Newport, Done Right

There's no better summer cruising ground in America than the waters off Rhode Island.

Gaze out over the harbor on any summer day in Newport, R.I., and the comings and goings of yachts on the sunlit waters form a maritime tableau framed by the Newport Bridge. In the harbor, superyachts, fishing trawlers, state-of-the-art racers and classic ketches share historic wharfs and a maze of moorings. As diverse as those craft are, so too are the possibilities for enjoying this quintessential New England town and outlying islands, easily one of America's top cruising grounds. On any summer's day, you can join in a raucous regatta party or escape to the solitude of rock-enshrouded coves off Jamestown, where the cries of gulls and the sound of waves lapping at the shore are the only things you hear.

I first glimpsed Newport-where I ended up living for some 10 years-from the deck of a stylish motor launch. Cocktails in hand, we made a leisurely circuit around the waterfront, taking in the scenes and sounds on a summer evening. As the fading rays of the sun crept across Goat Island and gave way to the glitter of harbor lights before us, visions of the grandeur of Newport in the heyday of the Astors, Dukes and Vanderbilts came easily to mind.

After nearly a decade's absence, I returned to Newport last summer. The familiar trappings of the harbor scene were comforting-proud steeples standing sentry over cozy shops and colonial homes, and every manner of vessel filling the wharves. But the mien of the harbor had changed. Adjacent the causeway to Goat Island, at Newport Shipyard, a crowd of megayachts populated the docks. Here, where gray industrial vessels once berthed, a swift-seeming giantess caught my eye, her royal blue hull and contemporary superstructure gleaming above the rest. Emblazoned on her broad transom in gold lettering was the name Argyll.

An acquaintance and charter broker with Bartram & Brakenhoff, Pila Pexton offered the details behind this superlative yacht. At 153 feet, Argyll accommodates up to 10 guests, with one very fortunate couple lodging in the 2,400-square-foot master suite, replete with his and her baths, a library, a fireplace and a private deck with its own Jacuzzi and bar. An elevator serves each of the four decks and the yacht carries 10 crew, sufficient to pamper even the most demanding client.

There's no better way to enjoy Newport and its coastal realm, affirmed Pexton, than a week's charter aboard a yacht like this. It didn't take much prompting to imagine such a scenario.

I could see my party arriving dockside as Argyll's captain, Robert Corcoran, and several of his crew welcomed us with champagne and hors d'oeuvres. We'd acquaint ourselves with the inviting staterooms-each with its Ralph Lauren dÈcor-and then indulge in a light lunch of local bluefish on the afterdeck. A limousine, standing by on shore, would then speed us off to The Breakers for a private tour of this 70-room Italianate palazzo-a fitting emblem of Newport's 19th-century elegance. And then, before we knew it, we'd be back aboard Argyll, readying ourselves for a special evening.

Thanks to Capt. Corcoran's connections, we'd enjoy cocktails at Harbour Court, the New York Yacht Club's superb waterfront manse that stands atop a rise at the south end of the harbor. Lingering there on the long terrace, we'd savor our libations along with a sensational view of Newport's harbor as the setting sun painted the horizon a spectrum of violet and crimson. We'd stand in silence at the club as colors were struck, then stroll down to the harbor and step aboard the tender for our ride back to Argyll, which had been moved to Bannister's Wharf in the interim. Via elevator, we'd rise through the decks and assemble in the intimacy of the yacht's mahogany paneled dining room where Argyll's creative chef, Russell King, would unveil a five-course repast based on local delicacies of the sea.

To cap off the celebration, Capt. Corcoran would shepherd our party up the dock to the famed 18th-century Clarke Cooke House, with arrangements in place for everyone to ascend to the exclusive Skybar on the third floor. Heads would turn and stare as the maitre d' ushered us up the stairs and past the velvet rope. There, under the stars and awnings, we'd cavort to the strains of a rhythm and blues ensemble, culminating our first night on charter in perfect fashion.

Pleasant days and nights on the water would ensue, the kind that I remember so well from past cruises. In the morning, we would inhale the heavy morning fog as we glided past the 116-year-old granite lighthouse at Castle Hill, en route to Block Island. Commercial fishing boats laden with their catch would stream by, each towing a cacophonous cloud of seabirds. By midmorning, the mist would dissipate and sparkling wavelets would lap at the vessel's sheerline as we cruised through the narrow entrance to Block Island's Great Salt Pond. With the sun glinting off the surrounding houses and hillsides, I'd inhale the scent of freshly baked croissants, bagels and pastries emanating from Aldo's runabout as the baker made his customary rounds from yacht to yacht.

Or perhaps we'd head for Martha's Vineyard and downshift to the relaxed timetable that governs life here, rediscovering the island's charms by sampling the shops in historic Edgartown, bicycling the winding roads of Chilmark or kayaking across scenic Katama Bay. On a given day, we'd moor stern-to in Nantucket and stake out a corner of the bar at Straight Wharf. On another, we'd buck the fierce currents of Wood's Hole and relish a perfect onboard lunch in the beauty of Hadley's Harbor, followed by a quick swim and a long soak in the top-deck Jacuzzi. For the final eve of our trip, the crew would create an elegant tented pavilion on the shore at a secret spot the captain knows of, a private beach somewhere near Westport. We'd take the tender ashore to dine in resplendent fashion, albeit barefoot, and enjoy live music and a show of fireworks shot from the yacht. It's been done before.

That's when a thought crept in to interrupt my reverie. Despite all of those comforts, all those delightful destinations and the many memories to savor, I realized we would really just be scratching the surface of this area. Throw in another week, another yacht perhaps, and we could do it all again without any duplication, perhaps heading south from Newport to Sag Harbor and Long Island Sound. It's good to know, I thought to myself on the trip back across the harbor, that there's always next summer.

Local Knowledge

The Best Place To Tie Up

The Newport Shipyard puts you right in the heart of the harbor with more privacy here than at any other marina. You drive right up to the yacht and don't have to endure the hassle of downtown Newport parking. Bannister's Wharf, just across the harbor, will put you in the thick of the action, just off Thames St. In Nantucket, try to reserve a berth at Old North Wharf adjacent the Nantucket Boat Basin. It offers ready access to cobblestoned Main St., yet sufficient insulation from the hubbub to enjoy a quiet dinner on deck. Newport Shipyard, (401) 846-6000, www.newportshipyard.com; Old North Wharf, (508) 228-6071

Quiet Anchorages

Hadley's Harbor on Naushon Island is scenic and secure, but too well known to offer seclusion. Instead, direct the yacht west past Block Island to Fisher's Island at the entrance of Long Island Sound. This island is private, which means no tourists and plenty of beautifully maintained old family compounds, but you can still use the town dock and walk around.

Top Tables in Town

In Newport, sample one of the country's top-rated menus at the Spiced Pear overlooking Easton's Beach. The dÈcor may be over the top, but the cuisine is unsurpassed, and dining on the elegant terrace here is as close as you can come to feeling like you're in the CÙte d'Azur. On Nantucket, start your repast at The Pearl with a green apple martini, and luxuriate in the delectable courses before being tempted by the exotic desserts that feature fare from Thailand, Japan and Vietnam. Spiced Pear, (401) 847-2244, www.spicedpear.com; The Pearl, (508) 228-9701, www.boardinghouse-pearl.com

Events Not to Miss

Watch giant sailing yachts compete for the Newport Bucket, a regatta exclusively for megayachts (Aug. 11-13). Newport's famed JVC Jazz Festival, with headliners like Herbie Hancock and Joao Gilberto, will transport you (Aug. 11-13). Or take in the classic beauties that race each year at the Opera House Cup on Nantucket (Aug.19-20). To escape the masses, book for late September when the water is still warm, but fewer vessels populate the coast. -D.D.