Zoos and nature centers abound in the Carolinas, but the biggies are the N.C. Zoological Park, near Asheboro, and Riverbanks Zoo and Garden in Columbia.
The Charlotte area is roughly midway between them; so, which one's for you?
The N.C. Zoological Park, 75 miles northeast of Charlotte, is billed as the largest walk-through natural-habitat zoo in the country; its focus is on North America and Africa. Bison and elk roam an 11-acre prairie; the American area also houses polar bears, gators and everything in between. Of special note is the indoor Sonoran Desert, with animals and plants of the Southwestern deserts.
Impala and other antelope ply the 37-acre African Plains. Nearby: giraffes, elephants, lions, warthogs and more. An aviary holds tropical birds and vegetation; kangaroo and other Down Under critters can be found in the Australian Walkabout area. Kid faves: Seals and otters.
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Bring your binoculars, wear comfortable shoes and check the weather forecast -- you'll be outdoors and on your feet for most of the day. Walk trails or ride trams to get around. Opening this spring: Kid Zone interactive area. Hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily through October; open until 4 p.m. daily November-March. $10; $6 for kids; 800-488-0444.
If you have little ones or seniors in your group, Riverbanks may be more to your liking: it's near downtown Columbia (I-26 West's Greystone exit) and exhibits are tightly packed (African Plains here is just 2 acres). All told: 2,000 animals in 150 acres. Animals are easy to spot, though not in "natural" surroundings. Kid faves: monkeys; huge Siberian tigers. New this year: a baboon troupe.
This November-December will be the 20th year of the "Lights Before Christmas" night-time lights show.
Open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily (to 6 p.m. weekends, March-September). $9.75; $7.25 for kids; 803-779-8717.
Durham's Duke University has one of the largest collections of primitive primates in America -- 250 to 300 live lemurs at the Lemur Research Center. Endangered/threatened lemurs, native to the African island of Madagascar, look like monkeys crossed with possums. See for yourself: Weekday and Saturday tours are offered ($7, $4 for kids; by reservation only). Info: 919-489-3364, ext. 0; http://lemur.duke.edu/tours.