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    Saturday, April 20, 2024

    Billion-dollar views along Newport’s Cliff Walk

    The Waves, a Tudor mansion built in 1927 by architect John Russell Pope, commands a hillside at the south end of the Cliff Walk. Pope later designed the National Archives Building, West Building of the National Gallery of Art, and the Jefferson Memorial. (Steve Fagin)
    This domed gazebo is on the grounds of the Anglesea Mansion at Ochre Point. (Steve Fagin)
    Stone steps make the footing less treacherous. (Steve Fagin)
    The trail passes rugged terrain near its southern terminus. (Steve Fagin)

    Some paths stand out because they pass interesting landmarks. Others lead to scenic overlooks.

    And then, there’s the Newport Cliff Walk. This seven-plus-mile, out-and-back ramble not only showcases nearly a dozen Gilded Age mansions that once were occupied by tycoons, heiresses and a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, it also offers continuously stunning views of Easton Bay and the Atlantic Ocean.

    There’s literally nothing quite like the Cliff Walk, the country’s only National Recreation Trail within a National Historic District

    The Cliff Walk attracts more than a million visitors a year, but now is a great time to hit the trail, before summer hordes descend. While much of the walk is flat and paved, a series of tough scrambles over jumbled boulders make it an occasionally challenging hike.

    My wife, Lisa, and I encountered only a handful of other pedestrians when we set out on a recent midweek morning from the southern entrance near Easton’s Beach. As we strolled through a pair of granite pillars onto a broad path of white paving stones, the view spread out past sparkling Easton Bay to the open water of the Atlantic Ocean. Beyond that, there is only horizon. In less than 100 yards, we approached a gracefully curved stairway, offset by sculpted stone walls, leading to the first mansion, The Chanler at Cliff Walk.

    Remodeled in 2003 as a 20-room luxury hotel and restaurant, the original structure was built in 1873 as a summer “cottage” for New York Congressman John Winthrop Chanler and his wife, Margaret Astor Ward. Her great-grandfather, John Jacob Astor, once considered the world’s richest person, perished when the Titanic sank in 1912.

    Past The Chanler, the paved footpath rises gradually and bends due south. A concrete wall on the left keeps walkers from tumbling off 70-foot cliffs, while a hedge on the right prevents them from wandering onto private property.

    Public access to the path occasionally has been a contentious issue – some property owners built barriers to block the way, others let their dogs loose. However, proponents of the walk prevailed, citing a 1663 charter signed by King Charles II that granted colonists the right to fish along the shoreline. In 1843, the state of Rhode Island reaffirmed permanent public access in its constitution.

    The walk began to take shape as an informal shoreline path in 1880, and sections were added over the decades, but it wasn’t until the 1970s, after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers made substantial reinforcements with tons of boulders, gravel and asphalt, that the walk evolved into a popular tourist attraction.

    Since then, parts of the path have been restored following storm damage; officials are still studying how, or if, they plan to repair a 20-foot section that collapsed last year.

    Lisa and I took a short detour onto city streets to bypass this gap, about two-thirds of a mile into our trek. Once back on the Cliff Walk, we reached Ochre Court and the Vinland Estate, both now part of the Salve Regina University campus. Constructed in the 1890s to resemble chateaux of France's Loire Valley, the 50-room Ochre Court mansion spreads out over 44,229 square feet, making it one of the nation’s largest houses. The heirs of real-estate baron Ogden Goelet donated his property to the Religious Sisters of Mercy, which founded Salve Regina in 1934. Ochre Court now serves as the Catholic university’s administrative building.

    Twenty years later, Salve Regina inherited the Vinland Estate next door, a red sandstone, Romanesque Revival mansion. It had been built in 1882 for tobacco heiress Catharine Lorillard Wolfe.

    Next, we arrived at The Breakers, widely regarded as Newport’s showpiece. Constructed in 1895 on 13 acres as the summer home of railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt II, the 70-room mansion emulates the classic Italian palazzo design of the Renaissance.

    After walking for a mile and a half, we approached a domed gazebo perched at the tip of Ochre Point. This structure graces the grounds of Angelsea, a Gothic Revival mansion built in 1880 as the summer home of a prosperous Philadelphia grocer. It now is owned by a Rhode Island developer who uses the mansion for business events.

    Lisa decided she wanted to do some other sightseeing rather than continue another two miles to the end of the trail, so she walked back to the car while I proceeded to Bailey’s Beach.

    After Ochre Point, the paved surface gives way to stretches of uneven boulders. From here on, I saw only two other hikers.

    Along the way, I passed Rosecliff, a French Baroque Revival mansion built between 1899 and 1902 for Nevada silver heiress Theresa Fair Oelrichs. Famed architect Stanford White designed it to resemble the Grand Trianon chateau visited by French kings at Versailles. After Oelrichs’ death, Rosecliff was sold and resold several times, before it was donated to the Preservation Society in 1971.

    Not far from Rosewood, The Italianate Beechwood mansion was built in 1853 as a marine villa for a New York clothing merchant.

    Larry Ellison, co-founder of Oracle Corp., bought the 39-room mansion in 2010 for $10 million, and is said to have spent an additional $100 million renovating the mansion and other buildings on the nine-acre site.

    I next reached a pair of the Cliff Walk’s most distinctive structures: the Marble House, built with 500,000 cubic feet of marble in 1888, including a temple-front portico that resembles the White House, and adjoining Chinese Tea House, built as a replica of a Song Dynasty temple. Alva Vanderbilt, who took title to both buildings after divorcing her husband, William, used the Tea House to host women’s suffrage rallies. The Marble House is now owned by the Preservation Society and open for tours; the Tea House is open for brunch.

    I walked through one tunnel under the Tea House, and a second one at Sheep Point, before reaching Rough Point, an English manor mansion, built in 1892 for Frederick William Vanderbilt and later occupied by heiress/philanthropist Doris Duke. At age 12, she inherited the mansion and a billion-dollar fortune from her father, James Buchanan Duke, a tobacco and hydroelectric power tycoon who helped found Duke University. Doris Duke, who lived a colorful life that included stints as a competitive surfer and newspaper correspondent, also brought in a pair of pet Bactrian camels that were gifts from billionaire Saudi arms-dealer and businessman Adnan Khashoggi. The mansion is now owned by the Preservation Society.

    Not far away stands Land’s End, a 12,367-square-foot mansion once owned by Edith Wharton, the first woman awarded a Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, for her novel “The Age of Innocence.” She and her husband, Edward, bought the mansion on 5.6 oceanfront acres for $80,000 in 1893. In 2020, Land’s End was sold for $8.6 million.

    After passing The Waves, a Tudor-style mansion built in 1927 that was divided into condos in the 1980s, I clambered over another stretch of rocks before reaching Bailey’s Beach.

    I could have called Lisa and asked her to drive over and pick me up, or I could have followed a path to Bellevue Avenue and walked back on busy streets, but I checked my watch.

    Plenty of daylight. I turned around and began retracing my steps on the Cliff Walk.

    Information

    The Cliff Walk is open daily without charge from sunrise to sunset. No bicycles; dogs must be leashed. http://www.cliffwalk.com; (401) 845-5544.

    The north entrance is located at 119 Memorial Boulevard, just west of Easton’s Beach. There is limited curbside parking on Memorial Boulevard, and more extensive parking in a lot at Easton’s Beach, also called First Beach, at 175 Memorial Drive.

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