Newport’s Cliff Walk: On the Edge of Opulence

Offering access to eight mansions, the three-hour walk features a serpentine path aligned with the shoreline.

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Published in FYI Hamilton-Halton Edition in November 2015

It's only 5.6 kilometres long, but it's one of the most famous walks in the world. The elevated Cliff Walk that wraps itself snugly along the eastern shoreline of Newport, Rhode Island, offers two dramatic - and dramatically different - types of views.

Turn your head to one side and you'll take in the most commanding coastal scenery New England has to offer - a jagged shoreline where powerful waves batter against mighty boulders in the salt-kissed air of the Atlantic Ocean.

Swivel your head in the opposite direction and you'll see the spacious, green, backyard expanse of the opulent Gilded Age mansions that were once the summer homes of America's wealthiest families, including the Vanderbilts and the Astors.

Both vistas are lavish - one man-made, the other heaven-sent. Best of all they're free. More than a quarter of a million visitors - nature lovers, trail trekkers and mansion gawkers alike - traverse this path, designated a National Recreation Trail, every year.

"National Geographic Traveler" has named the Cliff Walk one of its "50 Places of a Lifetime". It takes about three hours to complete the walk, during which you'll pass under stone archways and through short tunnels as you follow a serpentine path that mimics the shoreline.

About two-thirds of the path is flat and easy to navigate with wide walkways and railings that protect visitors from drops of up to 20-metres. The final third has more rugged terrain and is reserved for the sure-footed - at certain points you'll have to scramble from rock to rock in order to make it to the end.

At the half-way mark, you'll want to linger a while at the Cliff Walk's 40 Steps, a series of stone steps that plunge right to the ocean's edge.

Originally built in the early 1800s so the Newport rich could give their children direct access to the beach, it also became a social gathering spot for their servants, mostly immigrants from Ireland, on their rare days off. The steps were restored in the early 1990s, making them much safer to navigate.

Given the stunning views of this coastline, it's no wonder the wealthy were drawn to Newport to build their epic mansions in this summer colony.

The Cliff Walk was created by the estates' owners in the 1880s and millions have been spent over the past century by the city and the state on its expansion and restoration after it was damaged by several hurricanes.

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