In Newport, R.I., act like an Astor aboard the American Eagle, an America's Cup yacht.
In Newport, R.I., act like an Astor aboard the American Eagle, an America's Cup yacht.

Newport, R.I.: Where Summering Is a Sport

By Gary Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 16, 2006

By Newport's lofty standards, my fantasy seemed modest.

After all, this Rhode Island seaside enclave -- where tobacco heiress Doris Duke once kept a pair of Arabian camels in her antiques-filled home -- is a destination for highbrow folly. One favorite pastime for locals is repairing to the polo field for a sip of bubbly and a peek at a match. Newporters and tourists alike favor the mansion known as Astors' Beechwood, where actors posing as the kin of mogul John Jacob Astor greet visitors as if they were guests of the family. And in the evening, the scene shifts to the Spiced Pear, dining spot of the moment, for a cut of Kobe beef, a taste of tandoori venison or a nibble of sake-poached pear.

All I wanted to do was sail.

At first, yacht watching -- spectacular in these parts -- was thrill enough. In a slow drive last month along Newport Harbor, all sorts of nautical eye candy was on display. Stately schooners with walnut and brass interiors. Grand, custom-made yachts in full-masted majesty. Elegant classic 12-Meters, including the celebrated Weatherly and Intrepid, both winners of the coveted America's Cup.

That meander took me through Newport's small, boutique-packed downtown and then south along Ocean Drive, which hugs a pristine stretch of Atlantic coastline. Finally came a chug up Castle Hill and its grab-the-camera panorama of Narragansett Bay, whose water was regal blue and its islands lush and emerald green. But it was the fleet of Shields sailboats -- compact 30-foot racing craft jockeying for position at the start of a competition -- that caught my attention.

A chap dressed in slacks and Topsiders apparently noticed my excitement. He turned out to be Bob Milligan, veteran of many a sailing race and owner of Astors' Beechwood. "Maneuvering one of those boats is much more of a pain than it seems," he said. "Better to take it all in from a pretty perch up here."

The warning came too late. I could already hear sails flapping overhead and feel the wind at my back. For once, transforming a flight of fancy into reality would be simple enough.

Or so I thought. Sail Newport, known for honing locals' nautical skills, assured me that as part of a two-hour course, I could get out on the water with an instructor. (Complete novices like me need about 12 hours of supervision before sailing solo.) In two days, I would have my appointment with a boat.

* * *

That left just enough time to hit the high points of this city, about 35 miles southeast of Providence. With just over 28,000 inhabitants -- a mix of seamen and women working at the Newport Naval Station, landed New Englanders, service workers in the city's tourist industry and students at Salve Regina University -- spread over nine square miles, it's small enough to explore with ease.

First stop: the International Tennis Hall of Fame on Bellevue Avenue, Newport's toniest street. The shingle-style building was constructed in 1880 as the Newport Casino, a clubhouse for summering aristocrats; today, an array of finely manicured grass courts still gives the place a rarefied look. Once these were hallowed grounds, the domain of the racquet set. These days, anyone with a standard-issue Wilson racquet, $35 and a set of tennis whites can bat at balls here for an hour.

The Hall of Fame is a sprawl of plaques and displays -- including historic photographs, a gamut of tennis fashions and other memorabilia -- paying homage to its 200 or so inductees. The exhibits tell memorable tales from the annals of tennis, including the 16-year rivalry between Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova. The tense finale between Australian Evonne Goolagong and American Billie Jean King at the 1974 U.S. Open (King won). 1975's brilliantly orchestrated four-set faceoff between Arthur Ashe and Jimmy Connors at Wimbledon, which made Ashe the first African American to win that exalted singles competition.

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