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Field guide

Lower your ATM scores while you shop colleges

By Necee Regis
Globe Correspondent / August 31, 2008
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As the lazy days of summer wind down and the first red leaves signal fall's imminent arrival, high school seniors begin mulling the often angst-filled question of where to apply to college, and parents begin mapping out college tours. In an attempt to ease the pain to psyche and wallet for both generations, I visited four university towns in Massachusetts and compiled a list of reasonably priced and strategically located places to sleep and dine.

WORCESTER

Assumption College, Becker College, Clark University, College of the Holy Cross, University of Massachusetts Medical School, and Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Downtown Worcester can be a confusing swirl of highway exit ramps and busy streets. In the heart of the city, adjacent to DCU Center, the Hilton Garden Inn (35 Major Taylor Blvd., 508-753-5700, worcester.stayhgi.com, doubles $129-$164, "College Rate" $99) is an oasis of calm. Less than two years old, this contemporary corporate hotel offers amenities such as an indoor pool and workout facility. All 199 rooms have complimentary Wi-Fi, a radio MP3 hookup, flat-screen TV, a small refrigerator, and microwave. UNO Chicago Grill on premises serves lunch and dinner. Parking is $8.95-$12.95 per night and full-service breakfast is an extra $9.95.

Farther east, in a biomedical park near the University of Massachusetts Medical School, the boutique Beechwood Hotel (363 Plantation St., 508-754-5789, 800-344-2589, beechwoodhotel.com, doubles $174-$214, "College Rate" $139) has 73 rooms. Amenities include complimentary Wi-Fi, continental breakfast, exercise room, parking, and a lower-level restaurant.

Worcester is awash in restaurants, including Lebanese, Italian, Middle Eastern, Indian, Thai, Malaysian, Mexican, and barbecue, along with bistros and diners that feature steak, seafood, and pizza. Many of these can be found on the walkable Shrewsbury Street, including Mezcal Tequila Cantina (166 Shrewsbury St., 508-926-8308, mezcalcantina.com, entrees $12-$23), which offers tasty Southwestern and Mexican cuisine - and over 100 brands of tequila - in a casual setting.

NORTHAMPTON/SOUTH HADLEY/AMHERST

Amherst College, Hampshire College, Mount Holyoke, Smith College, University of Massachusetts at Amherst

In the Pioneer Valley, country roads wind through bucolic hills to connect this trio of towns that house the Five College Consortium. In colorful downtown Northampton you can rest easy at the Hotel Northampton (36 King St., 800-547-3529, 413-584-3100, hotelnorthampton.com, doubles $175-$225). A member of Historic Hotels of America, this updated 1927 hotel (with working mail slots near the elevator on each floor) has 106 guest rooms and suites. Amenities include complimentary Wi-Fi, continental breakfast, and parking. A restaurant on premises serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

So close to Smith College it's almost part of the campus, the Autumn Inn (259 Elm St., 413-584-7660, hampshirehospitality.com, doubles $119-$149) is part New England Colonial home and part roadside motel with 32 rooms and an outdoor pool. Amenities include complimentary Wi-Fi, continental breakfast, and parking.

You have a virtual United Nations of dining choices in Northampton, including Italian, Moroccan, Indian, Tibetan, Mexican, and barbecue and pub cuisine. For satisfying Chinese and Japanese food in a relaxed and elegant setting, try Teapot (116 Main St., 413-585-0880, teapotusa.com, entrees $7.95-$20.95).

Accommodations in Amherst run the gamut from Victorian to modernist. At both the Allen House and nearby Amherst Inn (599 and 257 Main St., 413-253-5000, allenhouse.com, doubles $95-$175), two Queen Anne Stick Style homes with a total of 14 rooms, owner Ann King has meticulously restored and decorated the interiors with "historically correct" Victorian details, right down to the Bradbury and Bradbury wallpaper. Another Amherst bed-and-breakfast worth considering is the Black Walnut Inn (1184 North Pleasant St., 413-549-5649, blackwalnutinn.com, doubles $115-$159), a family run, 10-room inn in a beautifully restored 1800s Federal-style brick house. All three B&Bs offer complimentary Wi-Fi, a full breakfast, and parking.

If Victoriana sends you screaming into the night, check into the Marcel Breuer cement tower on the UMass campus and breathe a modernist sigh of relief. The Campus Center Hotel (1 Campus Center Way, 877-822-2110, 413-549-6000, www.aux.umass.edu/hotel, doubles $92-$130) is a 116-room teaching hotel with complimentary continental breakfast and parking. High-speed Internet hookups in rooms are free, but you need a student ID for Wi-Fi. Rates may go up as room renovations are completed before April.

Amherst is another town with a plethora of dining choices. For an eclectic menu featuring steaks, chops, seafood, and fish, try Bistro 63 at The Monkey Bar (63 North Pleasant St., 413-259-1600, bistro63.com, entrees $13.95-$23.95). The stylish interior with smoky gray banquettes is a great place to unwind after a hard day of touring schools. If you stay late, the place morphs into a club with music and dancing.

CAMBRIDGE

Cambridge College, Harvard University, Lesley University, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Harvard Square is close to Harvard University, of course, but it's also on the subway's Red Line and so a good spot to use as home base while touring the area. For a decent, no-frills hotel in the heart of Harvard Square, look no further than The Harvard Square Hotel (110 Mount Auburn St., 617-864-5200, harvardsquarehotel.com, doubles $229-$279). Located above a municipal parking lot, it offers 73 rooms with simple furnishings, a mini-fridge, flat-screen TV, and coffeemaker reminiscent of a utilitarian college dorm. On site parking is $35 a night, and Wi-Fi cards are available for sale.

In a leafy neighborhood two blocks from Harvard Yard is the Irving House (24 Irving St., 617-547-4600, cambridgeinns.com/irving, doubles $125-$250). This sprawling 44-room guesthouse with hardwood floors, area rugs, and quilted coverlets on the beds might trick you into thinking you're visiting your long-lost aunt. Part of the "BeanTown Is GreenTown" collection of eco-friendly businesses, Irving House offers a complimentary breakfast buffet that includes cheese from local farmers, organic eggs, milk, and yogurt, soy milk, gluten-free bagels, and organic coffee. Wi-Fi and parking are included. Ask the friendly staff for free museum passes, postcards, and - if it's raining - an umbrella.

Dining options are abundant in Harvard Square, from pizza to pad Thai to high cuisine. A high-quality but not high-priced meal at the popular Henrietta's Table (One Bennett St., 617-661-5005, henriettastable.com, dinner entrees $14.75-$20), features seasonal New England menus with ingredients from local farmers, fishermen, and cheese producers.

BOSTON

Berklee College of Music, Boston University, Emmanuel College, Fisher College, Mass College of Art and Design, Mass College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, New England College of Optometry, New England Conservatory, Northeastern University, Simmons College, Suffolk University, Urban College of Boston, Wentworth Institute of Technology, and Wheelock College

Finding an affordable place to stay in Boston can be daunting but if you plan ahead you can secure a room at Hotel 140 (140 Clarendon St., 617-585-5600, 800-714-0140, hotel140.com, rooms $139-$159), a boutique hotel with affordable prices in a central downtown site. Located in the nation's first YWCA, this hotel has been renovated with 55 contemporary rooms that feel more European than American, with pale wood headboards, white sheets, simple furnishings, and high-tech amenities. There's Internet cable in each room, but no Wi-Fi, and though breakfast is not included there's a cafeteria-style cafe in the building. Validated parking is $20 a day.

Another affordable place to rest your head is Best Western Boston-The Inn at Longwood Medical, 342 Longwood Ave., 800-468-2378, 617-731-4700, innatlongwood.com/index.html, $149-$209). Though often associated with Boston's hospitals, the hotel is also near several schools and universities such as Emmanuel and Wheelock colleges, and the Longwood subway stop on the Green Line. Amenities include DSL and Wi-Fi access and in-room coffeemakers. The inn is connected to the Longwood Galleria, which contains more than 20 places to shop and eat.

There are many places to dine in Boston, though you might miss Vlora (545 Boylston St., 617-638-9699, vloraboston.com, dinner entrees $15.50-$29.95) if you don't know where to look. Located below street level in the heart of downtown, directly across from Trinity Church in Copley Square, Vlora's creative and healthy menu is inspired by northern Mediterranean flavors including southern Italy, Greece, and Albania.

Necee Regis can be reached at necee regis@gmail.com.