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Vermont Day-cations: Granby Zoo & Colchester Pond 

School's out, and "Day-cations" are in. Every summer, Kids VT seeks out family-friendly destinations where you and your kids can experience the natural beauty and unique culture of our region. They're all places you can visit in a day.

Each of our three summer issues features two recommended trips, complete with tips on nearby dining and attractions. This month, calendar writer Alison Novak takes her family fishing in Colchester, while contributor Nancy Stearns Bercaw eyes exotic animals in a foreign country: Canada.

Looking for more day-trip ideas? Read the rest of our award-winning Day-cation series.

Monkey Business: Granby Zoo

1050 Boulevard David Bouchard Nord, Granby, Qu├ębec, Canada, 450-372-9113, zoogranby.com

COURTESY OF JON SHENTON
  • Courtesy of Jon Shenton

I am a zoo aficionado. From a sweet wildlife park in Panama City to a sad glass menagerie in Beijing, I've seen the best and worst the world has to offer. After a visit to the Granby Zoo in Québec, I'm ready to declare it among the most delightful places anywhere to see animals up close.

On the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, my 10-year-old son, David, and I drove two hours north of Burlington to the town of Granby in French-speaking Québec. My pal Jon Shenton and his 11-year-old daughter, Olive Oski, came along, too. This was our first visit to the zoo; we knew very little about it and had few expectations. We parked for free in an almost-empty lot and eagerly bought our tickets to Zoo de Granby.

First, we hit Le Marché, a food court offering the standard American fare, along with French fries smothered in gravy and cheese curds, aka poutine. Jon and I each spent about $15 Canadian on cheeseburgers, fries and onion rings, and cold drinks — très affordable compared to what I'd forked over at Tampa's Busch Gardens back in March.

click to enlarge David and Olive riding a camel - COURTESY OF JON SHENTON
  • Courtesy of Jon Shenton
  • David and Olive riding a camel

After lunch, David and Olive opted to ride the one-hump camel together. Although there were no lines for the brief dromedary excursion, there was an additional $2 fee. I was glad Jon had brought a handful of Canadian coins.

Fortunately, we soon discovered that we could use our American credit cards to buy coupon booklets — $20 for 10 coupons — for these pop-up opportunities that aren't included in the admission price. We used two coupons each to board the Orient Express, a monorail-style train, to get an overview of the zoo. During the 10-minute ride, we looked down over kangaroos hopping across the "Australian Outback" and red pandas playing around a Chinese pagoda.

We missed out on the details about the animals and their environments, though; the conductor's running commentary was all in French. Most zoo employees do speak English well and readily, but not while giving presentations, apparently. Thankfully the signage is bilingual.

click to enlarge COURTESY OF JON SHENTON
  • Courtesy of Jon Shenton

Granby Zoo is organized by region: Africa, South America, Asia, Oceana and South Pacific. Off the train, we went to Africa, where we had great views of zebras, ostriches and giraffes wandering and grazing together just as they do on the savannah. We also watched the big cats — lions and leopards — lounging in authentic landscapes. All the animals appeared healthy and happy, although the gargantuan gorilla was a tad grumpy. Jon and Olive witnessed him bang abruptly against the glass wall, which scared the bejesus out of a human mother and child.

click to enlarge COURTESY OF JON SHENTON
  • Courtesy of Jon Shenton

David and I gasped at the sight of a hippo pooping on the side of his swimming hole. We learned that hippos weigh as much as three tons and are extremely territorial and aggressive. These seemingly lazy, water-loving herbivores apparently kill more people in Africa than any other animal.

Jon and I shared a good laugh as we headed in the direction of the rhinos; he thought I said, "The winos are over there." We giggled again upon realizing that wine and beer are, in fact, available at a stand near the prehistoric-looking beasts.

If parents choose to relax with a Molson Canadian or a glass of Chardonnay, there are a number of fun spots for kids to stop and play. We paused in the heart of Africa, sans vin, to try out some silly Serengeti settings. David hung from the doors of a replica safari vehicle and hummed the theme from the Indiana Jones movies. Then he stood on the wings of a bush plane and pretended he'd just crash-landed in the Congo.

The more adventuresome Olive was thrilled to discover real rides at the zoo. She and Jon boarded the Anaconda roller coaster — twice, at two coupons per person each time — while David and I played in the arcade. Young tots would likely enjoy the wee bumper cars and a carousel.

click to enlarge The Amazoo Water Park - COURTESY OF JON SHENTON
  • Courtesy of Jon Shenton
  • The Amazoo Water Park

Granby is also home to a water park called the Amazoo, named in honor of the Amazon, though it wasn't open during our early summer visit. A wave pool and lazy river are among its aquatic features.

Visitors access the Amazoo through an entrance in the South America region, which is home to ocelots, piranha, spectacled bears, monkeys and marmosets. Kangaroo, wallaby and emu reside in the Oceania section, which encompasses the Outback. Aptly, the South Pacific showcases an array of marine life, including sharks, rays and sea anemone.

We were especially eager to visit Asia because we'd been so taken by the red pandas from our perch on the Orient Express. Up close and personal, they resembled fluffy foxes. Red pandas are much smaller than their black-and-white brethren, but have similarly adorable faces and expressions.

David declared the red pandas his creature du jour and purchased a stuffed version from the gift shop. Olive decided on a soft and snuggly sloth as her souvenir. We didn't come across any of those slow-moving animals on our journey through the zoo, but her choice was a testament to the greater gift of the day: David and Olive left Granby with a deeper appreciation of the animal kingdom, and stronger instincts to conserve the wildlife they have yet to see.

Know before you go:

  • Travelers age 16 or older must have current passports or enhanced driver's licenses to cross the border. Children under 16 can present passports or proof of citizenship, such as a birth certificate.
  • Through August 24, Granby Zoo and Amazoo Water Park are open from 10 a.m.-7 p.m. daily.
  • Admission is in Canadian dollars and includes entrance to both the zoo and Amazoo: Adults ages 13-64, $35.95; seniors 65 and over, $27.95; children 3-12, $23.45; 2-year-olds, $10.95; children under 2, free. You can also purchase a package for four — two people over 13 and two children between 2 and 12 — for $105.95. Two-day rates are also available, as are annual passes.
  • The zoo is largely an outdoor experience, but clean bathrooms, including nursing stations, are plentiful, as are shady spots to escape the noonday sun.

Where to eat:

  • Café Rouge, 32 Rue Principale, Bedford, Québec, just past the border, opens at 8 a.m., with fine teas, coffees and pastries. It offers sandwiches and salads for the lunch crowd.
  • Thai Express, at the intersection of Route 137 and Route 10, in Ange-Gardien, about 15 minutes before Granby, is a chain restaurant where you can find cheap Thai on the fly.
  • Food selections inside the zoo are plentiful and affordable. Visitors can also bring their own picnics to enjoy on the grounds — there are dozens of picnic tables scattered around.

Also nearby:

  • Walk the trails and enjoy the best bird-watching in Québec at the Centre d'interprétation de la nature du lac Boivin, a 1,000-acre marsh reserve and interpretation center. Exit 74 off Route 10. Visit cinlb.org for rates and hours (in French).

Poles and Paddles: Colchester Pond

Colchester, 802-863-5744, wvpd.org

Josh and Aila Halman
  • Josh and Aila Halman

Who knew there was a 182-acre pond in Colchester?

I certainly didn't, until a friend told me he took his 3-year-old daughter on an introductory fishing trip there. It piqued my curiosity, so our families made plans to meet up one Sunday morning for some boating, fishing and exploring.

We arranged to borrow a canoe from our neighbors — an aluminum four-seater from the early 1970s. With their help, we strapped the behemoth to the roof of our car.

click to enlarge Alison, Mira and Theo Novak - COURTESY OF ALISON NOVAK
  • Courtesy of Alison Novak
  • Alison, Mira and Theo Novak

Then came cheap fishing poles, a tackle box, life jackets and lots of snacks. Soon enough, the whole family — me, my husband, Jeff, my 7-year-old daughter, Mira, and my 4-year-old son, Theo — was on its way.

Colchester Pond is less than 25 minutes from our home in Shelburne. It's off Route 2A in Colchester and down a long dirt road — which is probably why I'd never come across it before. The Winooski Valley Park District runs it, along with 17 other parks and natural areas in Burlington, Colchester, Essex, Jericho, South Burlington, Williston and Winooski.

When we got there a little after 9 a.m., the parking lot was filling up, and anglers already dotted the banks. We met up with our friends Josh, Lindsey and their 3-year-daughter, Aila, and made a group decision to leave the canoe on the roof for the time being and start with fishing.

Josh led us on a five-minute walk to a large patch of dirt with a wooden bench that was big enough for our party of seven to use as home base.

click to enlarge COURTESY OF ALISON NOVAK
  • Courtesy of Alison Novak

While Jeff and Josh prepped the fishing poles, Mira, Theo and Aila ogled a tub of worms we'd brought to use as bait.

According to Josh, who is an avid fisherman, Colchester Pond is inhabited by bass, pike, blue gill and sunfish. Looking into the shallow water, we could see a couple of fish swimming around.

But within about 15 minutes, we'd lost a bobber, got our line tangled in a low-hanging tree several times and had a worm stolen off our hook. Expert anglers we're not.

Our more experienced friends did manage to catch a small pumpkinseed, so Mira and Theo got a chance to see a hooked fish up close — though they opted not to touch it.

As one might have predicted, the young kids didn't have the patience required for fishing, so Lindsey and I accompanied the three small fries on an impromptu nature walk. Mira picked wildflowers that lined the grassy trail while Theo ran full speed ahead in true 4-year-old form.

The narrow pathway on which we walked was part of a 3.25-mile loop that wraps around the pond and cuts through fields and woods. A dog walker we encountered warned us about a steep incline a little further down and said it was muddy in spots. When my kids are a little older I can imagine returning to circumnavigate the pond, but this time around, we weren't that goal-oriented.

And we still had to get the canoe into the water. The vintage Grumman we borrowed was heavy compared to modern fiberglass models. A wooden ramp near the parking lot and a couple of trolleys in the well-marked boat-launch area simplified the challenge.

A friendly young Winooski Valley Park staffer was there to answer questions. He told us that otters, beavers and wildcats have been spotted in the area. He also warned us about poison ivy growing on the sides of the path.

Then he plucked a plant with serrated leaves from a crop of greenery. "Jewelweed," he told us, which could be crushed up or frozen into ice cubes as a natural remedy for poison ivy. He dipped the plant into the water and its leaves took on a silvery glow, which is how the plant got its name, he explained.

As we surveyed the pond, Theo remarked, "New York doesn't look too far away." It made me wonder when my little guy would stop assuming that every body of water he came across was Lake Champlain.

Our 45-minute canoe trip took us around the pond. Coordinating four different paddle strokes was a bit tricky, but we enjoyed seeing the pond's lush green banks from the water. We also spotted a wide array of birds, including a pileated woodpecker, red-winged blackbirds, a kingfisher, an osprey and a family of geese.

At the end of the four-hour adventure, all of us were completely exhausted — but happy to have found this gem so close to home. We'll be back for more outdoor fun later this summer. Maybe we'll even catch a fish next time.

Know before you go:

  • Wear shoes that can get wet, like Bogs or Keens, and bring an extra pair of clothes for the kids to change into for the car ride home. My kids got pretty soggy getting in and out of the canoe.
  • There's no public restroom at the pond, so plan accordingly — and if you need to pop a squat, look out for poison ivy.
  • If you plan to go fishing, adults need a license. It costs $25 for the season and is easy to purchase online at the Vermont Fish & Wildlife website. Kids under 15 fish for free.
  • By 10:30 a.m. the parking lot was full and parking along the road is not permitted. Arrive early to ensure you get a spot.
  • It's OK to bring dogs, but keep them leashed.
  • No motorized boats are allowed on the pond.
  • Swimming is permitted, but there's no beach — so leave the lounge chairs at home.
  • Consider buying durable kids' fishing poles. Wayne Jones at the Otter Creek Bait Shop in Vergennes recommended Shakespeare Brand Sturdy Stiks for $20 a pop.

Where to eat:

  • Bring snacks and a lunch (and perhaps a blanket, since there's only one picnic table at the pond), or stop for a meal or treat afterward at one of the many casual places fewer than 10 minutes away. Bayview Eats, at 97 Blakely Road in Colchester, serves up sandwiches, soups, salad and brunch on Sunday — and has a separate kids menu. Firebird Café, at 163 Pearl Street in Essex Junction, specializes in burritos and has breakfast options like omelets and French toast all day. For creemees and New Orleans-style shaved ice, try Sweet Clover Market, a natural food store at 21 Essex Way in the Essex Outlets. The Village Scoop, at 419 Main Street in Colchester, has a large selection of soft-serve and hard ice cream.

Also nearby:

  • Maple Street Park at 75 Maple Street in Essex Junction boasts multiple climbing structures, a skate park and basketball courts. There's also a pool there that's open for public swimming in the afternoon.
  • Woodside Natural Area and Overlook Park on Woodside Drive in Essex has a one-mile loop trail and a picnic area with scenic views of the Green Mountains.Alison, Mira and Theo Novakcourtesy of alison novakJosh and Aila Halmancourtesy of alison novak
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