‘Shall I take your bags and park your car, Mr Smith?’
‘Champagne as you check in, Mrs Smith?’
This Newport mini-manse, where Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt wooed his mistress, seduces us from first glance. Tucked quietly on a narrow cobblestone alley off Thames Street, Vanderbilt Grace is just a short stroll from the legendary Cliff Walk and the storied Gilded Age abodes where Newport’s most blue-blooded WASPs summered. We head in the other direction and find a parade of couples in khaki pants, boat shoes, and North Face vests (most with baby strollers, golden retrievers and foamy espresso drinks) watching ice-carving demonstrations and twirling around the ice rink. For these reviewers, it is the Winter Festival, after all.
Yet inside Vanderbilt Grace, a whisper of 1920s illicit romance hangs in the air. Lovely lasses flirt from framed paintings in a dignified, New England way. An extended leg here. A lustful glance there. The spattering of Rubenesque gals turning the proverbial other cheek is the only hint that something tawdry could transpire within these Rhode Island walls. In the centre of the demure fracas is one peacefully slobbering English bulldog.
Up in our suite, Mr Smith makes a beeline for the spa-style shower. Moments later, a serenade of ‘Heaven, I’m in heaven...’ drifts out with a cloud of Penhaligon’s-perfumed shower steam. I, meanwhile, dive into literature detailing the hotel’s history, then prepare for dinner.
The in-house restaurant, Muse, helmed by group chef de cuisine Jonathan Cartwright, is one of the hottest tickets in town. Our early-bird reservation means that we easily snag our choice table: a cosy two-top beside the crackling fireplace. The room is as traditional can be – think colonial-blue walls, a woman playing a selection from Phantom of the Opera on a baby grand piano, an intimate corner bar – yet, the room does have an inner vixen. Black chandeliers made from a delicate glass-plastic hybrid look like illuminated, fashion-forward tumbleweeds. Portraits of chanteuses past give come-hither looks from every corner.
‘Champagne to begin, Mrs Smith?’ I help myself to a flute as a parade of servers floats from kitchen to table offering irresistible morsels of freshly baked onion focaccia to begin our meal.
Muse offers a four-course tasting menu – with an optional wine pairing, of course – and enough additional treats along the way that Mr Smith estimates we’ve had four dinner courses and four desserts by the time we throw in our napkins. I could very well have a future as a Newport doyenne: my order of grapefruit-accented scallops and a fillet of halibut with lobster mirrors a nobly dressed gentlewoman nearby. Mr Smith’s salmon-stuffed ravioli are too dainty for his manly appetite, but the restaurant reclaims his affections with an entrée of a whole lobster over perfectly tender fettuccini. Our desserts – flourless chocolate cake for me, white chocolate soufflé for Mr Smith – are capped with a plate of truffles and a finale of chocolate-raspberry muffins.
Nearly sated, we retire to the Christy room, Vanderbilt Grace’s Beaux-Arts lounge, for a nightcap. The name Elise is emblazoned in gold over the fireplace. I enquire an explanation of the pinstriped butler passing through, and we learn that she was the mistress of Howard Chandler Christy, painter of all the portraits in the room. He directs our attention to a particularly fetching and preppy brunette in the corner. I giggle over the similarities. The literature in our room says Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt’s lady love was Ellen ‘Elsie’ French – but he famously stepped out on her with a buxom, married Cuban actress. Elsie caused uproar by filing for divorce – something not done in early 1900s Newport, though evidence suggests she too was a bit of minx. With visions of concubines in our heads, we retire to our suite where some gingered flower petals tempt from the bedside and a demure teddy-bear-wrapped hot water bottle has kindly warmed our king-size bed for our arrival.
The next morning we make our way to the conservatory for a robust buffet breakfast, and take a seat beneath The Flirt, a teasing little portrait by Edward Franklin Wittmack. ‘Champagne with your breakfast?’ Well, why not? Our most pressing plans for the afternoon include a couple’s massage in the downstairs spa and perhaps a game of snooker in the billiards room. We feast until we’re pleasant flushed, then head down to the spa.
But as soon as the elevator doors open, there’s a sobering splash-a-thon raging in Vanderbilt Grace’s indoor pool. A team of raucous tots has claimed this territory while their poor papa bobs in the deep end and one lone yellow rubber ducky stands sentry on the deck. Mr Smith and I sprint past into the sanctuary of the couple’s suite, where we cosy up by the fireplace for a game of tic-tac-toe on a teak-and-brass game board. And of course there are more bubbles.
An hour later we emerge completely smitten with Vanderbilt Grace in this neo-New England. We’ve been wined and dined, caressed and pampered to our best possible selves. ‘Shall I take your bags to the car, Mr Smith?’ asks Jeffrey, the friendly porter who has been attentive at every turn. ‘Maybe after one last splash of champagne,’ replies Mr Smith.