Go to the head of the classes

Learn and live: saucing to skating to glass casting

By Ellen Albanese
Globe Correspondent / March 27, 2011

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For children, “vacation’’ and “school’’ are mutually exclusive. But for grownups, whose distance from hall passes and homework has opened the door to nostalgia for the joy of discovery, learning opportunities can add a welcome dimension to a vacation. TripAdvisor named participation in educational activitie s one of its 2011 travel trends.

It would be hard to find a New England destination with more learning opportunities than Providence. Dubbed “the creative capital,’’ the city offers half-day, daylong, evening, and weekend classes ranging from culinary arts to fine art to welding and metalwork. Knitters and skaters can brush up on their skills at drop-in sessions. And the whole family can learn about marine conservation on a Save the Bay seal watch.

Chef’s Choice cooking classes at Johnson & Wales University fill up fast. I snagged the last spot in “Knife Skills’’ earlier this month, where I learned to julienne, dice, and mince from Chef Erik Goellner and his student helpers. My fellow classmates came from all over New England. Dawn Robertson of Rowayton, Conn., said she fell in love with Providence when she took a coaching course here several years ago. Other courses cover heart-healthy cooking, charcuterie, all kinds of ethnic cuisine, and basic skills for children and teens. Goellner said the university will help people put together a weekend package of cooking classes combined with lodging at one of its two hotels.

Walter Potenza, chef-owner of Walter’s Ristorante d’Italia on Federal Hill, teaches cooking classes on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday evenings. Participants create a menu, then consume their work. Providence is a culinary destination, Potenza says, so visitors who have eaten at some of the city’s top restaurants are naturally interested in learning more about cooking. Chef Walter’s Cooking School also partners with hotels on Federal Hill and will custom design a weekend of dining and cooking classes. Sauce making is the most popular class, he says; others cover Tuscan cooking, food and wine pairing, and small plates.

For “outside the box’’ class offerings, head for The Steel Yard at the historic Providence Steel and Iron site, along the Woonasquatucket River. The intensive short-term and multisession courses provide instruction and training in a wide range of industrial and fine art, including sculpture, ceramics, glass casting, welding, and metal working, among others. Students have come from as far as California for the weekend workshops, says Drake Patten, executive director. “All our events are aimed at education,’’ said Patten. “An open pour is accompanied by conversation about what you’re seeing, the iron working tradition, and why it’s still happening.’’

Monica O’Brien of Newtown, Conn., took her son, A.J. O’Brien-Costantino, 16, and three of his friends to Providence for a weekend metal working workshop, along with two younger children. The boys loved the course, she said. “They came home with really neat pieces: a rocket launcher with shield, little statues, action figures for younger brothers, and some pieces I would consider artsy.’’ Another student made lawn aerators. The family made a weekend of it, she said, staying at the Courtyard Providence and taking in the Roger Williams Park Zoo and the Providence Children’s Museum. Said A.J., “I had never welded before. With the masks and the sparks flying, it was pretty cool.’’

On the third Thursday evening of every month, visitors to the Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art can take a free art lesson. Gallery Nights draw a good mix of locals and visitors, said Lani Stack, senior marketing communications specialist at the school. Between 6 and 8 p.m., RISD alumnus Paul Carpentier gives an art lesson related to the current gallery show — sometimes sketching, sometimes sculpture. All materials are provided, and participants leave with something they have created.

Knitters looking for inspiration or who want to learn a new technique are welcome to stop in at one of the knitting and crocheting workshops offered by Fresh Purls on Hope Street. “Along with locals, we get flight attendants and parents visiting their students at RISD and Brown,’’ says Becky Ebeling, marketing manager. The Friday walk-in lunchtime group is especially popular with visitors, she said, who gather ideas on where to go for dinner in addition to knitting tips. “Providence is a great city,’’ Ebeling said. “If visitors are interested in knitting, I would send them to the RISD Museum, which sometimes has exhibits from its textile department, or to the Slater Mill Museum in Pawtucket, which has historic ties to the textile industry.’’

Families will learn about marine life and conservation on a seal watch sponsored by Save the Bay. The Providence-based organization, dedicated to protecting, restoring, and improving the ecological health of the Narragansett Bay region, offers seal watch tours from November through April and lighthouse tours in the fall. Boats depart from both Providence and Newport.

We took our seal watch from Newport on a windy day in March (and wished we had worn hats). On the way out to Sighting Rock, a volunteer from the Rose Lighthouse Foundation showed us a nautical map of the bay and talked about the habits of harbor seals. We circled the rocky outcropping that appears only at low tide and, with the aid of binoculars provided on board, saw some 25 seals sunning themselves. A good follow-up to the cruise is a visit to Save the Bay’s aquarium on Easton’s Beach in Newport, with its exhibits of marine life and a touch tank.

The season is over, but come November the Bank of America City Center will once again offer weekend ice-skating lessons and refresher courses for adults and children. More than double the size of Rockefeller Center’s rink in New York, the Bank of America rink also offers skate rentals.

Embracing the creative capital concept, the Hotel Providence offers a workshop series entitled “Discover Your Passion,’’ with such diverse subjects as children’s literature, photography, screenwriting, and art collecting. “We’re in the cultural epicenter of Rhode Island,’’ says Tricia Carter, workshop coordinator, “so it made sense to ally ourselves with what Providence is trying to do, to enjoy and celebrate the arts.’’ The workshops are small and intimate, in keeping with the boutique nature of the property, Carter said. At the same time, guests are provided with maps of the city and encouraged to explore the area’s cultural attractions.

Judy Boss of Exeter, R.I., took a workshop in creative writing in hopes she would find a way to make her two unpublished novels marketable. When we spoke, she said she was just reworking the first chapter of one based on guidelines and feedback from the workshop.

“One of the biggest reasons that we developed the workshops,’’ said Carter, “was to provide our guests with something more than a memory. We wanted them to leave our hotel with a new skill or revive a beloved passion.’’

Ellen Albanese can be reached at

If You Go

Chef’s Choice Cooking Classes
Johnson & Wales University
333 Shipyard Drive
Classes from$80 per person.
Chef Walter’s Cooking School
Walter’s Ristorante d’Italia
286 Atwells Ave.
401-273-2652 ing_school.htm
Classes $75 per person.
Discover Workshops
Hotel Providence
139 Mathewson St.
$389 single, $569 double, $149 workshop only.
Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design
Chace Center, 20 North Main St.
Third Thursday Gallery Night (5-9 p.m.), with art lesson (6-8 p.m.). Free.
The Steel Yard
27 Sims Ave.
One-day workshops from $90; two-day workshops from $175.
Save the Bay
100 Save the Bay Drive
Seal Watch tours depart Bowen’s Ferry Landing, Newport, weekends and school vacations from November-April, $20 adults, $15 children.
Fresh Purls
769A Hope St.
Fees vary; some drop-in sessions are free.
The Bank of America City Center
2 Kennedy Plaza
401-331-5544 ext. 5
Rink open November-March. Weekend drop-in refresher skating lessons $15.