Newport, Rhode Island, is known as the Yachting Capital of the Northeast, home to several America’s Cup winners and the setting for many world-famous regattas, not to mention the starting point of the annual Newport-to-Bermuda race. However, this historic city at the southern tip of Aquidneck Island stands ready to welcome all boaters, from kayakers to megayacht cruisers. Virtually every kind of pleasure craft, from classic Herreshoffs to futuristic Azimuts, call at Newport at some point, and it’s estimated that some $6 billion worth of vessels use the harbor on a typical summer weekend.
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Newport’s deep natural harbor at the entrance to Narragansett Bay has long been a mariner’s haven, dating back to the 1600s. It offers quick access to both the open ocean and the more protected waters of Narragansett Bay.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s Newport became a playground for the superwealthy, who built magnificent summer homes along the cliffs of Aquidneck Island. Today the scenic downtown attracts millions of tourists each year, who come for the shopping, history and nightlife. Historic Thames Street, which skirts the waterfront, is home to eclectic shops, bars and restaurants, many housed in colonial-era buildings.
While visiting boaters can also enjoy Newport’s shoreside attractions, the local waters are too intriguing to allow much time ashore. Historic sites include the Ida Lewis Yacht Club (ILYC), which sits on Lime Rock, in the eastern part of Brenton Cove. Lime Rock was the location of the Lime Rock Light Station, whose longtime lighthouse keeper, Ida Lewis, was famous for rescuing 18 seamen during her 55-year career. The ILYC club burgee has 18 stars representing each of the lives she saved. The buildings at Lime Rock were sold for $7,200 in 1928, and the Ida Lewis Yacht Club was founded the same year. A 300-foot-long walkway was constructed to connect the club to Wellington Avenue.
One of the more striking sights in Newport is the Clingstone, better known as the “House on the Rocks”, a 3 ½-story gray-shingled mansion perched on one of the Dumpling islets off Conanicut Island, just opposite Newport Harbor. Clingstone was built as a summer home in 1905 for the Wharton family. It was severely damaged in the Hurricane of 1938, and sat abandoned for almost 20 years. The house was eventually renovated by its current owner, architect David Wood, who bought the property in 1961 for $3,600. Today the house can be rented.
At the southern side of Newport Harbor is sprawling Fort Adams. Built in 1824, this magnificent fort on Castle Hill once guarded the ocean approach to Newport, and was the largest coastal fortification on the U.S. Daily tours of the fort are given in season. Concerts are also held here during summer, including the famous Newport Jazz Festival, now called George Wein’s Jazz Festival 55. Boaters can have a front -row seat at the festival, which is held in early August.
Continuing outside the harbor and heading south, you’ll see Castle Hill Light to port. Built in 1890 and automated in 1957, the light is the traditional start for many Newport regattas. Early plans for its design were made by famous architect H. H. Richardson. As an aside, during the hurricane of 1938, the waters from Castle Hill Cove and the beach nearby met, turning the point into an island.
Kayaking has become a big deal in Newport, although paddlers are urged to stay close to shore to avoid the heavy boating traffic in open water. Crossing the East Passage is not recommended, especially for inexperienced paddlers, due to the frequently strong currents and numerous boats that operate at high speeds in this area.
Kayakers can pay a visit to Rose Island. Built in 1870, Rose Island Light served as a navigational beacon until 1971. After years of neglect, the lighthouse was saved in 1984 by the nonprofit Rose Island Lighthouse Foundation. The beacon was relit in 1993 and resumed its role as an official aid to navigation. The keeper’s house has also been restored to the way it looked in the early 20th century, right down to the windmill and cistern.
A strong paddler can make the trip to Rose Island in 30 to 45 minutes. However, be aware that the typical afternoon seabreeze can make the return trip difficult. The most direct route to Rose Island is south around Goat Island, but this exposes paddlers to heavy boat traffic. A safer bet is to slip beneath the Goat Island causeway and come around the north end of the island.
Rose Island is a wildlife refuge from April 1 to August 15, when more than 200 pairs of wading birds including blue herons, black-crowned night herons, great and snowy egrets and glossy ibises nest here. After nesting season, the perimeter of the island is open to walkers, though the interior remains off-limits because of crumbling buildings and unstable embankments. By the way, if you’re looking for a way to get on the water during the offseason, Save The Bay and Rose Island Lighthouse Foundation have teamed up to offer seal-watching tours aboard M/V Alletta Morris. On weekends from November to April, as well as during school vacations, the groups provide expert guides and binoculars for an educational view of these visiting marine mammals.
If the wind is out of the southwest or other westerly direction, consider a daytrip to Mackerel Cove, a narrow fjord-like cove on the southeast corner of Conanicut Island (Beaver Neck) and an easy sail or run from Newport. The cove features a sandy beach at its northern end and gin-clear water much of the season. It’s a great spot for swimming, snorkeling and diving, if you know what you’re doing. You can anchor at the northwest end of the cove, but not if winds are due south or easterly in direction.
Another good daytrip option in a southwest or other westerly wind is Potters Cove, also located on the eastern shore of Conanicut Island, just north of the Pell Bridge. This well-protected cove is a favorite spot among local boaters, who like to anchor out and swim or snorkle in the clear, warm waters. Good holding ground exists in 20 feet of water in the center of the cove.
Naturally, there are dozens (if not hundreds) of other places to access by boat from Newport, both inside Narragansett Bay and the ocean waters. Newport is a natural jumping-off spot for trips to Cuttyhunk, Martha’s Vineyard and Block Island, and fishermen find it ideal for runs to the 20- and 30-fathom curves for sharks, tuna and occasional white marlin.
If you head north into the bay, you’ll find a small-boater’s playground with many waterfront towns to visit or cozy, protected coves in which to anchor for a picnic lunch. Check out the other Narragansett Bay destinations on this site for details on planning a trip inside the bay.