Sat, 18 Apr 2009 23:15:01By Linda S. Manning
Outlining the perimeter of an ancient pathway, twisting, turning, and curving high above the ocean along the cliffs is the incredible and famous Cliff Walk. Stretching from Memorial Boulevard on the north to the very southern end of Bellevue Avenue, a 3.5 mile hike is known as one of most beautiful and diverse walks in America. Cliff Walk has been designated as a National Recreation Trail by the National Park Service.
On any given day strollers can be seen enjoying the vast ocean scenery, architecture, wildflowers, rabbits and birds, secret tunnels, steps leading to a granite platform of rocks overlooking the ever changing sea and mansions, glorious, opulent mansions fringing the walk adding to its grandeur.
It wasn’t always this picturesque. The path had its creation hundreds of years ago when the deer foraged for berries and food. Later the Narragansett tribe followed the same tracks, deepening the path along the ridge. Lastly the Colonists traced the same trail 350 years ago as they searched for seaweed and fished alongside the boundary of the sea.
But who owns this celebrated and glorious walk alongside the deep-sea with its white lace dancing and showing off endlessly through time?
During the first half of the 1800’s, wealthy New Yorkers claimed the center of Newport Harbor and the many miles of undeveloped shoreline, sometimes disputing access rights to the walk by making them less navigational; some built stone walls and erected fences and still others placed huge rocks in the pathway or planted trees or bushes to discourage use.
The “fisherman’s rights” clause was adopted from the colonial charter and incorporated into the Rhode Island Constitution in 1843, establishing a public right of way to the entire shoreline. Although most of Cliff Walk is private and owned by sixty four families, the right of way continues. Today the walk above the cliffs is a public right of way over private property.
In the 1880’s Cliff Walk estate owners took the walk more seriously and spent the next fifty years developing and improving what is now today’s national treasure.
The trail runs north-to-south along the eastern side of Aquidneck Island beginning at the basin of Newport Beach on Memorial Boulevard, once known as Bath Road. A picturesque view showing its rugged and dangerous cliffs decorating the edges of the path and rising fifty feet above the sea winding and turning for miles at a time, is incredible.
Along the trail to the east one can view the stately cottages with their fancy turrets, gargoyles, and pediments while to the west the calm or sometimes furious sea mysteriously piques your interest as you are enveloped by a feeling of peace. Breath in the salt air as it moistens your skin and kisses your cheek. Explore this jewel’s ever-changing views from the north of the trail to the south.
The walk is divided into four sections with the easiest, the Classic beginning at Memorial Boulevard and extending to Forty Steps, a 2/3 mile walk. The cement and asphalt trail lends itself as an easy walk, slightly uphill and simple to navigate. The drop off to the rocks below is shielded by bushes and fences in some areas and unguarded in others.
The Classic Walk begins at The Chanler, an luxurious and magnificent hotel and restaurant built into the cliffs in 1855 at the base of the walk at Easton’s Beach. Landscaped greenery and thick bushes on the right lead slightly uphill to a public right of way at Seaview Avenue. This right of way is marked with a few steps and a pathway through a fence.
The Hopedene mansion built in 1902 cannot be seen due to vegetation and Seaward, another fine mansion is not easily viewed either. This home was once owned by former governor Bruce Sunderland.
Following the path further, Ocean Lawn, a Queen Anne style home was built in 1889. Once owned by the Firestone family it sold in 2001 for $7 million dollars.
Few have the time to leisurely saunter beyond the Classic Walk and enjoy the full beauty that the walk represents; they may end their journey as the Classic at the base of Narragansett Street at Forty Steps.
A rocky path dating to long ago leading to the sea at Ellison’s Rocks and Conrad’s Cave to the south are what is known today as Forty Steps. Once rugged and rocky, wooden steps were built in the 1880’s and used by the mansions servants and workers for social dances and get-togethers. Hurricanes and storms created damage and unsafe terrain over the years. It wasn’t until the early 1990’s that the forty steps were restored, made of five foot by one foot slabs of granite and sold for $3,000 each and engraved with the name of the donor.
Forty steps (actually now forty eight) is a theatrical staircase dropping down the side of a cliff to a loggia over the sea. Rocks projecting into the sea form a stage as the waves crash onto the boulders each more spectacular than the last. Panoramic breathtaking views capture the Sakonnet Lighthouse in the distance and the outer edge of the Elizabethan Islands near Martha’s Vineyard. Local Newporters fish off the rocks year round or swim in the sea in the warmer weather. Forty Steps is open from dawn to dusk.
The University Walk begins just after Forty Steps and extends one half mile to the Breakers Mansion gate. There are several steps in this section of the walk some up and some down but easy to navigate. Ochre Point, a privately owned summer cottage owned by the Goelet family is obscured from view only to be seen from Narragansett Avenue. Ochre Court, an astonishing French Chateau was donated by the Goelet family to establish Salve Regina University in 1947.
A private home called Cave Cliff is next along the walk to be followed by the Queen Anne style Vineland, also part of the University. A new building to the south is also owned by the University. More glorious homes are yet to be seen as you continue to Mansion Walk.
Beginning at The Breakers and continuing 1-1/4 miles along the coast to a tunnel under the Chinese Tea House and further to what is known as Sheep Cove Tunnel is the finest collection of mansions and summer cottages ever to be built.
The Breakers, offering glitz and glamour a one of a kind ornate structure is open to the public by the Preservation Society as well as Rosecliff and Marble House. At the Chinese Tea House* gravel and dirt paths sometimes muddy and impassable make this part of the walk more difficult.
Continuing along the way, are resting points to catch your breath and take in the scenic overlooks.
Sheep Point Tunnel named for a farmland area and laced with grazing sheep some time ago is located at Clarendon Court once owned by the Von Bulow family. Ending the scenic vista is the most difficult of the walks, Hiker’s Walk.
Careful navigation is needed at this point of the walk and for the next 1 ¾ miles to Ledge Road. A narrow path covered with rocks and boulders sometimes extremely slippery decorates the shoreline. Only the experienced should venture across its path that leads to Miramar, Ocean View and Rough Point, former home of the tobacco heiress Doris Duke. At Rough Point is one of the most breathtaking views imaginable as the wave’s crash onto the rocks and the sea hisses at you as she recedes.
Reaching Ledge Road, a spectacular collection of 20 foot rocks lining the sea is one of the most pleasing and serene viewing points. As the waves crash in a thunder-like sound, migrating birds can be seen in the fall and spring and in the winter seals congregate to rest and sun themselves. This is where most people end their journey but some go on past The Waves to finish at Reject’s Beach located next to private Bailey’s Beach.
Your expedition has come to a conclusion and should you desire to return the way you came, you would have walked the walk for seven fabulous miles of famous, Cliff Walk.