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In Providence, embracing and escaping winter at the same time

Bank of America City Center skating rink in the heart of downtown, and a koi pond at the Botanical Center at Roger Williams Park.

Bank of America City Center skating rink in the heart of downtown, and a koi pond at the Botanical Center at Roger Williams Park.

As the Florida real estate agents are wont to say about New England over the next few months, “Winter — love it or leave it.” In Providence, you can do both in a single day.

The Thanksgiving week opening of the outdoor skating rink at Bank of America City Center served as the unofficial launch of winter here in the Rhode Island capital. It took city workers nearly a month to get the rink ready, starting with maintenance on the Zamboni,  putting up dasher boards around the perimeter, and then firing up the cooling system that took two full nights to freeze a thick layer of ice over a white-painted cement base.

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But the glistening ice on the 14,000-square-foot rink — nearly twice the size of New York’s Rockefeller Center rink — was clearly worth the effort. As the weather got in sync with the city and chilled to sunny low 40s, families from Providence and beyond embraced the season on runners.

Scott Andrews was at the rink with his kids Willow, 7, and Sky, 3. “They’re trying to get used to how slippery it is,” he said. It was the children’s first time on the ice, “but we have family members who come here quite a lot at lunch,” Andrews said.

That’s the beauty of Bank of America City Center. Nestled between the handsome yellow-brick 1898 Union Station and the still-heroic 1927 Art Deco “Superman” skyscraper, the rink is surrounded by a spiky skyline of substantial buildings — many of them filled during the week by office workers. For those harried cubicle denizens, the rink offers weekday half-price skating at lunch and after work.

The rink stays open every night until 10 p.m. With a disco-pop soundtrack, it’s a great spot for skate dates, teens trying to impress each other, and after-dinner workouts for wannabe Zdeno Cháras or Sasha Cohens. Some weekend skaters might harbor similar hockey and medal dreams, but they share the ice with skating families that sometimes span three generations.

After a couple of chilly hours gliding on the ice, one good way to warm up is to stroll across the river to Café Choklad for a mug of thick hot chocolate, or, for the deeply chilled, “wicked hot” chocolate spiked with chili pepper. You might even get lucky and snag one of the tables in front of the gas fireplace.

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But the better option is to flee winter altogether for the perpetual summer of the Botanical Center at Roger Williams Park. While the skating rink is smack-dab in the downtown center, the soaring greenhouses are hidden away on the east side of the park on the south of the city. The complex of three glass houses covers 12,000 square feet, making up what Providence — in yet another display of the Rhode Island Napoleon complex — calls the “largest public indoor display gardens in New England.”

Warm, moist air greets you at the greenhouse entrance. You have entered the tropics. Wipe the condensation off your glasses and shed that heavy winter coat.

That first greenhouse is, in some ways, the most impressive of the three linked buildings. It features towering palm trees native to Madagascar and Central America and the experience is set to the background music of a burbling fountain. Low-growing terrestrial Anthurium plants — both the ivory-bract variety and the more flamboyant red-bract variant often called the flamingo lily — ring the fountain. This time of year potted poinsettias augment the display, bringing more red and green to the holiday look.

Opened in 2007, the Botanical Center is clearly still evolving, but it has become a popular spot for weddings and other events as well as a charming if low-key place to bring visiting relatives. Grandparents can relax on a bench in the semi-sauna environment or indulge their inner botanist while the kids race around from water feature to water feature in some of the open spaces.

Visiting is a laissez-faire kind of experience. There are no maps and signage is mostly limited to identification tags on individual trees and plants. Climatic changes in the vast, glass-enclosed space are actually rather subtle. From the towering palms, the pathway leads into a second glass room with a koi pond (where some substantial carp slowly cruise back and forth) and a display of carnivorous plants awaiting unwitting insects. Some of the most extravagant-looking are exotic varieties of pitcher plants and flytraps, but the garden also includes lovely and delicate white-flowered terrestrial bladderworts, commonly found in bogs around New England. One of the center’s rare signs warns visitors not to stick their fingers (or other objects) into the traps of the plants.

Only a few steps away from the boggy planting of carnivores is a sandbox full of desert plants, including the giant Mexican Cereus — a single-stalk cactus that can grow up to 40 feet tall. Whoever planted this display did it with a sense of humor, as the other desert succulents are three commonly used to mitigate pain: the aloe vera, whose sap soothes burns, the blue agave that serves as the source of tequila, and the century plant or maguey, whose roasted hearts are fermented to make mezcal.

The second glass house is perhaps the gaudiest, with its exuberant blooming plants like hibiscus, honey-sweet orange jasmine, various members of the Camellia family, and some young examples of bougainvillea that have yet to take over the sky. A Ponderosa lemon tree hangs heavy with yellow fruit, while a clump of Mexican brush sage extrudes a tangle of long branches covered in small purple flowers.

Perhaps to prepare visitors for the inevitable, the greenhouses get drier and cooler as you follow the winding pathways. By the time you admire the last jade plants and beavertail cactus, it will be time to shrug that forgotten coat back on and button up tight.

Baby, it’s cold outside.

Patricia Harris and David Lyon can be reached at harris.lyon@verizon
.net
.

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