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10 Most Precious Places on Earth—And How to Save Them

By Nicole Frehsee
April 17, 2012
EndangeredPlaces_MachuPicchu_Overview
Luq1 / Dreamstime.com
In 2007 the Galapagos were considered endangered—today they're not. If only all of our planet's treasures could be so lucky. In honor of Earth Day, we present 10 places our world depends on most—and how you can help preserve them.

In 2007, UNESCO flagged the Galapagos Islands as an endangered place. But in 2010, after Ecuador's government stepped up conservation efforts, the Galapagos were dropped from the list. It's a story that gives us hope: With conservation efforts, funding, and a hefty dose of eco-focused TLC, we can turn potential disasters around. With that in mind, we researched places with unique features—wildlife, geography, culture—that would be devastating to lose. Once Africa's wild lions are extinct, for example, there's no replacing them. Ditto the island nations of the world, and the 9th-century buildings of Venice. Of course, it's impossible to rank these spots-how can you say, for example, that the Great Barrier Reef is more (or less) important than the Amazonian jungle? Instead, we put together a timeline that shows just how quickly we could lose these earthly wonders if we don't act now. Yes, this is a sobering read, but the silver lining is that youcanmake a difference-here's how (and how to visit responsibly if you so choose).  

SEE THE PLACES


By the year 2100, we could lose...


Antarctica

Antarctica has no permanent residents, but its existence (or lack thereof) has major implications for everyone on earth. Over the past 50 years, temperatures in parts of the continent have jumped between 5 and 6 degrees F—a rate five times faster than the global average. In 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report predicting sea levels would rise between seven and 23 inches by 2100. One caveat: the numbers didn't account for Antarctica's rapid ice melt. Now, researchers believe the sea could shoot up three to six feet by the end of the century. Antarctica's ice cap holds 70 percent of the freshwater on Earth; if it melts, the oceans could rise 187 feet, decimating entire island nations worldwide (the Maldives, for example). Antarctica's wildlife is also at risk. Krill are essential to the marine food chain—fish, seals, and whales eat them—but the shrimp-like crustaceans' numbers have dropped 80 percent since the 1970s, disrupting the whole ecosystem.

Donate: Comprised of more than 30 NGOs worldwide, the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition pushes initiatives like tourism regulation, and sustainable fishing. asoc.org

Go green: G Adventures, a sustainability minded tour operator based in Canada, offers a 13-day Antarctica cruise staffed by historians and marine biologists aboard the M/S Expedition. 888/800-4100, gadventures.com. From $4,999 per person.

Venice, Italy

One of the world's most beautiful, historic, and romantic cities is built on water—and it could soon find itself under it. Rising ocean levels resulting from global warming are a threat to the low-lying Venice, which is made up of 118 small islands on a lagoon that sits at sea level. Flooding from the Adriatic Sea's high tides has become dire in the last 60 years. In 1900, Piazza San Marco, Venice's central square, flooded seven times; in 2002, the number jumped to 108. The ocean's salt water eats away at Venice's historic buildings, among them the opulent Palazzo Ducale, which dates back to the 9th century. Floodgates are being built around the city, but they're not scheduled to begin operation until 2015. Water isn't the only thing flooding the city. Twenty million tourists visit the city annually, which encourages harmful real-estate development and jams Venice's waterways with traffic. Advocacy group Venice in Peril estimates that the city may be largely unlivable as early as next century.

Donate: Since 1966, Venice in Peril has spearheaded research on how to protect the city from flooding, as well as worked to restore Venice's monuments, buildings, and artwork. veniceinperil.org

Go green: If you really want to help Venice, don't visit. If you must go, though, go smart. Canonici de San Marco is a complex of eco tents eight miles outside of Venice, where you can bike in the countryside or take day-trips into the city (011-39/348-722-5577, viacanonici.com. From $157 per night including breakfast and transfers from the Mirano train station). The water that surrounds the city shaped its past-and is in control of its future. Laguna Eco Adventures offers tours of the lagoons on traditional wooden boats, powered by towering sails (011-39/329-722-6289, lagunaecoadventures.com. From $52 per person for a two to four-hour lagoon tour).


By the year 2070, we could lose...


The Himalayas

Like Antarctica, the Himalayas are covered in ice and snow. In fact, the world's highest mountain range—which runs 1,500 miles through seven countries, including India and China—contains the planet's largest non-polar ice mass, with over 46,000 glaciers. And just like in Antarctica, the ice is melting. Between 1950 and 1980, about half of the Himalayas' glaciers were shrinking. That number hit 95 percent in 2010, and scientists predict that the entire Himalayan land mass may be slashed 43 percent by 2070. Global warming is just one reason—soot from millions of coal- and wood-burning stoves in India and China also take a share of the blame. The glaciers absorb the heat, which exacerbates the warming process. The glacier loss will affect people living along Asia's 10 major rivers—who make up one-sixth of the total global population-that depend on glacial melt to stave off drought and starvation.

Donate: Founded by an Arizona man in 2009, the Himalayan Stove Project has an ambitious goal: Deliver 10,000 clean-burning, fuel-efficient stoves to Himalayan residents by 2014. himalayanstoveproject.org

Go green: Himalayan Eco Treks, which operates out of Nepal, organizes an array of earth-friendly trips, including a 25-day Best of Everest tour that includes eight days of trekking as well as easier days seeing cultural spots like the ancient town of Bhaktapur, a World Heritage site. 011-977-4/266-382, himalayanecotrek.com. From $2,765 per person for the 25-day tour.


By the year 2040, we could lose...


Wine Regions

The extreme heat waves and frosts that come with climate change affect soil conditions, so much so that the world's most prestigious wine regions from Bordeaux to Rioja to Napa Valley could be unable to grow quality grapes by the end of the century. To put it in perspective, temperatures in California's Napa (home to 45,000 acres of vineyards) could jump two degrees in the next 30 years, which would upset the balance of sweetness and acidity crucial to good wine, and essentially shrink America's most famous wine-producing region by 50 percent. The conditions are so extreme in Europe that long-established wine epicenters could be pushed northward to England and Scotland as continental temperatures rise. In fact, Brits are already ramping up the production of sparkling wines, traditionally the domain of France's Champagne region: In 1990, England was home to 140 acres devoted to sparkling-wine grapes; by 2010, the number spiked to 1,360.

Donate: Helping wine regions around the world is easy: Buy a bottle. The more money pouring into wine regions, the stronger the local economy—which means winemakers can invest in research and technology to keep their grapes healthy.

Go green: Napa Valley Reservations shuttles drinkers between four eco-friendly wineries in a fuel-efficient Mercedes-Benz Sprinter. 707/252-1985, napavalleyreservations.com. From $130 per person.


By the year 2030, we could lose...


African Lion Habitats

Africa's wild lions have it especially rough: In the last 50 years, the continent's population plummeted from 450,000 to about 40,000, a drop of around 91 percent. The culprit: People. Africa could be home to 1.75 billion people by 2050. As Africa's human population explodes, the competition for resources (think food) increases while farmers and ranchers encroach onto the lions' territory. According to the University of Minnesota's Lion Research Center, Africa's lions may not survive into the next century; other experts say they could be gone in 20 years.

Donate: The Lion Conservation Fund raises local awareness about lion conservation and restores and protects the animals' habitats. lionconservationfund.org

Go green: Minnesota-headquartered Kuchanga Travel organizes "volun-tourism" trips to Zambia, where participants gather data on the country's wild lions and help guides care for the animals. Activities include educating local students about conservation and going on lion walks—literally strolling with the animals in the wild. 612/432-4473, kuchangatravel.com. From $2,080 per person for a two-week trip.


The Amazon

At current deforestation rates, 55 percent of the Amazon's 1.4 billon acres of rain forests could be gone by 2030. (Overexpansion of agriculture, illegal logging, and climate change are all to blame.) The rain forests, which are home to 30 million indigenous people and one-tenth of the world's known species, also contain up to 140 billion metric tons of carbon, which helps stabilize the global climate.

Donate: Founded by a pair of tropical ecologists in 1999, the Amazon Conservation Association works to protect the region's biodiversity. amazonconservation.org

Go green: Ecuador-based Tropic introduces visitors to the Huaorani, an indigenous Amazonian tribe whose members lend tips on tree climbing, kayaking nearby rivers, and face painting with achiote paste. Travelers bunk at an eco-lodge run by the Huaorani, and meals are crafted from local produce. 202/657-5072, tropiceco.com. Five-day trips from $860 per person. 


The Alps

Increased carbon dioxide emissions are causing glaciers in the Alps to melt rapidly; according to scientists, most of them could be gone by as early as 2030. In some areas of the 600-mile mountain range, glaciers are shrinking by 3 percent every year. This obviously has dire implications, both in terms of physical catastrophes (massive flooding, which would impact the Alps' 13 million residents) and economic disasters (the Alps thrive on ski tourism, with more than 120 million annual visitors). In 2006, a Swiss ski-resort owner devised a creative solution to keep glaciers cold: He wrapped one in a 43,000-square-foot fleece blanket. Other resort owners soon followed suit and scientists have since experimented with wool, hemp, and plastic coverings. Also at stake: the region's 30,000 animal species and 13,000 plant species.

Donate: The World Wildlife Foundation's European Alpine Program is dedicated to preserving the region's biodiversity. wwf.panda.org

Go green: If you're traveling with Utah-based Alpenwild, expect to use public transportation, sleep in local inns—and see incredible scenery. The company's Best of the Alps tour leads hikers through lush forests and picturesque villages before hitting Zermatt, at the base of the Matterhorn, and the Jungfrao Mountains, home to the Aletschgletcher, Europe's longest glacier. 800/532-9488, alpenwild.com. From $3,495 per person.


By the year 2020, we could lose...


Virunga National Park, Democratic Republic of the Congo

Founded in 1925, Africa's oldest national park covers nearly two million acres and includes savannas, swamps, and ice fields. It also contains the highest biological diversity of any national park in Africa, with 2,000 plant species, 706 bird species, and 218 mammal species, including hippos and one-third of the world's mountain-gorilla population. Virunga has been in trouble for nearly 20 years—poaching and habitat destruction are to blame—but a huge problem is its location: it sits near a war zone. The park lies within the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but borders Rwanda. Rebel soldiers from the Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (believed to have been involved with the Rwandan genocide in 1994) operate within the park, and more than 140 rangers have been killed in the line of duty since 1996. Virunga's hardwood forests are also being destroyed to support an illegal charcoal trade—if that keeps up, most of the trees in southern Virguna will disappear in 10 years.

Donate: Give directly to Virunga National Park; your money goes towards guarding mountain gorillas (you can pick an individual animal or an entire gorilla family to protect) and other conservation efforts. gorillacd.org

Go green: Safely visit the park with Congo-based Kivu Travel, which offers a five-day Gorilla and Volcano tour that includes a climb up the Nyiragongo volcano and a visit to Virunga's gorillas. kivutravel.net. From $1,650 per person.


Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Stretching 1,429 miles, Australia's Great Barrier Reef is the world's largest and most diverse reef system—and it could be gone in 100 years. Coral cover alone has been reduced by half in the last 50 years, and the GBR as a whole only has a 50 percent chance of survival if global CO2 emissions aren't cut by at least 25 percent by 2020. It's no surprise, then, that climate change is partly to blame. (Another culprit: agricultural run-off from farms, which affects water quality and creates algae blooms.) When the ocean warms up, the higher temperatures harm the more than 2,900 coral reefs, along with its 1,500 species of fish, 134 species of sharks and rays, 30 species of marine mammals like whales and dolphins, and 23 species of marine reptiles, including sea snakes and turtles. According to the World Wildlife Fund, more than 1,000 starving turtles washed up on Australian shores in 2011. Their main food source, sea grass, had been wiped out by erratic weather like floods and cyclones. Australia's economy also depends on the reef: Industries like tourism and fishing rake in an annual $5.4 billion and employ 63,000 people.

Donate: Australia's Great Barrier Reef Foundation funds environmental research and conservation efforts. barrierreef.org

Go green: Australian eco-tour company Quicksilver runs day-trips from Queensland to the Great Barrier Reef on high-speed catamarans. Once there, you can dive, snorkel, and watch marine life from an underwater observatory. 011-61/7-4087-2100, quicksilver-cruises.com. From $228 per person.


Any moment now, we could lose...


Machu Picchu, Peru

UNESCO called Machu Picchu's problems "urgent," and rampant tourism is the biggest threat to Peru's main attraction. Last year marked the centennial of Machu Picchu's "discovery" by Yale history lecturer Hiram Bingham; 1 million visitors descended on the site, up 30 percent from 2010. With more visitors comes more construction in nearby towns like Aguas Calientes (already packed with hotels and restaurants), straining the fragile land: riverbanks are erosion-prone, and landslides and fires also threaten the site. Ironically, Peru's economy depends on visitors. About 90 percent of the country's tourist revenue this region, and 175,000 local people make their living directly from Machu Picchu tourism. When heavy rains and landslides forced the site to close for two months in 2010, a $200 million loss ensued. Losing Machu Picchu is more than economic. Built as an Andes Mountain retreat for Incan ruler Pachacuti in 1450, the stone city is packed with clues that shed light on ancient Incan civilization. Archeological efforts are still ongoing, and new discoveries include cemeteries, roads, and a series of agricultural terraces.

Donate: The World Monuments Fund, which advocates for endangered sites across the globe, added Machu Picchu to its 2010 watch-list. whc.unesco.org

Go green: On Conservation VIP's 10-day volun-tourism trip, participants help local park rangers with archeological restoration and maintenance of the Inca Trail. 952/228-5946, conservationvip.org. From $2,850 per person.

SEE MORE FROM BUDGET TRAVEL:

10 Most Sacred Spots on Earth

15 Places Every Kid Should See Before 15

The 14 Most Beautiful Home and Garden Tours in America

15 International Food Etiquette Rules that Might Surprise You

To Go or Not to Go: 11 Places with a Bad Rap


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The 35 Cutest Zoo Babies of 2012

Spring has sprung, and zoos around the country are celebrating a baby boom! We can't get enough of all critters cute and cuddly, even if some have a face only a mother could love (check out the baby aardvark). They were all born within the last six months, some thanks to strategic matchmaking from zoo to zoo (did you know there was online dating in the animal world?). A few of the babes don't have names—or even a gender!—yet, and zoos are letting the public weigh in on names. The creatures run the gamut from great and small, from a 120-pound camel and a 72-inch giraffe to a two-ounce golden lion tamarin and a six-inch-long Rio Cauca Caecilian (aka a rubber eel). And while a new baby is always something to be excited about, many of these are part of endangered species (including one that is officially extinct in the wild) and represent the future of their kind. Click through the slideshow to see the animals to see all the fascinating faces, and don't forget to vote for the cutest zoo baby of 2012! SEE 2012'S CUTEST ZOO BABIES ARIZONA Phoenix Zoo $18, children 3-12 $9, children 2 and under free; 455 N Galvin Parkway, Phoenix; 602/673-1341; phoenixzoo.org Cooper the Red Brocket DeerJust like his namesake—awkward intellectual Sheldon Cooper of The Big Bang Theory—young Cooper has some issues with his social skills: He is, just like the rest of his species, extremely shy and wary of others, explains Michelle Hatwood, hoofstock manager at the Phoenix Zoo. You can hardly blame him, though, as Red Brockets average only two feet high and a mere 30 pounds when fully grown—which is not much when compared to the 100-300-pound average of white-tailed deer. The Big Bang Theory is a favorite show of the zookeepers, and Cooper was born on December 17, 2011, to mom Penny and father Leonard (who unfortunately passed away last year). Despite his bashfulness, Cooper is on exhibit with the rest of the herd daily. Amelia the GerenukThis long-necked antelope, born on December 23, 2011, to mom Claire and dad Boone, spent the first couple months of her life in the zoo's animal hospital—but only to keep her warm while a new gerenuk barn was being built (native to East Africa, gerenuks don't take well to the cold). They are also fragile and skittish by nature, especially females. That's why the keepers are hand-raising this playful girl, bottle feeding her goat-milk formula five times a day and recently starting her on a diet of leaves, apples, carrots and dietary pellets. Amelia, named after a character on the TV show Lost just like the rest of the gerenuks here, was nonetheless thrilled the first day she joined the public exhibit, and she made it known with her joyous pronking—jumping high into the air by lifting all fours off the ground simultaneously (something also done when evading a predator). Marabou Stork ChicksThe stork delivered to a couple of its own on February 8 and 11, when a pair of female chicks hatched, one after the other, to the delight of mom Mabel and dad Milton. The first-time parents have been together for 27 years, and the births were a coup for them as well as for the zoo: Marabous, native to Africa, are quite difficult to breed without a very large group of birds around. The chicks have been growing quickly, thanks to feedings from both Mom and Dad and the keepers—though Dad in particular has become more territorial around his girls, so zoo staffers have had to be cautious when helping out with food and cleanings.   CALIFORNIA Oakland Zoo $13.75, children 2-14 $9.75, children 2 and under free; 9777 Golf Links Rd, Oakland; 510/632-9525; oaklandzoo.org Maggie the GiraffeMaggie—the zoo's first female giraffe baby in more than a decade—was born to mom Twiga and dad Mabusu, away from onlookers, on January 12. She was a massive bundle of joy at 80 pounds, 72 inches, and she had excellent timing, arriving just a few weeks before the zoo hosted a conference for the International Association of Giraffe Care Professionals, which drew a slew of giraffe-loving zookeepers, vets and researchers. Maggie is part of the reticulated giraffe species, so named for their distinctive pattern of brown, box-like patches. Their numbers in the wild have been greatly decreasing; a decade ago there were 30,000, and today there are fewer than 5,000 reticulated giraffes, found mainly in northeast Kenya. Santa Ana Zoo $8, children 3-12 $5, children 2 and under free; 1801 E. Chestnut Ave., Santa Ana; 714/836-4000; santaanazoo.org Silvery LangursThese orange-haired half-sibling monkeys have been stealing the show since arriving just three weeks apart. The first, a male, was born on January 31 to parents Oliver and Daria; then came a girl, on February 22, to sly-fox Oliver and mom Ripley. Despite the "silvery" name, these monkeys-native to tropical forests of Indonesia and Malaysia-are born bright orange before turning silver-gray at about three to five months old. And their hue, combined with their cuteness, has apparently given zoo attendance quite a boost. "Our visitors have been flabbergasted when they see two orange babies instead of one," says Kent Yamaguchi, zoo director. More importantly, the new arrivals have been a tremendous boost to the silvery langur population in North America, currently numbering at about 50. The naming of the furry creatures is being used as a fund-raising effort through the Friends of Santa Ana Zoo society, which will let some generous person—for a donation of $750—do the honors. Anyone?   COLORADO Denver Zoo $15, children 3-11 $10, children 2 and under free; 2300 Steele St, Denver; 303/376-4800; denverzoo.org Sulawesi Forest TurtleThis rare Indonesian breed of turtle was only first discovered in 1995 and is considered critically endangered. Thankfully one was added to the ranks on January 24, with the first successful hatching of a Sulawesi forest turtle in an Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) zoo. Zookeepers worked hard at the hatching, nudging the temperamental and shy parents along with their breeding process by providing them with various amounts of space and vegetation cover. After laying her egg, mom buried it in a hole, where it sat for just over four months before hatching. The unnamed baby could grow to be about a foot long—which will be helped along by his diet of fruit, veggies, and pinky mice—and could live for up to 30 or 40 years. Kiazi the De Brazza's MonkeyThis little ball of fur was appropriately named Kiazi, meaning "potato" in Swahili. She is the third birth for mom Marinda and father Kisoro, who came to Denver Zoo in 2006 after being rescued by conservationists from the Republic of Congo black market. Visitors can see Kiazi, who was born December 4, 2011, being "very bouncy," eating foods like greens and biscuits, and shifting between her indoor and outdoor habitats in Primate Panorama, which is "pretty darn cute," says her keeper. Cantil VipersThey may look like harmless little wrigglers now, but these eight babies, born on February 12 and representing the first-ever breeding of the species at the Denver Zoo, will eventually eat enough pinky mice to grow into sneaky, venomous two-foot-long snakes that only a mother could love. They get an early start with their wily ways, as juveniles are equipped with yellow-tipped tails, which they can wriggle like worms in order to ensnare small prey. Even so, these poisonous vipers, native to Mexico and Central America, have a near-threatened status due to human persecution. Though you can't glimpse these babies just yet, there is an adult Cantil Viper on display. FLORIDA Brevard Zoo, Melbourne $14.50, children 2-12 $10.50, children 2 and under free; 8225 N Wickham Rd., Melbourne; 321/254-9453; brevardzoo.org Giant AnteaterMom Boo and dad Abner welcomed their hairy little pup on January 26 and, serious attachment-parenting adherents that they are, have yet to let go of their little one. That's because baby anteaters spend the first year of their lives riding on mom's back—when they're not nursing, that is. "It's very exciting for us because it's the first time we've had a giant anteater born at the zoo," said zoo marketing director Andrea Hill. The long-snouted infant is of a not-yet-determined gender (blood tests are required to figure this part out) and is still without a name, as the zoo plans to auction off the naming rights at its April 28 fundraiser.   Busch Gardens Tampa Bay $81.99, children 3-12 from $73.99, children 2 and under free (save $10 per ticket by purchasing online); 10165 N McKinley Dr., Tampa; 888/800-5447; seaworldparks.com Cofi the GiraffeMom Cupid delivered one very big girl on January 27: Cofi, her 6'2", 176-pound baby. But she was already an old pro: this was Cupid's fifth calf. Cofi is the second for father Jafari—Tesa, another female in the herd, gave birth to his first daughter just two months before. Cofi's name in Swahili means "born on Friday" (which she was) and her arrival brings the park's reticulated giraffe population to 19. Cupid will nurse and care for her little one until about the end of April, when they will then join the other creatures of Serengeti Plain exhibit. Emu Chicks What's furry, striped, and about the height of an iPhone? An emu chick, of course. These two busted out of their dark-green eggs on February 5 and 6 after tapping for a while from the inside. This signal tipped off zookeepers that the little guys were getting ready to hatch, prompting them to place the eggs in an incubator. The flightless birds are part of the ratite order, along with ostriches, rheas, cassowary, and kiwis.   Zoo Miami $15.95, children 3-12 $11.95, children 2 and under free; 12400 SW 152 St, Miami; 305/251-0400; miamimetrozoo.com Anala the Indian RhinoBaby Anala is still an infant, but already she's been hailed as a history maker: The female Indian one-horned rhinoceros is the first of her highly endangered species to be born in the history of all South Florida zoos—and one of only three born in U.S. captivity in 2011. She's the first offspring for both mom Kalu (who gracefully endured a 16-month pregnancy) and dad Suru, who arrived at Zoo Miami in 2003 as part of a breeding loan with the San Francisco Zoo. Anala was born on December 29, 2011, and spent several weeks cloistered with mom but is now on view for visitors. "She's a very curious baby that shows little or no fear," says a zookeeper, "and she has an adorable habit of resting her head on top of her mother's while she is sleeping." Get all your "awwwws" in now, though: Anala, like all Indian rhinos, could reach a whopping 6,000 pounds by the time she's full-grown. GEORGIA Zoo Atlanta $20.99, children 3-11 $15.99, children 2 and under free; 800 Cherokee Ave SE, Atlanta; 404/624-9453; zooatlanta.org Golden Lion TamarinThe latest addition here is a yet-to-be-named tiny Golden Lion Tamarin, who has been thriving since her birth on February 25—and that's saying a lot, considering that her early days were marred by tragedy. Two other infants were born with the tiny babe to mom Robin, but they did not survive: One died at birth, while another died just four days later, following a fatal fall. Infant mortality is not uncommon in golden lion tamarins, say zoo officials, as they weigh only around two ounces at birth. But mom will get some time to recover from her losses as dad Theo took over caring for the baby after just a few weeks, as is customary for the African-native creatures.   ILLINOIS Brookfield Zoo $15, children 3-11 $10.50, children 2 and under free; 8400 31st Street, Brookfield; 708/688-8000; czs.org AardvarkWith a snout like a pig's, ears like a donkey's, and a tongue like an anteater's, this strange little wrinkly calf has an interesting life of insect-devouring and daytime-burrowing ahead of it. Born on January 12 to mom Jessi and dad Hoover, this as-yet-unnamed babe—whose sex is still unknown—was fragile, as all aardvark infants are, and has received plenty of top-notch care from zoo staffers. But soon the "earth pig," as is the translation for the Afrikaans word aardvark, will be inhaling up to 90,000 insects with its sticky, six-foot-long tongue in a single day, just like the rest of its species. Also on the menu: ants, and fruits such as the aardvark cucumber (a spiny fruit from their native southern Africa). To accommodate aardvarks' desire to burrow and escape the sun during the day, the zoo provides the creatures with plenty of burlap sacks, boxes, and the occasional sand pile. Though this new addition will remain out of view for a while, there's a live video monitor set up so that zoo visitors can get a glimpse of the babe in the aardvark building. Lincoln Park Zoo, Chicago Free; 2001 N Clark St, Chicago; 312/742-2000; lpzoo.org Crested Wood PartridgesThe McCormick Bird House welcomed three crested wood partridge chicks on January 7. The fuzzy new arrivals—part of a dimorphic species, meaning males and females differ in appearance—are growing quickly thanks to steady diet of insects gathered by mom and dad. Males have bluish-purple feathers as well as a large red crest on the head (which gives the species its name), while females have green feathers and no crest.   INDIANA Fort Wayne Children's Zoo $13.50, children 2-14 $8.50, children 1 and under free; 3411 Sherman Blvd.; 260/427-6800; kidszoo.org Dingo PupsGenerally considered pests in their native Australia (thanks to the wild dogs nabbing one too many grazing sheep), dingoes in these parts are simply cute and lovable—especially when they arrive as tiny pups, seven at a time, as they did here on January 30. That's when mom Naya and dad Mattie became proud parents to four male and three females-the first dingoes to be born at the zoo since 1988. Mattie and Naya are one of only about 75 pairs of pure dingoes worldwide (most have hybridized with domestic dogs). The litter of pups is notable not only for its size (most dingo litters have just three or four pups), but for its coloration. Most litters include only one type of coat and ninety percent of wild dingoes are ginger-colored like Mattie and Naya, but this litter included three ginger-colored pups, two cream-colored pups, and two black-and-tan pups. It took a while to come up with names for all seven (though they were nicknamed Chuck, Tiny, Polar Bear, Chippy, Dot, Blaze, and Streak). The keepers finally decided on names inspired by towns or parks in Australia: Mawson, Bunyip, Tingoora, Elsey, Airlie, Brumby and Yengo.   Mesker Park Zoo & Botanic Garden, Evansville $8.50, children 3-12 $7.50, children 2 and under free; 1545 Mesker Park Dr., Evansville; 812/435-6143; meskerparkzoo.com KlipspringerAdding to the slight population of klipspringers in zoos across North America (which stands at about 30), this male calf was born on January 6. The baby, which is as of yet unnamed, will nurse for up to six months and then subsist on a diet of apples, carrots, greens, grapes, alfalfa, and zoo grains. Klipspringers are small, African, hoofed animals that are very surefooted and can easily navigate rocky terrain—and are appropriately named with the Afrikaan word for "rock jumper." They typically weigh about 40 pounds and stand an average of 22 inches tall (and males have horns that stand an additional 4 to 6 inches high). But, though they are small, they are big romantics-living monogamous lives, remaining within feet of their mate at all times, and taking turns eating and watching for predators.     KANSAS Lee Richardson Zoo, Garden City Free to walk through, $10 vehicle charge to drive through; 312 E Finnup Dr., Garden City; 620/276-1250; leerichardsonzoo.org Black Goeldi's MonkeyThese elfin South American primates are known for leaping from tree to tree, sometimes covering up to 13 feet in a single bound. But here, a pair named Domingo and Sucre took their leaping to new heights, diving into a romance after meeting through an "online dating service" (coordinated by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums' Callimico Species Survival Plan). And lo and behold, on February 12, they became proud parents to the zoo's newest addition. The baby, whose sex is yet to be determined, is difficult to see, as it's teensy—even the parents themselves weigh under a pound each—and has only just begun venturing off of mom Sucre's back, which it had been clinging to for two weeks. But it's sure to feel secure on its own in no time, as Sucre, say the zookeepers, "is showing excellent maternal instincts." The zoo is asking for the public's input on naming the baby, and has set up a spot on its website where folks can vote on a variety of keeper-chosen names: Tiago, Paz, or Mateo for a boy; Dania, Tadea, or Liliana for a girl. Bactrian CamelCamel couple Mona and Khan apparently don't believe there can be too much of a good thing, as they welcomed their eighth calf together on the morning of March 8. Described as "strong and feisty" by keeper Sara Niemczyk, the silver-grey baby girl stood nearly 5 feet tall and weighed 121 pounds (and will eventually reach 1,000!), and was quickly on its feet, nursing from mom. The infant, like most, has spent much of her time sleeping—often in strange and alarming positions (due the fact that camel babies are extremely flexible)! She remains unnamed, as the zoo is asking for public input on two keeper-chosen names: Mai and Tuya. This type of camel is endangered, with only 600 to 900 left in the Gobi Desert of Mongolia. The Kansas weather is a little less severe, but the camels have adapted to harsh desert extremes, with coats that allow them to tolerate temperatures from 120 degrees to minus 16 degrees, while thick eyelashes and closable nostrils keep out blowing sand and broad flat feet support them on soft ground.    MARYLAND The Maryland Zoo in Baltimore From $14.50, children 2-11 from $10.50, children under 2 free; Druid Hill Park, Baltimore; 410/396-7102; marylandzoo.org Jack and Nutmeg the African PenguinsIt's been like a scene out of Happy Feet around here ever since parents Conan and Samantha Teapot (aka "The Teapots") welcomed baby boy Jack and sister Nutmeg on December 21 and 25, 2011—just a few months after having their first two chicks, Mako and Megamouth. Since poking their way out of their eggs, Jack and Nutmeg have begun to lose their fluffy gray juvenile feathers while they learned to swim, bonded with their siblings, and started being socialized with the rest of the 55 penguins. "Keepers will watch them very closely to make sure they are not being chased by curious adult penguins," explained a zoo publicist. MISSOURI St. Louis Zoo Free (children's zoo and other add-ons extra); 1 Government Dr., St. Louis; 314/781-0900; stlzoo.org Tundra the Mountain BongoScore one for another endangered species: the mountain bongo, an antelope subspecies that lives in just a few mountain forests in Kenya. That's because 52-pound Tundra was born here on December 27, 2011, to mom Kalani and dad Jinjo, his birth the result of a breeding recommendation by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums Bongo Species Survival Plan, a cooperative breeding program that manages bongo in AZA zoos. And his existence will be a boon to the zoo's long-term antelope behavior research project, for which mom and infant will be recorded via time-lapse video, 24-7, for a full month. Studebaker the Banteng CalfAdding to the collection of bantengs named after carmakers (a tradition begun by the keepers at the parents' previous zoo homes), Studebaker, a 42-pound bull, arrived to mom Bentley and dad Knox on January 9. Studebaker was born with a beautiful red coat, but like with all males of this endangered species of shy wild Southeast Asia cattle, it will gradually darken to black by the time he reaches adulthood. He made his adorable public debut with his herd at Red Rocks on January 31, and, so far, has been sticking very close to mom. NEW YORK Rosamond Gifford Zoo, Syracuse $8, youth 3-18 $4, children 2 and under free; 1 Conservation Pl., Syracuse; 315/435-8511; rosamondgiffordzoo.org Humboldt's Penguin ChicksTalk about your baby boom! A total of six penguin chicks have already hatched at this zoo in 2012. "It appears our mild winter weather started the breeding season a bit earlier than usual," said zoo director Ted Fox. The first chick of the year, born on January 9, hatched to parents Wylie and Mara, with four other penguin couples—Frederico and Poquita, Mario and Montana, Jake and Bianca, and Phil and Carmen—each welcoming their own in the weeks that followed. The youngest chick-who tripled in size in just its first nine days of life-was one of the fuzzy babes introduced at a press conference by county executive Joanie Mahoney, who cupped it in her hands and announced that she had named her Cocotea, for a Latin American flock of the species. She then invited the public to take part in a naming contest for two of the birds, and the zoo wound up receiving more than 1,100 suggestions; Alberto and Hota won in a vote from a list of finalists. Humboldt penguins are named after the Humboldt Current, a cold nutrient-rich ocean current that flows along the west coast of South America, and are endangered with only 12,000 to 30,000 remaining in the wild. Ty the Patas MonkeyIn honor of this cute new baby boy, the zoo has introduced a way to let the whole world watch Ty's progress: through a webcam, mounted over the trees and swinging rope bed where he and his pals climb, swing, play, and sleep. "We know our entire community shares in the joy whenever there is a new baby at the zoo," said Janet Agostini, president of Friends of the Zoo, which funded the webcam. "Our group of patas monkeys is very active, and this web cam will give people the chance to watch them as often as they'd like." Ty was born on January 17 to parents Sara and M.J. "Ty is Sara's first baby," said zoo director Ted Fox. "She has proven to be an excellent mother, no doubt due to the skills she learned by watching and assisting her mother, Addie, care for [siblings] D.J. and Kibibi over the past year." The Rosamond Gifford Zoo is one of only 15 American zoos to house patas monkeys, found in areas of Africa from the western rainforests through the savannahs of Kenya. They are one of the fastest primates, capable of reaching speeds upwards of 30 mph.   NORTH CAROLINA North Carolina Zoo, Asheboro $12, children 2-12 $8, children 2 and under free; 4401 Zoo Pkwy, Asheboro; 800/488-0444; nczoo.org Ebi the ChimpThis new baby girl and her 41-year-old mom Tammy have been enjoying some serious mother-daughter time since Ebi was born on January 16. That's because Tammy—who gave birth to her last baby, Maki, in 1994—is caring for her infant on her own, without any intervention from staff members, and the two need time to bond. They also need to stay warm and cozy indoors, which is why these two won't be in the public eye until at least the start of summer, according to zoo general curator Ken Reininger. Ebi's already made her mark, though, as her birth brought the number of chimps here to a dozen, helping the troop here remain one of the largest in all U.S. zoos.   OHIO Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden From $15, children 2-12 from $10, children 2 and under free; 3400 Vine St., Cincinnati; 513/281-4700; cincinnatizoo.org HedgehogsThis perky foursome of two boys and two girls had better enjoy their newborn rest, as they'll soon be put to work as ambassadors. Deemed official Zoo Outreach Animals, they will spend their days traveling around to schools in the area to educate children about zoos and their species. The siblings, born on February 4 to mom Mali and dad Kenya, have not yet been named, and are for now being hand raised by the zoo's nursery keepers, who feed them four times daily with an easy-to-digest mixture of ground hedgehog feed and Esbilac formula. Hedgehogs, so-named for the pig-like grunting they do while hunting for food, are native to areas of Europe, Asia, and Africa. While they are covered with a coat of sharp spines that deter most predators, baby hedgehogs are born hairless and blind, and don't begin to sprout their prickly coat until 36 hours after birth.   PENNSYLVANIA Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium $10, children 2-13 $9, children under 2 free; 7340 Butler St., Pittsburgh; 412/665-3640; pittsburghzoo.org GorillaJust like with human matchmaking, zoo-assisted mating is not an exact science. Moka, born at Zoo Miami, was brought here in 2007 in order to breed with troop leader Mrithi; but Moka was unimpressed, preferring her alone time and rebuffing all of the hairy stud's advances. Eventually, though, Mrithi won her over, and the couple's not-yet-named baby boy was born five years later on February 9. "Moka is a first-time mom, so we were anxious to see how she would handle motherhood, but she is doing a great job," notes Karen Vacco, assistant curator of mammals. Moka, she adds, loves to sit near the window in her exhibit, showing off her infant to oohing and aahing visitors. The first gorilla born here since 2001, this birth was an important one, as Mrithi comes from parents who were caught in the wild, making his genetics valuable to the endangered western lowland species. Mrithi has remained relaxed as a first-time dad, and the rest of the gorilla troop has been curious but respectful.   VIRGINIA Virginia Zoo, Norfolk $11, children 2-11 $9, children under 2 free; 3500 Granby St., Norfolk; 757/441-2374; virginiazoo.org Squirrel MonkeyThe adorable exhibit of squirrel monkeys is now more beloved than ever, thanks to a new baby, born February 18. Zookeepers discovered the tiny primate clinging to mom Marie's back early that morning, with proud papa Jeebes nearby. The baby's sex is still unknown, so zoo staffers are waiting before deciding on a name. Shy, skittish creatures native to Central American rainforests, squirrel monkeys spend most of their time in trees, eat primarily fruits and insects, and have, proportionately, the largest brain of all primates. "The squirrel monkey family is one of our most popular exhibits, particularly with children," said Greg Bockheim, the Zoo's executive director. "And they've been prolific; this is our 18th squirrel monkey born here since 1967. A squirrel monkey birth is a sure sign that spring is on its way." Rio Cauca CaecilianDecidedly less warm and fuzzy than the squirrel monkey, a slithery new amphibian also recently arrived here, born on December 20, 2011. The six-inch-long, limbless creature—which resembles a large earthworm or small snake, and is part of a species often called "blue worms"—was the first caecilian to be born at the zoo. It's being held in a separate holding tank until it reaches adult size (which could take months), and its sex is still unknown. The aquatic amphibians are native to parts of Colombia and Venezuela, where they live in drainage systems, rivers, marshes and lakes, and thrive in polluted water. Their eyes are small and covered by skin to protect them-hence their poor eyesight—but they have a keen sense of smell.   WASHINGTON Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium, Tacoma $14.50, children 5-12 $12.50, children 3-4 $8.25, children 2 and under free; 5400 N Pearl St., Tacoma; 253/305-1000; pdza.org Clouded Leopards"There is nothing more adorable than clouded leopard cubs," declared staff biologist Andy Goldfarb, who has cared for exotic cats for more than 25 years. And he was present for the birth of the two newest cuties: a son and a daughter born on March 6 to mom Chai Li and pop Nah Fun. The babies weighed just a half-pound each, and are being hand raised by zoo staffers. Soon, the infants will move into the zoo's new cub den, where visitors will be able to see them up close as they are fed and cared for. Clouded leopards live mostly in the forest of Southeast Asia, where massive clear-cutting for oil palm plantations has threatened their populations. Exactly how many clouded leopards exist is unknown because the cats are so difficult to study (this is one of only three zoos in the country breeding endangered clouded leopard cubs, along with Nashville Zoo and Smithsonian Institution's National Zoo). "We hope our visitors will fall in love with these cubs," added Goodrowe Beck, "and get inspired to help save clouded leopards in the wild."   WASHINGTON, D.C. The Smithsonian's National Zoo Free; 3001 Connecticut Ave NW, Washington, DC; 202/633-4888; nationalzoo.si.edu Guam RailsA pair of extremely rare rail chicks hatched here on March 3 and 4, joining six others in the zoo's collection. The chicks (whose sexes are undetermined) bring the total world population of these flightless birds, who are extinct in the wild, to 162. To date, 82 chicks have hatched at the Zoo and its Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, each providing scientists with the opportunity to learn about the growth, reproduction, health and behavior of the species. Zookeepers have been on a mission to protect the species. Back in the 1980s, 29 of the flightless birds were sent to Guam for release and breeding. The rails flourished in the country's limestone forests and coconut plantations, until the arrival of the invasive brown tree snake. Within three decades, the snakes (who have no natural predators there) had hunted Guam rails and eight other bird species to the brink of extinction. It's why the not-yet-named chicks here are such a symbol of hope. Omana the KiwiThe brown kiwi may be one of the world's most endangered species, and kiwis born in captivity are extremely rare. But despite that, one of the fuzzy little chicks arrived at the National Zoo on December 11, 2011, and keepers and visitors have been buzzing about it ever since. The chick is the sixth hatched in the zoo's history. And though it won't be on exhibit, folks can watch its progress on the zoo's Kiwi Cam. It's sure to be a trip, as, unlike many other bird species, kiwis hatch fully feathered and equipped with all necessary survival skills. Omana, by the way, was named by Mike Moore, New Zealand ambassador to the U.S., in honor of his Auckland-area hometown, O-Manawatere. And the tiny bird is quite important to kiwi conservation: Currently, there are only 15 female and 33 male kiwi in zoos outside of New Zealand. WISCONSIN Henry Vilas Zoo, Madison Free; 702 S Randall Ave., Madison; 608/266-4732; vilaszoo.org Phantom of Birchwood the AlpacaAlpacas, which resemble small llamas, are native to snowy, mountainous regions of South America—which makes them perfectly suited, luckily enough, to deal with Wisconsin's wintery weather. And this baby boy, or cria, was born in the midst of a cold winter, on January 5. He and mom Darbella are doing well, and living cozily in the new high-tech eco-friendly barn at the Children's Zoo, which uses geothermal technology and has solar panels and an integrated rainwater collection system. Alpacas are traditionally kept in herds that graze on the level heights of the Andes of southern Peru, northern Bolivia, Ecuador and northern Chile. They are the smallest of the camelid species, which also includes llamas, guanacos and vicunas.   Milwaukee County Zoo From $11.75, children 3-12 from $8.75, children 2 and under free; 10001 West Blue Mound Rd., Milwaukee; 414/256-5412; milwaukeezoo.org Gentoo PenguinA new Gentoo penguin—native to Antarctic islands and known for its supremely quick swimming abilities (up to 22 miles an hour!)—hatched on February 2 to parents Olive and Felix. Though the little creature (whose sex is still unknown) weighed just 2.5 ounces at birth, it grew to 9.4 ounces in just its first week-thanks to Mom and Dad feeding it the traditional Gentoo way: regurgitation. Still, visitors may not be lucky enough to get a glimpse of the chick, since it's spent most of its time tucked underneath its parents. It should be standing on its own any minute, and could have its adult feathers by as early as late April. Kiazi the Potto  This baby potto is a rare one indeed: Born on December 23, 2011, Kiazi brings the population of pottos in North American zoos to 16. The tiny primate (whose sex will remain unknown until it develops further) is part of a nocturnal primate species native to tropical Africa that uses opposable thumbs to grasp onto trees. But not everyone has welcomed the creature with open arms: Kiazi was rejected by its mother (not an uncommon occurrence in zoos), and so keepers have been hand-raising the baby on a diet of yogurt, fruits and vegetables, wax worms, and special primate biscuits. That's helped the baby gain nearly 4 ounces since being born weighing less than an ounce. The baby has been spending part of each day in a separate crate within its mother's exhibit, which should help the two become familiar with each other.  SEE MORE FROM BUDGET TRAVEL: 15 Places Every Kid Should See Before 15 The 14 Most Beautiful Home and Garden Tours in America 30 Hotel Chains Every Traveler Should Know 15 International Food Etiquette Rules that Might Surprise You World's 16 Most Picturesque Villages

A Florida Dream Trip You Can Take NOW

 It was my second day at the Orlando theme parks, and I was waiting in yet another long line when I spotted what I assumed was an animatronic squirrel. "That's amazing," I mused to my family. "Those inventive Disney engineers managed to make that mechanical squirrel seem so lifelike." "Mom?" asked my younger son, sounding slightly worried. "I think that might be a real squirrel." We all looked at it. "I can't really tell," my older one faltered. We were in a kind of stupor. For the past 48 hours, everything we touched, saw, sat on, or ate was a calculated part of the theme park experience. What this vacation needed, I decided then and there, was balance. So leaving the big admission fees, long lines, and ersatz charms of Orlando behind, we took a three-day detour to Florida's Space Coast. There, about an hour's drive from downtown Orlando, in the shadow of the incredible Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral (a must-see for families with kids), we enjoyed the funky sensibility and down-to-earth prices and had some up-close experiences with nature that became the centerpiece of our vacation. TAKE A TOUR OF FLORIDA'S GORGEOUS SPACE COAST! The Space Coast, a scenic, 72-mile stretch roughly between Titusville and Melbourne, is in transition. Back in the 1960s, it was at the white-hot center of an ambitious national space program—the area is so rocket-crazy that the locals even had the area code changed to 321. The beachside towns along the Atlantic coast became a powerful draw for big-domed rocket scientists and future-minded tourists who lined up to gawk at the frequent liftoffs. Visitors today are discovering the area's terrestrial pleasures: hiking, surfing, scuba diving, and swimming. "Our greatest asset has always been our beach access," says Rob Varley, the Space Coast Office of Tourism's executive director. That goes for visitors and locals alike: "I can make an appointment to see my lawyer," Varley says, "but I know he'll cancel if the surf's up!" Day 1 Orlando to Titusville 44 miles As I drove east into Titusville from Orlando, I did something for the first time during my trip to Florida: I rolled down the window and shook out my ponytail, content to let the breeze, not a sub-zero air conditioner, ruffle my hair. A string of strip malls soon gave way to Titusville's historic downtown—a few sleepy blocks of late-19th-century brick buildings along the Indian River. By the time I had driven through, on Route 406, to get to the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge (fws.gov/merrittisland, day pass $5 per car), my family had replaced our mouse-ear hats with binoculars. The 140,000-acre preserve consists of brackish estuaries and marshes, home to egrets, herons, manatees, feral hogs, tortoises, and American alligators. We sampled a few hiking trails, from a quarter-mile to five miles, that were perfect for family members, especially the ones with short legs. Less physical, but no less rewarding, was the Black Point Wildlife Drive, a seven-mile road that allowed us to steer straight into the habitats of bald eagles, osprey, and cartoonish-looking roseate spoonbills. We spent the rest of the afternoon at pristine Playalinda Beach, part of Canaveral National Seashore, across the water from the Space Center. It's a great place to observe—but not disturb!—nests of giant loggerhead turtles.  At sunset, we headed to the five-room Casa Coquina Bed and Breakfast (4010 Coquina Ave., Titusville, casacoquina.com, from $79) for the evening. A tall suit of armor greets you in the lobby, and local legend has it that Al Capone, who wintered in Titusville in the 1930s, rested his head and his guns here. Day 2 Titusville to Cocoa Beach 30 miles If most theme parks are generic enough to appeal to the average American, Cocoa Beach is just the opposite: excessive, exuberant, and defying good taste at every turn. The hub of tacky T-shirt shops, hotels, and restaurants—think large neon signs and bubble-letter ads pinned on every available surface—is redeemed by its unpretentiousness. You've got to love a place that's home to the Mai Tiki Bar (401 Meade Ave., Cocoa Beach, cocoabeachpier.com, beer at happy hour $1.35), the Mai Tiki art gallery (251 Minuteman Causeway, Cocoa Beach, maitiki.com), and a "Welcome to Cocoa Beach" sign flanked by—what else?—a tiki torch. What all that tiki really means is that the beach is never far away. Even the cheapest hotels have, if not a view of the ocean, then at least the sound of lapping waves floating through your open window. Cocoa Beach's six-mile stretch of white sand plays host to world-famous surf competitions and was the stomping ground for surf legend Kelly Slater. It's also home port to the two retail monoliths that have grown up in his shadow: Ron Jon Surf Shop (4151 N. Atlantic Ave., Cocoa Beach, ronjonsurfshop.com, lessons from $50, surfboard rentals $10 a day) and Cocoa Beach Surf Company (4001 N. Atlantic Ave., Cocoa Beach, cocoabeachsurf.com, hourlong group lessons $40 per person, four-hour surfboard rentals $30). Both stores sell plenty of tchotchkes—fake plastic leis, bamboo back-scratchers—as well as more serious surfer garb like rash guards and board shorts. Both also rent gear and offer surf lessons. Bonus: Cocoa Beach Surf Company has a massive, 5,600-gallon tank with blacktip sharks and exotic fish, which my kids loved. Down the street, we checked into the oceanfront South Beach Inn (1701 S. Atlantic Ave., Cocoa Beach, southbeachinn.com, doubles from $90), where our basic room had a pull-out couch and was comfortably big enough for my family of four, before heading to dinner. On the north edge of town, we discovered Roberto's Little Havana (26 N. Orlando Ave., Cocoa Beach, robertoslittlehavana.com, Cuban sandwich and black beans $7.25), a cozy, family-run spot specializing in seafood and Cuban fare. I opted for a savory Cuban sandwich, served with an ample side of black beans topped with freshly cut onion. TAKE A TOUR OF FLORIDA'S GORGEOUS SPACE COAST! Day 3 Cocoa Beach to Melbourne 10 miles From Cocoa Beach, Highway A1A winds south past a series of appealing, well-maintained public beaches. My family didn't make it 20 minutes before pulling over to get some sand between our toes. At the beach across the street from Patrick Air Force Base, we found gentle waves and a foot-friendly, sandy bottom. You can always see pelicans bobbing on breaks, and if you arrive early enough, as we did, you can spot what the natives boast about, too—regular visits from families of dolphins. Next door, locals also favor family-run Sun on the Beach (1753 Highway A1A, Satellite Beach, sunonthebeach.co, breakfast $7), where the owners import their own brand of Lowcountry cooking to Florida. "Everybody comes here," our waitress told us without a gram of false modesty. And for good reason. At lunch, fried chicken dipped in buffalo spices is served on top of buttermilk waffles. But even food this good couldn't keep us indoors for long. After lunch, we made a stop at Hatts Diving Shop in Melbourne (2006 Front St., Melbourne, hattsdiving.com, open-water scuba class from $299). "We want to introduce all different kinds of people to scuba diving," says co-owner Starr Hatt, who exudes the implacable calm of someone who's spent a fair bit of time underwater. Hatts offers an open-water scuba course where, for the cost of renting equipment and gassing up a boat, you and your family (kids must be over 12) get easy-to-follow instruction to help get you face-to-face with the sea world's own version of Technicolor. Yes, theme parks are fun, but it's also nice to be reminded that when it comes to locations where you can find once-in-a-lifetime thrills, it's not such a small world after all.

Dream Trips for Kids

TAKE A SPIN ON THE TRAPEZE If jumping on the bed isn't cutting it for your little ones anymore,Trapeze Schoolmight be the answer. Kids will be surprised by how quickly they get the hang of it: During a two-hour beginner class, they'll pick up an arsenal of tricks, from simple knee hangs to the more advanced whips and splits. By the end, they'll be ready to throw caution-and themselves-to the wind, as they learn how to dismount, flying through the air 23 feet above the safety net into the (hopefully) waiting arms of an instructor. The school has branches in Boston, New York (above), Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, and, most recently, Chicago. WHEN TO GO: Classes are offered indoors year-round and outdoors in warmer weather. WHAT TO PACK: Snug but comfortable clothing (such as yoga pants or tights). WHO SHOULD GO: Ages 6 and older. THE BOTTOM LINE: trapezeschool.com, classes from $47. DANCE WITH THE NEW YORK CITY BALLET Let's face it: Even the most promising of budding ballerinas may have trouble understanding the plot of a classical ballet. That's where the New York City Ballet Children's Workshop leaps in. Before select matinees, children can take part in a 45-minute class that offers a stripped-down, kid-friendly guide to the music, themes, and techniques they're about to see onstage. Under the guidance of a corps member, dancers learn simple choreography while donning pint-size costumes, such as a black or white tutu for Swan Lake. The best part? Classes end with a performance for family members. WHEN TO GO: May 19, 26, June 9 at 12:45 p.m., with more dates to be announced for winter 2012/2013. WHAT TO PACK: Leotards, tights, and ballet slippers. WHO SHOULD GO: Ages 4 to 7. THE BOTTOM LINE: 70 Lincoln Center, 165 W. 65th St., 7th floor, nycballet.com, $12 (both kids and adults need tickets). SWIM WITH WHALE SHARKS There's a 60-foot sea creature lurking in the waters off the Mexican island of Isla Mujeres that makes the 20-foot great white look like a guppy. But don't fret: The whale shark-the world's largest fish-dines only on plankton. In fact, the polka-dotted giant is so gentle that the minimum age for a shark swim with Ceviche  Toursis only 5 years old. Ceviche, which has  been leading half-day boat tours from this Cancun-adjacent island since 2007, touts a 97 percent shark-spotting record. That means the likelihood of your child's being disappointed is practically zero. WHEN TO GO: The 2012 season runs May 17 to September 17. WHAT TO PACK: A bathing suit and an underwater camera. WHO SHOULD GO: Ages 5 and older. THE BOTTOM LINE: Tours leave at 8 a.m. from the Isla Mujeres Gas Dock (100 yards to the left of the ferry dock), cevichetours.com, six-hour boat tour with lunch $125. GET IN AN ENORMOUS FOOD FIGHT Start a food fight in the cafeteria and you'll earn a trip to the principal's office. Start one in Reno's City Plaza and you'll be helping charity. Based on the famed tomato melee in Buñol, Spain, the annual benefit La Tomatina en Reno has been bringing America's biggest food fight to the Biggest Little City in the World (less than an hour from Lake Tahoe) since 2009. Last year, the city hauled out 75,000 pounds of tomatoes-the event's size depends on the success of the year's harvest-which yielded a one-hour free-for-all. Past festivals have also featured a cherry tomato toss for littler devils. WHEN TO GO: August, date to be announced (dependent on the tomato crop). WHAT TO PACK: Clothing you don't mind getting dirty. WHO SHOULD GO: Ages 14 and older, with a parental waiver. THE BOTTOM LINE: Reno City Plaza, Downtown Reno, visitrenotahoe.com, entry fee $10. HANG OUT WITH HARRY POTTER The books have all been published. The films have all premiered. As wizard withdrawal sets in, Warner Bros. Studio Tour London-The Making of Harry Potteris ready to fill the Hagrid-size void. The 150,000-square-foot studio (20 miles from London) where the eight movies were filmed has been converted into a self-guided playground of all things Potter. Fans can explore, photograph, and touch every nook and cranny of the Great Hall at Hogwarts, Dumbledore's office, and Diagon Alley (above). Note: Little Potterphiles may want to skip the creature-effects workshop, where Aragog the giant spider comes to animatronic life. WHEN TO GO: Year-round; reservations are a must. WHAT TO PACK: Comfy walking shoes-the studios are huge! WHO SHOULD GO: All ages. THE BOTTOM LINE: 20-minute train from London Euston Station (from $15 round trip), then a free shuttle, wbstudiotour.co.uk, adults $44, children ages 5-15 $33.

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