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A likely trip for the lads . . . and lasses

Heading off on our flight to Newcastle (a first-ever visit) we had notions of a Geordieland armed with only the stereotype of a heavyset man with no top on, half-covered in tattoos cheering on their poor soccer team.

But there's so much more to the north east than football and stag weekends -- it's a friendly hive of culture, of uber-cool dining spots and nightlife that's more than a match for London or Manchester.

Landing on a Friday afternoon, we were soon at the Vermont Hotel (www.vermont hotel.com) and you could not get a more central room. Overlooking the emblematic Tyne Bridge, the 30s Manhattan-style tower is in the heart of the trendy Quayside area.

After settling in, we headed for lunch down at the quays, where most of Newcastle's newest bars and eateries are situated. We had lunch in Gusto, which is a trendy restaurant as far removed from the image of the Likely Lads' fish and chips as you're going to get. Part of a UK chain, the Italian-inspired eaterie supports quality local suppliers and served excellent, well-priced food with good service which set us up for a walking tour of the city.

We took in various sites, such as the gates of Newcastle, the shopping district, the Tyne Bridge and back over to the Baltic Art Gallery on the Gateshead side of the Tyne.

The warehouse has been converted into the biggest gallery of its kind in the world, where there are no permanent exhibits but an ever-changing kaleidoscope of colours in the visual arts.

On the Gateshead side you'll also find the Metro Centre (www.metrocentre.uk.com), the largest retail and entertainment mall in Europe with more than 340 shops. If you want shopping on a smaller scale, Newcastle is the ideal place, with Northumberland Street the equivalent of Grafton or Henry Street.

Despite the new wave of art and culture, you can't get away from soccer. Newcastle and fierce rivals Sunderland are connected by the brilliant metro rail service. And Sunderland's impressive Stadium of Light is a must. Tickets are more readily available than at other clubs; we managed to bag a few for the Premiership clash against Arsenal.

Next there was a tour of Sunderland, taking in the National Glass Centre (www.nationalglasscentre.com) and the Winter Gardens and Museum (www.twmuseums. org.uk/sunderland).

All in all, a region that's got more than enough for any savvy weekender.

For further information www.newcastlegateshead.com www.visitsunderland.com