One step on the outdoor terrace at the Chanler Hotel, and it makes perfect sense why 36 weddings occurred there in 2013. The view extends deep into an ocean blue horizon, while just below and to the left, slivers of waves slide over and under each other as they reach for the sandy shore. Newport’s famous cliff walk begins right outside and goes southward along the rocky coast to Ochre Court mansion, just visible in the distance. Taken all together, it stands as one of New England’s premier perspectives.
Clearly, New York congressman John Winthrop Chanler demonstrated some savvy choosing the land for his summer estate in 1870. Having married Margaret Astor Ward, the great granddaughter of the country’s first multimillionaire John Jacob Astor, money was no object. The pedigree also attracted many celebrity guests like Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
Despite the handsomeness of the Chanler’s French Victorian façade today, it’s a far cry from the original structure, which burned and reincarnated several times throughout its history, most recently after purchased by Detroit businessman John Shufelt in 2000. Three years later, the Chanler reopened as a luxury hotel.
It wasn’t hard to recognize the hotel’s target clientele after stepping past the smiling, suited valets into the lobby last April. The high-ceilings, ornately framed Constable-like landscapes, antique-style parquet flooring, crystal chandelier, and the original fireplace all demonstrate both a certain level of wealth and close affinity for the traditional New England cultural mores.
That’s not to say the Chanler doesn’t play sometimes. While the manor rooms and villas do mostly adhere to the grand Gilded-Age spirit; with ornamental mantels, antique painted tiles, stained glass, and floral damask; estate and signature rooms adopt a historical or cultural theme. The largest and most luxurious room, the Renaissance, is also the most popular and often used as a bridal suite. The turquoise paneled walls, gold trim, and carved ceiling seem pulled right out of a French fairytale palace, at least to an American eye.
Other themes explored in the Chanler include Mediterranean, Empire, Georgian, and my room, English Tudor ($1,200 per night). Perhaps the most Disneyesque of the rooms; its heavy oak panel walls, raised four-poster king bed, and royal drapery inject a masculine musk into the air, albeit more of the Errol Flynn variety than Henry the VIII. In the large, wood-screened black Jacuzzi tub, a few steps from the bed, more roles are available as well as space for a damsel or two. Dark brown Emperador marble walls in the bathroom also add significant dignity to the throne.
Feasting goes on at the Spiced Pear, the hotel’s restaurant, however it’s recommended to realign table manners to the classical spirit indicated in the white-clothed tables, antique furnishings, and crystal chandeliers. Chef Thomas Duffy makes full use of his custom-made Bonnet stove, one of only a few in the country, turning out traditional New England dishes like butter poached Maine lobster, braised Berkshire pork, and wild Alaskan king salmon. All are prepared with expert skill (as are the cocktails from the bar), but it would be intriguing to see what the chef and stove could achieve outside the rules.
The best moments at the Chanler, however, occur through the doors of the restaurant that lead to the terrace outside, especially if a solitary moment can be shared with the sea. If any swimming thoughts return to the Chanler, most likely they’ll be impressed, as I was, by the service and quality, but perhaps not by hit to the bank account. It’s a good thing the view is there to remind you of the value of memories.
Review and photos by Mike Dunphy, who stayed as a guest of the Chanler Hotel.