Touring around other cities can sometimes feel achingly familiar. The downtown revitalization project. The spanking new children’s museum. The gorgeous, refurbished zoo. Providence has all that, but it has something extra, too — the incredible WaterFire.
Every April-October, a couple of nights a month, dozens of bonfires are lit on the three rivers in downtown Providence. The brainchild of artist Barnaby Evans, the evening includes music, fire tenders passing the flames, and scented wood, engaging several senses at once. Kids and adults find this truly magical; the only downside is that it begins at sunset and lasts till after midnight, cutting into daytime touring the next morning. Some hotels even have waterfront views of the bonfires, which are refueled throughout the evening, but music lovers will want to be at one of the stages presenting live music.
If you are not in town for WaterFire, Providence has another unique way to enjoy its waterfront — on a Venetian gondola. Summer evenings, you can see downtown from a gondola, replete with gondolier and Italian music. Late at night, gondolas are for couples, but earlier trips are family friendly, and can accommodate a family or group of six.
Kids who have been angered by the recent change in the recycling laws will be mollified by the Children’s Museum’s exhibit, LandFull!, where they can sort virtual trash into color-coded bins, and learn to reduce, reuse, recycle. There is a children’s garden outside, focusing on native flora; and Coming to Rhode Island, a ‘time traveling’ exhibit through state history and immigration, where kids can board a Cape Verdean ship and try out a cotton mill. In the water play area, kids can sail boats and build fountains.
Roger Williams Park has a small Museum of Natural History, with a planetarium. The Park has a beautiful antique carousel, part of a ”carousel village” with a playground and pony rides. The new Hasbro Boundless Playground allows kids with disabilities to play on the equipment, and offers a full sensory experience for all kids; the adjacent Children’s Sensory Garden lets kids explore flowers through textures, scents and colors.
The zoo, located within the park, has polar bears, a tropical rainforest, and a trail where visitors can follow Marco Polo’s route. On the trail, kids see a Venetian Plaza, Bedouin tent and ancient trading vessel, encountering along the way the exotic animals Marco Polo saw: Dromedary camels, snow leopards and moon bears. In the rainforest, there is a canopy skywalk, a rope and wooden bridge up high, with free-flying birds. Also unusual, the new Australasia exhibit has animals indigenous to Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Indonesia and Australia: tree kangaroos, kookaburras, scrub pythons, just to name a few.
While much of downtown is walkable, a particular luxury if you’ve taken Amtrak, you really need to drive to both the Providence Children’s Museum and Roger Williams Park & Zoo. There are also trolleys, known as Providence Link, that cost 50 cents each. And Providence Place Mall, which has a food court, good restaurants, lots of stores, a 16-screen movie theater, plus an IMAX theater, runs a free shuttle bus throughout downtown.
• La Gondola recommends reservations; rides are $65 for two, $15 each additional person. Walk-ups are $10 person, but may not be available. Cheese and crackers, and blankets are provided. (401) 421-8877; www.gondolaRI.com
• Providence Children’s Museum, 100 South St., is open daily, 9:30am-5pm. Admission is $4.75 person. (401) 273-KIDS; www.childrenmuseum.org
• Roger Williams Park is open daily. The museum and planetarium are open 10am-5pm; admission is $2, $1 under age 8. The zoo is open 9am-5pm, 6pm on weekends; admission is $7 adults, $4.50 ages 3-12; free under age 3. The carousel is open 11am-6pm; rides are $1. (401) 785-3510; www.rogerwiliamsparkzoo.com
• Providence Place Mall, One Providence Place, (401) 270-1000; www.providenceplace.com
Where to Stay:
—The Courtyard Marriott is on the water, next to Water Place Park. (888) 887-7955; www.courtyard.com
—The Westin Providence, just a block away, has a Kid’s Club with organized activities so parents can have a little time alone. (401) 598-8000; www.westin.com
For more information, contact the Providence Warwick Convention and Visitors Bureau, (800) 233-1636; www.providencecvb.com; or the Providence Tourism Council, (800) 562-9895; www.tourprovidence.com