NEWPORT, R.I. -- You don't have to be from the mansion life yourself to be amazed at the palaces of the rich here. You don't have to swat the fuzzy ball like a pro to enjoy Newport's International Tennis Hall of Fame. You don't have to own a 16-meter yacht to appreciate the sailing scene. You don't have to be an ivory tickler to be moved by all the great jazz.
You just need to be here.
This wonderful town has so much to like about it. There is so much history, so much natural beauty, so much energy and salty flavor that you'd imagine they would need 10 times the space to contain it.
As it is, everything's happily jammed together, exactly like the city's old streets -- narrow, twisty roadways barely wide enough to spare the side mirrors.
The great mansions of the monstrously rich might inspire wonder. The beaches and mighty seashore vistas can lift the spirit. The maritime and fishing history so ingrained that you're sure the seagulls must be allowed to vote.
Newport is a rich mixture, a stew of attractions dealt out in both abundance and efficiency.
It brings the tourists who love New England seashore locales. It welcomes those amazed at how the "other half" lived in the enormous "cottages" on Bellevue Avenue -- gigantic mausoleums and castles that rival one another in over-the-top grandeur.
It embraces artists and art lovers alike, the craftsmen and those who love a bargain in the city's uncountable little shops. There is vast history reflected here: from the city's waterfront, from which sailed centuries of merchants and fishermen, to the Colonial Era homes, to the small and large museums collecting the oddities over a third of a millennium.
You can swim. You can stroll the astonishing Cliff Walk, where the ocean crashes in on one side and the great estates loom up like Alps of wealth on the other. There is golf. There are monuments to the Revolutionary War and so many wars since.
The International Tennis Hall of Fame and Museum is celebrating its 50th anniversary with a summer jubilee, and it's expecting 50 of the sport's greats to come to town. Before and after Newport Tennis Week (July 5 through 12) the place offers the largest tennis museum in the world. From May through September, the public can use the hall's grass courts. (See www.tennisfame.com for rates and schedules.)
It's also the 50th anniversary of the Newport Jazz Festival, George Wein's monumental carnival of music now billed as "The 2004 JVC Jazz Festival." This is one of the very best events in music and runs Aug. 11 through 15, opening with Dave Brubeck presenting a special concert, "The Gates of Justice," dedicated to the 40th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act. (See www.festivalproductions.net.)
In a community as old as Newport, 50th anniversaries can seem the equivalent of cutting baby teeth.
From 1870 to 1983 the America's Cup was held here -- reflecting more than a century of American dominance of 16-meter yachting. Separately, the Newport Yacht Club is quietly marking its 110th anniversary this month, marking the decision of its nine founders who decreed: "This Club shall be known as the Newport Yacht Club and shall have for its objective the encouragement of yachting in and around Newport."
Of course there is a Museum of Yachting, which offers classic boats including two-time America's Cup winner "Courageous." (The 25th annual Classic Yacht Regatta and Parade is scheduled for Sept. 3 through 5.)
These are rich people's sports, and Newport has never come up short on rich people. Ever. As a commercial center going back to the beginnings of the colonial era through the arrival of the industrial, banking and mercantile barons of Bellevue Avenue and vicinity, Newport has been a playground of the wealthy.
Famously, the great mansions -- summer homes of the Vanderbilts, Dukes, Astors, Morrises and Gallatins -- provide a peek at the life of the very rich and the very spoiled and the very, very self-indulgent.
I'm not rich and I've loved visiting this town for an eon and a half. One returns to it often and always finds new old things to admire and learn about.
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