Sunday, October 27, 2013


 Map courtesy of Google Images


As I learned, Rhode Island really is an island. Originally called Aquidneck Island, it is the largest of 35 other islands in Narragansett Bay, which joined with Providence Plantations on the mainland, make up the State of Rhode Island. Only encompassing 38 square miles, “Aquidneck” consists of three towns, Portsmouth, Middletown and Newport. The most famous, of course, is Newport; famous because it attracts money like a magnet and always has.

This is Newport's version of a parking lot!

Newport is ideally located on the southernmost tip of the island, commanding breathtaking views of the Atlantic Ocean. Easy to sail to by yacht, the well-to-do began to flock to Newport during the summer months to escape their hot cities as early as the start of the 19th century. They built little wooden houses on the beach and invited their friends. Over the years however, the colony of cottages began to be replaced by bigger and grander buildings until Newport evolved into an opulent resort of stone mansions, still modestly called “cottages”.

 Just your typical Newport "cottage".

Today, these palatial homes have become expensive relics of the past, too expensive for their owners to maintain. Fortunately for people like me, many of them still stand today and are open to the public thanks to the Preservation Society of Newport County. Sold or donated by families like the Astors, Rockefellers and Vanderbilts to the Society, these priceless mansions are now ours to enjoy.  I’d seen the Rockefeller mansion the last time I was in Newport and it had left me hungry to see more. Well, I was in luck! We had tickets to see Vanderbilt’s “Marble House”!

Inspired by the Petite Trianon, Marie Antoinette's little Palace in Versailles, it's a masterpiece in marble.

I could hardly wait for Josef to park the bus before I bolted out the door, ticket in my hot little hand, ready to see one more jewel in Newport’s crown, The Marble House. Inside, I wandered around like a star struck teenager. Each elegant room seemed suspended in time, sparkling with gilt and crystal, as if waiting for the next ball.  With its rich furnishings still in place, Marble House looks as beautiful as the day Mr. William Vanderbilt gifted it to his wife Alva on her 39th birthday in 1892. A palace Maria Antoinette would have been proud to call home, it only cost $60 million in today’s dollars. However, the interior and furnishings cost an additional $330 million (in inflation adjusted dollars, you understand). Of that, a whopping $210 million was spent on marble alone, all 500,000 cubic feet of it!

Ah, but Mr. Vanderbilt got his money’s worth! Imagine that you are being driven in your livered carriage up to the marbled columned entry to one of the most beautiful mansions on the island. Escorted up several carrera marble steps, you pass through massive ornate iron doors into the spacious foyer, all lined floor to ceiling in honey colored marble. Under the light of hundreds of candles, the marble looks like liquid gold. Ladies dressed in only one of the 80 to 90 couture gowns they purchased for the season, appear to have complexions of silk in the reflected golden glow. The effect would have been nothing less than stunning. And, that’s just the foyer!

 The entrance hall is lined with yellow Siena marble. (Image courtesy of Google Images)

Drifting from one exquisite jaw dropping room to the next, I tried to take mental pictures of each gilded detail since we weren’t allowed to bring our cameras.  At least Google Images have some that will give you an idea of the magnificence of the place: 

 The Gilded Ball Room, still used for parties and balls today.
 (Images courtesy of Google Images.)

 In this 2,400 sq. ft. magnificent dining room, there are twelve free standing alabaster columns.

 Alva Vanderbilt's bedroom

Now for the gossip: Reportedly tired of Mr. Vanderbilt's philandering, Alva divorced her husband William after only three years in Marble House and moved up the street to the Belcourt Estate to marry Oliver Belmont, Vanderbilt's best friend. Divorce was a scandalous affair back then, but Alva wasn't content to turn a blind eye to her rich husbands escapades and took the risk of actually marrying for love. 

New hubby, Oliver Belmont was a huge horse fan (you’ve heard of the Belmont Stakes?) and when this bachelor married Alva, his enormous home consisted of one bedroom and 30 luxury horse stalls. You can bet Alva changed that!

After Oliver's untimely death in 1908, Alva moved back into Marble House and added a Japanese Tea House in her backyard.  Perched on the very edge of a cliff, it commands a breathtaking view of the ocean. (Read more about Alva's fascinating story and her daughter Consuelo, mother of Winston Churchill: Consuelo And Alva: An Early Story of Celebrity )

 View from the Teahouse

The day not over yet, we drove slowly along the Scenic Drive, so we could fully appreciate the diversity and sheer beauty of the island. Sheep munched on green rolling pastures sandwiched between mansions and modest homes in the interior, while bleached beach grass danced wildly in the wind by the shore. Occasionally, a jaw dropping hotel sized home would loom up in front of us, a reminder of the immense wealth represented there. Yet, these enormous homes didn’t appear out of place. The wealthy, it seems, appreciates a good view like everyone else.

 "Crossways," Newport "cottage" of Mamie (Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish).

 The lore and spirit of the Kennedy family is all over Newport and Cape Cod. This is the pasture where Carolyn used to ride her pony, the Kennedy home just over the hill. We also passed the modest Church where President and Mrs. Kennedy were married.

We finished our tour of Newport stopping to walk down to the famous “Cliff Walk” at sunset. The walk runs along the coastline off Bellevue Avenue at the foot of Marble House and other properties of the rich and obscenely rich. I can’t think of a better way to end the day than walking along a craggy shoreline at sunset with nothing between you and the Atlantic Ocean. Can you?

Watch the Video of the trip!

Next Time: Boston!

Thursday, October 17, 2013


Map courtesy of Collette Vacations

I became totally smitten with New England when I toured the area a few years ago in the fall. I mean, who wouldn’t swoon over the romantic covered bridges, the unique church spires, the quaint postcard villages and the millions of square miles of leaves the colors of fireworks inspiring the same “ooooh’s” and “aaaah’s”? Not me, that’s for sure! I returned home with rapture in my heart vowing to return as many times as possible.

Well, I got my chance this September when I hitched a ride with Collette Vacations’ “Islands of New England” tour. Although too early for the leaves to turn their fiery fall colors, I would at least see some of the places I didn't see enough of the first time around, places like Providence, Newport, Nantucket and Cape Cod.

Providence, My kind of town

Do you remember the TV show a few years ago called “Providence”, about a doctor returning to her hometown? I would have come home too to those serene tree lined streets curving through sedate Federalist mansions and Victorian cottages if I were her. I think I watched the show every week just to see the town, so I was excited when I heard we would stay in Providence for three nights. Finally, I was going to see it in person.

Fifty eager passengers and I clustered together in front of our hotel early the first morning for a bus tour of Providence. Melanie, our Tour Manager greeted everyone with a big beaming smile while Josef, our zany bus driver, admonished us to “Watch your steps and not my blue eyes!” as he hoisted each one of us into the bus. I’ll bet if anyone of us woke up on the wrong side of the bed he would literally pick us up and put us on the other side!

As Josef expertly maneuvered his mountain of bus through the narrow colonial streets originally built for carts and carriages, I couldn’t help but compare the images streaming by my bus window to the ones I remembered from the TV show. Happily, Providence lived up to my expectations. The frustration for me is that I had to see it from only one side of a moving bus. I longed to get out and walk through the peaceful neighborhoods, taking picture after picture. I planned to come back and do just that by myself, but the tour kept us on the go from early until late every day and I didn’t get a chance. Oh well. I’ll just have to come back!

As we craned our necks to see the views, Melanie gave us a brief history of the town and state, “Providence Plantations was founded in 1636 by a theologian named Roger Williams after having been banished from the Puritan dominated Massachusetts Bay Colony. He named it in honor of ‘God’s merciful Providence’ and wanted it to stand for freedom of religion and separation of church and state. It is also one of the original thirteen colonies!”

 Homes on one of the seven hills of Providence.

Providence, it turns out, is perched on seven hills all with names like Constitution Hill, College Hill and Federal Hill (home of Little Italy and delicious Italian food). They provide wonderful views of the city, however the best is on College Hill.  Josef parked the bus at Prospect Terrace Park and we all piled out onto a large expanse of green lawn to enjoy the view of downtown below and the domed Capitol building.


Perched on top of the Capitol building is a statue called “The Independent Man” which proudly boasts of Rhode Island’s fiercely independent ways. They glory in the fact that they were the first to rebel against the British and the last to sign the United States Constitution.

 Gazing over the city is a large statue of Roger Williams, a tribute to its founder which also serves to mark his grave site.

Back on the bus, Melanie continued the history lesson: “Remember the four ‘Browns’ when you think of Providence: Moses, Joseph, Nicholas and John. You’ll see the name everywhere! Enormously wealthy merchants and statesmen, they are best known for helping to establish Brown University in 1764.” Pausing to give Josef some backseat driving instructions, she added with some pride, “Brown is one of the oldest private Ivy League schools in the nation!”

Brother Joseph Brown, the architect, designed our next stop: the First Baptist Meeting House in 1775. The oldest Baptist Congregation in the U.S, it looks like a wedding cake, gleaming white and majestic in the New England morning light.

 The oldest Baptist Congregation in America, the church was built in 1775.

After that, we drove out of Providence to spend the day in nearby Newport. On the way, Melanie asks, “Does anyone know Rhode Island’s real name”

“You mean it has an alias?” someone piped up.

“Not exactly. It’s short for…” A chorus of voices joined in with, “Rhode Island and Providence Plantations!” Wow. Put that on your license plate! I made a mental note to find out about the name that sounds more like a title, and for that matter, why a mainland state has "island" in its name. It turns out that Rhode Island, even though attached to the mainland, also includes 35 islands. The official name is the merger of two settlements. Providence Plantation, which was the name of the colony Roger Williams founded and is now the city of Providence and Rhode Island colony, which was founded on the largest of the islands, Aquidneck. (It's believed that the name originated from the Italian explorer who discovered it, thinking the island looked like the Greek island of Rhodes). Roger Williams officially gave the name Rhode Island to Aquidneck in 1644. And there you have it!

Later that night, a few of us walked the short distance from our hotel to downtown where we were lucky enough to participate in the town’s annual WaterFire event. During summer evenings, one hundred bonfires blaze above the surface of the three rivers that flow through Providence accompanied by the soaring strains of classical music. The evening was beautiful and we were warmed by the fires. Gondolas languidly floated up and down the rivers for private parties to enjoy the view from the water. Although the place was packed, the atmosphere was peaceful and relaxing, like sitting around a campfire after the sun goes down. A very nice way to end the day.

Between 1976 and 1994, the city reclaimed its rivers from having been paved over and relocated a large section of railroad tracks underground to create Waterplace Park and river-walks. Providence, which had gotten a bit shabby over the years, was literally transformed into  "America's Renaissance City". Now, the downtown area is a beautiful place to walk and socialize. In the picture above, you can see the bonfires are ready to be lit for WaterFire after dark. (Perhaps the purpose of the TV show "Providence" was to advertise the town's transformation... If so, it worked for me!)

Waterfire at night in downtown Providence.

Watch a Video of the trip!

NEXT TIME: Newport, Gilded Mansions from a Gilded Age