A walk among wealth and beauty
If you’ve ever wanted take your kids to see the palaces of Europe, you may enjoy a trip to Newport, R.I., where America’s wealthy built their summer “cottages’’ around the turn of the 20th century. The Newport Preservation Society’s offerings include 10 properties. We knew we couldn’t see them all in a day, so we chose the two-property ticket and headed for the Breakers, the former summer home of the Vanderbilt family.
The jaw-dropping began the second we walked through the 12-foot carved oak doors. We wondered how anyone could afford the painted ceilings, intricate mosaics, marble walls, opulent furnishings, gold leaf, and general extravagance. Our handy audio tour guide had the answer: The Vanderbilts made their fortune in steamships and the railroad.
Kids can’t touch, and they have to walk on their own or be held in your arms (no strollers allowed), but the house is fantastic enough to keep most anyone captivated. Some of our favorite things were the marble bathtub with extra spigots to let in sea water, the music room where lavish balls took place, the secret passageways traveled by the servants, and the seaside views.
Two audio options are available. On the family tour, a friendly, deep-voiced male pretends to be the mansion itself as he offers vital statistics (70 rooms, 300-plus windows), descriptions of the spaces and their functions, and stories about the lives of the Vanderbilts and their servants. It’s cute, if a bit didactic, and suitable for younger kids. Everyone else will do just fine with the general tour. The headsets are user-friendly, allowing stops along the way, switching back and forth between tour versions, and easy replay of specific sections.
Afterward, we walked to the grounds of another nearby mansion, the Marble House, where we found the brightly colored Chinese Tea House, a nice place to eat lunch and enjoy the sea breeze. The mansion looked enticing, but we wanted to stay outdoors so we opted to use up our admission tickets at the Green Animals Topiary Garden, 10 miles from Newport and not a mansion at all, but included as one of the Preservation Society’s ticketed properties. With its profusion of roses, lilies, and English boxwood, going there feels a little like stepping into the pages of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s “The Secret Garden.’’ The fluttering butterflies, robins, and baby bunnies the garden attracts add to the magical feel.
With vegetable patches, orchards, grapevines, and flora, there’s plenty to explore, but the main attraction is the more than 30 topiaries, shrubs and trees trimmed into ornamental shapes. Among the most popular are the teddy bear and unicorn. The large ones, like the life-size elephant, towering giraffe, and policeman (just think of him as the green giant), are especially fun.
On the grounds of the nearby farmhouse, we found picnic tables, animal-shaped rocking toys, and Adirondack chairs to sit on, a great way to come down to earth after being dazzled by the opulence of the Breakers, and transported by the whimsy of the Green Animals.
The Breakers, Newport, R.I. Green Animals Topiary Garden, Portsmouth, R.I. Both operated by the Preservation Society of Newport County. Open daily; see website for specifics. Newport mansion prices: Five-property ticket $31.50, $10 ages 6-17. Breakers Plus (Breakers plus one other property) $24.50, $6.50 ages 6-17. Breakers only $19.50, $5.50 ages 6-17. Other packages available. Household membership $90. www.newportmansions.org.