Our last port of call (for me at least, as I was disembarking one day early, at Port Canaveral, Florida) was Newport.
This island region was home to the Narragansett Indians for well over 10,000 years until settlers from the shores across the Atlantic settled here in 1639. There is a large percentage of Irish Catholics - close to 30% - that settled here in the early 1800s to escape both religious persecution from The English, and due to the great potato famine. Many of these new immigrants worked as domestics in the mansions of the rich. The country's oldest synagogue also calls Newport its home.
The Narragansett called this beautiful area the Island of Peace, and they were responsible for clearing much of this land for farming. Once settlers arrived, a bustling maritime center developed, with the rum trade being a major contributor to the local economy.
In the mid 1850s, a man by the name of Alfred Smith bought a large parcel of land along and near the harbor, for $20,000. He and his business partner, Joseph Bailey, began selling off lots to America's wealthiest families, and the Gilded Age began. This is not to say that huge mansions were not already built - the Hunter House was built in 1748, during the area's Golden Age. Chateau-sur-Mer, built in 1852, is a blended product of both the Golden Age mansions and the more - dare I say - grandiose and opulent mansions like the Breakers mansion of the Gilded Age which was built in 1893 as a summer cottage for the railroad magnate family, the Vanderbilts.
I chose to take a tour to visit two of the area's incredible properties, the Breakers and Marble House, both Vanderbilt properties.
All I can say about these two places - Yowser! The Breakers summer "cottage" has 70 rooms and four stories in 138,300 square feet. The dining room alone is 2,400 square feet in size. There is a morning room, billiards room, library, great hall, and music room just to name a few. Architectural and design influences hail from Italian Renaissance, combined with Georgian and Gothic Revival elements. This home's interiors include walls upon walls made from marble, gilded woods, alabaster and even platinum leaf wall panels. The Great Hall is two and a half stories high, and the grand staircase off the Hall is something more than "grand". This place is just insanely beautiful.
They would not allow photography inside this mansion nor the Marble House, so I have nothing to show for my visit other than a sore jaw since it was gaped open for close to 2 hours. Every time I walked into a new room, my jaw dropped, and all I could utter were the words, "oh my God" and "wow." If you've ever visited Windsor Castle, the Louvre or Versailles, you can get a feel for what these mansions in Newport look like inside.
The Marble house was equally as awesome, and it's owner, Alva Vanderbilt, even had a beautiful Chinese tea house built on the grounds. Alva called it "whimsical." As a side note to all of my women friends, Alva Vanderbilt was a tireless crusader for women's rights and campaigned hard for the right for women to vote. You rock, Alva!
If you ever have the opportunity to visit Newport, it would be well worth your time to visit these mansions of the uber rich of the time. To quote a sentence from the brochure, "only in Newport can you walk through centuries of American life in an afternoon; Hunter House was here when the Battle of Bunker Hill was fought; Chateau-sur-Mer saw the age of global commerce by American clipper ships like Flying Cloud; and The Breakers opened as the Vanderbilts' latest achievement in the era in which railroads revolutionized the nation much the way jetliners and the Internet would a century later."