Newport has one of the finest natural harbors on the east coast of the United States. In early American history, this was one of the five leading colonial ports, along with Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Charleston. Hundreds of "tall ships" lined the docks and shoreline at any given time.
Newport's role as a shipping and commercial center never recovered after British occupation during the Revolutionary War, but its maritime prominence was re-awakened in the mid-1800s, when wealthy families from New York and Philadelphia rediscovered the City-by-the-Sea and began building "summer cottages" on Bellevue Avenue and Ocean Drive. Many of these families enjoyed yachting in Newport Harbor as well.
Today, more than 1000 boats of all types and sizes are moored or docked in Newport Harbor during the summer months. On weekends, hundreds more may arrive to take advantage of deep water, consistent breezes and all the recreational diversions that present-day Newport has to offer.
Newport is frequently called the "Sailing Capital of America." Just outside the harbor, in Rhode Island Sound and Narragansett Bay, as many as 60 international and local regattas take place each year. That's in addition to the endlessly colorful array that takes place on a daily basis: from 8-foot Optimists sailed by children of all ages, to 100+ foot mega-yachts sailed by dozens of professional crew members. For more than fifty years, from 1930-1983, Newport hosted the America's Cup.
The most prominent landmark of Newport Harbor may be Fort Adams. The stone pentagonal structure, built following the War of 1812, has never "fired a shot" militarily, but it is the site of many ongoing cultural events such as the Newport Jazz and Newport Folk Festivals. Fort Adams was also the land-base and viewing venue for the 2012 America's Cup World Series.
Other historic landmarks on the harbor are the Ida Lewis and the New York Yacht Clubs, at the southern end of main harbor. The Newport Yacht Club is at the northern end, on Long Wharf. A noteworthy statue of General Rochambeau, with his finger seemingly pointing the way across the harbor to downtown, stands at King Park, site of many outdoor concerts and a fine spot to picnic or just to sit on a bench contemplating the panorama of harbor, boats, bridge and bay.
Newport Harbor is defined and protected on its west side by Goat Island. Originally, as the name suggests, this is where farmers ferried their animals to graze. For many years following the Revolutionary War, Goat Island was used for military purposes; it was the site of a torpedo-manufacturing facility during World War II. in the mid-1960s, the island was connected to the City of Newport by a causeway. At the base of the Goat Island causeway lies Newport Shipyard, where yachts venture from all over the world to have "work done" and to partake of the pleasures of Newport.
There are many ways to explore Newport Harbor, by land or by sea:
• The Newport Harbor Walk (marked by blue and white street signs) weaves along the waterfront for approximately four miles from Battery Park, near the Newport Bridge, to King Park and the statue of Rochambeau at the opposite end.
• Harbor tours aboard Coast Guard-approved vessels such as the sailing schooner Madeleine and vintage power yacht Rumrunner II depart several times daily from Bannister's Wharf.
• Sailboat rentals for experienced sailors are available at Sail Newport, Rhode Island's public sailing center at Fort Adams.