The southern portion of Newport is less densely populated; its high points are its verdant open spaces, beaches, and many sweeping views of the Atlantic Ocean.
One of the most famous scenic drives on the East Coast, 9.5-mile Ocean Drive is a roughly C-shaped route that begins at the lower end of downtown, on Wellington Avenue at the intersection of Thames Street. Ocean Drive isn’t one road but rather the name of a well-marked route that connects several roads. At least half the fun of this journey, which can take from an hour to half a day, depending on how often you stop, is simply peering out the window at the stunning homes, sandy beaches, and ocean views.
Still right in town on Newport Harbor, you’ll pass little King Park on your right as you drive west along Wellington Avenue; this is the city’s small but pleasant in-town beach. About one mile farther along, you’ll come to a National Historic Landmark and one of the most formidable coastal forts ever built in the United States, Fort Adams (Eisenhower House, Fort Adams State Park, 401/841-0707, 10am-4pm daily late May-mid-Oct., grounds admission free, fortification tours $12 adults, $6 youth 6-17, free for children under 6, $30 families). The fort served the region from the 1820s through World War II, occupying a grassy point opposite downtown Newport, about a mile across Newport Harbor. Today you can tour the bastions, officers quarters, the enclosed 6.25-acre parade, and the exterior dry moat that helped prevent the fort from ever being compromised by an enemy. Entrance to the main fortification is by guided tour only, but admission to the grounds is free.
On leaving the park, continue back onto Harrison Avenue. Although it’s no longer open to the public, Hammersmith Farm (off Harrison Ave., next to Fort Adams State Park) is home to an 1887 mansion that is one of Newport’s most fabled properties. The site of Jacqueline Bouvier and John F. Kennedy’s wedding reception in 1953, it became the “summer White House” for the first family after Kennedy became president. Once open for tours, the house was sold for $8 million to a private owner in 1999.
A short distance farther along Harrison Avenue, make a right onto Ridge Road and follow it around, passing the elegant Ocean Cliff Hotel. This road meets with Castle Hill Avenue, from which a small lane leads to the Castle Hill Coast Guard Station (75 Ridge Rd., 401/846-3676, tours by appointment during daylight hours). Back on the main route, you’ll finally reach Ocean Avenue, which runs right along the water with mostly contemporary and colonial-style beach homes on the inland side of the street.
Where Ocean Drive turns nearly 90 degrees around Brenton Point, you’ll find a parking area for Brenton Point State Park (401/849-4562 May-Oct., 401/847-2400 year-round), a rugged, rocky promontory overlooking the ocean. You can picnic here or stroll along the beach, and it’s also quite popular for kite-flying.
Continue on Ocean Drive along the waterfront back toward Newport, passing the Newport Country Club, some private beaches, and several gorgeous homes that range from century-old Victorian castles to rather recently built compounds with lavish decking and many-gabled roofs. Officially, Ocean Drive ends at Coggeshall Avenue, where a left turn will bring you back into lower downtown, about two miles away. Make a right turn, however, and after following the road a short way, make a left onto Bellevue Avenue to begin a tour of the Newport mansions of the Gilded Age—in the reverse direction from most visitors, who approach the mansions from town.