When the Astors, Vanderbilts, Whitneys, and their ilk decided in the late 1800s to build their summer "cottages" along Bellevue Avenue in Newport, the Gilded Age began, and this little colonial fishing village on Aquidneck Island was transformed into a center of American society, at least in summer. That doesn't mean Newport stalled forever in the late 19th century; think Newport Jazz Festival , America's Cup races, and International Tennis Hall of Fame , for starters. But the mansions, now open to the public for touring and partying, are the core of Newport activities for visitors. The Preservation Society of Newport County and other like-minded groups open the mansions for the holiday season, when they shine brighter than their original owners could have imagined.
By far the most unique, where-else-but-here shops are the Newport Mansions Collections located in the basement levels of the mansions the Breakers, Rosecliff, the Elms, and Marble House. Here you can buy home furnishings, decorative accessories, carpets, wall coverings, and fabrics inspired by 250 years of European and American craftsmanship.
The International Tennis Hall of Fame (194 Bellevue Ave., 401-849-3990, tennisfame.com; m useum admission $9-$5), while not open for tennis in the winter, keeps its museum and gift shop open, with tennis gear and Hall of Fame wear available.
For everything that is exclusive to this area except T-shirts, including art, jewelry, and food products, check out Only in Rhode Island (Long Wharf Mall, 401-846-5006).
And though far from Burgundy and Napa Valley, Newport County boasts three wineries, Sakonnet Vineyards (162 West Main Road, Little Compton, sakonnetwine.com), Greenvale (582 Wapping Road, Portsmouth, 401-847-3777, greenvale.com), and Newport Vineyards in Middletown (909 East Main Road, 401-848-5161, newportvineyards.com) for tastings and the purchase of a bottle or two.
Sailors try to tie up as close to Bannister's Wharf as they can, so that they can get a table at the Black Pearl (Bannister's Wharf, 200 Broadway, 401-846-5264, blackpearlnewport.com , entrees $14.50-$25) and order the clam chowder or other seafood specialties. Named after yachtsman Barclay Warburton III's brigantine rig and fitted with the restaurant equivalent of polished brass and well-oiled teak, the place feels like the inside of an old yacht.
If it's history you want, the White Horse Tavern (26 Marlborough St., 401-849-3600, whitehorsetavern.com, entrees $16-$22) is the nation's oldest tavern, constructed before 1673 and once the meeting place of the colony's General Assembly. No building is more typical of Colonial Newport. Atlantic salmon over roasted vegetable couscous is just one of its notable entrees.
For the ultimate in luxurious dining, the Spiced Pear (117 Memorial Blvd., 401-847-2244, spicedpear.com, entrees $20-$48) has both dining room and terrace overlooking the Atlantic.
Bed-and-breakfasts to hotels ooze Gilded Age history here, beginning with the 1865 seaside home of John Winthrop Chanler , a congressman from New York, and his wife, Margaret Astor Ward, which overlooks the famed Cliff Walk and the ocean beyond. The Chanler at Cliff Walk (117 Memorial Blvd., 401-847-1300, thechanler.com, double $395-$795) has been turned into a beautiful hotel recently, with each of the 20 guest rooms a place for a whimsical, indulgent escape.
Less upscale, but filled with antiques and artwork, is the Adele Turner Inn (93 Pelham St., 800-845-1811, legendaryinnsofnewport.com, double $155-$510). Turner was the mother of Newport artist Beatrice Turner and this romantic B&B with one room that has its own rooftop deck with hot tub and 180-degree views of Newport Harbor, is part of a trio of what's called the Legendary Inns of Newport.
Take the kids for a stroll along the ocean on the Cliff Walk, one of the most unusual trails in the country (cliffwalk.com), which winds in front of many of the famed mansions. There are many points where you can leave the trail if little feet can't walk the whole 3 1/2-mile stretch from Easton's Beach on Memorial Boulevard to Bailey's Beach near Ocean Boulevard.
You can ice skate downtown at the Sovereign Bank Family Skating Center (America's Cup Avenue, SkateNewport.com, $7-$5, skate rentals available) Thanksgiving weekend to early March. Or take everyone to the Norman Bird Sanctuary (583 Third Beach Road, Middletown, 401-846-2577, NormanBirdSanctuary.org ). Saturday from 8 to 10 a.m. take a guided nature walk there.
If you visit during February school vacation week, enjoy the Newport Winterfestival (newportevents.com/winterfest/) Feb. 16-25, with ice-carving and beach sculpture contests, a pizza cook-off, carousel rides, and kite flying. This winter extravaganza includes a two-day Children's Fair Feb. 18-19 with a live rain forest reptile show.
Taking their cue from those golden Newport vacationers who gave elaborate parties but always in their homes, Newport throws the best parties in those same houses, throughout the year. Dinners and teas and galas and dances year-round provide excuses to open up the doors and let the public in. For those without their ballgown and tuxedo, however, Asterisk (599 Thames St., 401-841-8833), known for its espresso martini, is a local hot spot.
The Clarke Cooke House (Bannister's Wharf, 401-849-2900, clarkecooke.com) offers upscale dining on one level and a more casual bar with great ambience and good drinks on the next. For the liveliest partiers, there's a dance club on the lower level.
From Saturday through New Year's Day, "Christmas at the Newport Mansions " (newportmansions.org; prices vary ) opens the Breakers, the Elms, and Marble House, each of them decorated for the holidays, for daily tours, Victorian Christmas feasts, dinner dances, open houses with Santa Claus, and choral and instrumental concerts.
"Holiday Evenings at the Breakers " (newportmansions.org; adults $25 in advance, $30 at the door), home of Cornelius Vanderbilt II, grandson of the 19th-century railroad magnate, will make music Saturdays from 6 to 8 p.m. on Nov. 18 and 25, and Dec. 2, 9 and 30. The Breakers (and its 27 decorated fireplaces) will remain open seven days a week from January through mid-April.
A Holiday Lantern Tour of 18th- and 19th-century private homes (newporthistorytours.org; adults $12, members and children $8) includes a visit inside the Wanton-Lyman-Hazard House . The 1 1/2-hour tour starts at 6:30 p.m. Thursdays through Dec. 21.
Christmas in Newport, a two-week festival that raises money for charity (gonewport.com), is celebrating its 35th year.