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Looking for the spice of life, finding some in Providence

Long before I arrived in Boston, the men and women of Providence taught me how to party. Yes, believe it. Providence, our sleepy neighbor to the south. For this recent transplant from Missouri, Rhode Island's capital was the perfect foray into New England's gay nightlife: not too hard core like Provincetown or Boston, but not too provincial like Portland or -- gulp -- New Bedford, which is where I was living.

When I finally moved to Boston, I noticed something peculiar: The gay men I would see in Beantown's clubs on Friday night would be partying in Providence the next. Could it be that Providence, with its cheaper cover charges, slightly more parking, and diverse theme nights, is luring away our finest?

To find out, I decided a Providence homecoming was in order. Problem is, within the last six months many of my hallowed haunts have disappeared. The building that housed Pulse has been razed, and nearby Gerardo's, which was popular with men of color, is now what we'll politely deem a "gentleman's club" for straight men. Union Street Station has closed, too.

Here, then, is a guide for your next trip to Providence:

FridayIn search of caffeine, we arrive at Reflections Cafe (8 Governor St., 401-273-7278) just shy of 7 p.m. Already a smattering of college-age men are basking in the glow of their laptops as older gay men and a few women chat over lattes and soups, sandwiches, and salads. Reflections is undoubtedly a favorite with Providence's gay population and a precursor to a night of clubbing.

We head to dinner at Down City Food and Cocktails (151 Weybosset St., 401-331-9217), where a sleek, exclusively gay crowd is sipping drinks over the din of a godforsaken techno soundtrack. Ablaze in at least 100 necklaces, our waitress, Merry (short for Meredith, of course), is the type of woman for whom customers stop on their way out to blow kisses. She's that sassy. We love our entrees (shrimp for me, salmon for Sarah), and potent cocktails bear cheeky names such as Just Jack 2004 and Candy From Strangers. Just when we think this place is an homage to Europe's cutting-edge eateries, we are proved wrong. Martha Wash, of "It's Raining Men" fame, comes on the sound system, a true throwback to 1996.

With full bellies, we hit Mirabar (35 Richmond St., 401-331-6761), one of Providence's vanguard gay clubs. Nothing seems to have changed here in the last few years. Men still line up along the second-floor balcony to check out fellow clubbers, as underwear-clad shot boys peddle their neon-colored booze. An hour here is plenty for us, and we leave just as the DJ is tossing prizes into the crowd. There is nothing more comical than a sea of hungry hands grasping for Shania Twain CDs. The DJ further titillates his flock: "Coming up in December we'll have the new 'Golden Girls' DVD!" The crowd goes ape.

Kamp (235 Promenade St., 401-621-4141) is our next stop. Friday nights here have become the hot ticket for fans of hip-hop and R&B. It is the most diverse crowd you're likely to see in a Providence gay bar, and the music is relentless. You can spend a lot of time here and never see all of it. There's a lounge area for quiet socializing. On Saturdays, Kamp hosts the lesbian-themed night, "Mermaids," which attracts a wall-to-wall crowd of young women and their allies. A back room plays all the Cyndi Lauper and Eurythmics you can handle.

We get lost on the way to Deville's (150 Point St., 401-751-7166), another local lesbian bar, and instead find Trix (165 Poe St., 401-781-3121). "Oh, my God! We could be in Jersey," Sarah exclaims upon surveying the concrete environs. We are surprised to learn Trix is basically a gay strip club, and a rather run-down one at that, and we exit quickly.

SaturdayWe are excited at the prospect of going to Dark Lady (124 Snow St., 401-831-GAYS), a fairly new addition to Providence's gay scene, and apparently throngs of other queer men share our enthusiasm. It is packed, and we nudge our way to the bar where faux candelabras illuminate the mostly male crowd living it up on the petite dance floor. The intimate lighting gives Dark Lady a sensuous vibe, even though there's scarcely room to stretch out. The ever-lovely Miss Kitty Litter, a popular drag performer who reigns supreme in Providence, spots us and sweetly orders us a round of drinks. We've missed her show, we confess to her, but there's always next time. Naturally, we're skeptical of a club named after a Cher song, but Sarah and I decide Dark Lady is the city's sexiest club (and yes, that's a blatant reference to the hot bartenders and Kitty Litter's amazing wigs and dresses). Check out Friday nights, when '80s music displaces the trance and techno.

SundayMuch like Boston, Providence is a ghost town on Sundays, with Diesel (79 Washington St., 401-751-2700) being the premier exception for nightlife (excluding Mirabar). Formerly called NV at the Strand, Diesel is the city's handsomest hot spot. It used to be a theater, and its grandiosity extends beyond the large, layered dance floor and the wall of twinkling, colored lights on the stage. Few people have arrived by 11 p.m., and there's no one to rattle the human cages erected on both sides of the bar. Still, a hip crowd mingles in the VIP lounge, and by midnight a bartender has hoisted buxom local celebrity BB Hayes onto a tiny spot on the main bar, where she does little more than a series of calisthenics, yet still entrances onlookers. Indeed, it's just another night out in Providence.

James Reed's column on gay and lesbian travel appears monthly. He can be reached at jreed@globe.com.

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