Two Newport Mansion Tours To Take With Kids: Rough Point Mansion and The Breakers

Two Newport Mansion Tours To Take With Kids: Rough Point Mansion and The Breakers

To paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, the super rich are different from you and me — they keep camels in the conservatory and have playhouses for their children that are bigger than the average American home.

There really were live camels kept at the Doris Duke house, Rough Point in Newport Rhode Island.  Born as the only child of a tobacco tycoon in 1912, Doris Duke was designated as ‘the richest little girl in the world’ by the press. .Likewise, the Vanderbilt family were the richest family in the USA in the late 19th century. Visiting their Newport mansion on a guided Breakers tour really just highlights what a rarefied world the Vanderbilt lived in.

Being a millionaire in an era when the world was not full of billionaires meant Doris Duke and the Vanderbilts had the freedom to do exactly as they pleased. And, they certainly did.

Newport attractions | Newport R.I. with kids

The main summer cottage of the Vanderbilts, The Breakers

The Mansions of Newport

Taking Gilded Age Newport mansion tours is an obligatory experience when visiting this Rhode Island town.  The American elite at the turn of the 20th Century flocked to Newport for their summer holidays. The mansions are just so surreal in their obvious display of wealth, magnificence and occasional lapse of good taste.

There are several Newport mansion tours each with their own take on this historic slice of American social history.  With children in tow though, we had to limit our choices down to two Newport mansion. So we visited one Vanderbilt house (the Breakers tour) and Doris Duke’s mansion in Newport.

Rough Point Newport Rhode Island

Rought Point in Newport Rhode Island  was built by a member of the Vanderbilt family (Frederick).  If you think a lot of Newport mansions were Vanderbilt cast-offs, it is probably because they were a large family.  For example, Frederick was one of 8 siblings and his older brother built The Breakers.  When Frederick tired of Rough Point, he sold it to a tin mine mogul who sold it eventually to the Dukes.

The Doris Duke Legacy at Rough Point Mansion in Newport Rhode Island USA

Doris Duke was an eccentric heiress who left her treasures to be exhibited at Rough Point, her Newport mansion

The Breakers Tour

Among the most popular of the Newport Mansion tours, we also visited The Breakers. The grandest of these summer cottages, the Breakers Vanderbilt house seems to be one of the obligatory mansions that everyone visits.   One of America’s great industrialist families, the Vanderbilt were not only huge in numbers but also rulers of American high society.

Fun Fact!  450,000 people visit the Breakers every year!

This Cornelius Vanderbilt house was constructed in 1893 at a cost of more than $300 million in today’s money.  Built in the Italian Renaissance style, the house is a cold marble mausoleum which is the furthest thing I can think of from today’s idea of a summer home.

The Breakers even comes with its own (relatively) apint-sized replica which served as a playhouse for the Vanderbilt kids.

Fun Fact!  The playhouse is actually about 2400 s.f. which is about the size of the average American home! Needless to say, my kids were super-impressed.


The Breakers, Vanderbilt Rhode Island mansion

The Vanderbilt children’s playhouse was itself 2000 s.f. in size! That’s the size of many family homes!

Poor Little Rich Girl

On the Breakers Tour, my daughter was fascinated with the room in which Consuelo Vanderbilt was locked until she agreed to marry the future Duke of Marlborough in 1895.  Consuelo’s mother, Alva Vanderbilt, took no prisoners in securing the family’s social position.

Newport Rhode Island Mansions

The imposing Breakers = gilded cage for the Gilded Age?

Consuela Vanderbilt was locked in her bedroom by her mother until she agreed to marry the future 9th Duke of Marlborough. It’s a safe bet that Mama Vanderbilt was as cold as the marble that encased the Breakers Vanderbilt home. Consuelo wrote her sad story down in her 1950’s autobiography, The Glitter and The Gold.

Consuela’s sister-in-law was another American heiress, Jennie Jerome, who became the mother of Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of Britain during World War II.  Until Consuelo produced an heir and a spare, Jennie’s sons would have been heir to the dukedom and you can bet Alva was not best pleased.

Fun Fact!  Descendants of the original Vanderbilts still summer at the house on the 3rd floor which remains private.
For a fictionalised account of an American Gilded Age Princess who marries an impoverished British Duke, check out The American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin.
The Breakers, Vanderbilt Rhode Island mansion

The Vanderbilt children’s playhouse was itself 2000 s.f. in size! That’s the size of many family homes!

Doris Duke Newport RI

Conventional wisdom say money doesn’t make you happy and the politically correct response is to agree with this sentiment.  On the other hand, money gives you plenty of leeway to be as eccentric as you want.

Another Poor Little Rich Girl

Doris was 12 when she inherited Rough Point (and $80 million) upon the death of her father in 1925.  The family money had come from tobacco plantations which her grandfather had scooped up during the chaos that ended the American Civil War. The Dukes lived large but were also generous with charitable donations. The family gave a sizeable donation to a little college in North Carolina which renamed itself Duke University, still one of the foremost universities in the United States today.

Scandal-Ridden Life

The public though were fascinated with the scandals that Doris created.  She was married three times but also had a child out of wedlock who unfortunately died.  She travelled the world, met with mystics and witch doctors, and fell under the thrall of her butler.

Doris notoriously ran her car over her interior designer of Rough Point and killed him. Perhaps he disagreed with her flamboyant choice of mother-of-pearl, purple and yellow for the master bedroom suite? Although the police deemed it an accident, she reached a financial settlement with his family in court.  The rumour millsreported that she had been drunk.

The Suspicious Butler

Doris died in 1993 from complications from a facelift she had.  She was choking on breakfast and the butler refused to call an ambulance.  Doris left the butler control over her entire fortune (approximately $1.2 billion) which lead to a court case.  The butler lost the rights to her fortune but the court couldn’t find evidence Doris was murdered.

You Can’t Take It With You

Rough Point was opened to the public in 2000 as a museum upon Doris’ death.

Much of the rest of Doris Duke’s money went to her relative, a heroin addict, who had twin children he treated like slaves and locked in a basement. Thank goodness there is plenty of money still left for good therapy for those children.

Rough Point Mansion

Rough Point was built in the style of an English country house in the late 19th century and named after a promontory on the cliffs it overlooked.  When the Dukes purchased the house, they enlarged the outside and modified the interior.  Rough Point has 115 rooms so there are plenty of spare bedrooms.

The Doris Duke Legacy at Rough Point Mansion in Newport Rhode Island

Rough Point, built to resemble an English Manor house, has 115 rooms.

Doris Duke Mansion Tour

The Doris Duke mansion tour itself was a great experience because they are lead by tour guides. Our guide was great with our children (keeping them engaged with look and find questions).  There’s plenty of details for the kids to search for.  She was also a knowledgeable source of information for the adults.

Doris was a shrewd businesswoman and managed to increase massively the inheritance her father left her. She used some of that money acquiring fabulous art and antiques for the home, much of which is still available to view now at the Doris Duke house in Newport  Among the many treasures are paintings by Renoir, van Dyck and Gainsborough, Belgian tapestries and Chinese porcelain.

It seems that Americans have long been fascinated with importing crumbling European architecture  to the USA.

The grand staircase was imported in whole from an English manor house and installed at Rough Point. The stained glass depicts the coats of arms of the signers of the Magna Carta.  Likewise, the wood panelled rooms had the panelling imported from an English manor house which was being stripped. One such room is the Great Hall which is effectively used as an art gallery.

The conservatory was supposed to have been Doris’ favourite room. The conservatory has fabulous views over Doris Duke estate  to the Atlantic Ocean.

The gardens were laid out by Frederick Law Olmstead, the renowned landscape architect famous for designing Central Park in New York City.

The Doris Duke Legacy at Rough Point Mansion in Newport Rhode Island

The gardens at Rough Point were laid out by Olmstead the same architect who designed Central Park in New York City.

Doris Duke and her Camels

So, why were there camels at the Doris Duke house in Newport?

Doris purchased planes from Adnan Kashoggi (Saudi Arabian business man and international arms dealer) and insisted 2 camels be thrown in as well.  She got the planes but not the camels.

What’s an eccentric heiress to do?  She went and bought her own 2 camels and billed Kashoggi for their cost.

The camels travelled in a horse trailer up from her New Jersey mansion to summer in Doris Duke’s Newport mansion.

Doris Duke kept her camels, named Baby and Princess,  sheltered in the conservatory of Rough Point during a hurricane in 1991.  The rest of the time they had their own sheltered tent just outside the conservatory.   A little window in the room (a “camel port”) let people feed them treats.

Fun Fact!  The camels were infamous for chasing the security guards around the grounds for the occasional bite.


The Doris Duke Legacy at Rough Point Mansion in Newport Rhode Island

Camel topiaries in honour of Doris Duke’s beloved pet camels.

The camel topiaries no doubt keep the spirit of Princess and Baby at the house (and the security guards on their toes).

Visiting Rough Point Mansion and The Breakers

Rough Point on the famous Bellevue Avenue is definitely worth seeing. It provides a counterpoint to The Breakers Vanderbilt extravaganza. The Vanderbilts may not have liked it, but there were other rich people in the USA!

Newport Mansion Tours

The Doris Duke Mansion tours are limited to 12 people at a time and are available from May to November. Mercifully, there is no gift shop you have to drag the children out of because Doris though gift shops were tacky (yay!).

The Breakers is open daily from May to March annually except Thanksgiving and Christmas Day.  For the summer of 2018, a Welcome Center was opened at The Breakers. In addition to the main house tour, you can sign up for a Beneath the Breakers Tour which explores the life of the servants who kept this grand mansion humming.

Visiting from Boston?  Take a day trip to visit Newport and take two Newport mansion tours

Newport Mansion Tours Through Viator 

Where To Stay in Newport RI

The hotel where we stayed, the Grace Vanderbilt , was also another Vanderbilt mansion the family discarded. After all, no visit to Newport would be complete without some tangential Vanderbilt connection.

Check out the excellent reviews for the Grace Vanderbilt on TripAdvisor!

For the latest rates for the Grace Vanderbilt, here are a selection of travel booking sites: Expedia

Tips for A Family Taking Newport Mansion Tours

Newport Rhode Island is known for its Gilded Age summer cottages. There are several ways though to make a Newport mansion tour fun for kids.

Limit Your Newport Mansion Tours

There are so many Newport mansion tours and you should choose just a couple of mansions.  The mansions themselves are massive with lots of art and objects d’art and so not the easiest of topics to engage children.

We stuck with just two Newport mansion Tours:

      • First, The Breakers because it seemed an obligatory Newport mansion tour and it had the ginormous children’s playhouse.
      • We also went to the Doris-Duke house because it was a non-Vanderbilt mansion and we thought the kids would like the camels connection.

Take the Newport Trolley

Take the Newport Trolley to Bellevue Avenue because that is very cute and the kids will like it. It’s easy to walk between the Breakers and the Doris Duke house.

Explore the Cliff Walk and the Landscaped Lawns

We took part of the Cliff Walk in between our mansion visits.  Clambering around on rocks was fun and also expended some extra energy.  You can get on the Cliff Walk by Bellevue Avenue and it is basically between the mansions and the ocean.  For extra fun, there is a little bridge over the water where the Cliff Walk meets the Doris Duke estate.

Bonus:  Lots of lawn space in front of the Newport mansions for the kids to have a run.

Tips for a family visit to the Newport Mansions

Tips for making a visit to the Newport Mansions fun for the whole family.


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The Cats That Usurped Hemingway’s Key West House

The Cats That Usurped Hemingway’s Key West House

I feel it is deeply unfair when a woman has an unabashed love of cats she’s known as a crazy cat lady.  When a man, however, is a cat lover no one comes up with such a pejorative nickname.  Relatives of mine (ahem! my brother) are crazy about their cats. He’s got three cats who are deeply loved and cosseted.  Does anyone accuse him of being a crazy cat person?  No.  So I shall do some finger-pointing and call out the American swashbuckling hero, general hard-drinking/hard-loving, larger-than-life novelist, Ernest Hemingway, as a crazy cat man.  Hemingway’s Key West house is now a visitor destination and home to a whole lot of cats. The Hemingway home is one of the must-see destinations in Key West even if you were only a day-tripper like us.

visiting Hemingway's House in Key West Florida

Hemingway and His Cats

Hemingway’s Key West house is filled with cats.  You turn around, and there’s another cat that you are practically tripping over.  There are 50+ cats in residence in the house.  Some of them are descendants of Snow White, Hemingway’s polydactyl (six-toed) cat given to him by a sea captain as good luck.  Hemingway’s sons chose the name for this cat but subsequent cats were named after the author’s famous friends.

One cat just leads to another.

Ernest Hemingway

See?  This quote just proves that Hemingway was a crazy cat man.

Hemingway's Key West House

Kitty does not look amused.

Hemingway's Key West House

Here’s a cat on top of a mini version of Hemingway’s Key West house built as a cat house.

Hemingway liked cats because he admired their intelligence and independence.

A cat has absolute emotional honesty: human beings, for one reason or another, may hide their feelings, but a cat does not.

No animal has more liberty than the cat.  The cat is the best anarchist.

Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway's Key West House

Just doing a perimeter check.

Hemingway's Key West House

Stop looking at my toes, people. Nothing to see here.

Hemingway's Key West House

Hemingway had curtains embroidered with cats. ‘Nuff said.

Hemingway and His Women

It seems Hemingway was more faithful to his cats than to the women in his life.  He was notorious for his messy love affairs. He had four wives and three kids.  Three of his wives became friendly with each other (probably bonding over what a pain he was).

Hemingway's Key West House

Hemingway’s bed. Bet this saw a lot of action.

When he ran off to Europe to be a war correspondent and took his mistress with him, his second wife tore down his boxing ring in the back garden and built a very expensive pool.  It was actually the only in-ground pool in the Florida Keys in the 1930’s.  The Florida Keys are islands made of solid coral and digging out the pool cost some serious labour and expense. The town of Key West would not allow the use of dynamite to create the pool so it was dug out by hand over the course of a year.

Hemingway's Key West House

A detail of the pool.

The Hemingway house is a popular wedding destination (because Hemingway himself was so good at marriage??).  It’s probably the same people who go on to play My Heart Will Go On by Celine Dione at the wedding reception.  Newsflash: it’s a song about love and loss inappropriate for the first few hours of wedded bliss.

Beyond just his love of cats and women, the man had a fascinating personal story.  He knew he had manic depression but in those days no one knew what to do with that sort of illness. His doctors told him to drink to get over his mood swings.  As everyone now knows, alcohol is a depressant and pretty much exactly what he shouldn’t have had.

visiting Hemingway's Key West Home

Hemingway’s Key West House

Hemingway’s Key West House was built by a local wealthy salvage merchant in the mid-19th century.  Key West during that time had a lot of money thanks to the salvage trade and all the ships that run aground along this treacherous stretch of ocean.  The merchant’s family all died thanks to yellow fever and the house was abandoned.

Hemingway's Key West House

A beautiful house from the outside as well.

Hemingway's Key West House

This water fountain is actually the urinal from the men’s room of a bar in Key West that Hemingway liked to frequent.

By the time, Hemingway’s rich second wife’s uncle bought it for the couple, the house was in a serious state of disrepair.  The Hemingways restored the house and what you visit now is very much how it would have looked when they were in residence.  After Hemingway’s death, his sons sold it to a local Key West resident who opened it up as a museum.

The property has a cat cemetery where the names of the cats that have lived on the estate are buried.

Hemingway's Key West House

A cat paying his respects to Willard Scott buried in the Pet Sematary.

The Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum is today a National Historic Landmark.  You don’t need reservations to visit.  It is suggested you go early in the day as it is very popular and lines to enter can stretch down the street.  There are guides who will take you around the house and explain the history of the house and its inhabitants, including the cats.

I highly recommend visiting the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum.  Although my children have not read Hemingway (yet), they loved seeing all the cats. It’s definitely one of the must-sees when visiting Key West even if you have only one day to spend there.

This post is linked with Travel Photo Thursday and The Weekly Postcard.

Travel Notes & Beyond
Marlborough House:  Recycling of a Royal Residence

Marlborough House: Recycling of a Royal Residence

Marlborough House in London has an enviable location right next door to St. James’s Palace, around the corner from Buckingham Palace and backing onto St. James’s park.  The house itself is massive and has extensive grounds considering it is located in prime London real estate.  No wonder then that when the house was no longer wanted by the original family that built it, the British Royal family took it over for 200+ years.  Nowadays, it is the headquarters of the vestiges of the British Empire, the Commonwealth.

Marlborough House in London is a Georgian house that has been the home of aristocracy, and Royals in the past and is now the head of the Commonwealth

The History of Marlborough House

Marlborough House was built by Sir Christopher Wren considered one of the greatest English architects of all time.  Amusingly, the lady who commissioned the house, Sarah Churchill, the first Duchess of Marlborough, wanted a house that was “strong, plain and convenient and good.”  I’d say the architect filled that brief pretty well.

The Duchess herself laid the foundation stone in 1709.  She was the one who really wanted a London townhouse because her husband the Duke was busy building their country town house, Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire.  She had a tiff with Sir Christopher Wren, fired him and oversaw the completion of the house herself.  The Duchess died at Marlborough House in 1744 having lived in the house for the 20+ years she had been a widow.

By 1817, Marlborough House had become a royal residence and used by assorted royalty including three widowed Queens and and three Prince of Wales.  In the last half of the 20th century Marlborough House has been used by the British government as the headquarters for the Commonwealth Foundation.

I think it is terrific that this beautiful building was not destroyed but managed to find a purpose throughout the years.  Here’s an archival Getty Images photograph of the British Royal family on the Marlborough House steps in the early 20th century.

Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough

So what did the Duchess do to get such a nice home?  It helped she was BFF’s with Queen Anne for 25 years.  Their relationship was intense and full of drama.  She pretty much dominated the Anne throughout the years until she became queen and eventually developed a backbone.  During this time, Sarah made lots of friends and enemies because everyone knew that she could influence Anne.

Queen Anne and the Duchess finally had a complete blow out.  The Duchess got replaced by her cousin as Royal BFF.  So what does Sarah do?  Start a rumour that Queen Anne was a lesbian.  Very middle school and very ballsy.

Sarah Churchill Duchess of Marlborough

Sarah really was a piece of work.  She worked hard to get the best for her husband and family.  She was instrumental in getting her husband into a position of power in the government and elevated to being a Duke.  Initially offered a dukedom, they turned it down because they couldn’t afford it.  Dukes had to live in a certain style and Sarah as we know was stingy.  So Queen Anne then not only offered up a dukedom but also money so they could live in style.  Nice!

She married her children off to the best families in the land.  Some of that same tenacity in the face of adversity would be shown by her descendants, Winston Churchill and Diana, Princess of Wales.  One of her grandsons from her eldest daughter took over the Marlborough Duchy when Sarah’s own son and heir died.

There was also much speculation that the Queen and the Duchess were lovers because they were so close. None of it proven of course. In any event, the Marlboroughs made a fortune out of the Queen’s friendship.

Sarah used that fortune to become one of the richest women in Europe.  She was really smart and made lots of smart property investments unusual in an era when women were told not to worry their pretty little head about business.  Not bad for yet another daughter of the upper classes who was not expected to do much with her life except marry and produce children.

Marlborough House and Gardens

Marlborough House was built with red brick. Interestingly, this red brick was the ballast that was used in the ships of the first Duke of Marlborough when they returned to England after having brought him provisions for his troops.  The Duchess was ahead of her time, recycling bricks, or maybe she wanted to save money for the inside of the house.

Marlborough House

The grand entrance

Marlborough House

An equally impressive driveway

The inside of Marlborough House is what you would expect.  There are massively high frescoed ceilings, grand staircases and lots of marble fireplaces.

I found the grand staircase with its paintings of the Duke of Marlborough being all warlike quite ironic.  It was, of course, the military might of Britain that lead to the empire that created the need for a Commonwealth.  And, of course, there is a repeated Roman motif.  References to the Roman empire always add gravitas and culture.

Marlborough House

Details of the interior

Marlborough House

Gawkers on the grand staircase

The gardens are extensive. Frankly, anytime that you get labels called ‘west lawn’ and ‘east lawn’ in central London (!!), it is impressive.  There are flags around the lawn perimeter of the Commonwealth countries. Among the oddities in the gardens are a revolving summer house that was moved to keep out the sun and a royal pet cemetery.

Marlborough House

The extensive lawns

Visiting Marlborough House

I visited Marlborough House as part of Open House London which makes architecturally interesting houses open to the public for a weekend.  Otherwise you need to book a tour through the Commonwealth Secretariat.  It’s a beautiful building worth visiting if you have an interest in either Georgian architecture and/or the Commonwealth.


This post is linked up with Wednesday Wanderlust and Wednesday Around the World.


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