I am working my way through a bowl of clam chowder under the low, age-darkened beams of the White Horse Tavern. I have shopping bags at my feet, my Christmas list on the table. A fire warms the room. Every stool at the bar is taken. I’m tempted to linger in this snug, nearly 350-year-old pub, and to mark my last day here in Newport, Rhode Island, with a Dark ’n’ Stormy as a nod to the town’s rum-running roots. But that would make me late for an afternoon screening of It’s a Wonderful Life. And the fact is I’m already way overdue; I’ve never seen the classic holiday film.
Wind sweeps up from the harbor and rattles the boughs of bare elms as I cross Washington Square, the trapezoidal centerpiece of downtown Newport, to the Jane Pickens Theater. The restored Greek Revival movie house, built as a church in 1834 and converted into a theater in the silent-film era, has a vintage marquee, an old-school glassed-in ticket booth, and—what’s this?—a cocktail bar behind the lobby candy counter. I bring a drink into the packed house, find a seat, and wait for the lights to dim.
Bowen’s Wharf is a magnet for visitors year-round, but during the holidays it also hosts a number of Christmas in Newport events, including the annual tree lighting. / Erin McGinn
A wintry day hasn’t dimmed the appeal of the Black Pearl, a popular dining spot on Bannister’s Wharf. / Erin McGinn
I’d spent a mid-December weekend bouncing around this historic seaport town so deeply associated with summer pleasures—boats, beaches, opulent oceanfront “cottages”—and discovered that it throws itself into the holiday season with equal gusto. The monthlong Christmas in Newport festival, produced by more than 1,500 volunteers, jams the calendar with tours, concerts, craft fairs, and other events that are either free or raise money for local charities. Since its inception in 1971, organizers have also created, to great effect, a kind of dress code for the community by asking that only clear bulbs be used in holiday displays. When those lights come on in the blue-violet twilight, outlining everything from windowpanes to wharf posts, Newport feels twinkly and enchanted—like one of those ceramic tabletop holiday villages come to life.
I felt that magic as I walked on Bannister’s and Bowen’s wharves, where chowder houses, bars, shops, and galleries—all aglow, all busy—occupy what were once colonial-era chandleries and sail lofts. And I felt it when I left that bustle behind and went alone to the end of a long dock where a single lit tree sent its simple good tidings out across the harbor chop.
An elegantly restored colonial mansion, the Francis Malbone House is an award-winning Newport B&B that decks its halls in style.
I’d missed the season-opening illuminated boat parade and the roving retail block party that is the Holiday Stroll, but I’d checked in at the Francis Malbone House—a cream-colored brick mansion built in 1760 for a wealthy shipping merchant on harbor-hugging Thames Street—just in time to hear the results of the townwide doorway decoration contest.
“We won,” said Will Dewey, the inn’s soft-spoken owner, as he helped me bring my bags through a front entrance framed with long-needle pine garlands and berry-and-cone-garnished swag. “Just found out. The grand prize.”
The interiors seemed equally award-worthy. In the elegant, wainscoted parlors off the broad central hall, Dewey and his staff had decked the mantels, tables, and sills with umbrella pine boughs, gilded magnolia leaves, poinsettias, wrapped boxes, candles, and fruit-studded miniature trees. Afternoon tea was under way in one of the common rooms. The spread—chicken velouté, grilled pizza, artichoke crab dip, cheddar scones, maple chocolate chip Bundt cake, Linzer cookies, apricot biscotti, and more—covered a large dining table.
“I tell guests to make late dinner reservations,” Dewey said with a laugh when I commented on the abundance of food. “I think some people don’t go out to dinner at all.”
I would have filled a plate and parked myself in a wing chair by one of the blazing fireplaces, but I’d made plans to join a group walking tour that was setting off soon from the Museum of Newport History at the foot of Washington Square.
A Newport Historical Society guide leads the way on a holiday lantern walking tour. / Erin McGinn
See full story on Yankee Magazine's site, newengland.com.
Holiday Events in Newport, Rhode Island
Holiday Lantern Tours
Nov. 22–Dec. 28
The savvy guides of the Newport Historical Society light the way during this stroll through Newport’s Christmas past. Offered Friday and Saturday afternoons. 401-841-8770; newporthistorytours.org
Christmas at the Newport Mansions
Nov. 23–Jan. 1
Like grand dames dripping with jewels, three famed Newport mansions—the Breakers, the Elms, and Marble House—are dressed to dazzle in 30 Christmas trees and a constellation of ornaments. 401-847-1000; newportmansions.org
The Newport Nutcracker
Nov. 27, 29, and 30; Dec. 1 and 3–6
This nearly two-decade local tradition immerses ballet fans in the story of Clara and her Nutcracker Prince as it unfolds throughout the historic Rosecliff mansion. 401-847-4470; islandmovingco.org
Bowen’s Wharf Holiday Block Party and Boat Parade
The waterfront becomes a winter wonderland filled with live music, special deals at local shops, and boats glittering with lights from stem to stern. bowenswharf.com/events
Christmas in Newport
From concerts and craft fairs to New England’s largest gingerbread lighthouse, it’s nonstop merrymaking all month long with a slate of 70-plus holiday activities that are free or benefit a charity. christmasinnewport.org
Bowen’s Wharf Tree Lighting
Frosty the Snowman and a Christmas carol sing-along set the stage for Mayor Jamie Bova’s lighting the wharf’s 30-foot tree, immediately followed by the arrival of Santa and Mrs. Claus by boat. bowenswharf.com/events