Move over, Vanderbilt! Newport new haven for common man

By Chris Baldwin, Contributor

Walking past the hulking yachts that lord over the docks, waiting in line to get a look into the 19th century seaside mansions on Bellevue Avenue, it is easy to become convinced that this town is only for the obscenely rich to participate in. Let the common man gawk!

Only Newport's long past that Vanderbilt stage, especially when it comes to golf. The late 19th and early 20th century summer leisure spot of choice for American royalty actually offers some good golf for the people. With the addition of Newport National Golf Club in 2002, there are now a half-dozen worth-while plays within a 30 minutes of Newport's tourist haven downtown.

This isn't a Scottsdale or Myrtle Beach destination you can come back to year after year and never play the same course twice. Newport is a great place to relax by the ocean as you get your swings in.

A breakfast watching the sun rise over the water, followed by a day fighting your driver and the fickle winds is an unforgettable, uniquely Newport experience.

"With the U.S. Women's Open coming (in summer 2006), more and more people are going to find out about Newport and its golf," said Judy Cournoyer, a local 2-handicaper. "Newport's not just a place to sit by the water. You can go to the local theater, get a great meal, play some tough courses."

Newport's for the average hacker. Who would have ever thought that?

Must plays

Newport National Golf Club: Some local dedicated duffers like Joe Sousa call this 7,244-yard, Arthur Hills design "the best course in Rhode Island." That may be going a little overboard. It's no Newport Country Club, the town's 112-year-old historic and very-members-only wonder near the ocean.

But there's little doubt Newport National is one of the top courses you can play. Pulling up in the small stone-covered parking lot, having made a turn off a main throughway that's easily missed, your expectations are hardly sky high. It only takes a few holes of battling the knee-high fescue to change that.

It's easy to get lost in your game at Newport National. Not so easy to score well. The slope rating is a hair-raising 138 with greens that love to kick off shots. Of course, it will cost you $125 weekdays for the pleasure of that pain.

Green Valley Country Club: This is a fun course with par 3s that grab you, particularly the unusual back-to-back par 3s of No. 11 and 12. It doesn't throw huge elevation changes or extreme distance at you, making it a good choice for ladies and seniors who are more focused on hitting well-placed shots than proving anything.

Solid seconds

Montaup Country Club: This course dates back to 1923 and its views of Mount Hope Bridge and Narragansett Bay remain timeless. Water comes into play on several holes, right from the start on No. 1 and maybe most significantly with the Narragansett Bay itself on No. 16. Still Montaup is a fairly flat course that can yield good scores on a day when the wind's not being too temperamental.

The key to your entire round may be getting through the first three holes relatively unscathed. This par 4, par 4, par 3 start looks unimposing on the scorecard, but just may be the toughest opening stretch in Rhode Island.

Exeter Country Club: If you're looking for an old school course in a town that could still pass for 1950s America, you've found it. Exeter can go a little overboard with these touches, but hokey as it is, crossing the creaky wood covered bridge on No. 13 is still neat.

Architect Geoff Cornish put together a good combination of challenging and relaxing holes, the kind of merging that many celebrity golf architects sometimes seem to forget these days.

Be aware though that this place packs them in on the summer weekends. Your round might get lost in time as well.

Off course

Seeing how the Vanderbilts lived may be tourist trite, but it's worth experiencing. You needn't devote a whole day to go from mansion to mansion however.

Pick out a few that interest you - The Breakers, a 70-room Vanderbilt villa with a lawn that stretches to the ocean and a 50-foot high ceiling in the Great Hall is a good choice - and leave it at that. Once you've seen a few elegant 19th century mansions (at $15 per mansion), you'll be pretty much be immune to future wows in the next great house anyways.

Cutting the mansion tour short will give you plenty of time to explore the Cliff Walk. This 3½-mile path above the ocean is consistently spectacular, with crashing waves and as much as 50-foot drops. A good hike here will give you an idea of why so many fell in love with Newport in the first place.

If you at all enjoy tennis, make sure to get in a game on the grass courts at the The International Tennis Hall of Fame. Just remember your tennis whites. The Hall's right in the heart of downtown, easily walkable from most hotels.

For those without the services of one of those $50 million yachts, there are still all types of water sports available, from fishing expeditions to kayak rentals to dinner cruises. If you really want a true Newport experience, do as the locals do and fish for your own dinner right off the bridge to Goat Island.

Stay and play

The Hyatt Regency Newport ((401) 851 1234) provides one of the better combinations of modern conveniences and local charms. If you're going to be getting some business in on a Newport trip, it helps to have a hotel like this for the high-speed Internet access.

What's good about this Hyatt is that it's on Goat Island, a short walk over a bridge to downtown Newport, giving it great views of the water. Ask for a room with a balcony or porch that faces the bay.

With all that said, don't expect the same pure luxury as a Hyatt Regency in New York or Chicago. This is a smaller, renovated hotel.

If bed and breakfasts are your thing, Newport could qualify as your heaven. You cannot walk more than a block without stumbling into one. Do you research because every B & B is not created equal here.

Dining out

Despite heroic efforts to discover a gem, many of the seafood restaurants turned out to be surprisingly disappointing. If you're used to big city East Coast seafood choices, Newport is unlikely to impress.

The Brick Alley Pub & Restaurant ((401) 849-6334) does deliver on great value for good food. You can get a full-course soup, salad, bread and huge fish dish here for under $25 in a lively setting. The outdoor patio is particularly nice on a typical cool Newport night.

Avoid the Cheeky Monkey, an over-rated, much recommended, supposedly trendy spot.

Chris BaldwinChris Baldwin, Contributor

Chris Baldwin keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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