Driving around Newport, Rhode Island, you can't help but gawp at the turn-of-the-20th-century mansions -- Italianate palazzi, Tudor-style manors, faux French château, all set in elegant formal landscaping, with imposing gates or walls to keep out hoi polloi (for example, you). It's incredible to imagine the sort of wealth that built these homes, even more incredible to realize that these were just these families' summer houses (offhandedly referred to as mere "cottages").
While many of these houses are still private property, nine are open to the public for guided tours, popular with tourists year-round (though not all are open daily in winter). Don't cram too many into 1 day -- the sheer opulence of these interiors can soon bring on sensory overload. The most popular is The Breakers, 44 Ochre Point Ave. (tel. 401/847-1000), a 70-room 1895 mansion designed for Commodore Vanderbilt by Richard Morris Hunt. Patterned after Renaissance Florentine palazzi, it has a stunning great hall, an ornate 50-foot cube sheathed in marble. The Breakers even has bathrooms (very high-tech for the time) where both fresh and salt water come out of the taps. Stanford White modeled Rosecliff, 548 Bellevue Ave. (tel. 401/847-1000), after the Grand Trianon at Versailles. Built in 1902 for an heiress of the Comstock Lode mining fortune, it has only 40 rooms (how sad), but it also has Newport's largest ballroom and a heart-shaped grand staircase.
Two other Bellevue Avenue houses belonged to the same woman -- named Alva Vanderbilt when she was mistress of Marble House, 596 Bellevue Ave. (tel. 401/847-1000), so called because it shows off just about every type of marble there is. Its ballroom is literally dazzling, with three kinds of gold encrusting its walls. Alva divorced her Vanderbilt husband and promptly married his best friend, who was a Belmont and lived down the street at Belcourt Castle, 657 Bellevue Ave. (tel. 401/846-0669; www.belcourtcastle.com). My daughter couldn't get over the luxurious stables. The Breakers may have had bathrooms, but Belcourt Castle had electricity, designed by Thomas Edison, no less. Tell the kids to look for the 14 secret doors.
Nearest Airport: Providence T. F. Green International, 28 miles.
Where to Stay: $$$ Hyatt Regency Newport, 1 Goat Island (tel. 800/233-1234 or 401/851-1234; www.hyatt.com). $$ Mill Street Inn, 75 Mill St. (tel. 800/392-1316 or 401/849-9500; www.millstreetinn.com).
Best Time: December, when the houses are decorated for the holidays.