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Cliff Walk, a Stroll through Newport,
Rhode Island's Gilded Age

By James H. Hyde

Cliff Walk
A look at Cliff Walk as it wends its way along the shoreline. Copyright © 2000-2008 Friends of the Waterfront. All Rights reserved.
Cliff Walk is a passageway to an era long since gone, a path through a historical period influenced heavily by Victorian designs and motifs, but it's grandeur lives on in the famed Newport mansions, which still stand proudly along the shore. Between Rhode Island Sound, the Atlantic Ocean and Newportís shoreline on one side, and the enormous icons of Newportís Gold and Gilded Age on the other, Cliff Walk is a visit to a far more simple time.

In 1975, this canít-miss lane was bestowed the honor of being the first National Recreation Trail in New England.

Most whoíve studied the trail agree that it was carved into the edge of the towering cliffs by game originally. Expanded by Narragansett Indians making their way to the shore to fish, it was widened still more by pilgrims and colonists in pursuit of shipwreck bounty washed ashore. In the modern era, various attempts by groups and even the Army Corps of Engineers have tried to pave as much of it as possible.

Always beautiful when the weather is good, Cliff Walk is particularly striking in the morning well before the city chugs to life. Early morning has the Atlantic gently lifting the sun above the shimmering horizon. Fresh sea air perfumes the new day, and for the next 3.5 miles youíre on an historic journey thatís both beautiful and educational.

Itís easy to imagine having time traveled back to the 19th Century during the cityís amorous embrace of all things Victorian.

Cliff Walk
One of several huge mansions along the walk. Copyright © 2000-2008 Friends of the Waterfront. All Rights reserved.
Strolling along this twisting, sometimes rugged trail, one can walk near the edge of cliffs that rise steeply (as much as 70 feet) from the shoreline below. Fortunately, for those who suffer from acrophobia, there are fences to prevent any tragic missteps.

On the mansion side, lawns are meticulously mowed in stripes, like the fairways at perfectly maintained golf courses. One can imagine society ladies and gentlemen at lawn parties engaged in animated banter. Prized debutantes in rigidly tight bodices and the latest haute couture from Paris twirl frilly parasols on their shoulders as they walk along. Beside them are handsome young men in highly starched collars, bow ties, houndís-tooth jackets and matching knickers.

Out of the immaculate lawns rise the palaces built by the moguls of the Industrial Revolution, Cornelius Vanderbilt, the Astors and other names that some how rhyme with wealth. They were possessed by the need to build ever-bigger and more extensive castles on the bluffs. Back then, the battle to be the host or hostess with the mostest made for spirited competition.

Castles, Mansions and Palaces, Oh My

The Age of the Mansions, known better as the Gold or Gilded Age in Newport, was a glorious era; the gigantic structures are still devotedly maintained and staffed by men and women, some in period dress, who act as guides to those entering for a whiff of wealth. The mansions comprised the summer nexus of socially prominent New Yorkers.

Here they played tennis, croquet and badminton, basked in the sun or simply sat on a porch or patio to soak up the sea air. They sailed schooners and yawls, tall ships and small, or watched the sleek-lined racing yachts vie for the right to compete for the Americaís Cup.

Itís hard not to run off the Walk and right inside one of the mansions where the great ballrooms are topped by twenty- to thirty-foot high ceilings, some with frescoes painted on plaster and bordered by gold leaf. Tapestries in shades dull and dark hang on the walls. Itís all devoutly Victorian. The furnishings are still there, maintained very much like those in museums, and that, in reality, is just what some of these over-sized manors are, especially The Breakers and Beechwood.

Most of Cliff Walk is easy to travel, but there are areas near its end where you find yourself hopping from slippery rock to slippery rock. Appropriate footwear is essential. Anything that will give you traction on a boat deck will work here, although you need something with a larger tread than Top Siders. You also need to keep an eye out for poison ivy. It thrives on the Walkís edges in the warm, humid air.

Walk the Walk

The journey down Cliff Walk starts at Memorial Boulevard, a street on which you can park, but it is metered, unfortunately, so be sure to feed the meter well. You can also park at First Beach, where itís free, but further from the start.

The Walk itself is sliced into sections, the first of which is paved and easy to navigate. About three-quarters of a mile from the beginning, you encounter 40 Steps. They descend to a large balcony, at which the staff manning the great mansions during the Gilded Age spent some of their free time at impromptu parties.

After this, you begin a two or so mile walk from Marine Avenue to Ledge Road. Itís here that the pathway becomes a hodge podge of pavement, dirt and large rocks.

The Walk leads next to tunnels and the Tea House, but what really catches the eye here are such mansions as Marble House, a spectacular sight; Rosecliff; and, the Astor's Beechwood. If you travel no further, your curiosity about this path and the history on which it rests will be amply satisfied. But Iím sure youíll be spurred to move on for more.

Tea Time

The Tea House Tunnel, which runs for about 250 feet, comes next and it is so named after a large Chinese teahouse built by Mrs. Vanderbilt. Gull Rock, the second tunnel, leads to the harshest conditions Cliff Walk offers. This is where you navigate the rocky shore, as well as overgrown vegetation and fences to keep you off private property.

Cliff Walk
Rough Point, the Newport home of Doris Duke. Copyright © 2000-2008 the Newport Historical Society. All Rights reserved.
When you emerge from the tunnel and continue on, you find yourself at Rough Point, a particularly rocky area where the waves crash violently against the rocks year-round. Believe me, Rough Point is an appropriate name for this slice of rugged shoreline. But up from the shore and well back from the cliffs is a mansion named "Rough Point. It was built by the Vanderbilts, but later became the home of Doris Duke. You can read more about Rough Point here.

From this section, the walk continues to Ledge Road. Itís here that many people believe theyíve reached the end of the walk. But, from Ledge Road it continues on to its real end on Bellevue Avenue.

It doesn't End Here

When you arrive at the end of the 3.5-mile walk, you feel as if youíve been a part of history that prevailed eons ago; a time when wealth was engineered by monopolists, not wires on silicon chips or cyberspace. The parties back then surpassed even the most-grand self-indulgences of today. It was a time of champagne and caviar mixed with delicious ocean air.

If youíre planning on visiting Newport this spring or summer, we strongly recommend a stroll down Cliff Walk. Itís there that beautiful views, magnificent homes and a journey to the past all await you. We guarantee youíll be well pleased by the wonder of it all.


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© 2008 New England Times Publishing, LLC, All Rights Reserved.