romance, riches, and rocks

cliff walk has it all

No matter the circumstances, the task of conceiving a Valentine’s Day date idea is daunting. The date must be thoughtful but not overwhelming, romantic but not cheesy. The task is even more difficult for couples who have been dating for months or years (an eternity in Brownland time) and have already hit all the affordable date nights in Providence. Sure, you could take your significant other to the RISD museum again, but eventually you will both get tired of looking at the same contorted chair and monotone canvas with a fishhook in it.

Luckily, there’s an underappreciated local date spot you can take your SO to: the Cliff Walk in Newport. There’s no admission cost for the Cliff Walk, and the Number 60 RIPTA bus that runs between Providence and Newport is completely free for Brown students. The Cliff Walk appeals to a wide variety of interests, and the trip is an easy all-day adventure around Newport.

To begin with, there are the famous Newport mansions that tower overtop the Cliff Walk and draw in most of its annual 200,000 visitors. Many of the mansions were built in the latter half of the nineteenth century by wealthy New York industrialists who vacationed in Newport in the summer. For the SOs who are interested in architecture or history, these Victorian manors will make a great date destination. The mansions are also an inside look at how the local bourgeoisie lived, which holds an ironic appeal to the SOs who spend their time reading The Communist Manifesto. Here’s a quick rundown of what you might find on your visit, but how to spin the trip is up to you.

The Breakers mansion was built in 1893 by Cornelius Vanderbilt II, the grandson of the railroad industrialist. The locals refer to the 70-room colossus as a cottage, out of spite for the high admission fee. As you enter the home, the ceiling of the Breakers castle extends 30-some feet into the heavens above, rendering even the tallest guests insignificant proles compared to the mighty captains of industry who once lived within its walls. Signs with informative room descriptions such as “Bath” and “Kitchen” direct your journey from the gaping chasm of the entryway to the remainder of the gilded interior, and the walk under the twin chandeliers and ceiling fresco of the dining room will remind you that wealth truly does trickle down.

Marble House on Bellevue Ave is another worthwhile but pricey mansion stop. The home was built between 1888 and 1892 as a birthday gift for Cornelius’s wife, Alva Vanderbilt, who later left him for a Congressman from New York. Remember this on Valentine’s Day: Money can’t buy love, only rent it. The design of Marble House was inspired by the Petit Trianon, a chateau at the Palace of Versailles. This is definitely worth pointing out to The Communist Manifesto-loving SO, who will likely be all over the parallels between modern America and revolutionary France when it comes to the conditions that nurture an income-inequality-inspired revolutionary movement. The Chinese Teahouse on the Marble House’s grounds is another oddity worthy of a visit, allowing visitors to plainly see the passage of cultural appropriation from one generation of white aristocrats to the next. Alva Vanderbilt commissioned the tea house in 1914 and sent a team of architects to China to research the project. The result is an exaggerated imitation of the Hall of Supreme Harmony in the Chinese Imperial Palace, complete with arched roof and guardian lions. Alva Vanderbilt even celebrated its opening with a Chinese costume ball, and local gossip indicates that she was crowned empress of the estate later that night.

For the more outdoors-oriented folks, the Cliff Walk trail is itself a great Valentine’s date option. The trail overlooks the Rhode Island Sound and winds three and a half miles down the coastline of Newport directly past some of the mansions. Access to the Cliff Walk trail has been a point of contention between the local fisherman and aristocratic homeowners for much of the past century and a half. The landowners have financed many creative attempts to keep the public at arm’s length, erecting fences, walls, and even boulders over the footpath to block visitors from making the hike down the coastline. Others once posted dogs and even a bull to scare away tourists. To this day, there are still disputes at points along the trail.

Personally, I think the trail itself is the most romantic part of the Cliff Walk. Why? Rocks. Most people walking the trail ignore them, leaving them to bear silent witness to Rhode Island’s distant past. The major rock units increase in age from the northern to the southern end of the trail, making the walk a journey backwards in time through hundreds of millions of years of geologic history. For this reason, the Cliff Walk has long been a destination for Brown’s introductory geology class, Geology 0220. A detailed interpretation of geologic features is a skill that takes years to master, but there are some fascinating formations along the Cliff Walk that anyone is sure to find pretty cool. So, let’s take a quick trip through time.

Today, Cliff Walk is a mix of paved, easily navigable paths and unpaved rocky areas. These paths were built during the major restoration of the Cliff Walk that occurred after Hurricane Sandy, replacing the walkways that local landowners had been building since the 1880s on top of the trails once used by the European colonists. The colonists had inherited the paths from the local Narragansett People whom they displaced, who used them after they had been stomped out of the ground by decades of deer migration.

Entering the trail by the Breakers Mansion, the first visible features are the outcrops of tilted grey metamorphic rocks called phyllite that jut out from amongst the waves. These rocks are made from sediments deposited in lakes and streams over 300 million years ago during the Carboniferous period. At the time, giant 2.6 meter long centipedes and dragonflies with wingspans of over 30 inches roamed the Earth, and fern fossils from this period live on in some of the rocks. A few of these outcrops also have fractures filled with white quartz, forming especially beautiful veins in an outcrop on the beach just south of the Breakers, where the trail turns due south. There’s a simple beauty to this quartz complex that puts the vanity of the mansions on the cliff into perspective. Sometimes, the best things are free.

Much farther south is an outcrop of grey-green rock that contains rock fragments that have been stretched into elongate shapes. This rock is volcanic ash that was deposited over 540 million years ago during Pre-Cambrian time, before the development of complex life on Earth. The rock fragments within were volcanic bombs that were ejected from long-gone volcanoes as they erupted—their elongated shapes, as well as the folded layers in the rock and its greenish hue, are the result of chemical processes that took place about 15 kilometers below the surface of the earth after ash was buried by younger sediments.

At around this time, the massive pink granite toward the southern end of Cliff Walk was born. This coarse-grained rock was formed by the upward intrusion of molten magma into overbearing rock and its slow crystallization about 540 million years ago in Avalonia, a microcontinent that lay just off the western coast of proto-Africa. When Africa collided with North America to form the Appalachian Mountains around 300 million years ago, Avalonian rocks were left attached to North America, including the pieces found here along Cliff Walk in RI.

Along the Cliff Walk, you can see the remains of an ancient land and the story of the processes that have shaped it into the Rhode Island we see today. These workings of our Earth make both us and the towering mansions of the Cliff Walk small and insignificant by comparison. The Cliff Walk’s geology offers a perspective on how profoundly lucky we are, showing how many millions of billions of events had to have taken place for us to be spending this Valentine’s Day with our better half. I know it does for me. After all, where there are rocks, there’s romance.