Celebrating the Holiday Season in Newport, RI

Founded in 1639 and known as the “City by the Sea”, Newport, Rhode Island has been welcoming beach lovers to its sandy shores every since that time. During the famous “Gilded Age” in America, business tycoons built summer “cottages” to retreat to during the summer months. Today, the mansions of Newport are still the most visited spots in the city; however, there is so much to do in Newport after touring the mansions and surfing in the ocean waters.

Growing up on the South Shore of Massachusetts, and having an avid sailor for a father, my family took many day trips to visit Newport. As an adult, I have returned to Newport many times: with my husband for a weekend getaway and with girlfriends as an escape from the duties of motherhood. This past weekend, I took my husband and children to explore Newport in the “shoulder season” and usher in the holiday season. Today’s post begins a series of all Newport has to offer:

  Excited for the Holiday Tea at Blithwold Mansion in Bristol.

Excited for the Holiday Tea at Blithwold Mansion in Bristol.

As I focus my priorities on spending time with my family, I decided the best way we could celebrate the start to the holiday season would be to spend time together in one of my favorite spots, Newport. Starting the weekend following Thanksgiving, Newport comes alive for the holidays. The city is filled with visitors during the summer months, and you absolutely should visit during the summer. However, I knew Newport would be especially magical during the holiday season. My family spent Thanksgiving weekend rediscovering so many wonderful ways to enjoy the “City By the Sea.” You would need months (years?)  to explore every place in the city, but having children in tow did narrow it down a little bit for us.

If you need help planning a visit to Newport, Discover Newport  is the perfect planning tool. It’s extremely easy to navigate and full of ideas based on your preferences for activities, food, accommodations, and budget. There’s a massive directory for weddings planning, too. The calendar was up to date and quickly linked me to websites and contact info. It also covers more than “just” the city of Newport; both Newport and Bristol Counties are included.

My Top Five Family Holiday Activities in Newport:

1. Touring the mansions: Perhaps the most recognizable part of Newport are the eight  “summer cottages” of tycoons of the Gilded Age in America. Each mansion offers a variety of tours exploring the home, gardens, and grounds. However, only three mansions remain open for the holidays: The Breakers, The Elms, and Marble House.  A "Winter Passport" will allow visits to all three mansions at a discounted price. My children loved the family audio tour at The Breakers, home of the Vanderbilt family. The self guided audio tour is narrated from the perspective of the house (so unique, but lots of fun and very informative). My children have been told it'll be a looong time before they have their own phone, so they were especially excited to pretend for a bit with their "personal" iPhone for the tour. The "house" encourages children to be on the lookout for things like animal feet on furniture and the the old fashioned phone systems (which were rarely used for making actual phone calls).  There is a beautiful train display on the second floor and holiday decor in every room. Traveling with Children: Strollers are not allowed, and very young children might have a hard time using the audio tour (I would guess ages 5 and older will LOVE the humor of the narrator and like having their own device). If you don't take the Newport trolley (which stops directly in front of the mansion), there is a parking lot across the street. There is no coat check. Bathrooms are located next to the gift shop, on your way to the exit.

The Elms, home of the Berwind family, was completed in 1901 and is about one mile from The Breakers. The self guided audio tour will point out the "technology" used in the early twentieth century, and many of the traditions and hobbies of the Berwind family. This year, local pastry chefs created gingerbread replicas of each of the mansions, on display in the kitchens. Traveling with Children: Strollers are not allowed, and very young children might have a hard time using the audio tour (I would guess ages 5 and older will like have their own device). If you don't take the trolley (which stops directly in front of the mansion), there is a parking lot to the left of the mansion. There is no coat check. Bathrooms are located next to the gift shop, on your way to the exit.

2. Creating a glass ornament at Thames Glass: Having been a part of the Newport culture for 35 years, Thames Glass is the perfect place to take home a memento of Newport, or create your own. Holiday ornaments are one of my favorites collections; read about why here. Older children will love creating their own ornament (you can also make paperweights, pumpkins, vases, and bowls). It takes about 15 minutes to make an ornament (other designs take up to an hour) and you’ll be involved in every step of creation, from choosing the colors and design of the ornament, to melting and blowing the glass into shape, to molding the hook. The glass is heated to a temperature of 2200 degrees and then cools in a “fridge” set at 950 degrees for two days. If you can't stay in town, Thames Glass will mail your creations home. The staff was wonderfully patient and attentive with my children, making sure everyone in the space was safe. If you have really young children, you can safely watch the process from the viewing window inside the gift shop. If you don't want to create your own, Thames Glass makes about 800 ornaments each month, as well as beautiful bowls, miniature snowman, and dozens of other creations for sale (my favorite was the candy cane!) Note: Thames Glass has two locations; make sure you head to the 688 Thames Street address if you’re creating your own piece. Call ahead for an appointment, as they are busy during the holiday season.

3. The Newport Nutcracker at Rosecliff: The Nutcracker, the famous story of little Marie Stahlbaum's favorite toy, her nutcracker, which comes alive as the nutcracker takes her to a land filled with dolls, is in it's 16th year, as performed by the Island Moving Company. This performance is especially unique, as it is performed throughout Rosecliff Mansion. Guests view the first act as they move through various rooms of the mansion, and then are seated at tables in the ballroom for the second act. Traveling with children:  Children must be at least six years old to attend. Children ages 6-10 receive a pillow, and prime viewing, to sit on the edge of the dance floor for the first act.  To make transitions easier, there is a coat check before the show starts. 

4. Christmas Tea and Sparkle at Blithewold Mansion: While not technically located in Newport (the property is in Bristol, RI), the 25 minute drive will take you over the Pell Bridge and is well worth the drive. Blithewold is a smaller home compared to the Newport mansions, but is definitely NOT smaller in decor and history. Children should pick up a scavenger hunt when checking in, and remember to redeem a completed list for a prize. Blithewold offers an audio tour of the home, and there are detailed sheets in each room explaining the history of the Van Wickle family. It is hard to pick a favorite themed trees, but my family’s favorites include the champagne, Great Gatsby, and fairy themed trees, as well as the 22 foot tree that greets guests in the entryway. A holiday tea is offered twice a day, with a special children’s themed tea (and a visit from Santa) on Monday afternoons. The three tiered set of treats were delicious and it felt like we were being transported back in time. Blithewold also offers Starlit Strolls of the gardens (the entire property encompasses 32 acres!), Singalong with Santa, Holiday Music in the Living Room, and Sparkle, an opportunity to roast s'mores and sip hot cocoa by an outdoor fire.  Traveling with young children: No strollers allowed inside the home; they do provide a coat room; ample restrooms on the lower level.

5. Holiday Lantern Tour at the Museum of Newport History: The museum is located right on Thames Street and features a museum of Newport's rich history. There are a variety of themed tours throughout the year, but the holiday lantern tour is only offered each Friday and Saturday in late November and December. You’ll learn about Newport's establishment as a place of religious tolerance, as well as the origins and early traditions of Thanksgiving and Christmas. You’ll walk about a mile through some of the downtown area, stopping at meeting houses, the Touro Synagogue, and other points of interest. Our tour guide engaged the children on the tour by having them read parts of historical letters from Newport residents from the 1800s. Bonus: Purchase a small (battery operated) lantern for your children to carry with them on the tour.

Bonus: If you’re planning to visit next year, be sure to stay in town for the day after Thanksgiving; the annual boat parade is so much fun to watch. Over two dozen boats, all lit up, cruised the harbor. There are tons of great viewing spots, starting at America’s Cup Avenue and following down Thames Street. We had a great view from our room at the Newport Marriott.

Disclaimer: I was given a press pass from Discover Newport during my stay. All opinions expressed are my own.