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Downtown escape

Let yourself go - savor a break from the familiar, indulge in the unexplored, discover something

The John Hancock Tower stands like a shining monolith over downtown, with Newbury Street, one of Boston's chief shopping venues, stretching into the distance from the foreground.
The John Hancock Tower stands like a shining monolith over downtown, with Newbury Street, one of Boston's chief shopping venues, stretching into the distance from the foreground. (Dina Rudick/Globe Staff)
By Necee Regis
Globe Correspondent / January 18, 2009
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So you have canceled the Cancun adventure? Postponed the Paris fling? Not to worry. If a vacation includes stepping outside normal routines, enjoying small pleasures, and learning new things, why not do it close to home? Boston has world-class museums, winning sports teams, outstanding restaurants, notable shopping districts, enviable music venues, and history galore. And just think: You won't have to shuffle through airport security.

More than 23 million people visited the metropolitan area in 2007, according to the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau. Contemplating a Boston staycation, I wondered: What would tourists do?

One of the first things is to plan accommodations. To complete the illusion of getting away you might want to book lodging so you won't have to worry about partying too hard or too late.

The Liberty Hotel, in the former Charles Street Jail, is steps away from the Charles River and the Esplanade, as well as the shops and restaurants along Charles Street. A Winter Wonderland Package includes breakfast for two in the hotel's restaurant, Clink, gourmet hot chocolate, and two VIP tickets to the Frog Pond skating rink on Boston Common.

At the Boston Marriott Long Wharf Hotel, which boasts an indoor pool with a harbor view, a Freedom Trail Package offers breakfast for two adults and children and tickets to a Freedom Trail tour.

New England Aquarium has partnered with 15 hotels that offer packages that include free admission to the aquarium and its Simons IMAX theater. The Museum of Fine Arts has similar hotel partnerships, which include general admission and special exhibition tickets.

Whether you stay over or not, it's important to mark your calendar for the time you'll be "away." Then make a list of things you've always wanted to do in the city.

For example, many people enjoy the musicians and jugglers at Quincy Market's cobblestone promenade before they shop or dine in the historic Greek Revival building. But fewer take advantage of the tours led by National Park Service rangers in Faneuil Hall. A staycation is the perfect time to get reacquainted with this elegant building, referred to as the "Cradle of Liberty," where both John Hancock and Frederick Douglass spoke about the issues of their day. Free tours of the 18th-century structure, expanded in 1806 by Charles Bulfinch, begin every half hour.

The Red Sox won't be back at Fenway Park till spring, but the Celtics and the Bruins are both wowing fans this season. If you can't score basketball or hockey tickets, it's worth a visit to the Sports Museum. Located on two floors in TD Banknorth Garden, the museum's half-mile of exhibits celebrates legends and moments in Boston sports history with items including Larry Bird's locker, Adam Vinatieri's Super Bowl-winning cleats, and an outfit worn by Olympic silver medal figure skater Nancy Kerrigan.

Or attend a concert by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Tickets start as low as $30 and there's no such thing as a bad seat in the hall that was built in 1900 and acclaimed for its acoustics ever since.

Last-minute deals for drama, musicals, ballet, and experimental theater at other venues can be purchased at two BosTix booths, at Faneuil Hall Marketplace and Copley Square. You have to pay cash for half-price tickets on the same day as the show, but after 6 p.m. the website lists what's available the following day. If you haven't seen the multisensory Blue Man Group at the Charles Playhouse, now's the perfect opportunity.

Any vacation requires a little indulgence. At the new Spa at Mandarin Oriental Boston in the Back Bay, facials, body massages, and wraps involve hot stones, damask rose water, aromatic essential oils, salt scrubs, and other treatments guaranteed to renew your sun-deprived skin and senses. For a complete makeover, schedule a hair appointment at the nearby Mizu, a new salon created by Elan Sassoon. If you can't afford such high-end pampering, walk around the corner, in the Prudential Center mall, to lululemon athletica. Every Sunday morning this Vancouver-based company pushes aside the racks of yoga attire to create space for free classes - they even provide the yoga mats.

One could spend an entire day inside the mall, browsing among everything from luggage to candles to formal clothes to running shoes, then grazing in the food court. (Not to mention the 360-degree view of the city from the Prudential Center Skywalk.) If the weather is good, it's equally rewarding to walk from one end of Newbury Street to the other, ambling through bookstores, boutiques, art galleries, and enjoying the cafes on this fashionable stretch of Back Bay. Shop for upscale bargains at Second Time Around or find fun party clothes at the independently owned Queen Bee boutique. If you need a nibble, the European-style cafe L'Aroma serves tasty sandwiches, pastry, coffee, and a big selection of unblended, hand-plucked teas.

For art aficionados, in addition to the galleries on Newbury Street and the SoWa arts district in the South End, there's the Institute of Contemporary Art, Museum of Fine Arts, and museums and exhibition spaces affiliated with universities. But there's something about the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum that seems especially in tune with a vacation. Perhaps it's the four-story building, modeled on a Venetian palazzo, where the indoor courtyard is filled with seasonal plants year-round. Or maybe it's the collection of art and antiquities that includes 15th-century Flemish tapestries and paintings by Rembrandt, Matisse, Manet, Sargent, Michelangelo, Whistler, and Titian. Time seems suspended in this elegant space, making it an idyllic way to spend an afternoon. Make a reservation for lunch at the cafe, where the menu is exceptional but seating is limited.

For dinner Boston has more terrific dining establishments than one vacation can absorb. Tourists often rave about the Union Oyster House but there's also B&G Oysters in the South End, where one can chose from a dozen or two varieties in a stylish setting. With over 30 chef-owned restaurants in the area, the South End is a prime culinary destination - though on a Sunday morning, you can't beat a dim sum breakfast in Chinatown, followed by an afternoon cappuccino and cannoli in the North End.

So many neighborhoods, so many great things to do. Who needs the Caribbean in winter? Slip on your ruby red shoes. Close your eyes and repeat after me: "There's no place like home."

Necee Regis can be contacted at neceeregis@gmail.com.

If You Go

Where to stay

Liberty Hotel

215 Charles St.

617-224-4000

www.libertyhotel.com

Doubles $295-$385.

Boston Marriott Long Wharf

296 State St.

617-227-0800

www.marriott.com

Doubles $199-$271.

What to do

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

280 The Fenway

617-566-1401

www.gardnermuseum.org

Symphony Hall

301 Massachusetts Ave.

617-266-1492 (information), 266-1200 (tickets)

www.bso.org

New England Aquarium

Central Wharf

617-973-5200

www.neaq.org

Faneuil Hall

Dock Square

617-242-5642

www.cityofboston.gov/freedomtrail

Historical talks every 30 minutes, 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m.

BosTix

Copley Square and Faneuil Hall Marketplace

617-262-8632, ext. 229

www.artsboston.org

Sports Museum

TD Banknorth Garden

100 Legends Way

617-624-1234

www.tdbanknorthgarden.com/sportsmuseum

Spa at Mandarin Oriental

776 Boylston St.

617-535-8820

www.mandarinoriental.com/boston/spa/

Mizu

776 Boylston St.

617-585-MIZU

www.mizuforhair.com

Prudential Skywalk Observatory

800 Boylston St.

617-859-0648

www.prudentialcenter.com/shop

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