Category Archives: Accessible Travel

Cruising into Martha’s Vineyard’s Warm Embrace

 

Viewing the sunset over Vineyard Haven, Martha’s Vineyard from the bow of Blount Small Ship Adventures’ Grand Caribe © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

by Karen Rubin

Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

 

What I love most about Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, is that this single island, just 100 square miles, holds such diversity of culture, heritage, ecology. You can find a place on this island to suit whatever mood or craving you have – Edgartown’s austere conformity; Oak Bluffs’ color and whimsy; Vineyard Haven’s seagoing tradition; Wampanoag Indian reservation; fishing villages, beaches, nature preserves, lighthouses, farms. Go a few miles and it’s like crossing a border to another state or state of mind.

Tossing out the line to dock at Martha’s Vineyard © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

We arrive after a two-hour sail from New Bedford aboard Blount Small Ship Adventures’ Grande Caribe at 7:30 in the morning. I watch with great admiration how Captain Patrick Moynihan maneuvers us into the Tisbury Marina in Vineyard Haven, where billionaires have their yachts (our 84-passenger ship is about the size of the more ambitious of them), swinging us around so we are perpendicular to the pier. The first mate throws out a line to lasso the pylon.

Across the way, we can see where the big ferries come in from Falmouth, Hyannis, Nantucket, New Bedford, MA; Quonset Point, RI and New York.

The tall ship, Shenandoah, moored in Vineyard Haven, Martha’s Vineyard © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We see historic sailing vessels, like the tall ship Shenandoah, that add to the ambiance. Docked at the marina, we can go on and off the ship at will.It’s our third day of our New England Islands cruise – an itinerary that had to be completely rearranged because of storms at sea.

The best way to experience Martha’s Vineyard if you only have a day and especially if there are mobility issues is with an island tour. I am traveling with my brother who has some difficulty walking. We are recommended to Oak Bluffs Wharf & Land Company’s island tour, and we recommend it for both its length and scope. You come away feeling you really know Martha’s Vineyard from end to end, and more significantly, its people.

The tour company operates out of the Dockside Inn, an absolutely charming place a short walk from the ferry terminal; the inn (which I take note of for a return visit) and the tour company are both owned by John Tiernan (9 Circuit Avenue Ext., Oak Bluffs, MA, 508-684-8595, www.DocksideInnMV.com)

We hail an Uber and arrive at the charming inn in plenty of time to enjoy rocking in a wicker chair on the porch and watching the world go by (at least the people coming and going from the ferry) before we start the tour.

In the course of 2 ½ hours (more like 3) we get to visit all six of the island’s towns and go as far as Aguinnah and the Gay Head Cliffs.

Our guide, Linda, has lived on Martha’s Vineyard for 25 years but says her teenage grandkids still refer to her as a “washashore.” She is vivacious and interesting, as she drives the van and narrates about the points of interest, but also, gives us a real feeling for the people who live here and have been drawn here since the first European settlers arrived in 1642.

East Chop Lighthouse on Telegraph Hill © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Martha’s Vineyard is home to some 17,000 people year-round (I envy them); the population swells to 100,000 in summer. Traffic at the five-corners intersection (there are only two traffic lights on the island and these are on the bridges; no parking meters, neon signs, or billboards either) becomes a dance and a test of neighborly good will.

I could definitely live here. I’d be right at home among all the writers, journalists, musicians, artists, political people – the diversity of their backgrounds is laudable:

There’s Gloria Swanson’s house given to her by Joseph Kennedy. At West Chop, she ticks off prominent people who lived here (I note the media people and writers); Mike Wallace, Walter Cronkite, Lillian Hellman, Carly Simon. She points to where Charles Lindbergh and wife came for respite after their baby was kidnapped and killed; where John Kerry just bought property; She clicks off names of people who live in the area: Diane Sawyer (“Chip Chop” house); Mia Farrow; Katherine Graham (Washington Post), Beverly Sills; here’s where Princess Diana stayed here while divorcing; here’s a horse farm that was owned by James Cagney (still in his family); and here’s Lambert’s Cove, where Carly Simon is a regular (she always stops to ask for directions).

Michael J Fox had a home in Aquinnah, even named his daughter Aquinnah; Jackie Kennedy Onassis bought 400-acre spread, now owned by Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg and Obama, who had regularly vacationed on Martha’s Vineyard during his presidency, just bought a piece of it. Driving through Chilmark, Bob Villa (“This Old House); author David McCullough (“John Adams”), Judi Blum, Susan Bronck, Philip Craig, Tom Clancy, Geraldine Brooks, and Jim Belushi; in Oak Bluffs, Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. (PBS “Finding Your Roots”), Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett.

It’s the atmosphere, the vibe, the ingrained culture of this place that makes it so accepting, so comfortable. I see it, feel it myself as I walk about.

It starts with Martha’s Vineyard’s early European settlement – not the Puritans who settled Plymouth, but Quakers who were more tolerant and respectful of the Wampanoag Indians and later the Cape Verdeans who were recruited to whaling, and still later African Americans and Jews who were barred elsewhere.

Soldiers’ Memorial Fountain, Oak Bluffs, erected in 1891 by MV Herald newspaper editor Charles Strahan, an ex-Confederate soldier, to honor local Union veterans © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

It is most emblematic for me when I come upon the statue of a Union soldier in Ocean Park. Soldiers’ Memorial Fountain was dedicated in 1891 by Martha’s Vineyard Herald editor Charles Strahan, who had served in a Virginia regiment of the Confederate Army. He wanted to express gratitude and remorse in his adopted home and erected the statue in honor of local Union veterans. Then, in 1925, residents reciprocated by adding a tablet in recognition of Confederate soldiers. The statue, with a fountain-fed water trough for horses, originally stood at the foot of Circuit Avenue; it was restored in 2001 and rededicated at this site on its 110th anniversary. It is one of the few expressions of reconciliation after the Civil War that I have ever found.

Linda notes that Martha’s Vineyard has a rich African American history; a heritage trail through the island has 20 sites, including the Shearer Cottages, an inn to accommodate African American visitors, which was started by Charles Shearer, a freed slave who came to the Vineyard and started a laundry service, which is still run by his great granddaughter Doris Jackson. There is also Adam Clayton Powell Jr.’s  house. And, Linda later points out when we are in Aquinnah, “The first African American woman to own her own property. Rebecca Amos, was a former slave married to Wampanoag, and when her husband died, she acquired his home.”

Inkwell Beach, the town beach in Oak Bluffs, Linda notes, was the first beach to be integrated. Indeed, when I return on my own, as I look around at the gatherings of people, you see genuine integration, not just neighbors –as in the historic Methodist camp meeting grounds – but in gatherings of friends and multi-racial families along the beach, the promenade, the main street, sitting on a bench at the Union Chapel.

As we travel in the comfortable van, Linda relates the island’s history:

Martha’s Vineyard was visited by Scandinavians as long ago as 1000 AD, naming it Vineland. The Italian explorer Verrazano sighted the island in 1524. But the most significant explorer was Bartholomew Gosnold of Falmouth, England, who in 1602 sailed into the Elizabeth Islands (he named), naming Cape Cod, and Martha’s Vineyard (named for his mother-in-law who financed the voyage).

In October 1641 Thomas Mayhew, an English merchant and settler of Watertown, Massachusetts, bought Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket and Elizabeth Islands for 40 pounds from Lord Stirling and Sir Ferdinando Gorges, who had been granted ownership by the English Crown. Mayhew, who made himself governor for life, sent his son, Thomas Jr. with a few families to settle the island; Thomas required that the settlers purchase their land from the natives and from all accounts, treated the Wampanoag fairly and with respect. (This is likely why Martha’s Vineyard did not suffer the same violence as Plymouth did in the bloody King Philip’s War, 1675–76, in which native Americans made a final stab at forcing English settlers out of New England). “The diverse peoples lived in peace and the island also became a haven for people of color, those of African and Cape Verdean descent.”

Mayhew sent his son, Thomas Mayhew Jr., a missionary, “to ‘take savage out of natives’ so they would be more forthcoming with land (to sell to settlers),” Linda relates. Mayhew learned to speak Algonquin from an Indian man named Hiacoomes. Mayhew was Quaker, who believed in the “inner light” and that it was not necessary to believe in Jesus (as I subsequently learn in Nantucket). The converted Indians settled in their own village, “Christiantown”, where could live separately. They had their own meeting house and cemetery where Christianized natives were buried.

“Many natives died of disease but not the Christian ones, so they were more amenable to conversion,” Linda says.

Still, their numbers suffered after European settlement: in 1642, there were 3,000 Wampanoag; by 1764, their numbers had dwindled to just 300.

We pass an indigenous great white oak tree simply called “The Oldest Tree”, which is 400 years old (Alfred Eisenstadt took a famous photo of the tree).

Linda points to a dirt road named Tea Lane, the oldest road to the ocean. “Martha’s Vineyard had its own Tea Party – smuggled tea, buried it. Later, during Prohibition, they smuggled rum, and in 1970s, smuggled marijuana.”

We drive into Menemsha, a working fishing village (scenes from “Jaws” were filmed here and the Harrison Ford movie version of “Sabrina” used a charming cottage. Linda, who mentions that she is the daughter of a lobsterman, says it is popular for people to buy a fresh fish dinner and watch the sunset.

As we come into Aquinnah, where the Wampanoag reservation still exists, and where most of the remaining native population live, Linda relates how the whaling captains, knowing of the natives’ prowess harpooning whales that got beached, would try to recruit them. Herman Melville spent a lot of time talking with Amos Smalley, the first Indian to harpoon a whale single-handedly, who was very likely the model for his Queequeg character in “Moby Dick.”

Indigenous Wampanoag (“people of the first light”) have lived on Martha’s Vineyard for millennia. Nearly 1,000 are still listed on tribal rolls and, of these, 150 live in the southwestern 3,400-acre peninsula of Aquinnah, designated a reservation, and another 150 live elsewhere on the island.

The town of Aquinnah ends in cliffs once called Gay Head (because of the ‘gay’ appearance given to it by stripes of variegated clay and sand of which it is composed) and now called Clay Cliffs at Aquinnah. The one mile of exposed cliffs rise dramatically 150 feet feet above sea level.

Gay Head Cliffs: the pre-glacial sedimentary formation shows a cross section of strata from the Cretaceous through Pleistocene Ages, documenting geologic phases on the continental shelf from 100 million years ago © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The pre-glacial sedimentary formation shows a cross section of strata from the Cretaceous through Pleistocene Ages, documenting geologic phases on the continental shelf from 100 million years ago. The cliffs are one of the Island’s biggest tourist attractions.  Erosion, though, has forced the island to move the lighthouse, at a cost of $2 million.

Linda stops here to let us explore for about a half hour – take in the stunning view that includes a lighthouse (that had to be moved further inland) and visit a small market that includes a shop operated by Wampanoag, the first permanent settlers of the island.

The stunning view of Gay Head Cliffs and lighthouse at Aquinnah © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

The hiking sticks (versus a cane as an assist for those who have trouble walking) really come in handy here, to make it up even the short, but pebbly slope. I meet a woman who is also using hiking sticks instead of a cane, and she confirms my theory: they provide better balance, let you stand up erect and walk more naturally, and use the upper body, relieving some pressure on the legs; added benefit: you look more like an athlete. “And I’m a nurse,” she exclaims.

You can buy wampum jewelry in one of the shops at the cliffs, where there are also food stands, and restrooms.

There also is a trail to the lighthouse and you can climb up to the light, or (with more time), hike a steep path down to water. We opt to take the short path that takes us to a fabulous view of the cliffs and the lighthouse.

There is also a relatively new Aquinnah Wampanoag Indian Museum (in what was the Vanderhoop residence, a large Wampanoag family who run a fishing charter business).

Aquinnah Wampanoag Indian Museum at the Gay Head Cliffs © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

“Jackie [Onassis who purchased 400 acres of property in Aquinnah] had to negotiate with Wampanoags for beach access from her property.”

As we drive through Chilmark, known for its sheep, Linda relates how, in September 1778, a British fleet of 40 ships sailed into Vineyard Haven harbor,  after having burned New Bedford and Fairhaven. Soldiers burned and pillaged vessels and farms.

“The British said there wouldn’t be bloodshed in Martha’s Vineyard if the settlers delivered 10,000 sheep and cattle in five days.” They had no choice but to comply, but one, where we pass the Alan Sheep Farm, hid six sheep in the basement (we see descendants of those sheep in the fields today). But the economy was decimated.

Quitsa Pound, 1877, an animal jail where stray animals would be confined until the owner paid a fine © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Linda relates one of the most interesting aspects that go to the heart of Martha’s Vineyard culture: Some early Vineyard settlers carried a gene for deafness (the first known deaf one was Jonathan Lambert, 1694), and over years of marriage, generation after generation was born with hearing loss. At one point, one in four children was born deaf. There were so many deaf people on the Vineyard (the greatest concentration in Chilmark) that they developed a sign language, Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language (MVSL), which was later incorporated with mainland signs to form American Sign Language.

Sign language was so accepted on the Vineyard that a newspaper marveled in 1895 at the way the spoken and signed languages were used by both deaf and hearing residents. People moving to Chilmark actually had to learn sign language in order to live in the community. Deafness was so common, it was never considered to be a handicap. “The intermarriages persisted and the deaf population of Chilmark and the rest of the Vineyard continued to propagate. It would have kept growing if not for the growth of deaf education on the mainland. As deaf Vineyard children attended schools off-island, they tended to settle off-island, married mainland mates, and gradually the deaf Vineyard population died out. The last deaf Vineyard native passed away in the 1950s.”

There are other aspects of Chilmark: Chilmark Chocolates, which attained national renown after Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen presented a box to Ellen DeGeneres, is notable because the couple that own the chocolate company had a disabled son who enjoyed working in the store; now they only hire disabled.

The island also has Camp Jaberwocky. Founded in 1950 by the Lemb family it was the first overnight camp for children with cerebral palsy. “We see the kids every year. It still costs same as in 1950.” (Later I see the red bus carrying children to the camp.)

John Belushi’s grave on Martha’s Vineyard: “I may be gone, but/Rock and Roll lives on.” © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Linda stops at John Belushi’s grave where people often leave bottles of Jack Daniels and rocks – not because of the Jewish tradition, but a reference to his chosen epitaph: “I may be gone, but/Rock and Roll lives on.”

“He had said, ‘Martha’s Vineyard is the only place I can get good rest’.”

Several of the sights she points out were used in making the movie “Jaws,” (despite the setting supposedly being Nantucket). One of them is a bridge where there is a prominent sign, “No jumping,” that everyone jumps off.

Beginning in 1765, Vineyard men became engaged in whaling, but when the numbers of whales near the island were exhausted, the ships sailed further and further away, with voyages lasting three to five years. By 1850, Vineyard whaling ships were found on every ocean; there would have been 50 ships out of Edgartown at any one time.

“No jumping.” Jumping off the “Jaws” bridge on Martha’s Vineyard © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Edgartown reflects the Vineyard’s whaling tradition the most – in the many captain’s houses; the Old Whaling Church (now a performance venue); the lighthouse. There is a uniformity in Edgartown that is mandated by town code: the houses have to be white or shingled, the trim can only be black, green or navy blue.

Even Duke’s County Jail and House of Correction, conforms to Edgartown’s architectural regimen © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

But in the 1860s whaling collapsed – the ships had to travel further and further away, petroleum was discovered in Pennsylvania in 1859, the Civil War came and ships were blockaded – and the Vineyard had to look again for a new industry. It turned out to be tourism. For Martha’s Vineyard, that began in Oak Bluffs.

Perhaps one of the quaintest institutions on the Vineyard is the Martha’s Vineyard Camp-Meeting Association, which held its first camp-meeting in August 1835 in the Wesleyan Grove, in what is today Oak Bluffs where the Tabernacle stands.

Founded by the Methodist church, the campground began with pitched tents, then canvas on wood platforms, and then cottages that were gorgeously decorated in gingerbread patterns (like family crests, the patterns usually make a statement) and gay colors. These homes have been in their families for generations (they own the cottage, but not the land).

A row of charming cottages of the Camp Ground in Oak Bluffs © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

It was, in its way, the beginning of tourism, and when whaling fell apart for Edgartown, Linda says, Edgartown wanted in on Oak Bluffs’ good fortune. A railroad was built in 1874 between Oak Bluffs wharf to Edgartown, then to Katama and on to South Beach (still the best beach on the island). The railroad operated until 1897; eventually, a rail line was linked to New York (discontinued in 1917 and the rails sold to the government for iron). (Today, Martha’s Vineyard has an excellent public bus system.)

We arrive back into Oak Bluffs. Linda points out Inkwell Beach – one of the first integrated beaches in the country. “There is no discrimination here.”

Oak Bluffs, she says, is where Martin Luther King Jr. wrote some of his speeches.

Linda’s tour finishes at the Martha’s Vineyard Campmeeting Association’s Cottage Museum.

Oak Bluffs Wharf & Land Company, 9 Circuit Avenue Ext. Oak Bluffs, MA, 508-684-8595, http://vineyardhistory.com/.

The Cottage Museum, Oak Bluffs © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

A Free Day

Grand Caribe’s Captain Patrick Moynihan has reshuffled our New England Islands voyage because of a storm which would make reaching Nantucket, 30 miles out to sea, too uncomfortable (10 foot seas) if not outright dangerous. But by staying over in Martha’s Vineyard for an extra day, he expects the weather to improve so we can sail there on Friday, as our last port of call.

The unexpected second day in Martha’s Vineyard is a gift, as if you had been given all these extra hours to do anything you want.

After two active days and anticipating another active day in Nantucket, Marty opts to spend the day relaxing on the ship.

The Cinderella Cottage, one of the points on the self-guided walking tour of Oak Bluffs © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I opt to return to one of my favorite places on the planet: Oak Bluffs. I love the color, the whimsy, the vibe. I have never seen a more open, welcoming place anywhere – it isn’t a coincidence that this is where Valerie Jarrett had her summer home, or that President Obama would summer on the Vineyard here every year during his presidency, or that there are so many media stars and celebrities (many who happen to be Jewish) who had vacation homes here.

Gorgeous detail of the Victorian cottages in the Camp Ground in Oak Bluffs © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I cross the street from the marina where we are tied up at the pier, and hop the #13 bus to Oak Bluffs (it makes a loop to Edgartown).

I pick up the “Historic Walking Tour of Oak Bluffs” brochure from the information center at the bottom of Circuit Avenue, and find myself on what seems a scavenger hunt to find all the places.

I tour of the famous Campground, with all those gorgeous gingerbread cottages with names like Respite, Time Remembered, Alice’s Wonderland, and the Tabernacle, which can seat 2000 for a service.

Inkwell Beach, Oak Bluffs © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I make most of the 20 sites on the map, enjoying the notes about history, architecture and people.

I enjoy wandering along the Oak Bluffs Harbor promenade, and Inkwell Beach and take in the lovely shops along Circuit Avenue.

I stop in at the Flying Horses Carousel, the nation’s oldest platform carousel (a national landmark), that was constructed in 1876 by Charles Dare, and today is one of only two Dare carousels still in existence. Originally operated as a Coney Island, NY amusement, it was moved to its red barn in Oak Bluffs in 1884, delighting generations ever since. The carousel was acquired by the Preservation Trust in 1986 to prevent it from being dismantled and sold piecemeal to collectors of antique carved horses. The Trust undertook an extensive restoration to return the carousel to its original appearance, complete with the historic panel paintings that were done by a Dare factory artist. The horses were individually restored and feature real horsehair manes and tails, and distinctive objects in their glass eyes. The 1923 Wurlitzer Band Organ plays old-timey tunes on original paper rolls. The highlight of every ride is the chance to grab the lucky Brass Ring to win a free ride.

Grab for the brass ring on the Flying Horses Carousel, Oak Bluffs, the nation’s oldest platform carousel © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Flying Horses Carousel is one of 20 historic properties owned and managed by The Vineyard Trust. Among them: Alleys and The Grange in West Tisbury; The Old Whaling Church and Daniel Fisher House in Edgartown; and Union Chapel in Oak Bluffs.

I take the bus back to Vineyard Haven, getting off opposite the ferry terminal, and walk up to the village’s main street which has many charming boutiques. The local movie theater has a poster of “Jaws.”

It’s a short walk back to the ship – I pass the Benjamin & Gannon ship building and repair company – actually a small shack, but Linda had mentioned that they are very welcoming to visitors, and sure enough, am invited to look inside.

Sunset at Vineyard Haven, Martha’s Vineyard © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

There’s so much to do on Martha’s Vineyard: with more time, I would bike (the island has 44 miles of bike and multi-user paths; several of our passengers took advantage of the rental bikes on board); 19 named beaches, 125 miles of coastline, fishing piers, kayaking, canoeing, windsurfing; horseback riding; guided cycling, natural, ecological, birding, historical, ghost and aerial tours; dozens of art galleries and boutiques, potters and artisans workshops and bookstores; visit an alpaca farm; wildlife and nature preserves, reptile and bird park, sanctuaries, arboretums, reservations; take the On-Time ferry to Chappaquiddick Island to explore Cape Poge and Wasque Reservations; visit Mytoi Japanese garden; the Vineyard’s Native American Wampanoag people at the Aquinnah Cultural Center, explore the Wampanoag Way, an Aquinnah Cultural Trail; follow the African American Heritage Trail; take in a performance at Vineyard Playhouse in Vineyard Haven or at the Old Whaling Church in Edgartown; take a cooking, dance, yoga, pilates,  landscape painting class; circumnavigate the island or its surrounding waters aboard a sailboat, schooner, catamaran or motorboat; take a charter fishing or sailing excursion or lesson; attend a film, food & wine, artisans or other festival.

Blount Small Ship Adventures’ Grand Caribe tied to the pier at Tisbury Marina, Vineyard Haven © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

For more information, and to help plan a visit, contact Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce, 24 Beach Road, Vineyard Haven, MA 02568, 508-693-0085, 800-505-4815, info@mvy.com, www.mvy.com.

The Grande Caribe sails on to Nantucket. Blount Small Ship Adventures, 461 Water Street, Warren, Rhode Island 02885, 800-556-7450 or 401-247-0955, info@blountsmallshipadventures.com, www.blountsmallshipadventures.com). 

See also:

A Spectacle in Motion: Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage ‘Round the World is Once-in-a-Lifetime Must-See at New Bedford Whaling Museum

Blount Small Ship Adventures’ Grande Caribe Voyage to New England Islands Proves Ideal for Babyboomers Who Still Crave Thrill of Travel, Albeit at Slower Pace

Endlessly Fascinating, Newport RI, Playground for the Rich, Makes its Attractions Accessible

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© 2018 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com,  www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin , and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Endlessly Fascinating, Newport RI, Playground for the Rich, Makes its Attractions Accessible

 

The Gold Room at Alva Vanderbilt’s Marble House in Newport, Rhode Island, epitomizes the Gilded Age © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

 

by Karen Rubin & Martin D. Rubin

Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

 

Each time I visit Newport, Rhode Island, the guided tours of these Gilded Age mansions get better and better, more immersive into the lives upstairs and downstairs, more intriguing, and the relevance to society today more apparent. The gap between rich and poor hasn’t been this great since Cornelius Vanderbilt II built his palatial summer “cottage,” The Breakers.

Newport is still a playground for the rich – it is the reason it is the home to the International Tennis Hall of Fame and considered the sailing capital of the country, why it is so associated with classic cars – but the interesting thing is you don’t have to be rich to play, too.

This most recent visit to Newport comes as a port of call on the second day of Blount Small Ship Adventures’ week-long voyage to New England islands. We have a full day to explore, and sailing in gives a very different perspective.

We also are able to experience Newport from the perspective of how well the destination accommodates visitors with mobility issues.

Our ship, Grand Caribe, docks at Fort Adams State Park, “America’s largest coastal fortification,” a short stroll to a launch or a water taxi to the “downtown”.

Many of our fellow passengers are taking the island tour that the ship offers, which will include a stop at The Breakers, and the cruiseline had also arranged a 2-hour sail aboard an America’s Cup classic yacht (which had to be canceled because of weather). But I have some particular goals for our day in Newport.

We are met by Andrea McHugh from Discover Newport who has organized an itinerary to maximize our time gives us our own island tour (as well as the gossip of which tech billionaire has just bought which house, and how Jay Leno, who visited and attended events at the new Audrain Automobile Museum (which we will visit), passed an oceanfront mansion he liked and bought it on the spot, and now is seen regularly tooling around).

The gorgeous coastal views along Newport’s 10-mile Ocean Drive © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

We drive along the magnificent 10-mile long Ocean Drive with its scenic views and rocky shore, and pass the driveway into Hammersmith Farm, the Auchincloss estate where Jackie married John Kennedy. It used to be open to the public with a fantastic exhibit of the Kennedys but was acquired by Peter Kiernan (notable for the Robin Hood Foundation, funded by John Jr.), and is no longer open.

We pass Beechwood, a mansion once owned by the Astors and for many years, where actors played their parts in period dress. It is now owned by Larry Elllison (Oracle), who, we are told, is planning to open part of the mansion as an art museum.

We pass Belcourt, once owned by Oliver H. P. Belmont (who became the second husband of Alva Vanderbilt), which was purchased in 2012, by Carolyn Rafaelian, who has spent a considerable sum on a multi-year restoration and has reopened it for public tours.

The Breakers

The Breakers, the 70-room summer “cottage” built by Cornelius Vanderbilt II in 1895 © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We arrive at The Breakers, probably the most famous (and emblematic) of the Newport Gilded Age mansions that line Bellevue Avenue. It has a new visitor center which is really well done – barely visible from the street, it blends in wonderfully architecturally while affording a very comfortable (air conditioned) place to pick up tickets (take advantage of the multi-ticket options offered by The Preservation Society, which operates 10 of these glittering Newport Mansions, each with special exhibitions and presentations (see NewportMansions.org), refresh at a delightful café (sandwiches, $9.95), and utilize accessible restrooms (before, it was difficult for people with mobility issues to access a bathroom on property).

The new visitors center at The Breakers has a lovely café and sitting areas and is particularly helpful for visitors with mobility issues © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Each time I visit, I find new things to appreciate and understand– audio-guides, for example, which replace the scheduled docent-led tours so let you tour at your own pace, are endlessly fascinating with opportunities to click on specialized topics. (A free app, Newport Mansions, let you download the commentary on a smart phone even when you aren’t touring the property.)

(The audio-guide lets you know that people who can’t climb the stairs can ask a docent to escort them upstairs in an elevator.)

Built by Cornelius Vanderbilt II (the grandson of “The Commodore,” the founder of the fortune, who turned a ferry boat into a shipping empire into a railroad empire), this breathtakingly grand, eye-popping, 70-room Italian Renaissance “cottage,” designed by Richard Morris Hunt, replaced a wooden structure that burned down. This was 1895, and the United States was jockeying for a position as an industrial power on the global stage. Hunt, the commentary relates, had a vision for an architecture expressing an American Renaissance, one that was classic, grand in scale, but that which reflected the hope and optimism of America.

Eye-popping grandeur at The Breakers, Newport © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

It is mind-boggling to recall when you see the gilding, the carefully carved wood, the marble, the artwork, that this palace (they called it a “cottage”) was only used about eight weeks of the year, during “the season.” The Breakers would have had 40 staff in summer (Newport had 2,000 servants, mostly immigrants).

The Breakers is as much an architectural and artistic treasure as a touchstone to social, cultural and political currents of the Gilded Age.

We learn about the family and the social structure of Newport: Mrs. Alice Claypoole Gwynne Vanderbilt’s bedroom, for example, also functioned as an office from which she ran the home.

Newport was actually run by women, we learn. These grand homes were designed to present their wealthy daughters (heiresses) to be snapped up for a favorable marriage.

Dressing was important. Women would have to change something like seven times a day (a riding habit, tea gown, bathing outfit, tennis, golf, sailing). Newport was the first place women played outdoor sports; whole new fashions were created.

The Breakers had 15 bedrooms and 20 bathrooms (we see one bathtub, carved from a single block of marble that was so cold, it had to be fully filled and drained several times before it would be warm enough to bathe in.)

We see the servants corridors, hidden closets and back stairs. “Female servants were invisible.”

When we arrive in daughter Gertrude Vanderbilt’s bedroom, we learn that she was upset to learn she was an heiress. She preferred to be an artist, and became a sculptor, an art collector and patron and, in 1931, founded the Whitney Museum. (Here, I click the audio guide for more detail on specific things: Gertrude was on the forefront of the New Woman, an educated girl. The idea to become an artist came to her in a dream.)

We come to the mezzanine overlooking the grand staircase. (People who cannot climb stairs can ask to be escorted to an elevator.) “Gilded Age Newport was built, managed, and maintained by women. It was the backdrop for the presentation of women” at a time when a woman’s fortune depended upon making a favorable marriage.

The Breakers’ Grand Staircase – the steps were made two inches shorter so the debutantes would not trip on their gowns © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We learn that the grand staircase stairs were built (and even rebuilt) to be two inches shorter, so the young debutantes could be presented in their gowns without fear of tripping.

At this portion of the tour, you can click on the audio guide to hear more detail about how the Vanderbilt’s attained such wealth and privilege (but it is really, really hard to keep the players straight without a scorecard – so many have the same name like British royalty).

The Commodore left the vast majority of his enormous fortune to his eldest son, William Henry Vanderbilt (“Any fool can make a fortune; it takes a man of brains to hold onto it,” Cornelius Vanderbilt said.) Though he outlived his father by just eight years, in that time William doubled the Vanderbilt wealth from $100 million to $200 million.

In the oddest quote on the audio-guide, William Henry Vanderbilt explains why he sold controlling stock of the Vanderbilt empire to a syndicate headed by JP Morgan: “The care of $200 million is too great a load for any brain or back to bear. It is enough to kill a man. I have no son whom I am willing to afflict with the terrible burden.” The commentary adds, “Without a single visionary leader like the Commodore, there was no one to invest in the next new technology. Automobiles and airplanes replaced the railroads, the once vast fortune was split and shared among generations of descendants.”

When we visit the kitchen, we get to appreciate some of the modern innovations of the house. The first Breakers burned down so when Cornelius II rebuilt it, he had the kitchen separated from house and no burners. Zinc, the stainless steel of its day, covered the worktable. There was a separate, smaller room which could be kept cool, for preparing pastry.

The Music Room at The Breakers, Newport © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

It is worthwhile to appreciate that as we see the trappings of obscene wealth, privilege and power, we also get to appreciate that the servants – who were mainly immigrants – saw their position in these mansions as improvements, and many were able to embrace the American Dream and move up in station and class.  The Breakers’ chef, we learn, started as a kitchen boy and became known as the Omelette King.

The Butler’s pantry, a two-story affair, had a safe for the butler to lock the silver away. The butler, we are told, was like the captain of ship.

Leaving The Breakers, we walk down to the Cliff Walk, the most visited attraction in Rhode Island, and for good reason. This is a delightful walkway along the cliffs (mostly paved and accessible for someone who uses a cane or, as I urge instead, hiking sticks), behind the grand mansions such as The Breakers, and free to enjoy. It extends 3.5 miles all the way to Doris Duke’s Rough Point (where the walkway becomes more scrappy). Today, we only get a taste of it, in order to conserve time and energy.

The 3.5 mile Cliff Walk goes behind many of the magnificent Newport mansions and provides stunning views of the ocean © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Marble House

If The Breakers is about patriarchal wealth, power and privilege, Marble House, built before The Breakers by Cornelius II’s sister-in-law, Alva Erskine Smith Vanderbilt, tells the story of burgeoning feminism and what happens when a smart, ambitious woman has few outlets for her vast talents beyond making an advantageous marriage.

Of the $11 million spent to build Marble House was built for Alva Vanderbilt, $7 million was spent on 500,000 cubic feet of marble © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Marble House (which we reach by hopping Newport’s delightful trolley-style bus) was designed by the architect Richard Morris Hunt (who also designed The Breakers). Inspired by the Petit Trianon at Versailles, Marble House was built between 1888-1892 at a cost of $11 million of which $7 million was spent on 500,000 cubic feet of marble. When it was finished, William Kissam Vanderbilt, the Commodore’s grandson, gave the house to his wife as a 39th birthday present.

Alva built Marble House to be “a cottage like nothing Newport had ever seen.” As it turns out, Alva Vanderbilt was also like nothing Newport had never seen.

At a time before there were public museums, The Gothic Room at Marble House, which Alva Vanderbilt purchased “en bloc” in Europe, became a private museum © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Gothic Room featured an important Gothic collection from Europe, which Alva purchased “en bloc” – the whole caboodle. “She considered herself equal to European collectors but didn’t want to collect over generations.” The room was designed and executed in Paris – then reassembled here piece by piece.

At a time before there were public museums, this room became a private museum.

The most revealing room into Alva’s soul is the library (the “morning room”), where you see photos of Alva’s children and a portrait of Harold, born when her oldest, Consuelo was 7, who came back one day to find she had a baby brother and was told “God had sent him to us.”

The room is Alva’s feminist declaration, decorated with images of goddesses representing beauty, wealth and power. She wove into the frame and the fabric of the room images of women’s accomplishment – women holding a quill pen, Cleo, the Greek muse of history, female images of learning and the arts – the four corners showing (mythical) women in chemistry, botany, astronomy.

Part of the ceiling decoration in the Marble House Morning Room, depicting women in intellectual roles, part of Alva Vanderbilt’s declaration of women’s rights. She later was a leader and benefactor of the Women’s Suffrage movement, holding rallies at Marble House © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

“In education, women have made tremendous strides,” she said. “It is not so long since women freed themselves from their man-made belief that it was unwomanly for a woman to have an idea of her own.”

She also said, “A man’s brain is not half a brain and we are the other half. Blending of the two will make a better whole.”

Her bedroom also was a display of the power she coveted – a bed on a throne-like platform, and images of Athena – goddess of wisdom and war.In this period, though, she saw social standing – that is, marriage to wealth – as a woman’s only means to power and independence. She applied this to her daughter, Consuelo, and raised the child to marry royalty.

Alva Vanderbilt’s throne-like bedroom in Marble House © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

Consuelo seems to have been Alva’s obsessive focus. You hear how she was groomed to be married off to European royalty – from childhood forced to wear a steel rod from her neck to waist with a strap around her shoulders, to force her to sit up straight.

From her quotes, Consuelo seems to be fully aware of how she was being dominated by her mother, yet was a dutiful daughter, very close to her mother and understanding. We visit her  austere room decorated by her mother which, she says, “reflected in my mother’s love of me.”

Consuelo Vanderbilt’s bedroom at Marble House © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

We see the guest room – the only one in this fabulous mansion – decorated in rose silk, with an 18th century bed. The most famous guest was, of course, the 9th Duke of Marlborough, Consuelo’s intended. We learn there is only one guest room in the house because people who would visit the house either had their own “cottage,” rented for the season or stayed in a hotel. “Marble House is built for the family.”

Consuelo “reluctantly accepted a proposal from the Duke of Marlborough.” She was one of the “Dollar Princesses,” American heiresses who married foreign royalty.”Consuelo Vanderbilt not the first or the last, but she was the best known.”

These marriages, “were a melding of the old world and the new world. They enabled royalty to maintain property and palaces for another generation.”

Indeed, the Gilded Salon – literally painted in 22 carat gold, the very epitome of Gilded Age – had a featured role in Duke’s marriage proposal.

But after Consuelo was married off to British royalty, Alva acted for herself, divorcing William K in 1895.

My favorite quote from the audio guide, “I was the first of my set to marry a Vanderbilt and the first to get divorced – but not the last.” Alva Erskine Smith of Alabama felt herself a pioneer for her class, a female knight reassuring others. “Mine was the first, but the first of many.”

She ditched William K. Vanderbilt to marry her husband’s best friend, Oliver H.P. Belmont, moving down the street to Belcourt.

After her second husband’s death, Alva Vanderbilt Belmont reopened Marble House and had a Chinese Tea House built on the seaside cliffs, and held Women’s Suffrage rallies © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

After Belmont’s death, Alva reopened Marble House and had a Chinese Tea House built on the seaside cliffs. She became active and a major donor to the Women’s Suffrage Movement, holding rallies in 1909 at Marble House.

She raised money for the cause by opening Marble House to the public: “Shop girls could mingle with socialites” for the price of a $5 ticket (which would have been equivalent to $500 in today’s money).

Alva insisted, “Women shouldn’t marry until we get vote,” a pronouncement considered hypocritical for a twice-married woman.

Following her mother’s example, after 26 years as Duchess of Marlborough living in Blenheim Palace, Consuelo ended her loveless marriage in 1921, giving him $2.5 million a year, and married “for love” a French aviator, Jacques Balsan. (More about these personal relationships in a fantastic photo gallery in the basement.)

In stark contrast to the grand (albeit austere) bedroom that Consuelo occupied, her brothers’ rooms were tiny and spartan; Willy K Jr.’s room was occupied by Marble House superintendent, William Gilmour, who joined the household when he was 16 to be Willy K’s companion.

We visit a trophy room (that had been converted from two dressing rooms that were between Alva’s bedroom and Consuelo’s), that recognizes sons William K., Jr.’s role in pioneering the sport of auto racing in America (he created the Vanderbilt Cup auto races and built the Vanderbilt Parkway which starts across from where he had a home in Lake Success); and Harold Stirling, one of the finest yachtsmen of his era who successfully defended the America’s Cup three times and invented the game of contract bridge.  Notably, as chairman of the board of Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Harold supported integration.”He wanted to be associated with positive, progressive thinking.”

In the basement kitchen (capable of feeding 100), we see yet another side of Alva in a quoted segment complaining “how the rich are exploited. When a shopkeeper learned my address, he said he made mistake of the price and added 50%.” This at a time when she paid a French chef (after all, you had to have a French chef), the massive sum of $10,000 (equivalent to $250,000 today).

We see in the cupboard silver trays etched with the children’s names and china made with “Vote for Women.”

In Marble House, too, people who have difficulty climbing stairs can ask to use an elevator, and the docents will find a place to sit and rest, as necessary.

In summer, the Preservation Society has 10 properties open, all with distinctive presentations and exhibits.

Rosecliff, the 1902 “fantasy in terra-cotta”, is presenting “Bohemian Beauty” celebrating the ideals of the Aesthetic Movement, personified by Oscar Wilde who visited Newport twice, with furniture, ceramics, wallpaper, glass, silver, paintings and clothing (thru Nov 4).

(Plan your visit in advance at The Preservation Society of Newport County, 424 Bellevue Avenue, Newport, RI 02840,  401-847-1000, info@newportmansions.org, www.newportmansions.org.)

In addition, there are the homes and heritage sites operated by Newport Restoration Foundation including Rough Point and Whitehorne Museum (51 Touro St., Newport, RI 02840, 401–849–7300, newportrestoration.org).

Tennis, Classic Cars

Between The Breakers and Marble House, we take in some of Newport’s other distinctive attractions:

The grass tennis court at the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, where the first US Open tournaments were played. The hall of fame honors tennis champions © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The International Tennis Hall of Fame, which features the original grass court where American tennis began. The museum features 2,000 artifacts spanning hundreds of years of tennis history (such as the patent for the game of tennis signed by Queen Victoria in 1874), displayed in redesigned galleries with some interactive exhibits. One of the newest, most novel exhibits features a hologram of tennis legend Roger Federer who offers the top 10 reason why he loves tennis. The Hall of Fame honors hundreds of the most accomplished champions, inducted since 1954. After touring the museum, you can explore the seven-acre historic grounds of what the Vanderbilts’ would have known as the Newport Casino (the Tiffany clocktower and Shingle style building was originally developed by architects McKim, Mead & White in 1880), grass courts of the Bill Talbert Stadium and newly built indoor courts (you can even rent time to play on its grass courts). Here, too, we are able to request the use of an elevator to get up to the exhibits on the second floor. (194 Bellevue Avenue, www.tennisfame.com).

Audrain Automobile Museum offers regularly changing exhibits based on its private collection of 250 cars (every one in working condition), from 1899 to modern day, as well as special events. Ever changing exhibits display 15 to 20 cars at a time around a theme. We had just missed the “Muscle Car Madness” exhibit featuring cars of the 1950s and 1970s, accompanied with surf boards and original art.) On view now are some intriguing cars I had never seen before: Messerschmidt, which after World War II when Germans were no longer allowed to build airplanes, used airplane parts to create a micro-car that basically looks like a cockpit with wheels. A French version is also on view. “They aren’t great to drive,” says the young docent who drove it and says all the cars on display have to be in working condition.  (Audrain Automobile Museum, 222 Bellevue Avenue, 401-856-4420, audrainautomuseum.org)

Audrain Automobile Museum offers regularly changing exhibits based on its private collection of 250 cars; here some of the micro cars produced after World War II that are more like an airplane cockpit (and made from airplane parts) © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We enjoy a marvelous lunch at Annie’s bistro café (176 Bellevue Ave., anniesnewport.com) – elegant dining in a casual atmosphere and the best New England clam chowder anywhere –before hopping a trolley-style bus for a short ride to Marble House (you can see the schedule on googlemaps.com on your smartphone).

Andrea returns us to the Grande Caribe, where it is too late to explore inside the fort, but I walk along the Bay Walk (a 2.5 mile  loop with gorgeous views of Narrangansett Bay and Newport Harbor) before returning to the ship for the cocktail hour and dinner.  (Blount Small Ship Adventures, 800-556-7450,  www.blountsmallshipadventures.com).

This was what you could do with one full day in Newport. There is so much more to do, and so deserving of a return multi-day visit. Top on my list: Doris Duke’s Rough Point (newportrestoration.org); Touro Synagogue and Loeb Visitors Center (tourosynagogue.org), Redwood Library and Athenaeum (opened in 1750 and has a collection of more than 200,000 titles, www.redwoodlibrary.org), and The National Museum of American Illustration (americanillustration.org), to list but a few.

See more and plan your visit: Discover Newport, 23 America’s Cup Avenue, Newport, RI 02840, 800-326-6030, 401-849-8048, www.discovernewport.org.

Blount’s Small Ship Adventures’ Grande Caribe © Karen Rubin/ goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Grande Caribe will next sail to New Bedford (see A Spectacle in Motion: Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage ‘Round the World is Once-in-a-Lifetime Must-See at New Bedford Whaling Museum) and on to Martha’s Vineyard.

Blount Small Ship Adventures, 461 Water Street, Warren, Rhode Island 02885, 800-556-7450 or 401-247-0955,  info@blountsmallshipadventures.com, www.blountsmallshipadventures.com). 

See also:

Blount Small Ship Adventures’ Grande Caribe Voyage to New England Islands Proves Ideal for Babyboomers Who Still Crave Thrill of Travel, Albeit at Slower Pace

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