So as I mentioned before, we went to the ocean state. A lot of stuff happened, but I’ll just summarize a few points, as an excuse to post some photos.
First off, we stayed at The Cliffside Inn, right off Newport’s Cliff Walk. We didn’t see too much of the Cliff Walk directly (my ankle was trashed, so we only did maybe a the northernmost mile of it), but it is not a bad little walk. When busy in the summer, I think it would be maddening, however.
Let me step back. Newport in general, would be maddening when busy in the summer. The restaurants were busy and parking was a chore — and it’s still considered the winter.
In any event, we stayed at the bed and breakfast, and it was fine. The “LCD DVD Entertainment System” was a little 14" screen, which was a little different than my expectations, but then that wasn’t the point. The “Two Person Shower” didn’t have enough water pressure to power even one shower head. The whirlpool tub was fine … it wasn’t designed to seat two, but it worked well enough.
One of the things they are so excited about is their tea service, where they bring out a bunch of pastries and serve their rather decent (if easily accessible) tea blend, and then a whole bunch of house guests sit around staring at each other uncomfortably.
Let me digress. I like the idea of a bed and breakfast, but sitting around at breakfast while a bunch of people dick swing and try and pretend they’re important “wha wha wha I’m an insurance adjuster, wha wha wha I’m in IT, but I’m not a geek, I’m an interface to the lawyers, wha wha wha I’m an investment banker…” Who the fuck cares? This is supposed to be a vacation from these schmucks. I think, when and if I’m involved in a bed and breakfast, I’ll have more options than 10-person tables, so people can actually avoid the self-important assholes who seem to frequent these places, and just enjoy a peaceful breakfast by themselves. Maybe it’s just Newport, I don’t know. I don’t remember this in Snow Mountain or Kent. “What do you do?” should just be removed from our language.
Anyhow, the tea service was fine. The pastries were all unexciting, the hosts constantly coming into to change the plates around was irritating because there was no subtlety, and the cramped room with nobody talking just made the whole thing a bit of a wash. The second day I just grabbed a doggie bag and brought the stuff up to our room. The same was true for the breakfast — nothing special.
Ok, so I have to talk about the staff. They were not the old genial people who also live in the same house and move along at their own pace, and have a sense of warmth. They were freaking weird. The hosts were just like normal hotel staff, except they had a hard time balancing their mechanical professionalism with trying to create some sort of homey warmth. Even weirder, however, were the hired staff to do breakfast (it’s not an owner/cooker arrangement, they bring somebody else in to do it). When they first meet you, they shake your hands at the table and introduce themselves. When you are leaving breakfast the last day, they stop you in the stairwell, start shaking your hands (and don’t let go; I hate it when people do that), and remind you of their name, how much they enjoyed having you, hoping you enjoyed your time, and begging you to write nice things about them on the comment card and leave a generous tip.
I’ve been reading Paul Theroux’s Dark Star Safari, and in it he discusses how tips are really a form of travel tax, and laments the idea of people just doing what they are paid to do without demanding something special as part of their normal efforts. I found myself feeling the same way. I have nothing against the idea of tipping at restaurants, and until there’s some protection for wait staff such that they receive a working wage, I’m not going to try to make a point by shafting them. In fact, I like the idea of performance-based compensation for wait staff, except that nobody gets it anymore. I have no problem with 15-20% for good service. I have a huge problem with the expectation that I still tip 15-20% for exceptionally bad service — if you tell me that I’m paying that surcharge over the cost of my meal for my service, and I don’t get any service, I want my money back!
This entry is just full of digressions, but like Theroux, I find it most offensive the way people assault you with service and pressure for tips. The best service is the service that you never notice but takes care of everything — your water is full, but you never see the pitcher go by. Your drinks are re-filled and a quick nod (as the service should always be there when you look for it) is all that is necessary to refresh a cocktail. Your dishes disappear without your notice when you’ve finished, and each course of your meal arrives at the appropriate time, and it should be apparent it hasn’t been sitting under the hot lamp since your bread basket arrived.
Of course, service like this isn’t profitable, because your average dick doesn’t appreciate it, so he needs to be assaulted and guilted into forking out the good money.
At the end of the day, the inn is just a hotel that looks like an inn, and doesn’t have any of the charm, character, and personality that makes you want to go back. It’s just a commercial operation, complete with merchandising, gift certificates, and the like, and at the end of the day this just becomes disconcerting to me. I would never return to a Legendary Newport Inn, even if three dozen travel and culture magazines think it’s the cat’s meow.
So one of the big attractions of Newport are the various mansion tours. We saw most of the mansions from the outside (The Marble House and The Breakers are mind-boggling), but only had time to hit one indoors. Pictures aren’t allowed indoors, so about all I have from that are the snowdrops above. Sarah was impressed as we drove by Belcourt Castle so we made our stop there. This ended up being interesting, since Belcourt was built to turn its back on all of the neuvo riche in Newport by exposing its back doors to the road. Better yet, the original owner built the mansion for his horses — the entire first floor was for them, with amenities better than many homes for humans at the time. The construction was very modern (steel beams to support column-less coach boarding areas, and plaster finishes that looked like wood/marble/etc., for example) for its time. Finally, the guy was a genius. He had rooms for 30 servants, one master bedroom, and no guest rooms whatsoever — he wanted nothing to do with entertaining house guests. Everything was terribly masculine, and then seeing how the subsequent owners shaped this over time was very interesting. Because it isn’t as glamorous and flashy as some, we managed to have a completely private tour guide for about an hour and a half. He was an odd duck, but could answer all of our questions, which was nice.
The reason why we didn’t have as much time to do mansions is we went on a seal watch with Save The Bay. We took a boat out with a bunch of rambunctious kids and their guardians to see some seals in Narragansett Bay. A kayaker scared most of them away (while the seals are used to the daily approach and distant circling of their haul-up points by big diesels, two guys in a kayak heading straight towards their (not to mention violating federal laws in the process) island scare them quite a bit). Just the same, we got to see them popping up for air quite a bit, and saw one haul up on a rock towards the end. Lots of fun, though only available in the winter for obvious reasons … on our warm day (meaning 40 degrees F), it was still pretty damn cold with the breeze and drafts on the boat.
All told, we really enjoyed Newport — it’s a nice place. Lots of interesting places to eat, tons of little shops to visit. You can walk about four miles in a line without running out of places to duck into for crafts, bites to eat, souvenirs, antiques, and the like.