Cornelius Vanderbilt and his wife spared no expense in building what would become - just as they intended - the definitive showpiece of Newport Gilded Age mansions. Architect Richard Morris Hunt designed the 70-room "cottage" for the commanding cliff-top setting to which the Vanderbilts and their staff (33 of the rooms were built to house them) decamped from their New York mansion each summer. The mansion is so overwhelming in its grandeur that it's easy to miss the fine details of its decoration - the carved wood and stucco flourishes, and the details lavished on almost every available surface. As interesting as the house is, the kitchens and pantries, which you can tour, shed more light on the grandeur of their lifestyle. The gardens and stables are also open to tour.
Some of the best views of the Newport mansions are from Cliff Walk. Here, you see the side that provided the backdrops for elegant lawn and garden parties in the Gilded Age. Marble House, The Breakers, Rosecliff, Beechwood, Rough Point, and several others share the preferred location between Bellevue Avenue and the sea. The shore side overlooking Rhode Island Sound varies between shingle beach and rough cliffs that are sometimes so steep that Cliff Walk has to tunnel through them. Access the path - which is paved part of the way - from the bottom of Forty Steps (at the end of Narragansett Avenue), or begin at Easton's Beach on Memorial Boulevard.
Although not quite as ostentatious as The Breakers, The Elms is opulent in a more restrained way, with clean lines and a bright, airy feel. The stairway in the foyer is supported on marble columns and rimmed by a scrolled iron railing. Built to house the collections of a Philadelphia coal magnate and his wife, The Elms incorporated every modern convenience of its day. Especially interesting are the tours that disclose fascinating glimpses of the inner workings of the building and the household. The magnificent gardens have been restored to their original beauty.