Summer in Newport has always come with the happy buzz of crowds: Folks in polo shirts and sundresses filling the stools at raw bars on Bowen’s Wharf, lining the sidewalk on Thames Street, and piling into sailboats for sightseeing tours on Narragansett Bay.
That was then. Now, Newport’s beaches have limited parking, so it’s tough to snag a space. Nobody with any sense is knocking back too many ‘Gansetts and partying like it’s 2019; let your guard down and you might do something dangerous, like hug a stranger. So, is there any reason at all to visit this yacht-y, mansion-lined playground in the (oh-so bizarre) summer of 2020?
Absolutely. So don those Topsiders (and that prepster-chic gingham facemask) and use the pandemic as an excuse to explore parts of Aquidneck Island beyond Bowen’s and Bannister’s wharves. Right now, a quick getaway to Newport is as refreshing as a cold Del’s lemonade on a hot day. It’s also refreshingly budget-friendly. Without the usual wedding parties filling up hotels, there are some good deals for guests from East Coast states. Plus, flying a kite at an oceanfront park is definitely cheaper than slurping fancy cocktails and raw oysters! So come get wholesome with us in Newport. Here are some options.
Cool coastal walk
Everybody knows Cliff Walk — that seaside path is the most-visited attraction in Rhode Island. Rather than politely dodging other parties there, we suggest Sachuest Point Wildlife Refuge (www.fws.gov/refuge/sachuest_point/). On a recent July morning, we encountered fewer than a dozen people at this 242-acre property (one of five wildlife refuges in the Ocean State). Formerly used for farming and sheep grazing, and later by the US Navy as a rifle range and communications center during World War II, this beguiling property juts into the Atlantic Ocean and Sachuest Bay. Three miles of trails — including our favorite, 1.5-mile Ocean View Loop — offer sweeping views of Newport, Second and Third beaches, and the open ocean, fringed with native grasses, goldenrods, asters, and wild radish. Close your eyes and take a deep breath (with your mask slightly askew, if no one’s around): It smells like summertime! The trails and parking lot are open, but the Visitor Center is closed. The several on-site portable toilets are kept clean. Free.
Go fly a kite
In all our years of hanging in Newport, we never made it to Brenton Point State Park (www.riparks.com) until this year. What a find! Located at the southernmost tip of Aquidneck Island on Ocean Drive, where Narragansett Bay meets the Atlantic Ocean, this park occupies the former grounds of one of Newport’s grand estates, a circa 1885 shingle-style house called “The Reef.” Only a bungalow and carriage house from the estate are still standing, but the property (a state park since 1976) welcomes visitors with gardens, walking trails, and picnic tables. Bring lunch (and lawn chairs) and settle in to enjoy views of passing sailboats — or better yet, buy a kite ($20 or $40) from the Kitt Kites Truck (www.newportkites.com). It’s positively joyful. (Note: There’s usually a Del’s lemonade truck parked nearby, too.) In-the-know locals catch some sun on the rocks, or at the small scoop of sand at King’s Beach. Free; parking is very limited.
Ogle historic houses
Yeah, yeah, Newport’s got mansions, but did you know the city is also home to one of the largest collections of Colonial-era homes in the country? The Point neighborhood, a.k.a. Easton’s Point (named for Nicholas Easton, one of the city’s founders), is one of Newport’s best-preserved historical neighborhoods. Largely residential, this waterfront zone is laid out in a grid, a short walk from America’s Cup Avenue and the harbor. It’s a mix of stately mansions, mostly along Washington Street on Narragansett Bay, and more modest but beautifully maintained dwellings. The Newport Restoration Foundation, founded by late heiress Doris Duke, owns nearly 30 of them. To join a socially distant walking tour of Colonial Newport ($15 for non-members), visit www.newporthistory.org.
Seafood with a view, on the cheap
In Newport, it’s gotta be seafood. But it doesn’t have to be pricey. Go to the no-frills Easton’s Beach Snack Bar (www.twinrolls.com) and you can park in the lot for an hour for free. That’ll give you enough time to devour a lobster roll or two and enjoy a stroll along Newport’s only ocean beach. The claim to fame at this snack bar: twin lobster rolls for $17.87 — that’s two grilled hot dog buns filled with lettuce and lobster salad, with fries. If you prefer your lobster roll sans Hellman’s mayo, go for the “plain and simple lobster roll” ($19.87), featuring chilled lobster meat from a whole lobster, with drawn butter and fries. They also serve calamari, crab cake sandwiches, chowder, and clam fritters, all for less than a ten-spot. Outdoor tables face the beach.
Fresh seafood served at a fishing pier, at picnic tables under an awning? It doesn’t get simpler than that, which is why we love the Newport Lobster Shack (www.newportlobstershack.com.) Located on RI State Fishing Pier #9, the food — caught by members of the fishing co-op — couldn’t be fresher unless it jumped up from the sea onto your plate. Order at the window and then grab your spot and take in the action at the marina; we watched little kids hop into Optimist prams to go racing. You can get your lobster any which way — bisque ($7), steamed (price varies), in a roll, or in a lobster salad ($15, featuring chilled meat on a bed of greens with sliced strawberries and strawberry vinaigrette; unique and flavorful). Sides include an ear of corn and sweet potato fries.
Local restaurants also offer some decent specials for value-minded visitors, year-round. For example, Harry’s Bar & Burger Newport (www.harrysbarburger.com) offers half off their fab burgers from 3 to 5 p.m. daily. Benjamin’s Raw Bar (www.benjaminsrawbar.com) serves oysters for a buck and clams for 75 cents during their happy hour from noon to 2 p.m. on Tuesday. The Mooring (www.mooringrestaurant.com) offers raw bar items for half price all day Wednesday, and Midtown Oyster Bar (www.midtownoyster.com) sells select oyster varieties for half price Monday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Stay here — and spring for the world’s prettiest lobster roll
Want to spend the night? You won’t have to worry about the lingering germs of Guests Past at The Wayfinder Hotel (www.thewayfinderhotel.com); it’s only been open for a few weeks. “It’s a fun property. I think it’s unique,” says director of sales Jenna Vallee. You can choose to have your room serviced, or not, at this 197-room, 30-suite property, and the windows can be opened in guest rooms. (Yay for fresh air.) Sporting a contemporary beach feel, with unique-to-each-room furniture and local bath products and artwork, the hotel is located in Newport’s North End. Formerly the Mainstay Hotel & Conference Center, the reimagined hotel is a short drive from the harbor, with free parking and an outdoor pool. “We’re getting a lot of families, and couples whose weddings were canceled,” Vallee notes. Special offers, available through September, make this one a budget-friendly choice: Rates dip to $99 midweek with the “Love 401” Rhode Island resident package, and around $179 for the rest of us.
For food lovers, the draw is Nomi Park, the hotel’s onsite full-service restaurant. Run by the team behind Newport restaurants TSK (Thames Street Kitchen) and Winner Winner, Nomi Park served us the best thing we ate in Newport: a lobster roll spiked with preserved-lemon mayo and dotted with trout roe and chives ($28 with fries; we subbed broccolini). So delicious! Even if the view from the outdoor tables is a parking lot. (They also offer a poolside menu.) Because . . . eating outdoors. This is how we roll — and lobster roll — this summer.
For more tips, visit www.discovernewport.org.
Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org