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Winter Family Fun in Northern Rhode Island

An enchanted holiday train ride is just part of the winter fun in Rhode Island's snowy and scenic New England towns and mill villages.

The Polar Express, written by Rhode Island School of Design graduate Chris Van Allsburg, is the beloved story of a young boy's magical train journey to the North Pole on Christmas Eve. It's a journey you can experience with your own children aboard Rhode Island's own Polar Express train in the Blackstone Valley. Dressing your kids in their best pj's to meet Santa and receive the "first gift of Christmas" is just one of the fun family adventures you can enjoy in northern Rhode Island, where historic mill buildings stand in for Santa's Workshop and indoor and outdoor winter activities are within easy reach of Providence, Pawtucket, and Woonsocket, the state's center of French-Canadian culture.

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Day One

Get your visit to the Blackstone Valley off to a delicious beginning with breakfast at Pawtucket's famous Modern Diner, a classic Sterling Streamliner diner right out of Disney's Cars that serves generously proportioned omelettes, pancakes, French toast, breakfast sandwiches, and a long list of daily specials.

From the diner it's a short drive to Slater Mill, the gem of the Blackstone River National Heritage Corridor and the birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution. Guided tours of the textile mill are offered on weekends through the end of November, but you can visit the grounds and enjoy the views of the Pawtucket Falls -- which once powered the mill's looms -- any time.

The Hope Artiste Village is one of the many creative uses of former mill buildings in Pawtucket, providing a home to more than 120 businesses from craftspeople and artists to restaurants, The Met live music venue, the Lock & Clue escape room, and even a bowling alley. The complex also hosts a popular winter farmers market every Saturday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. between November and April.

Slater Mill founder Samuel Slater also lends his name to Pawtucket's Slater Memorial Park, which each December lights up for a Winter Wonderland celebration that includes lit and decorated holiday trees, visits with Santa, hay rides, live entertainment, and rides on the park's recently restored Looff Carousel.

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Day Two

Follow Route 146 and the Blackstone River north from Pawtucket to Woonsocket, where thousands of French-Canadian immigrants once flocked to find work in the local mills; the story of their hard work and struggle in pursuit of the American Dream is told at the Museum of Work and Culture on Woonsocket's Depot Square. Spend the morning exploring the museum exhibits before taking a break for lunch at Ye Olde English Fish & Chips across the street; this no-frills restaurant has been serving the most authentic fish & chips this side of the Atlantic to hungry families for more than 95 years.

A crisp winter day is a perfect time for a stroll along the Blackstone River Bikeway, which runs for 16.5 miles between Central Falls and Woonsocket and offers frequent views of the river's Industrial Revolution heritage, from old canal locks to former mill buildings, water wheels, and mill races. Take the drive south along River Road (Route 126) to the Captain Wilbur Kelly House in Lincoln, whose namesake once piloted boats on the Blackstone Canal, where you can park just steps from the bike path, canal, and river.

If the weather won't cooperate with outdoor activities, Cinemaworld at the nearby Lincoln Mall has movie theaters, a bowling alley, and an arcade, and RI Indoor Karting in Lincoln has indoor go-karts that can reach speeds of up to 40 mph on a serpentine track, and also offers bowling, billiards, and axe-throwing lanes. The axes are only for those ages 16 and older, but mini-karting can be enjoyed by kids ages 6 and up on weekday afternoons and evenings.

The go-karts are thrilling, but make sure you get back to Woonsocket's Depot Square on time to punch your ticket to the Polar Express. The 90-minute train ride to the North Pole and back runs along the banks of the Blackstone River and includes cookies and hot cocoa, a visit with Santa, a reading of the Polar Express book, holiday carol singalongs, and of course a souvenir golden ticket and silver bell for each pajama-clad passenger. Trains leave from the historic Blackstone Valley Train Depot on weekends between Nov. 15 to Dec. 22, with departures at 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Fridays and 1 p.m., 4 p.m., and 7 p.m. on Saturdays.

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Day Three

Help your kids burn off the lingering excitement from their North Pole adventure with a walk, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, or sledding at Chase Farm or Lincoln Woods State Park. Be sure to stop into the tiny Hartley's Pork Pies shop on nearby Smithfield Avenue in Lincoln for a savory snack of English-style meat pies. They sell out fast, though, so call in your order ahead at (401) 726-1295. Wrap up your winter family adventure with a country drive into Rhode Island's rural northwest corner. Make a stop at Wright's Dairy Farm in North Smithfield, where you can see the cows milked every afternoon from 3 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. and pick up some traditional "hermit" cookies. Then follow scenic Route 102 south to to the colonial village of Chepachet, which is decked out with holiday lights each December for its Candlelight Shopping events on Thursday nights and the final Saturday before Christmas.

Where to Eat

Family style dinners are served nightly at Wright's Farm in Harrisville,with heaving platters of roasted chicken, pasta, french fries, and salad shared along communal tables among families and new friends. Kids will love the chicken-themed gift shop, too. Roast beef sandwiches are another Rhode Island tradition that your family can tuck into at the Beef Barn, a North Smithfield landmark since 1969. "Dynamite" sandwiches are another kid-pleasing local specialty: find this regional version of the Sloppy Joe at the Castle Luncheonette on Social Street in downtown Woonsocket. The clubby Ciro's, River Falls in a restored mill building on the Blackstone River, the rustic Lodge Pub & Eatery in Lincoln, and Blackie's Bulldog Tavern in Smithfield are all can't-miss options for a nice family dinner out.

For Night Owls

The beautifully restored Stadium Theater in Woonsocket showcases a wide variety of musical performances, theater, and dance productions, including a schedule of holiday shows such as Charles Dickens'  A Christmas Carol, The Nutcracker ballet, a holiday pops orchestra show, and a free screening of The Polar Express on the night before Christmas Eve. Chan's in downtown Woonsocket, which serves a quirky combination plate of Chinese food and live music, also mixes several holiday shows into its regular schedule of rock, jazz, and blues performances.

Where to Stay

Family friendly lodging options include Holiday Inn Express in Woonsocket and Smithfield, Hampton Inns in Smithfield and Pawtucket (all with indoor pools and hot breakfast included), the Courtyard by Marriott in Lincoln, and the All Seasons Inn and Suites in Smithfield. The Holiday Inn Express in downtown Woonsocket is walking distance to attractions like the Museum of Work and Culture and the Polar Express, while the is Hampton Inn in Pawtucket is just a few blocks away from the Slater Mill National Historic Site and the picturesque Pawtucket Falls. The Pillsbury House Bed & Breakfast welcomes children ages 12 and has four guest rooms in the North End of Woonsocket, about a mile from central Depot Square downtown. Grace Note Farm in the village of Pascoag offers family "farmstays" and overnight accommodations on a working farm, with gourmet meals served by the owners, equestrian trail rides, and an indoor concert series that runs through December.