable was this commodity? Today, a barrel of Brent crude oil is just over $100 on the spot market. In 1823, a barrel of sperm oil sold for $200 (adjusted for the value of today's dollar) and by 1855 it had risen to more than $1,400 a barrel.
But it was the triangle trade that really brought position as a seaport. It would have made an excellent naval base for the patriots to stage attacks on New York City, which the British also controlled. However, by 1779, with the fortunes of war changing, the British abandoned Newport to concentrate their forces in New York. A year later, the French General Rochambeau, with an army of 6,000 men, anchored off Newport. King Louis XVI had finally made good his support for the American Revolution, if only as a way to harass Great Britain, France's traditional bitter enemy. In July of 1781, Rochambeau and his forces began their march to New York where they combined forces with the Continental Army led by George Washington. The two generals then decided that the British forces in Virginia under General Cornwallis were a better target than trying to uproot the British Army from New York. So Rochambeau and Washington bypassed New York, marched on to Yorktown and into history winning the battle that won the Revolution.
One hundred years after the Revolutionary War, America entered the Gilded Age. Mark Twain summed up this era best when he quipped, What is the chief end of man? to get rich. In what way? dishonestly if we can; honestly if we must. No city in America better exemplified the excesses of that time than Newport. During the late 1800s, America's wealthiest families began summering in Newport. The Vanderbilts and the Astors all built grandiose mansions along Bellevue Avenue, dubbing them cottages. These cottages were used for the brief social season and were the setting for fabulous balls and dinners. Today, many of the cottages are now preserved in a historic trust and have become a prime Newport tourist attraction. The tours of The Breakers, Chateau-sur-Mer, Marble House, The Elms and Rosecliff offer a glimpse into the lives of those titans of industry, banking and commerce, their families and their hired help.
And the perfect way to end the day is a stroll along Cliff Walk. As twilight begins and the expansive sea before you darkens, open a bottle of Champagne and toast to the beauty that is Newport.
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