Historic Hill is the large district of Colonial Newport that rises from America's Cup Avenue, along the waterfront, to Bellevue Avenue, the beginning of Victorian Newport. Spring Street serves as the Hill's main drag, and it's a treasure trove of Colonial, Georgian, and Federal structures. Chief among its visual delights is the 1725 Trinity Church, at the corner of Church Street. Said to have been influenced by the work of the legendary British architect Christopher Wren, it certainly reflects that inspiration in its belfry and distinctive spire, seen from all over downtown Newport and dominating Queen Anne Square, a greensward that runs down to the waterfront.
"The Cottages" is what wealthy summer people called the almost unimaginably sumptuous mansions they built in Newport in the last decades before the 16th Amendment to the Constitution permitted an income tax.
Say this for the wealthy of the Gilded Age, many of whom obtained their fortunes by less than honorable means: They knew a good place to put down roots when they saw it. These are the same ones, after all, who developed Palm Beach in winter, the Hudson Valley in spring, the Berkshires in autumn, and Newport in summer, sweeping from house to luxurious house with the insouciance of a bejeweled matron dragging her sable down a grand staircase.
When driving or biking through the cottage district (walking its length is a serious trek for most people), consider the fact that most of these astonishing residences are still privately owned. That's almost as remarkable as the grounds and interiors of the nine that are open to the public.
Six of the mansions are maintained by the Preservation Society of Newport County, 424 Bellevue Ave. (tel. 401/847-1000; www.newportmansions.org), which also operates the 1748 Hunter House, the 1860 Italianate Chepstow villa, the 1883 Isaac Bell House, and the Green Animals Topiary Gardens in Portsmouth. The Society sells a combination ticket, good for a year, to five of its properties; the cost is $31 for adults, $10 for children 6 to 17. Individual tickets for The Breakers are $16 for adults, $4 for children 6 to 17; and for Hunter House $25 for adults, $4 for children 6 to 17. Individual tickets for Kingscote, The Elms, Chateau-sur-mer, Marble House, and Rosecliff are $11 for adults, $4 for children 6 to 17. They can be purchased at any of the properties. Credit cards are accepted at most, but not all, of the cottages. Children under 6 are free, but note that strollers are not allowed in the properties. Special events, such as the festive Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations, cost extra. The Society also conducts specialty tours, including holiday evenings at the mansions and "behind the scenes" at The Elms. Parking is free at all the Society properties.
The mansions that aren't operated by the Preservation Society but are open to the public are Belcourt Castle, Beechwood, and Rough Point.
During the winter, the mansions of the Society take turns each year staying open through the period, with an additional one or two openings on weekends. Following are descriptions of the cottages in the order in which they're encountered when driving south from Memorial Boulevard along Bellevue Avenue, then west on Ocean Drive.
You might want to visit only one or two estates per day because their sheer opulence can become numbing. Each residence requires 45 minutes to an hour for its guided tour. If at all possible, go during the week to avoid crowds and traffic.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.