For Christmas this past year, my brother gave us a scratch-off map of the United States. The idea is to scratch off all the places we’ve visited together until we clear the entire US map. When we were planning our trip to Massachusetts for Ragnar, Sam pointed out the close proximity of Rhode Island—a state we haven’t visited as individuals or a couple, and also a state we probably wouldn’t plan to visit. I found some decently priced Amtrak tickets during our planning and we planned a day trip to Providence because we didn’t know what else to do.
Some of our Ragnar teammates were from Rhode Island. When they heard we were going to Providence, they shook their heads and told us to cancel those plans and head to Newport, RI instead. They gave us a lot of great pointers for things to do in Newport and really talked it up, so Sam and I shifted our plans. We couldn’t cancel the Amtrak tickets to Providence, but we could rent a car in Providence for the day and drive to Newport instead. Now that we actually had a plan for some things to do, we were excited!
Psst: want the quick synopsis? Check out this 3-minute video of our trip:
We woke up early on Tuesday morning and made our way to South Station to catch our train. In no time at all, we were walking out into a blue-skied day in Providence. The Rhode Island State House, located right outside the train station, drew us in and welcomed us to the smallest state in the USA. There wasn’t a soul around, so we walked right up the State House steps and took in the view. While it helped that it was a gorgeous day outside, we were already pretty psyched about being in Rhode Island (and I’ll be the first to admit that I never thought I’d say that).
Walking back down the hill from the State House, we picked up our rental car and hit the road towards Newport. It was a pleasant 45 minute drive to Newport Beach, located near the start of the famed Newport Cliff Walk. Our brains and bodies were still in recovery mode from Ragnar and a full day walking around Boston the day before, so we picked up some coffee and tea and enjoyed the view at the Newport Beach for a few minutes. The ocean, the sunshine, the love my life, and the anticipation of a full day strolling along the shoreline filled my heart with deep, pure joy. I let myself bask in this steady happiness, easing into a rare state of relaxation.
Before long, we were on the Cliff Walk overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. The Newport Cliff Walk is a 3.5-mile walkway that curves the rocky shoreline around Newport. The trail is bordered by crashing waves on one side and massive historic mansions on the other side. There are a lot of famous families from the early 1900s that summered in Newport. Their giant homes are open to public viewing (for a fee), but you can still see most of them from the path. Newer, gaudy McMansions dot the coastline, too, but they aren’t nearly as regal as the 100-year-old structures stoically lining the coast, telling stories of a kind of stately wealth that doesn’t exist in America anymore.
The most famous of these historic mansions is The Breakers, the summer retreat for the Vanderbilt family dating back to the late 1800s. The Breakers is one of the biggest tourist destinations in Newport (possibly all of Rhode Island), and Sam and I didn’t plan on paying the $24 per person admission fee to step inside the home. However, the scratch-off map my brother gave us also lists one significant place to visit in each state, and The Breakers was the place to visit for Rhode Island. Sam and I are suckers for that scratch-off map, and after we saw The Breakers from the outside and read more about the estate, we decided it would be worth a trip.
We wandered out on the Cliff Walk for over two miles, deciding to turn around when the “path” was little more than scrambling over some giant boulders. If we were going to pay that much to wander around The Breakers, we wanted to make sure we got our money’s worth there before driving back to Providence to catch our train.
As soon as we entered the grounds of The Breakers, we threw down all our stuff in the yard, kicked off our running shoes, and ate our picnic lunch in the grass. The cool grass and gentle ocean breeze were the perfect mini-retreat after traversing the Cliff Walk. When we were adequately fueled and hydrated, we headed inside The Breakers for our audio tour.
I feel like I’ve seen some impressive private estates in my life. I’ve visited lots of estates and castles in western Europe, including Versailles, and they’re all impressive in their own right. When I was walking around The Breakers, though, I struggled with comprehending that I was still in America. The Vanderbilt Family wasn’t royalty, but based on their taste and decor, they may as well have been American royalty. The house was dripping with garish textiles, sculptures, ornamentation, and furniture. As we followed the crowds from room to room, the audio tour guiding us through headphones as we gazed up at the lavish ceilings and minute details filling the space, I felt oddly amazed and disgusted.
At a certain point, I had to forget that The Breakers was a real summer home for the richest family in America in the early 1900s. Everything was so over-the-top that it’s insane to think that people once lived this way (or, if I’m being honest, that some people still live this way). In order to appreciate The Breakers, I had to view the entire estate as a glimpse into a certain era of American history, the height of the Golden Age, and all these artifacts as remnants of how these individuals once lived.
Once I started viewing the home through this “historical artifact” lens, I could appreciate the aesthetics and questionable decorating decisions. The audio tour was definitely enhanced my experience, and I’m glad they included it with the admission price. I learned a lot about this age in history, the Vanderbilt family, and society in Newport in this time period.
After exploring The Breakers, we walked back to our car on Newport’s streets instead of along the cliffs. We waved good-bye to Newport and headed towards Providence, where we had the worst time trying to find a vegetarian-friendly grab-and-go dinner for our train ride home.
When we made it onto the train, armed with delicious vegetarian Chinese carry-out, we were thoroughly exhausted and highly impressed with Rhode Island. We didn’t know what to expect when we first planned our visit, but thanks to the recommendations of our new Ragnar friends and some travel flexibility on our behalf, we shaped this one-day adventure into something we’ll both remember for a long time!