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The Gilded Age: Travelling back in time to Newport, Rhode Island

Muriel Bolger travels back in time on a trip to Newport, Rhode Island

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Room with a view: The Breakers, one of the Vanderbilt's palatial homes

Room with a view: The Breakers, one of the Vanderbilt's palatial homes

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Muriel experiences the Gilded Age in Newport, Rhode Island

Muriel experiences the Gilded Age in Newport, Rhode Island

Newport is a maritime hotspot

Newport is a maritime hotspot

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Room with a view: The Breakers, one of the Vanderbilt's palatial homes

Imagine it's the late 1800s and the start of a new century.

Visualise gilt-edged invitations, high-stepping horses, mansions, costume balls, garden parties, croquet on the lawns, up to nine changes of clothes in one day, servants scurrying out of sight, and you're there - in high society - in the Gilded Age of Newport, Rhode Island.

It was to here that the decadently rich and 'newly arrived' flocked every summer. They built ostentatious houses to display their endless wealth and entertained on an unimaginably lavish scale. Rivalry between the hostesses was fierce and not always subtle, and it was known for some who had been excluded from a guest list to swiftly arrange a trip to Europe as the reason for their absence.

The 'cottages,' as they liked to call them, were owned by families whose names still carry a punch today - the Vanderbilts, Astors, Berwinds, Gordon Bennetts. These barons amassed their fortunes from mining, railways, fur-trading, mills and newspapers. Some were plantation owners from the south.

But it wasn't just millionaires who left their mark here. From the early 1800s, Newport was a popular settlement for the Irish and many of its street names attest to that. One hundred labourers swapped the copper mines at Allihies in West Cork to be part of the thriving coal-mining community, while Kerry immigrants tended to favour brick-laying. Many Irish were involved in the building of the star-shaped military defence, Fort Adams, the construction of which lasted for three decades. The stonemasons' reward was $1.71 per day; the labourers got $1. All gave their services voluntarily to help build a local church designed by an architect from Tipperary. It's now a museum and state park.

Newport is up there among my favourite places to visit, for its bustling waterfront, wonderful eateries and atmospheric tree-lined streets. But it's its history that always draws me in. From rows of wooden-fronted houses and those wickedly grandiose mansions to its little Irish museum. There's even a tiny and beautifully tended Irish cemetery in Middletown.

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Muriel experiences the Gilded Age in Newport, Rhode Island

Muriel experiences the Gilded Age in Newport, Rhode Island

Muriel experiences the Gilded Age in Newport, Rhode Island

As these workers settled in Newport, and became more established, they moved on to the next street, and the one after that, building better houses, taking their place in city life and virtually creating the whole Fifth Ward.

On this visit, I was researching a new book and the more I delved into it, the more I learned. The majority of domestic servants in the mansions were Irish. On their days off they congregated at the top of the 40 Steps on the Cliff Walk to dance and sing songs from home. The gentry had Easton's Beach. Or at least they did until the new trolley service brought the mill workers over from Fall River. Not wishing to associate with those who 'ate their lunch from buckets,' they relocated to Bailey's Beach and formed their own exclusive club. Today it's still private, with a waiting list where new members are added only when old ones die.

Both heritages have been preserved in this coastal city, where the wealthy still flock - to sail, to eat, to golf and to take part in the numerous festivals, to celebrate everything maritime, while mixing with the hoi polloi.

As I toured a Vanderbilt house, I realised I was being followed by none other than Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes. I'm sure that was unintentional, but I so badly wanted evidence. I knew I couldn't be obvious, so I feigned interest in taking a photograph ahead of me while switching to selfie mode on my phone and capturing him over my shoulder. Twice! He was in the area researching a new Downton-type series, Newport-style.

Another name to be reckoned with then was the notorious rake, James Gordon Bennett Junior. The New York Herald had been started by his father and he inherited this at a very young age. Before he was 20, he had won the first trans-Atlantic yacht race from Newport to the Isle of Wight, and this is reputed to have been the start of the America's Cup. Gordon Bennett Junior also built the Newport Casino, introduced polo to the US, and built the Tennis Hall of Fame, all across the road from his mansion.

The first automobiles brought a new level of rivalry between these playboys. When William Kissam Vanderbilt and his peers drove their machines around the island, bystanders looked on in astonishment, most believing that these newfangled vehicles would never catch on.

Nowadays, these events are celebrated with the Newport Concours and Motor Week, with many of the original models going on display. This year it's scheduled for October 1-4. If those dates don't suit, or the coronavirus crisis continues, then the fabulous Audrain Automobile Museum may be a consolation in the future. I loved it.

Open all year around, and located right beside the casino, it houses a priceless collection of the world's most daring and expensive concept cars ever built.

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Newport is a maritime hotspot

Newport is a maritime hotspot

Newport is a maritime hotspot

Happily, both Vanderbilt brothers' houses, The Breakers and The Marble House, form part of the 10 surviving mansions from the Gilded Age. These imitation French châteaux, Italian palazzos, Gothic and Shingle style homes are owned by The Preservation Society of Newport County. These are the venues for food festivals and musical events too and are open to the public. They are among the most visited attractions in the state, along with Rosecliffe and The Elms. Each one unique and astonishing, but I wanted to see how the other half lived, so I booked a Servants' Tour at the Elms and discovered that although the hours were gruelling, conditions wasn't too shabby at all.

Mansions apart, there are plenty of modern attractions all around Newport, of course. But for me, this trip was a rare treat to travel back in time and I regretted having to leave my ladies' maid, chauffeur, cook and butler behind to come back to modern-day reality.

Don't miss

The captivating Newport blog tells you everything you'll need to know, from events like the US Senior Golf Open in June to the top ATP World Tour pros competing in the Tennis Hall of Fame in July. Discovernewport.org/blog.

Get there

Muriel flew to Boston, but Newport is almost the same distance from New York. There's an Amtrak to Providence - when booking the train directly, passengers can avail of a complimentary shuttle bus service between the station and the Providence to Newport ferry terminal (seasonal).

Stay

The Gilded Hotel is an eclectic B&B (gildedhotel.com); the Francis Malbone Inn does great afternoon teas and gourmet breakfasts (malbone.com), while Gurneys Newport is a good family option (gurneysresorts.com). Muriel was a guest of Discover Newport (discovernewport.org).

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