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Welcome to the Gilded City

Newport, Rhode Island, offers historic grandeur, breathtaking views, and tons to do for eventgoers

By Ann Loynd Burton

The Chanler at Cliff Walk
The Chanler at Cliff Walk || Courtesy of The Chanler at Cliff Walk

During the Gilded Age, many prosperous families flocked to Newport, Rhode Island, for its temperate oceanside climate and proximity to New York City, building glorious summer “cottages” (read: mansions) and enjoying soirees and celebrations all season long. Although many of these European-inspired estates no longer have residents a la Vanderbilt and Oelrichs, Newport still attracts a who’s who of summer visitors. The seaside city also makes an ideal event host thanks to those same qualities that attracted financial powerhouses at the turn of the 20th century.

“Newport’s greatest asset is its location,” confirms Discover Newport’s Vice President of Sales Tim Walsh. “It is a beautiful, historic seaside city situated between New York and Boston, making it the ideal destination for groups to meet.” Walsh adds that Newport’s convenient location—connected to Interstate 95 via major highways—makes for easy travel, and the Rhode Island T.F. Green International Airport in Warwick near Providence is a 30-minute drive away and services all major carriers.

“Newport is well known for its Gilded Age mansions and other incredible private function venues such as The Sailing Museum and the Audrain Auto Museum,” he says. “The activities and team-building options are too numerous to list, and it is famous for being the ‘Sailing Capital of the World.’ Combine this with world-class hotel and boutique inn options for groups, and you have a destination that has something for everyone.”

Rhode Island-based event planner Lou Rod, founder and CEO of talent and experiential agency Go MLR based in Boston, Massachusetts, which serves much of New England, calls Newport’s accessibility “a game-changer.” Rod has had a hand in planning nonprofit events and experiences for organizations like the Ellie Fund, Boston Bruins Foundation, Care4PR, and The Greater Boston Food Bank. “Newport is like a historical fairy tale meets a modern party,” he adds. “The blend of charming history and vibrant culture creates the perfect backdrop for any event, and the waterfront views are straight out of a postcard.”

Rich History
Indeed, Newport makes that fairy-tale history come to life. The Preservation Society of Newport County offers event space and tours at historic mansions and gardens including Marble House—originally owned by the Vanderbilt family—available for private events of up to 250 attendees from May through October and up to 100 the rest of the year. Its guided and self-guided tours are also available for groups, and tickets can be purchased on its website to walk through and marvel at its 10 mansions. “The museums offered for event rental within the Preservation Society provide clients and their guests with an exclusive Gilded Age experience,” confirms Special Events Manager Megan Kenney-Pharo. “From arrival, guests are greeted by stunning landscapes and the grand first impression of the large museums. As they enter, they are immersed in the luxe atmosphere of times past as the evening of dinner, cocktails, and dancing await.”

Aerial shot of The Breakers, Newport’s grandest mansion || Photo by David Gleeson

The Cinderella experience doesn’t need to end at midnight, either, with the city’s historic places to stay the night. Boutique inns like The Francis Malbone House and Gardiner House combine antique furnishings and modern luxuries within historic locations, located on the famous Thames Street and Lee’s Wharf, respectively. “Gardiner’s collection of indoor and outdoor spaces offers unmatched views, unique vantage points, distinctive style, and more than 6,000 square feet providing blissful enjoyment for luncheons, seminars, cocktail receptions, breakout sessions, and executive meetings,” says Gardiner House Sales Manager Kelly King.

More of the past can be uncovered at the 200-year-old Fort Adams, which offers guided tours as well as on-site space for events. “Fort Adams has been the host of thousands of events, ranging from weddings to corporate events, festivals, and more,” explains Fort Adams Sales Director Cara Pestone. “It is also the home of the historic Newport Folk Festival and the Newport Jazz Festival,” she continues. “You can have your event in the same backstage area that has seen some of the greatest artists in the world.” Plus, the Fort Adams Bay Walk is rumored to have the best sunset views in town. “Have a clambake here at the fort and shoot the cannon off at sunset for the best Newport experience available,” Pestone suggests.

North Casemates event space at Fort Adams || Courtesy of Willow Photo Co.

Seaside Splendor
Wherever attendees go in this port city, they’re bound to catch a breathtaking water view. A waterfront stay is poised to impress, like one at The Chanler at Cliff Walk, Newport’s only Forbes Five-Star hotel property, located above Easton’s Beach. “Groups select The Chanler at Cliff Walk for meetings and events because of its unique venues such as The Easton’s Room, a space for 18 guests complete with chandeliers and floor-to-ceiling windows looking out over Easton’s Beach,” says the hotel’s Director of Sales Cheryl Twiss. She also calls out The Terrace, an attached covered patio available for up to 80 attendees, and the Cliff Lawn and Meadow Lawn for outdoor cocktails and events under a sailcloth tent. The hotel also boasts a Forbes Five-Star dining venue, Cara.

For nautical views, Hammetts Hotel boasts a prime location on the wharf, just steps from the marina and the city’s bustling restaurant, bar, and shopping scene. “It features ocean views, salty air, and cobblestoned New England charm,” notes Hammetts’ Operations Manager Neda Pittershouse, adding that the on-site restaurant, Giusto, offers a culinary experience highlighting locally sourced ingredients.

View of Hammetts Wharf from the Hammetts Hotel deck
View of Hammetts Wharf from the Hammetts Hotel deck || Courtesy of Hammetts Hotel

A short walk inland, planner Lou Rod recommends Wayfinder Newport, a boutique hotel with fresh vibes created by a group of local chefs, artists, and entrepreneurs. Rod also loves to get groups on the water with Newport’s many cruise companies like Newport Classic Cruises—he says options include sunset sailing, cocktails, and breathtaking views. Discover Newport’s Tim Walsh recommends visiting The Sailing Museum (which also has private event space) or having attendees try their hand at yacht racing with America’s Cup Charters—the company has a fleet of restored yachts that competed in the America’s Cup Regatta when it was held off the coast of Newport from 1930 to 2003. “The group is broken into teams and each person is given a responsibility during the race in Newport harbor,” he explains. “The excitement and the feeling of accomplishment are amazing, especially for those who have never sailed.”

Entertainment Galore
If attendees don’t have their sea legs, there’s plenty to do on dry land as well. A favorite activity for Walsh is to play croquet on the grass courts where the first U.S. Open Tennis Championships were played in 1881 at what is now the International Tennis Hall of Fame. “Breaking for lunch on the Horseshoe Piazza & Court with wine tasting from a local vineyard is highly recommended,” he says. Another exciting Newport activity is exploring the area with Rail Explorers: Rhode Island Division, with which groups can sign up for a variety of tours on pedal-powered, open-air railcars down scenic rail lines. Tour options include the Northern Ramble, a 6-mile exploration of the historic railroad between Portsmouth, Rhode Island, and the Sakonnet River (a one-way tour); the Southern Circuit, a 6-mile round-trip tour toward Newport and back; and many more.

Newport Vineyards Director of Marketing Kendra Carlisle recommends the winery’s wine and cheese class, available for 15 to 40 guests. “It’s an enhanced experience that is both educational and delicious,” she adds. “Attendees can learn about pairing wines with a selection of locally sourced cheese with our knowledgeable team.”

With so much to choose from, Walsh recommends planners evaluate their objectives and budget. “Groups can entertain with a white-glove dinner extravaganza at a Gilded Age mansion or throw a traditional family-style lobster bake with attendees playing horseshoes and volleyball,” he says. Walsh also recommends attendees check out the “Dueling Pianos” show at the Top Of Pelham bar. For a touch of celebrity charm, he suggests Audrey’s Coffee House & Lounge in South Kingstown, a short drive away, run by The Bachelor stars Jared Haibon and Ashley Laconetti. When it comes to quality experiences for attendees, Walsh emphasizes Newport’s variety. “Sailing into the sunset, boutique hospitality, and savoring local treats at Audrey’s—Greater Newport has it all.”