Whoever planned the boundaries of Rhode Island must have had the weekend getaway in mind. This very small state (drive 30 miles in any direction and you're in Massachusetts or Connecticut) is divided by a very large bay, which means more than 100 public beaches along more than 400 miles of coastline. Little wonder it's called the Ocean State.
The two-mile rainbow of concrete and steel (aka the Newport Bridge) has a true pot of gold on its eastern end: Newport Harbor shelters some of the swiftest and most expensive boats in the water. Book a harbor tour on a retired America's Cup contender and you may never get your land legs back again. After a day of sailing, you may want to book yourself into one of Newport's finest Bed and breakfast, the Ivy Lodge, located in the mansion district where you are a stroll away from the Gilded Age mansions of Bellevue Avenue and a block and a half from the Cliff Walk were you can comfortably walk and see spectacular views across Rhode Island Sound.
In a place as bustling as Newport's waterfront, what can be most memorable is a tucked-away café, a place to sit and watch the boats glide by, or a patch of grass from which to gaze at the drama of sky, clouds, and water. Since Newport is known as the City by the Sea, it feels right to stay as close to the water as possible -- to catch glimpses of it while having chowder or munching lobster rolls, to get out on the harbor and look back at the city rising up the hill, to experience the essence of waterfront culture.
The Seamen's Church Institute is a great place to start. It houses a quiet and comfortable library, a café, and the tiny Chapel of the Sea. The chapel is captivating: shell motifs in floor and font; nautical knots in the carved drapery around the altar; frescoes that depict saints who look out for those at sea and ocean-related Bible scenes like Jonah and the whale. Or grab lunch to go, walk over to Oldport Marine Services, and catch the launch to Fort Adams State Park for a picnic. Once at Fort Adams, you can walk around the fortification, jump into a tour of the 1824 fort, or amble down to Sail Newport and indulge in a sailing lesson. Rent a sailboat or kayak here and you'll blend into the harborscape. Other ways to be out on the water abound. Oldport also runs Amazing Grace, a two-deck tour boat. The one-hour cruise takes you on a full circuit of the harbor, with stories and the history of church steeples, yacht clubs, and former presidents' vacation homes (Kennedy and Eisenhower). Schooners such as the Adirondack II or Madeleine or the smaller sailboats of Sightsailing of Newport also tour the harbor.
Back on the wharves called Bannister's and Bowen's, nestled behind the upscale restaurants and boutiques are two places visitors might not discover -- the Coffee Grinder and Aquidneck Lobster Co. The former is affectionately called "Alyssa's" after its owner, Alyssa Gladchun. She makes a mean latte, which you can enjoy at an outside table as you take in a bit of maritime Newport: sea-legged workers jumping from one untethered floating dock to the next, and wader-clad lobstermen unloading their catch.
Then hop over to Aquidneck Lobster and ask Dave Benson for a tour. All kinds of fresh fish are on ice, and nearby, large vats of water hold clams, crabs, and lobsters -- you might even see a real old-timer, a 14-pound lobster.
For ready-to-eat seafood visit the Clarke Cooke House's first-floor lunchroom (The Candy Store) for steamed mussels. For a delectable scallop chowder and a perch over the water, check out The Mooring on nearby Sayer's Wharf.
Nearby is a craftsman whose work links you directly to 19th-century mariners. At Scrimshanders, Brian Kiracofe practices the whaler's art of scrimshaw, engraving nautical scenes on ancient walrus tusks or recycled piano keys, turning out items such as earrings, tie tacks, and penknives.
On Lower Thames Street, stop in at the International Yacht Restoration School (IYRS, or "Iris" to locals) to watch students working on small wooden boats or learn about the dry-docked 1885 schooner Coronet, being restored to sail as a floating museum.
Two other ventures that hark back to Newport's artisan history are Thames Glass, founded by Matthew Buechner, and Anchor Bend, a four-man cooperative owned by some of Buechner's former students. You can watch glassblowing at both studios and pick up sea mementos -- colorful fish at Thames and curling blue waves at Anchor Bend -- in their galleries.
Though the former sailor bars on this stretch of waterfront have been replaced by shops and restaurants, their legacy lives on in a few spruced-up corners. Cafe Zelda is half bistro, half Irish pub, with a loyal neighborhood following. The Deck makes a great martini (and knock-your-socks-off fish chowder). And Pronto has a fine wine list with excellent Mediterranean/Italian dishes as well as a view of the harbor from the second floor.
If your intellectual curiosity about all things nautical has been spiked by your waterfront wanderings, there's no better place to explore than the Armchair Sailor Bookstore with its extensive selection of marine and travel books, navigational charts, and maps. At Armchair, you'll discover new attractions, and then you can begin Newport's one-mile harborside jaunt all over again.