Travel: Sampling the high life in New England

The palatial Vanderbilt architecture of The Breakers. Picture: Contributed

The palatial Vanderbilt architecture of The Breakers. Picture: Contributed

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NEW England has beauty, excitement, great food and more than a whiff of the Great Gatsby high life

NEWPORT is like a film set – handsome, tree-lined avenues peppered with impossibly pretty clapboard houses, and picturesque seaside living. Lean, glossy residents, no strangers to seersucker blazers, use “summer” as a verb, and while the well-to-do from New York may go to the Hamptons to be seen, just as many are drawn to this Rhode Island town for an altogether more discreet holiday. To say this is how the other “half” live is to demonstrate some weak mathematical abilities.

River tubing in Connecticut. Picture: Contributed

River tubing in Connecticut. Picture: Contributed

From the elegant but practical, picture-perfect harbour you can take a boat trip (gansettcruises.com – $26 for a 90-minute narrated tour) to gawp at the extraordinary properties on the coast, such as Hammersmith Farm, where Jackie Bouvier grew up and where she and JFK had their wedding reception in 1953 (you can also visit the relatively modest St Mary’s Catholic Church in town, where they were actually married). Your boat will take you past the Castle Hill Inn, where Grace Kelly found privacy while filming High Society in 1956, and Rosecliff, the setting of the 1974 Great Gatsby movie. Rosecliff is one of several Newport mansions that is open to visitors. We had an open-mouthed look around The Breakers, built by Cornelius Vanderbilt (ferry worker-turned-tycoon and philanthropist – that’s the American dream right there, folks) in the late 19th century in a ridiculously flashy Italian Renaissance style – though the family referred to this 70-room palazzo as a “cottage”. It was not for nothing that Mark Twain dubbed this era the Gilded Age.

There’s still plenty of wealth on display here. We popped into the Audrain Auto Museum, which houses a squillion dollars’ worth (it’s true – I checked) of rare cars; the sort that have petrol-heads wiping sweat from their brows. We also spent a pleasurable few hours at the fabulously manicured International Tennis Hall of Fame, and smacked a few balls around on the oldest grass court in America (former site of the US Open). Even if you’re not a tennis fan, this is an interesting place to visit, with its life-sized hologram of Roger Federer and all kinds of memorabilia and artefacts, including some of the earliest outfits for women players.

After a fabulous supper at the MainSail, a super-elegant restaurant with harbour views at the Newport Marriott, we spent the night in what may well be the prettiest hotel I’ve ever stayed in – Gilded, which by now must be a huge hit on Instagram – and not only because they lend you an iPad for your visit. Even the breakfast is a work of art.

But New England’s not all about delicate décor and cocktails beside the harbour. During our six-day trip (which began and ended at Boston, with smooth, direct flights to and from Edinburgh) we managed to squeeze in load of activities and sights, thanks to the ease and low cost of driving around this area. We covered a lot of ground, but most places we went to were no more than about four hours from Boston.

The preeminent prettiness of Gilded. Picture: Contributed

The preeminent prettiness of Gilded. Picture: Contributed

One of the highlights for me, in neighbouring Connecticut, was river tubing in Farmington, which involves lying in a large, sturdy, purpose-built tube, bum in the water, and floating 2.5 miles down a river, occasionally through rapids but usually down calm, crystal-clear water, watching eagles soaring overhead and passing all human life along the way. Sure, you’ll get a bruised rump from the occasional underwater rock, and you might just fall in, but you’ll be wearing a life jacket and the whole thing’s only $20 a pop for a couple of hours of pure joy.

We also got a taste of real speed by having a go at driving some spectacular sports cars at the Thompson Speedway Motorsports Park in Thompson, Connecticut (thompsonspeedway.com – full price is $300 per person for a quick ride in a Ferrari, Lamborghini or other fancy wheels, but Groupon-type discounts are available for around $99).

Another activity which was way more fun than I was expecting was zip-lining at the nearby Empower Adventure Centre in Middletown, Connecticut (leadershipsports.com, from £54 per person), where, strapped and clipped up in safety gear, you take a half-mile sky-trail journey on five different zip lines high up in a forest. We also tackled some pretty terrifying adventure sky bridges and cargo net obstacles at about 50 feet (though it seemed higher). It was all very I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here, except with kind and inspiring support from the excellent staff and without the need to scoff kangaroo genitals.

We did get to eat some incredible food on the trip, from famous lobster rolls at the Lobster Shack in Branford, Connecticut, to unforgettable “slides” (mini burgers) at the hip Harry’s Bar & Burger in Providence. We also got a taste of the state capital’s history (enough to feel frightfully guilty about what our British forebears did to those poor New Englanders back in the day) from entertaining local historian and restaurateur Bob Burke of the Pot au Feu restaurant (potaufeu.businesscatalyst.com).

This part of the world prides itself on having fun with food that has a strong Italian culture. If you want to learn how to make pasta with local celebrity cook Walter Potenza – a man not short on character or charm – you can do worse than book in for a session at Chef Walters Cooking School in Providence. Or if you want to know more about preparing the great American barbecue in the most idyllic rural setting, check out the Silo Cooking School at Hunt Hill Farm at New Milford in Connecticut. (hunthillfarmtrust.org – courses start at $85 per person).

New England is also proud of its thriving craft beer scene. We spent a pleasurable few hours sampling the produce at the Stony Creek Brewery (stonycreekbeer.com) in Branford, where they specialise in what they call “aggressively laid-back beer”. Back in Providence, that laid-back theme translated nicely into the funky NYLO loft-style hotel in Warwick, where raw-brick walls meet riverside luxury. n

Twitter: @MsAshleyDavies

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