On the Culture Front: Retreating in Newport

03/03/2017 07:36 pm ET

There are few American resort towns with a more regal reputation than Newport, RI. Known for extravagant mansions once owned by families like the Vanderbilts and as the “Summer White House” for Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy, this intimate seaside city overflows with charms both visible and hidden.

Built in 1874 as a summer home for Harvard marine biologist Alexander Agassiz, Castle Hill Inn fuses the best of buttoned-up formality with sand-in-between-your-toes beachy abandon. My girlfriend and I spent a couple blissful nights here at the end of the summer in a beach cottage, just steps from the crashing waves of Narragansett Bay. It didn’t take us too long to peel off our clothes and jump in the water. There’s something about floating on my back and feeling the weightlessness of it all that allows my mind to switch into an ethereal abstract processing state. In between dips, I was able to read a couple chapters of Gary Shteyngart’s casually apocalyptic “Super Sad True Love Story.” Definitely not a beach read, but I’ve been a fan of his writing ever since “Absurdistan,” and it’s always nice when you can bury your toes in sand while engaging your mind.

A few hours later, we walked up the road to the formal main house for an equally formal multi-course dinner. The menu features dishes like a red beet carpaccio and smoked sweet potato soup to start, exuding an earthy elegance that calls as much on sophisticated culinary skills as on a simple appreciation for local food. Just outside of Newport, farms and nature preserves abound. The lamb comes from Elysian Fields, a small farm in Pennsylvania run by a former investment banker. On the outside porch, simply called The Lawn, a more casual menu is served. This is where the epic complimentary breakfasts take place. Meals begin with a freshly made smoothie that changes daily and a basket of pastries. Classics like pancakes and eggs Benedict are served in generous portions and satiated us well into the afternoon. Winding trails just a short stroll away from the main house lead to the intimate resort’s lighthouse.

This Relais and Chateaux property has a vibe of casual exclusivity. There are never any crowds, and it’s easy to slip into your own world and share stolen moments with a partner. It was almost surprising to see a small group of people at the lighthouse as Castle Hill can feel like your own private retreat. By the end of day two though we were ready to venture into town and hopped on a boat, docked steps from our cottage for the short ride to downtown Newport. We had dinner at The Mooring, which overlooks Newport Harbor. This cavernous spot has a welcoming vibe and an equally enticing menu. We couldn’t resist the Bag of Doughnuts (lobster, crab and shrimp fritters) served with a chipotle-maple aioli. Other highlights included scallops from Georges Bank in nearby Cape Cod cooked with a sage lemon butter and a burger with aged Vermont cheddar. The portions were so generous that we had enough leftover for lunch the next day as we prepared for our departure.

Time both stands still and flies by at Castle Hill. Moments are punctuated by blissful solitude and an opportunity for contemplation that only stillness can provide but with that comes the understanding that we can’t freeze time and even the best moments are fleeting. I could have stayed here all summer.

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