Situated on an island in Narragansett Bay, Newport, Rhode Island, has been attracting visitors to its sheltered harbors and picturesque cliffs since the Gilded Age. The wealthiest residents furnished their lavish Rhode Island mansions with imported marble, fine wood and polished crystal. They gave dinner parties for pets and draped their slumbering horses in satin sheets. They ate off solid gold dishes under glittering Baccarat chandeliers.

The great summer palaces of the Vanderbilts and Astors remain as inviting today as they were more than a century ago—only now you don't have to be among society's New York 400 to get in. Anyone willing to pay the price of admission can enter these "cottages," as the robber barons called their seasonal homes, or tour any of Newport's remarkable collection of impeccably preserved colonial-era buildings.

So take time to appreciate the city's architectural riches, but don't forget to enjoy the things that lured the high-society types to Newport in the first place: ocean breezes, sandy beaches, sumptuous seafood and picturesque lighthouses that dot the rocky New England coastline.

From its rough-and-tumble stint as a Navy town from the 1950s through the early '70s, the redeveloped Newport waterfront has grown into a sophisticated shopping and dining mecca. Today, Newport is a magnet for summer visitors seeking relaxation and recreation as well as a year-round escape for romantics looking for a getaway in a seaside city that boasts of having more bed-and-breakfasts per capita than anywhere else in the U.S.

Although Newport has not hosted the America's Cup yachting race since 1983, the city has not forgotten its nautical roots: It remains a port of call for weekend sailors and giant cruise ships alike, and the downtown wharves are the best place in Rhode Island for chartering a boat or joining a tour group to explore the wonders of Narragansett Bay.

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