Rocky coasts. Charming villages. Picturesque harbors. White-steepled churches. Meandering through Connecticut, Rhode Island and Maine, we paused to admire compelling views at every turn.
From the swankiest town in Connecticut to the working docks of Maine, we soaked up local color while cruising in a Yukon SUV, with all the bells and whistles, rented from Hertz. Here's a guide:
The glimmering city by the sea contains many stunning sites that are little changed from 100 years ago. It's a dizzying task to fit in everything during a trip to this playground of the American aristocracy. We raced from Gilded Age mansions to sailboats to shops to winding lanes to Touro Synagogue to the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
What to See?
"Summer cottages" the size of palaces were built by the wealthiest families in turn-of-the-last-century America. The Breakers, a 70-room Italian Renaissance-style palazzo, was designed for the Vanderbilts. Yes, the same family that erected the Biltmore Estate in Asheville.
Another North Carolina connection is Rough Point, the oceanfront estate of tobacco heiress Doris Duke, which is still decorated as she left it with French furniture, European art, Chinese porcelains and Turkish carpets.
There are many ways to see Newport. We took a trolley tour that included 10-mile Ocean Drive with its sweeping water views. Cliff Walk, a 3.5-mile path along the Atlantic Ocean, beckons trekkers to take in salt air and sneak peeks of manicured lawns spilling to the sea. Seafarers easily grasp Newport's status as a yachting capital when experiencing the winds during a cruise of Narragansett Bay aboard the Madeleine, a 72-foot schooner.
And the awe was stirring when a congregant guided us through Touro Synagogue, the oldest Jewish house of worship in America.
Where to Stay?
On the western-most tip of Newport lies Castle Hill Inn, a Relais & Chateaux property situated on its own 40-acre peninsula just off Ocean Drive. Once the summer residence of a Harvard marine biologist, Castle Hill holds fast to the hushed cordiality and extravagance of its former life. The grace of time gone by includes complimentary gourmet breakfast and afternoon tea.
The granite Castle Hill Lighthouse, which can easily be reached by footpaths on the grounds, has acted as the start and finish line for many of Newport's yacht races.
We stayed in the Mrs. Agassiz Room, which featured two gas fireplaces; an oversized, claw-foot soaking tub; a separate glass and marble shower; and a loveseat overlooking the bay window with a panoramic view of Narragansett Bay.
Hotel Viking, centrally located on historic Bellevue Avenue, has hosted many celebrities and dignitaries during its eight decades, including JFK and Jackie Kennedy. It was built by the citizens of Newport in the 1920s to accommodate their guests and visitors.
The remodeled hotel serves up a delightful blend of contemporary amenities, including the SpaTerre and an indoor pool/whirlpool, as well as genteel elegance (note the 1926 brass letter box in the lobby).
We stayed in a lavish "estate guestroom" furnished with period décor and Egyptian cotton bed linens. The bathroom was equally well-appointed with a rain showerhead in the marble shower.
What to Eat?
We dug into the first meal of the day in classic Newport style – overlooking the water – at the Castle Hill Inn's restaurant. The culinary team prides itself on growing much of its veggies and herbs on the inn's property or buying from local farms. The repast was so elaborate that it was difficult to think of it as just breakfast.
To start with, a basket of breads, cinnamon rolls and other morning sweets were brought to the table. A frittata of golden potato, asparagus, arugula, spring onions and chèvre was superb. The chefs were thinking way outside the box with Maine lobster and potato hash with poached eggs and chive crème fraiche...and it worked, deliciously.
The capital of the country's smallest state reverberates with the energy of college students drawn to Brown University (Ivy League), Rhode Island School of Design (elite artists), and Johnson & Wales University (trained Emeril Lagasse). The mood balances well with a gritty urbanism that's always under revitalization.
What to See?
The Culinary Arts Museum at Johnson & Wales, recently reopened after a yearlong renovation, is a 25,000-square-foot shrine to the world of food. Our mouths watered at the five-star exhibitions. They ranged from dining at the White House to tucking in at diners and from a relocated ice cream shop to the history of chow on planes, trains and boats.
The 135-year-old RISD (Rhode Island School of Design) Museum, housed in five buildings, features artwork in many cultures, time periods and media. Pieces by big names hang on its walls, but there's also plenty of room for innovation. When we dropped in, one exhibit was on the circus while another was on body parts that shouldn't be listed in a family magazine.
For shopping, Thayer Street, just off the Brown campus, provides a hippie-artist-meets-preppie-academic vibe. Downtown's eclectic shopping district is centered on Westminster Street.
Where to Stay?
The landmark Providence Biltmore, designed by the architects behind New York's Grand Central Station, debuted to widespread acclaim in 1922 and quickly became the social center of the capital city. The renovated grand dame offers supersized, luxe accommodations and the only on-site hotel spa in Providence.
What to Eat?
Providence is a foodie's dream. Old-time restaurateurs still hold sway in ethnic neighborhoods while cutting-edge chiefs (many from Johnson & Wales) pop up newer establishments. The thriving restaurant scene includes Hemenway's seafood, Chez Pascal's French-influenced dinners, and Seven Stars Bakery.
It's hard to go wrong with any of the Italian restaurants on Atwells Avenue in Federal Hill, the Little Italy of Providence. We enjoyed the passing scene from a window seat at Pane e Vino then strolled by a tenor performing in a public courtyard to the century-old Scialo Brothers Bakery, where the line was out the door for cappuccino and cannoli.
Coming next month: Cruisin' Coastal New England Part 2