The Breakers in Newport is an opulent, oceanside mansion completed in 1895 as a summer "cottage" for the wealthy Vanderbilt family. Less than 15 minutes away, and across a bridge into nearby Bristol, stands the 45-room Blithewold mansion and its verdant 33-acre garden estate of trees, shrubs and lawns.
Both buildings are relics of America's Gilded Age and monuments to unfettered wealth. Now, tourism officials want to make sure visitors to one site are also checking out the other.
Newport and its neighboring communities are creating a trail of historic attractions, linking up notable sites with color-coded maps and eventually road signs to make it easier for tourists to move from museum to mansion to Colonial-era farm. The goal of the initiative, known as the Newport Bristol Heritage Passage, is not to draw more tourists but to encourage those who already come to extend their stays by steering them to attractions they may not have thought to visit.
"We're going after the quality visitor, and the quality visitor has a particular interest in heritage tourism attractions and events," said Keith Stokes, executive director of the Newport County Chamber of Commerce, which is spearheading the trail.
The project's intent is similar to Boston's Freedom Trail, a 2.5-mile red-brick walking trail linking historic sites. But this trail will be accessed more by drivers given the broad swath of land it covers, bookended by Newport and Bristol and winding through the lesser-known towns of Portsmouth, Jamestown, Middletown, Tiverton and Little Compton.
The corridor is already laid out, with more than 80 mansions, museums, gardens, farms and burial grounds highlighted on maps, marked on a Web site and grouped into seven categories such as maritime heritage, religious freedom and tolerance, Gilded Age and museums.
Once the project is completed, Stokes said, highway and road signs will alert drivers that they've entered the Newport Bristol Heritage Passage. Signs within the communities, bearing an iconic logo or symbol, will give visitors information about reaching historic sites and attractions along the corridor and will also provide general information about things like public parking and nearby restrooms, he said.
"It helps to communicate that there's more to see, that this is one part of a greater whole," said Andrew Barresi, a principal of Roll-Barresi & Associates, a Cambridge, Mass.-based design firm hired for the project. "If there was no signage or no indication that it's part of the heritage trail, it's a one-stop experience, so to speak."
Organizers have received roughly $65,000 in state grants and private money in the last three and a half years, which has been used to hire marketing consultants, planners and designers, among other experts, Stokes said. He said he expected that the signs and information kiosks would be phased in over several years.
The trail encompasses Newport's signature attractions, including its late-19th century mansions, the nation's oldest synagogue, the International Tennis Hall of Fame and Fort Adams, a centuries-old coastal fort active through World War II that today is the venue for the city's heralded jazz and folk festivals.
It also encompasses lesser-known sites including the Colonial-era Mount Hope Farm in Bristol and the Herreshoff Marine Museum, which hosts the America's Cup Hall of Fame.
Some visitors seemed intrigued by the idea of branching out beyond the best-known attractions.
"I love to learn new things, and I would find something unique about each place," said Christina Villa, 40, a consultant from Los Angeles making her first visit to Newport.
The idea is that tourists interested in the Gilded Age will visit not only Newport's storied mansions but also Linden Place, the 1810 Bristol mansion featured in the film "The Great Gatsby" and onetime home of the actress Ethel Barrymore. Or that people interested in America's religious history will visit not just the Touro Synagogue but also a 1699 Quaker meeting house in Newport that is Rhode Island's oldest house of worship.
The project is part of a broader aggressive effort to get tourists to spend more time and money in Newport, which already draws more than 3 million visitors a year and accounts for one of the Ocean State's most reliable industries.
Marketing materials for the project beckon visitors to "Discover Your American Heritage," then asks, "Did you know that in the Newport Bristol Heritage Passage, you'll find the greatest concentration of America's heritage sites?"
An ambitious claim, perhaps, but Stokes makes no apologies.
"I have no problem challenging and debating Boston and Philadelphia on who's the most historic community," Stokes said.