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newport to point clear

Two “starter” destinations to celebrate your new start

With so much instability in the world – from job insecurity to natural disasters – lots of couples are, despite traveler’s health insurance policies, opting to delay the “big adventure” and go for a smaller, closer-to-home U.S.-friendly honeymoon; call it a “starter honeymoon.” And there are wonderful “starter spots” to spend a few days accessible in just a few hours via jet or car.

The love of water, be it oceanfront or a calming view of the Gulf, are guaranteed to help unwind and cozy up at the same time. Depending on the time of year and recreational choices, two outstanding places stateside are Newport, R.I. and Point Clear, Ala. One has the entire rocky terrain, crashing ocean, hail-and-hearty, beer-drinking old salt meets the champagne-sipping, satin slipper opulence of the gilded age. The other, the singular Grand Hotel, is a laid-back enclave. This multi-building resort has two swimming pools (one adults-only), multiple Robert Trent Jones golf courses, 550 acres beautifully planted, a sliver of beach, the option of fishing and tennis and languishing views in close proximity to a cool cocktail.

Newport is a place many New Orleanians can understand: tennis shoes (it’s the home of the International Tennis Hall of Fame), cargo shorts, summer sweaters and upscale preppy gear are de rigueur by day. At night, depending on the invite, things go from black-tie and full military honors to a good sport coat and pretty dress for dining on fare such as halibut and lobster at the famed White Horse Tavern, elegant Clarke Cook House and 22 Bowen’s Wine Bar & Grille. Any time of day is chowder time, and on a blustery day nothing tastes better than clam chowder and a schooner of dark draft beer at the famed Black Pearl on Bannister’s Wharf.

The elegant mansions of Newport, from the newly opened Rough Point – owned by the late Doris Duke – with an eccentric combo of animal sculpture and renaissance tapestries, to The William Vanderbilt’s Marble House and its Chinese tea house and the elegant Rosecliff (the setting for the movie of The Great Gatsby) a gift to the Newport Preservation Society by New Orleans’ J. Edgar Monroe family, are all a salute to a pre-income tax-era lavish living.

Then, social climbing and rivalry used gold gilt, custom-made china, lavish staff and rolling lawns easily convert to dance floors for parties as nimble foils for brinkmanship. The coup de grace is The Breakers, built by Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt and without a doubt the most lavish of all the estates. It is worth a full afternoon of gawking and should be saved for last as to not overshadow some of the more refined or elegant “cottages” as these summer homes, often used for a mere two months of the year, are called.

But it isn’t just the cottages that attract. Newport is a city of living history. Trinity Church, with its booths rather than pews, stands in the town’s center. There, in one box that, if you’re lucky, you might actually be seated in for services, is a plaque announcing that in this same booth George Washington, Prince Andrew and the Rev. Desmond Tutu all sat. The Seaman’s Church Institute, on the other hand, is a simple room attached to a library over a restaurant – the building serves as a place for actual seaman to get a hot meal, a bath and rest. Rhode Island was founded on the principle that all men should be able to worship as they wish and Touro Synagogue is the oldest synagogue in the country. It’s located down the street from St. Mary’s Church where Jacqueline Bouvier married John F. Kennedy on one of the crystalline days that define July to November. Then there are museums: The Naval War College Museum, International Yacht Restoration School Museum of Yachting at Fort Adams, Museum of Newport History. Yes, it may be the place where the U.S. lost the Americas’ Cup for the first time, but it’s still the city in which it was sailed and won the most.

Unlike Newport, where a large variety of museums, sightseeing attractions, shopping and dining are accessible by foot or bike, the Grand Hotel in Point Clear, Ala., is a huge expanse of a resort that envelops a country club. The property was originally conceived by P. H. Chamberlain in 1847 as an escape from the heat of city for Gulf Coast society. Today, the Marriott has poured money into restoring the place after Hurricane Katrina to achieve some of its former glory, and added new buildings such as the spa and the marina – which is where anyone on a honeymoon would prefer to stay.

In the main building, the hotel’s original four stone fireplaces with one chimney define entrances to the lobby, rooms on upper floors, a formal dining room and a bar where a pianist plays rustic music and where, inexplicably, both adults and children are free to roam until 10 p.m. The same child-friendly watering hole atmosphere exists on what should and would be a gracious front lawn were it not for the free-for-all seating – which could mean cocktail conversation shattered in an instant by the wail of a 5-year-old in a wet swimsuit looking for some forgotten toy.

You can flee both madhouse scenes to sit by the fire with a bottle of wine and a well-cooked burger, and some peace and quiet inside.

Fortunately, nearby there are a handful of good restaurants which, despite their Gulf Coast shabby décor, serve up quite grand food and command reservations. The Wash House is walking distance from the Grand Hotel should one feel energetic. Its pan-fried rainbow trout, rack of lamb, chateaubriand and duck breast are as fine as any served in a more haute atmosphere. Add to that a wine list where bottle prices don’t double or triple retail, and it makes for a splendid evening. Tamara’s Bar & Grill is more casual and less pricy, with a menu that ranges from burgers to fresh selection posed on a chalkboard. A favorite with the post-college set, there’s a lively bar scene and tasty food with large portions – an appetizer of Ahi tuna contained 11 slices (enough for most as an entrée). If you don’t like a rah-rah atmosphere, go around 8:30 p.m. when the party-hardy bar crowd has departed.

Nearby, the town of Fairhope has become quite trendy, in a Hampton’s-on-the-Gulf sort of way, with cute boutiques, art galleries, antique shops and a few sweet restaurants. On the other side of Point Clear is the shopper’s paradise: Tangier Outlets in Foley where treasures await at Brooks Bros., White House/Black Market, Johnston & Murphy and other such upscale brands. And if you really want to get away from it all, hit the hotel’s quiet room where saunas and steam rooms are available as well – dim lights, whirlpool baths, lounge chairs and soothing music with not a single tune from Enya.

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