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Gilded Age, up close

The way's improved to views of Newport mansions, the sea

Email|Print| Text size + By Peter Mandel
Globe Correspondent / August 6, 2006

NEWPORT, R.I. -- If you've never put a foot on it, the Cliff Walk can sound acrobatic. Hmmm, you may think. Better pack those pitons, ropes, and pulleys.

In fact, you can leave the heavy equipment at home. Regular Cliff Walkers know the 3 1/2-mile path ( a National Recreation Trail in a National Historic District ) as a windy stroll between the manicured lawns of Newport mansions and the unfettered Atlantic.

There was a time, back in the 1980s, when chunks of the trail -- which begins at Easton's (or First) Beach on Memorial Boulevard and ends at the tip of Bailey's Beach on Bellevue Avenue -- were nearly impassable.

You could get through by scrambling over boulders or clinging to a chain-link fence while trying to sidestep explosions of spray from the swells crashing on the rocks below.

Those days of high adventure are (mostly) gone. After being closed since September for $4.3 million in renovations, the portion of the Cliff Walk from Ruggles Avenue to Bailey's Beach reopened on Memorial Day, with most of the new paving, steps, and bridgework finished last week.

My wife, Kathy, and I picked a bright, hot afternoon to walk the new walk and see if it provided relaxing views and an unencumbered ocean stroll -- a true Cornelius Vanderbilt kind of experience.

The start is easy . We set off on NASCAR-perfect asphalt, slaloming around some puddles and an eager dog. We won't see any improvements for a while. The fences and benches here are familiar; we know them like parts of a neighborhood park.

With almost no wind, the waves below us are barely wrinkling the surface . Shadows and fish glimmer in the Bermuda green.

``Wish I'd left my jacket," Kathy says, knotting it around herself. ``Vive Cuervo! ``Vive Cuervo!" shouts a sign on an airplane.

At the end of Narragansett Avenue, we get to the ``Forty Steps" leading to the water. I take it just to see what there is to see. Not much. A man is fishing, angrily flicking his lure and shaking bait out of a pail.

Back on the path, we reach the Cliff Walk's Mansion Row. Most homes in this section are now part of Salve Regina University ( Ochre Court, Cave Cliff, and Vineland). But the biggest of them, The Breakers, built by Vanderbilt in 1895, still looms independent over its lawn, an aloof pile of stone.

No namesake breakers today. We stride around the point without a puff of wind to push us. Sailboats are trying to sail . Kathy points to a crane who's eating a snack on a rock.

At Ruggles Avenue, we encounter the first of the renovations. What used to be a crumbly path is now a sidewalk. And here's a metal fence. ``We're safe from falling," sats Kathy. ``But I don't like it. Feels like you're in jail."

Some yards ahead we still have to balance over big, flat rocks, and I see Kathy grin. A couple in front is not so happy about boulders underfoot. We hear what they say.

``Julia could do this," says the wife. ``She'd probably like it."

``Fine for her," her husband agrees. He's spilling sand out of his shoe.

Brian and Anna Markoff are from New Jersey.

``It's our first time on the Cliff Walk," says Anna. ``Some of it's a little rough. I wish they had a snack bar or a stand set up. You know, for something to eat."

We push on. We hear the Markoffs in the distance, citing Julia, and Julia some more. I imagine a seasoned hiker, a Julia who might like to climb.

There are no hills to scale here, but the path bumps and rolls and there are mansion silhouettes.

Beechwood, where Mrs. Astor entertained, has a brand new Cliff Walk sign. ``You are HERE," it says. We see our dot. We don't see a map.

But we know where we are, the ocean is on our left. Plus , up ahead is the famous shape of Rosecliff, the mansion used in the 1974 movie ``The Great Gatsby." It now rates a special plaza smack on the walk. Grassy plantings, granite benches. Fancier bushes trying to grow.

We're impressed. We take a rest. The stone is newly cut and speckled. But Kathy is ready to move on, past the pagoda-like Chinese Tea House built here by Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt as part of the Marble House estate.

The Tea House still has lime-green dragons relaxing on its roof. But since it is perched above the Cliff Walk itself, you've got to trudge through a dark tunnel below. Think of walking through a pipe -- not a dry pipe, but a pipe paved with mud.

No renovations here. Not even a handhold or a bulb. ``Same old Tea House Tunnel," I yell into the dark. ``Unnel -- unnel" is all we hear.

There's a quicker and easier tunnel at Gull Rock. In the old days, things turned ugly beyond here. The description of this portion of the Cliff Walk on the website of Newport's Friends of the Waterfront went like this: ``Beyond this point, conditions are as rough as a rocky New England coast can be, and chain- link fences and thick unpruned hedges insure walkers won't stray onto private property."

Kathy and I find this description right on target. Although, the way things used to be, ``straying" was the least of your problems. You could barely stay on the path.

There's some new fencing here now, which is a useful thing when we have to cling to it above a path-swamping 50-yard puddle. ``Nice pond," says a woman with a backpack from the opposite side.

When we climb around the rocky ledge at Rough Point, there are new steps, new cement work, and the bridge that takes you across a foaming, bubbling chasm has been completely restored.

The new Rough Point Bridge is a walker's reward. It's got granite walls and a slate-topped rail. In fact, the rest of the path, from here to its sandy end at Bailey's Beach, is prettier and more passable than I've ever seen.

Round trail markers that look like they might glow in the dark (they don't) direct us around the final twists and turns. We pass miniature beaches and tight, quiet bays and then are in a tunnel again -- not of mud -- but of roses that the rain has tended.

There are only a couple of rough spots left. When I slip on a patch of weeds, Kathy laughs. ``What's your problem?" she says.

I flash her a look.

``Julia could do it," she says. ``She might even like it."

That's true, I say. But I'm with the Markoffs: This is the new, renovated Cliff Walk.

I wish there was a snack bar here.

Contact Peter Mandel of Providence, author of children's books including ``Boats on the River" (Cartwheel, 2004) , at pmandel@att.net .

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