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Saturday, August 3, 2013

North to the yachting capital of Newport

After the rigours of New York we needed a less hectic pace of life so sailed to the north of Long Island.  The crowded suburbs of Brooklyn and Queens gave way to lush rural countryside dotted with orchards, organic farms, vineyards, charming ports and delightful towns.  This area is home to the “Hamptons” – summer playground of New York and Europe’s social elite and it really is beautiful.

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  Long Island is known for its produce and the stonefruit and berries were delicious, especially the wild raspberries we picked from the roadside. We also caught a huge fish in Long Island Sound which fed us for several days.  Hunters and gatherers we are!

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From Sag Harbour we took a local bus through the upmarket towns of Southampton, Bridgehampton, Watermill Pond and East Hampton winding our way through the leafy green Hamptons countryside passing ornate gates giving glimpses into private estates.  We had a hint of what these were like from the glossy real estate magazines we picked up in Sag Harbour.  There wasn’t a lot under $20m, with several around the $60m mark.  We particularly enjoyed window shopping in the “designer” town of East Hampton (Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren have homes and shops here) and found a great outdoor cafe to sit and people watch.

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After several days exploring we took advantage of the wind to sail  20 miles to Block Island, a far more down to earth place with a very relaxed holiday atmosphere. The anchorage in Great Salt Pond was crowded but we squeezed in and sat back to enjoy a gorgeous sunset and watch the comings and goings.  Tiny Block Island was perfect for biking so the Bandit folding bikes got taken ashore (yet again).

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Biking around the island was the best way to see it and we joined the throngs of like minded people doing just that.  The stunning south east lighthouse was a good spot for a breather.  A national historic landmark, it almost fell into the sea in the 1980s when cliffs began crumbling.  A concerted effort raised enough money for it to be moved back.  The Mohegan Bluffs are particularly picturesque yet have a fairly macabre history. In the 1800s the local Manisses Indians chased the Mohegan Indians over the 150ft cliffs to their death.

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The countryside was vaguely reminiscent of England with lots of dry stone walls however the houses were distinctly Block Island, mostly grey weatherboard or natural timber shingles.  Strict regulations govern house size, style, building materials and colour.

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It would have been easy to linger on this lovely island but the breeze was too good to ignore so we headed north to Newport – the home of yachting.  This is where America’s Cup races were held for more than 100 years.  As one would expect the harbour is full of yachts of all shapes and sizes from beautifully maintained small wooden classics, their varnish gleaming, to huge super yachts.  Then there are the thoroughbreds – the sleek 12m America’s Cup boats of the 70s – and dozens of optimists and other sail training boats as tomorrow’s sailors learn their skills. We were enthralled sitting at anchor watching all these wonderful boats go past – often weaving their way through the mooring field.  We anchored in front of the New York Yacht Club and each morning at 8am and evening at sunset heard (and saw) the canons being fired to mark flags up and down.

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Newport is also home to the mansions – massive and opulent homes built overlooking the ocean during the so called “gilded age”.  During the late 1800s as America became industrialised, a handful of entrepreneurs amassed incredible wealth and chose Newport as their summer resort.  Leading the charge was the Vanderbilt family, who established America’s rail network.  Cornelius Vanderbilt II built The Breakers, his astonishing 70 room Italian Renaissance ”summer cottage”.  It is completely over the top but definitely worth a look. 

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Our favourite of the mansions was Rosecliff which was where the Great Gatsby, with Robert Redford, was filmed.  It has Newport’s largest ballroom – a stunning room.  Silver heiress Theresa Oelrichs’ summer entertaining budget was, in today’s figures, $7million.  That gives you some idea of the excessive indulgence that went on in those heady days of conspicuous consumption.  It came to a crashing halt when personal income tax was introduced in 1913 and some homes were abandoned. Fortunately, many have been restored and are run today as museums – others remain in private ownership.

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American philanthropist Doris Duke, sole heir to her father James Duke’s tobacco fortune, founded the Newport Restoration Society before her death in 1993.  The society has restored more than 80 homes.  Confusingly there is also the Newport Preservation Society, which runs The Breakers, Rosecliff, The Elms and Marble House among others.  Along the magnificent coastal strip bordering Bellevue Ave are many privately owned homes and the cliff walk, with panoramic sea views, provides a glimpse of these. 

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During our time in Newport the place was buzzing with people, festivals and events.  The Folk and Jazz Festivals were highlights and with Natalie Cole headlining the Jazz Festival we opted to gatecrash.  Along with about 50 others we perched on a wall outside the Newport Tennis Museum venue and were treated to a fantastic free concert.  We love Newport so much we may just stay!

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