48 Hours in Cambridge

The best rowers from Cambridge will be battling their Dark Blue rivals on the Thames tomorrow. Susan Griffith says that the best time to visit the Light Blue city is when the students are away
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The Independent Travel

WHY GO NOW?

The 150th anniversary of the Boat Race may prompt you to pay a visit. The Cam is at its loveliest in the spring when the punts are out of hibernation and the undergraduates are out of town until term resumes in mid-April. It has been a bad spring for crocuses but the daffodils are now out in force. With an extra hour of daylight from tomorrow, you can also linger for longer beside the river. A word of warning - if you leave your visit until the exam revision season (mid-April to mid-June), you will not be allowed inside any college.

BEAM DOWN

You can travel by train from London (King's Cross or Liverpool Street), Norwich, Peterborough, Birmingham and Leicester, which should give you plenty of connection possibilities from elsewhere in Britain. Call 08457 48 49 50 for details of services to Cambridge station.

GET YOUR BEARINGS

The river arcs around the north and west of the city centre. A series of lively and attractive green spaces inside the curve, when combined with Cambridge's picturesque bridges, make the back gardens of the famous colleges particularly lovely. Inside the gates of Trinity, St John's, Clare and King's, you quickly forget that you are only a few minutes' walk from the shopping thoroughfares of Sidney Street and St Andrew's Street. The Tourist Information Centre is located near Market Hill (0906 586 2526; 60p a minute; www.tourismcambridge.com).

CHECK IN

According to a man who used to collect the laundry, the Lensfield Hotel at 53 Lensfield Road (01223 355017; www.lensfieldhotel.co.uk) is the cleanest hotel in Cambridge. It also has a little more character than most and allows easy access to the sites of interest. Doubles cost £98 including breakfast. On the other side of town, just a few minutes' walk from the college boathouses, is the newest bed and breakfast among the many along Chesterton Road. The Green House at 98 Chesterton Road (01223 574480; www.greenbnb.co.uk) is run by a couple of frustrated chefs who serve strictly organic food. The price of a double room is £50-75 including a superb breakfast. Many are yet to be convinced that the much-hyped Felix Hotel on Whitehouse Lane off the Huntingdon Road (01223 277973; www.hotelfelix.co.uk) is worth £150-200 B&B for a double, especially since it is such a long way from the town centre.

TAKE A VIEW

Great St Mary's is the university church off Market Square and is open daily from 9.30am-4ish, except on Sundays when it opens at 1pm (admission £2). It was originally designated the centre of Cambridge - technically students are still obliged to live within three miles. Although a glorious view of rooftops and landmarks can be had from the tower, you cannot see the river.

TAKE A HIKE

From Midsummer Common it is a diverting 30-minute ramble along the towpath to the riverside hostelries of Chesterton. You will pass picturesque houseboats with rooftop herb gardens, a derelict lifeboat, a pristine barge and Stourbridge Common. From 1211 this was the venue for what may have been the original Vanity Fair - at its height it was one of the biggest fairs in Europe, with puppet shows, rope dancers and wrestling matches. Like a good pilgrim, you can pass on and stop for a pint at the Green Dragon.

LUNCH ON THE RUN

The new Michaelhouse Café (01223 309167), in a 14th-century church on Trinity Street, attracts students, shoppers and visitors with its excellent fresh vegetarian dishes and local art on the walls. The smoke-free Free Press pub on Prospect Row (01223 368337) is a back-street hostelry serving the kind of wholesome food that can confer rowing stamina.

CULTURAL AFTERNOON

With two of the main museums closed for refurbishment (the Fitzwilliam until the end of May and the Folk Museum until early 2005), this is a good chance to visit some less familiar buildings. University museums are all free. At the Archaeology and Anthropology Museum, which is open from 2-4.30pm Tuesday to Saturday, you can't fail to notice a Solomon Islanders' canoe - built for speed-rowing by up to 30 men (01223 333516; http://museum-server.archanth.cam.ac.uk). The Museum of Classical Archaeology (01223 335153, www.classics.cam.ac.uk/ark.html) has a relief from 400BC showing a trireme (warship). It's open from 10am to 5pm Monday to Friday (plus Saturday mornings in term time). New Hall on Huntingdon Road, open daily from 10am to 6pm, has one of the world's largest collections of women's contemporary art(01223 762297; www.newhall.cam.ac.uk/womensart).

WINDOW SHOPPING

King Street has an eclectic mixture of retail establishments, from the terrifyingly chic Blu Max, with its selection of designer shoes and clothes, to the comfortably traditional Heffer's Art Shop. To find a hidden treasure, visit the cluster of antique shops at the lower end of Gwydir Street in the old Dale's Brewery. Browse in G. David Bookseller on an obscure lane running off Market Square towards King's. Unusually, the bargain shelves outside contain a few books you might actually want to read.

AN APERITIF

The River Bar + Kitchen, overlooking Magdalene College across the river (01223 307030; www.riverbarkitchen.com), is a stylish, Conran-esque bar where cocktails cost £3.50 in the early evening (6.30-7.30pm weekdays, half an hour earlier on Saturdays). Just before Jesus Green, the Waterside Pub and Dining Room has a laid-back atmosphere and can be visited for a drink or a meal. A more traditional place to gather of an early evening is the Fort St. George Pub where picnic tables overlook Midsummer Common at the front and the river at the back.

DINING WITH THE LOCALS

You can catch a crab at the reliable Loch Fyne Fish Restaurant at 37 Trumpington Street (01223 362433). A higher concentration of eating places can be found along the eclectic Mill Road. Dinner at the tranquil Bruno's Brasserie (01223 312702) starts with bread in an excellent olive oil and balsamic vinegar dip and proceeds to beautifully crafted salads, mains and puddings. If you want to spend less, go a few doors along to Al Casbah (01223 579500), which serves Algerian food (cous cous, grilled meat and vegetables) or to Trattoria Pasta Fresca (01223 352836).

SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO CHURCH

Visit an unusual Victorian church that is only open between 10.30am and 3.30pm from Wednesday to Sunday. All Saints Church, opposite Jesus College, has a highly unusual interior, painted from floor to ceiling in a William Morris style. Morris collaborated with Burne-Jones and Ford Maddox Brown on the stained glass in the east window.

OUT TO BRUNCH

With many places closed on Sundays, you may want to walk, cycle or drive to Grantchester to have morning coffee and sustenance at the venerable Orchard Tea Gardens (01223 845788), where the deckchairs in the lovely garden have been dusted down for the summer season.

TAKE A RIDE

Bicycles can be readily hired from places such as Cambridge Station Cycles at the station (01223 307125; www.stationcycles.co.uk) for £8 a day or £12 for two days. Alternatively, rent a rowboat or Canadian canoe at the Mill Pond. The Granta Punt & Boat Company (01223 301845) will have these craft on the river by Easter, charging £10 an hour for up to four people. It is probably a little early for punting, though plenty of chauffeur punters (who can make Venetian gondoliers seem bashful) will make themselves known as you pass Magdalene Bridge and Silver Street.

A WALK IN THE PARK

Inevitably you will find yourself strolling through the interconnected greens in Cambridge, which create an almost rural ambience, especially when a herd of cows has been brought in to graze on common land. But this is still urban living so you should pause on Jesus Green to admire the skateboarders, whose campaign to have a skatepark built next to the outdoor swimming pool (not open until May) finally succeeded last year.

ICING ON THE CAKE

Ice is the operative word at the Scott Polar Museum on Lensfield Road (01223 336540; www.spri.cam.ac.uk; 2.30-4pm weekdays, free admission) which traces courageous and foolhardy expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctic. Particularly impressive is the section relating to Sir Ernest Shackleton's vessel, Endurance, which became trapped in Antarctic ice - forcing him to make an 800-mile journey in an open boat to seek rescue for his crew, all of whom survived.

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