NEWPORTS'S wealth of attractions More than seashore awaits visitors to charming resort

June 13, 1993|By Steve Stecklow | Steve Stecklow,Knight-Ridder News Service

NEWPORT, R.I. — Newport, R.I.-- There we were, ready to depart for a weekend at this posh seaside resort, when the weather forecast arrived on the radio.

Rain.

I was tempted not to go. After all, I was not in the mood for a bad movie, bowling, or staring out the window of an expensive hotel.

As it turned out, not a drop fell during our two-day jaunt to Newport. But I quickly learned that this was one shore town that has plenty of things to do -- no matter what the weather.

There are, of course, 11 palatial summer "cottages" where America's upper crust once lived and entertained, and which are now open to the rest of us for tours.

Then there's a wide variety of museums, including the International Tennis Hall of Fame, as well as many well-pre

served historical buildings, churches and the oldest synagogue in North America.

If you care to pass the time eating, several of Newport's inns serve meals and Sunday brunch, including the Inn at Castle Hill, a mini-mansion with a panoramic view of Narragansett Bay. And the lobster rolls at La Forge Casino Restaurant, next door to the tennis museum, are worth a trip.

As for shopping, there's the usual array of dockside shopping complexes, including the required fudge shop, plus trendy Thames Street, with its boutiques, bars and bookstores. And that's all in addition to the ocean.

We arrived in Newport on a Saturday morning and checked into the Newport Islander Doubletree Hotel (formerly a Sheraton) on Goat Island, just across the harbor area and accessible by a bridge. The hotel's architecture is drab compared with most in Newport, although the place does offer an indoor pool, helpful concierges and quiet -- thanks to its location away from the always-bustling downtown.

With the sun still shining, we headed to the Norman Bird Sanctuary in nearby Middletown to take a walk and see some wildlife. My wife is the hiker, not me -- unless the destination happens to be a trout stream. But I have to admit that our stroll along a ridge overlooking the ocean, with the trees unfurling their new greenery, was extremely pleasant. It helped that the mosquitoes hadn't made their debut yet.

Open seven days a week in summer from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., the well-wooded, 450-acre reserve has seven miles of walking trails. Although May is said to be the best month here for birding, there are plenty of flying objects in summer and fall. Sharp-eyed birders may spot green herons, white-eyed vireos, wood thrushes or yellow warblers, according to one of the managers.

The sanctuary is an especially good place to take children, because it has fenced-in goats, which can be fed, as well as a display of live, injured birds, including an owl and several hawks. Admission is free for children 12 and under and for senior citizens, and $2 for everyone else.

Scenic roadway

After our leisurely hourlong hike at the reserve, we headed bac to Newport for a dramatic, 10-mile ride along Ocean Drive.

Ocean Drive ranks with California's Big Sur and Italy's Amalfi Coast as one of the world's great seaside roadways. There are several key stops on this scenic ride along Newport's rocky shores, including Fort Adams State Park (site of the Newport jazz and folk festivals, it has a park and an old, decaying fort) and Brenton Point State Park (a windy point popular with kite-fliers). You'll also notice some outrageously extravagant residences, some of them still under construction. It's nice to know that not everyone was hurt by the recession.

The drive curves back to Bellevue Avenue, site of Newport's posh mansions. The street recently underwent a $7 million face lift; the pavement is now smooth, the sidewalks redone and the street lamps back in operation -- appropriate, I guess, for one of the most opulent stretches in America.

It was a bit late for mansion-hopping, however, so we decided to save that for Sunday. Besides, it was almost dinner time.

The night life

If you thought everyone in Newport walked around in Lacoste shirts and owned a yacht, then you haven't been downtown on a Saturday night in warm weather.

In fact, the mobbed harbor area is more reminiscent of Provincetown on Cape Cod or parts of the Jersey Shore than Beverly Hills or Palm Beach. Hordes of teen-agers and college students pack the streets, and there is an extremely active singles scene.

A lot of the area is downright tacky, with a large video game hall a Burger King and noisy, Bennigan's-style bars.

But there also are some excellent restaurants, although it must be noted that some of the most popular ones, such as Scales & Shells, a seafood eatery on Thames Street, do not accept credit cards.

On Sunday, we decided to get a taste of Newport's "Gilded Age," the pre-video arcade days when railroad tycoons and people with titles spent their summers here in style.

Tickets to tour

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