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Best trip on a river

Boats have been plying the canals of England for many years, passing scenery at an appropriately leisurely pace. Take the slowing down one step farther and settle into the quaint and colorful Samuel Slater, an authentic British-built canal boat, which is available as a bed and breakfast (double, $109; group of four, $169). Canal boats actually used to ply the Blackstone River Valley between Worcester and Providence, hauling cargo and passengers between 1828 and 1848, before the railroad took over. The cleaned-up Blackstone River is now a National Heritage Corridor stretch. So after your traditional English breakfast, if you'd care to use the boat as more than a bobbing 40-foot water bed, you can launch into an hour-long river cruise for an extra $55. (Charter rates for cruises alone are $125 for 11/2 hours.) Blackstone Valley Tourism Council, (800) 454-2882, www.tour

Best busker in Downcity

You might have seen him spinning a giant flaming lasso at the Convergence Festival. Or juggling a coffee pot, an iron, and a toaster in front of the Arcade. Or balancing a wheelbarrow on top of his head at First Night. The amazing and hilarious street performer who accomplishes all this and more is Bobarino Gravittini, aka Brady Bradshaw of Warren. Bradshaw's one-man New Vaudeville show includes juggling, balancing, clowning, and dangerous stunts -- like the fiery lasso or the trio of flaming tennis rackets or balancing on a board over a cylinder that's atop a table before he reaches for the heavy metal wheelbarrow. Bradshaw has been performing as Bobarino for 18 years, across Europe and Japan as well as around this country and around the state. Catch him this year leading the parade at First Night.

Best behind-the-scenes view of Cranston

Though its more scenic cousin, the East Bay Bike Path, gets most of the attention, the Washington Secondary Bikeway, named for the railroad spur on which it was built, serves the same important purpose of getting people walking, biking, rollerblading, or pushing strollers in a traffic-free environment. The path begins in Knightsville near Tate Field and early on there are a few bucolic moments -- a babbling brook, towering trees. But most of the path zooms behind warehouses and strip malls, past backyard pools and screened gazebos, paralleling Route 5 at one point, ducking under roaring Route 37 at another. The Washington Secondary will eventually extend 12 miles through West Warwick and link up to a three-mile Coventry spur and on into Connecticut. For now, it's a welcome breathing space in one of the most densely populated parts of the state. Park at the Hugh B. Bain Middle School on Gansett Avenue, or on Exchange Street in Oaklawn.

Best outpouring of small 'd' democracy

Who says grassroots democracy is dead? Were it not for the coalition challenging Feldco Development's plans for Eagle Square, this important part of Providence's industrial past would probably have already been demolished. This far-flung alliance, which includes artists, neighborhood residents, and lovers of old buildings, played an important role in blocking Feldco's original plan to replace a cluster of historic mills with a suburban-style shopping mall. It also raised much-needed attention about the threat to Providence's mill buildings and the growing paucity of affordable workspaces for artists, sparking efforts by city officials to come to terms with the situation. In taking on a project that some observers regarded as inevitable, the insurgents have displayed an uncanny knack for steadily trumping the conventional wisdom. But regardless of the outcome, the critics deserve credit for getting people involved in the process and bringing together an unusually diverse array of those who care passionately about the city's future.

Best-lit court in Crompton

Within the working-class-meets-fixed-income suburbs of West Warwick is a section called Crompton. Round up some of the boys and suggest this part of town for pickup hoops and you'll probably get some reluctant eyebrows from those envisioning a neighborhood where a crazy mo-fo named Ice Cube was raised, but it's really not that bad. Nestled in a low-key spot within this sketchy 'burb is a sweet court adjacent to busy Cowesett Avenue. There is one full court with (unusually smooth) painted concrete and single rims benefiting the rainmakers (no shooter's roll on those finicky double rims), but best of all -- lights. What the hell good is an outdoor ball court without illumination? It serves as a quiet daytime spot for practicing free throws or a pickup game of 21, or to call next with scores of locals, including Toll Gate and West Warwick ballers brushing up their skills on warm summer evenings under the lights. Main Street, West Warwick.

Best golfing under a balloon

And on the eighth day God created the indoor driving range. At 90 yards long and 75 feet high, the Eagle Quest Golf & Leisure Dome is not so much a range as an oversized weather balloon protruding out of the ground in the West Warwick Industrial Park, visible from Bald Hill Road. Karl and Mary Ann Steimle have spent four years warmly welcoming guests under the Dome and have flourished by word of mouth advertising. The first of its kind in New England and one of only 45 in the country, the Dome is open 365 days a year (from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.), with 56 dual-level tee stations, a sand bunker, and an authentic putting green. The winter season is packed with a wide-open demographic attempting to improve during the off-season, with a recent surge in women stepping up to the tee. And the prices are reasonable -- $4 for a small up to $12 for the jumbo bucket, and $40 for a half-hour lesson from a pro. Attention hacks and worm-burner specialists -- the sound of a ball whacking the divider gives off an embarrassing, gunshot echo. Bring a non-perishable food donation on November 17 when the Dome hosts a family night from 4 to 8 p.m for the Rhode Island Community Food Bank, with family discounts, free refreshments and pro tips, and family specials from the in-house restaurant, Tee's Tavern, offering a full pub menu -- light years away from the typical snack bar. 1 Keyes Way, West Warwick, (401) 828-DOME.

Best stately tour

You don't have to be a tourist to be interested in what's behind all that marble at the Rhode Island State House. If you'd like a guided tour or info for a self-guided tour, stop in at the Public Information Center or the Secretary of State's office. The dome is one of the largest self-supporting ones in the world (behind St. Peter's, the State Capitol in St. Paul, Minnesota, and the Taj Mahal). That means it does not contain structural steel, just a layer of marble on the outside, brick inside, and plaster covering that. The mural inside the dome has 77 figures portraying "The Four Freedoms," with the figures proportionally larger at their feet than their heads and the Native Americans wearing shoes with buckles. Also check out the portraits of former governors in the corridors, or stop in at the library or the Governor's office. The State House is more than just that gilded guy on top! The Public Information Office, Room 38, is in the basement. Contact Ray Sullivan at (401) 222-2357,

Best display of equanimity by a bartender

Amid the happily raucous confluence of activity that often unfolds on Friday nights at Nick-a-Nee's, Mary Jackson exhibits the inner calm of a Zen philosopher. The bar can be buzzing with people and a welter of good-spirited activity -- the typical excitement of a weekend night -- but Mary maintains her evenness practically without fail. She might exhibit a bit of coolness while gauging the pulse of a new customer. More often, though, Mary, a veteran of the Hot Club and Al Forno who has been at Nick-a-Nee's since the outset, is a decidedly blithe presence. Pausing between pouring drafts or mixing drinks, she's typically chatting with regulars and enthusing about one of her current fascinations, like the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack or a recently read F. Scott Fitzgerald book. As for her distinctive equanimity, "A lot of people ask me about that," she says. "You have to concentrate. I wish I had a simple, succinct thing to say. I enjoy chaos, and I enjoy making order out of it, and that's the whole drive." Good-hearted soul that she is, Mary also credits owner Stephanie Finizia's arrangement of the bar and the help offered on Friday nights by resident film expert Scott Duhamel. "I get a lot of fresh air, I exercise a lot," and, she adds, "the money's good -- let's not forget that." 75 South Street, Providence, (401) 861-7290.

Best out-of-school learning experience

It's never too late to brush up on your Spanish, publish a children's book, learn to tap dance, build a stone wall, or make gnocchi in your own home. In its 20th year, The Learning Connection is offering classes to tackle each of those goals, plus other classes, more than 100 in all, that range from cooking, canoeing, and computers to feng shui, pilates, and yoga. Across town, the Brown Learning Community's catalog lists 170 courses, many with a more academic focus -- i.e., "Existentialism in Literature" or "The Legacy of Slavery in Rhode Island." More than one level of several languages are taught, and less-studied languages, such as Arabic, Czech, Chinese, and Japanese are also available. Both programs offer class or seminar discounts to members. The Learning Connection, 201 Wayland Avenue, Providence, (401) 274-9330, The Brown Learning Community, Alumnae Hall, Room 4, 194 Meeting Street, Providence, (401) 863-3452.

Best garden getaway

What a respite a garden can be. If you have one in your backyard, so much the better. But if you work in the city, you might just need to sit in one from time to time. One of the loveliest on the East Side is the parterre garden at the Governor Stephen Hopkins House. The house was originally built in 1707, added on to in 1742, and moved to its present site in 1927. Its interior, furnishings, and gardens are maintained by the Rhode Island chapter of the National Society of the Colonial Dames. The garden was designed to approximate an 18th-century formal garden, with brick pathways, small privet hedges, and a variety of perennials. Stephen Hopkins's signature on the Declaration of Independence is one of the most prominent, and he is said to have explained, "My hand trembles but my heart does not." And surely your heart will find ease in his garden. Corner of Benefit and Hopkins streets, Providence, (401) 421-0694. Tours are on Wednesday and Saturday from 1 to 4 p.m.

Best piece of paradise in Johnston

Barely a half-mile from the chaotic Atwood/Hartford Avenue intersection in Johnston lies the placid Memorial Park. A well-manicured, serene, and spotless setting (maintained admirably by Johnston Parks and Rec) offers a picture-perfect stone gazebo and footbridge. Follow the painted footprints on the various trails for speed walkers and strollers alike -- around the pond, park, or one-mile hill walk The park also boasts a handful of baseball fields, a soccer field, active full-court hoops, and bocce courts (the official sport of Italian old-timers and guidos). Clean restrooms and plenty of picnic tables are available come spring and summer weekends, when various family activities offered add to the crowded, festive atmosphere. 1583 Hartford Avenue, Johnston.

Best bird's-eye view

The scenic drive down Route 102 South, only about 15 miles from downtown Coventry (if there is such a thing), is worth the ride in late fall, with apple orchards and pick-your-own country spots, from peaches to pumpkins, throughout Exeter. A three-mile jaunt up Plain Meeting House Road (just past Big John Leyden's Christmas tree farm and Field of Screams) leads to Wickaboxet Rock at the Wickaboxet Management Area. Park the car at the red gate, keep right at the first fork in the trail, go a few hundred paces further, and bear left at the sight of a big-ass rock. It's a relatively easy family walk, but leave the fur coat and coonskin cap at home from October through February, when 200 square inches of Day-Glo is required when sharing the grounds hunters (irony noted in the sign posted: "Your purchase of hunting equipment supports wildlife restoration"). And it's a great bird-watching spot, literally a 360-degree treetop view of southern Rhode Island -- peaks and valleys of tranquility, without a man-made structure in sight. It's the perfect place to let the feet dangle, pick up a notebook and write about a rock. Plain Meeting House Road, West Greenwich.

Best dive

There's a delicious quality about the Safari Lounge, Jimmy and Cathy Ilarraza's bar on an alley-like section of Eddy Street in Providence's old retail core, not to mention all the important ingredients for a bastion of the musical underground: cheap beers, colorful characters, a nicely tucked-away quality, and friendly proprietors who lend strong support (no cover charges, for example) to the scene. It's this kind of no-frills establishment, wonderfully fleshed out by Jimmy's magnanimous presence, which constitutes an important venue for young musicians. Needless to say, the Safari also has staying power. Faced by a threat to its survival a few years back, a variety of supporters rallied to the cause -- a sure sign of the affection that attaches to the place -- and the underdogs carried the day. 103 Eddy Street, Providence, (401) 272-3823.

Best place to go fly a kite

Brenton Point State Park is just another gem along the southern tip of Newport. Neighboring Ocean Avenue, it provides plenty of lavish eye candy on the way, and views of Fort Adams and Hammersmith Farm, the Oceancliff estate, and Castle Hill area. On the outskirts of the park, a mile-long shoreline walk runs along the mouth of the Bay, lending a view to the Beavertail State Park lighthouse. Come springtime, kite flyers frequent the wide open fields next to Brenton Park headquarters. But be sure to check out the trails in back leading to an 18th-century stone stable, and another small trail that reveals a surreal, circular stone tower straight from a fairy tale. A treacherous, winding stone stairway sticking out of the picturesque lookout tower remains intact, and the snapshot is worth the walk. (401) 847-2400.

Best cemetery to walk in

Some people might consider cemeteries a depressing place to wander, but walkers, bird-watchers, and joggers value them for the lack of traffic, the wildlife habitat, and the history to be learned from reading names and dates on tombstones. Arguably the best in the city is Swan Point Cemetery, founded in 1847, and considered one of the most beautiful garden cemeteries in the country -- of particular note are the rhododendrons, azaleas, and hollies. Swan Point has eight miles of winding paths, views onto the Seekonk River, several 19th-century sculptures and fountains, and the graves of noted Rhode Islanders from Thomas Dorr and H.P. Lovecraft through several governors and other statesmen. A map of trees and monuments, plus rules about visiting the cemetery (proper attire, no dog-walking, skiing, skateboarding, rollerblading, or earphones) may be picked up at the office near the main entrance. 585 Blackstone Boulevard, Providence, (401) 272-1314. Open from 8 a.m. to 5 pm. during Standard Time, and till 7 p.m. during Daylight Savings Time.

Best place to get bused on Smith Street

Your ankles busted, that is. Getting tooken off the dribble (love that hoop vernacular) is a common occurrence at Evans Park, one of a few hoop spots on the NP line, a culturally diverse locale near LaSalle and RIC and minutes from the Chad Brown projects. But age, race, and ethnicity ultimately take a back seat to skills. Fundamentally sound players who comprehend where to move without the ball, setting picks against a man-to-man defense, cutting to the hoop, etc. are well and fine, but your A-game better show up on any given day, particularly those muggy summer nights when league play often resembles a scene from an And 1 Mix Tape. The night lights shine on those who got game, ambidextrous cats faking right and shaking left off the baseline, and have no problem letting you know just how good they look. The big dogs showboat with the accompanying trash talk only the sport of basketball can provide. Smith Street, Providence.

Best urban trend

We're not overly demanding in what we seek in our nocturnal destinations. Give us some combination of the following and we're happy: a bit of retro appeal or post-modern irony; tasty, inexpensive food; and -- most importantly -- a friendly, unpretentious vibe and a colorful mix of sousing partners, including a few cuties of the opposite sex. This has been a banner year for fans of this kind of fun and accessible establishment. In March, our hearts were gladdened with the opening of the Red Fez, Sara Kilguss and Ed Reposa's winning bar and restaurant in downtown Providence. Judging by the response, the Fez has helped to fill the need for just such a nightspot. Then, offering some welcome thirst relief for the growing West Side arts community, the Decatur Lounge formally debuted in August. Co-owned by veteran bartenders Joann Seddon and Tim Dannenfelser, the tavern succeeds the Decatur Tap, which had basically operated as a social club for 40 years under previous management. There's still a cozy sense of neighborliness about the place, from the easy mix of hipsters and longtime residents to the midnight closing necessitated by the so-called gentleman's club license. Unlike the Fez, the Decatur doesn't serve food (well, unless you count the increasingly ubiquitous pickled eggs), but both places qualify as proud rookies of the year. The Red Fez, 49 Peck St., Providence, (401) 272-1212; the Decatur Lounge, 18 Loungo Square, Providence, (401) 351-5492.

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Issue Date: November 16 - 22, 2001