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Walking through rich people’s back yards in Rhode Island
By Tom Adkinson

NEWPORT, Rhode Island – While Americans gradually venture out as coronavirus pandemic restrictions ease, a really good walk is a goal for many. This historic seaside community offers one of the best anywhere – the Cliff Walk.

rhode island cliff walk
The Cliff Walk, a National Recreation Trail, offers 3.5 miles of ocean views and mansion inspections. Image by Tom Adkinson.

The Cliff Walk lives up to its name. It meanders for 3.5 miles high above the edge of Rhode Island Sound, where waves crashing onto the rocky shore provide you with the invigoration that comes from salt air and the stimulation of impressive sound effects.

However, that’s just half the appeal of the Cliff Walk, because while you get ocean views in one direction, you are peering into the back yards of the rich and famous when you look the other direction.

rhode island mansion
The Cliff Walk is a public walkway on private land and passes many “summer cottages” from the Gilded Age; image by Tom Adkinson.

The reason is that the Cliff Walk is a public walkway across 64 parcels of private land in Newport’s famous “summer cottage” mansion district, where vacation retreats had dozens and dozens of rooms and elegantly manicured landscaping. This is where those high school history lessons about the Gilded Age – and its ridiculously wealthy upper crust – start to make sense as you see how the titans of that era lived.

The Cliff Walk and its views of the mansions are free, but there are ticketed tours of several estates, thanks to the Preservation Society of Newport County. Those tours are a major attraction.

Proof of the mansions’ grandeur is clear even if you tour only one. Take the Breakers, for instance. Cornelius Vanderbilt II built this 70-room estate that has a two-and-a-half story Great Hall and a morning room adorned with wall panels covered in platinum leaf. Construction cost $7million, well beyond $200 million in today’s money.

As stunning as the mansions are, the natural aspect of the Cliff Walk is more appealing, especially for people who have been cooped up lately. Wildflowers, birds, surf and sunshine are an appealing combination for a walk that was designated a National Recreation Trail in 1975. It was the 65th trail to earn that distinction and the first in New England.

rhode island cliff walk walker
Golden afternoon sunlight casts a warm glow on the Cliff Walk and Rhode Island Sound for a solitary walker; image by Tom Adkinson.

Most of the Cliff Walk is easy to traverse, but prudence is warranted. In some places, there are abrupt drops of more than 70 feet only a few feet from the actual path. Parts of the southern half of the trail are relatively rugged, requiring you to scramble from rock to rock. This is no place for flip-flops.

  cliff walk sign
Signs at several Cliff Walk access points provide walkers with appropriate guidance, including “no rowdy behavior”. Image by Tom Adkinson.

Newport itself is a major tourist destination in normal times. It offers the trappings of many coastal vacation destinations – souvenir shopping along its numerous wharves, plentiful seafood, beachwear vendors and more – but there’s a sense that Newport is different.

Ease off the main street, and you encounter treasures such as Touro Synagogue, America’s oldest synagogue; St. Mary’s Church, where two lovebirds named John Kennedy and Jacqueline Bouvier were married; and Trinity Episcopal Church, whose congregation formed in 1698 and whose National Historic Landmark building was built in 1725-1726.

Newport dates to 1639 and became one of the East Coast’s leading ports by the 1760s. It gained its resort fame during the Gilded Age, and yachting, polo and tennis added to its cache over the decades.

There are plenty of upscale dining options, but you’d be cheating yourself if you didn’t go to the other end of the culinary spectrum and chow down at a clam shack. For the uninitiated, think of a clam shack as New England’s equivalent of a country-cooking cafe in the South.

One of the best is Flo’s Clam Shack, which offers a view of one end of the Cliff Walk. Stroll in after exercising on the Cliff Walk, order a cold beer and partake of a “clam shack trinity.” That’s Rhode Island clam chowder, clam cakes and stuffed quahog clams (known as “stuffies”).

Trip Planning Resources: and

(Travel writer Tom Adkinson’s new book, 100 Things To Do in Nashville Before You Die, is available at

Published May 15, 2020

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