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Vermont Day-cations: Santa's Village and the Billings Farm & Museum 

If you live in Vermont, you don't have to travel far for family-friendly summer fun. But, let's face it, sometimes you want to. This summer, we're asking our Kids VT contributors to visit some of our favorite destinations, both around the region and here at home. They're writing about their adventures in our June, July and August issues. Looking for more day-trip ideas? Check out all of this summer's —and last summer's — suggestions at kidsvt.com.

Santa's Village: Christmas all year long

The only thing weirder than visiting Santa Claus in the summertime? Going to his theme park — Santa's Village in New Hampshire — when the mercury is hovering around 45 degrees. It was rainy, too, on the June Saturday we decided to cross state lines in search of the big guy.

We'd planned the weekend trip before we heard the forecast and didn't want to reschedule. So we trekked two and a half hours, from St. Albans to Jefferson, N.H., dressed for the cold and armed with umbrellas. We arrived to find the park hands out free ponchos — sweet! — and the weather had scared off all but the hardiest visitors. The sound of Christmas carols echoing around a nearly empty park made for a seriously surreal experience: We had the whole holiday-happy place to ourselves.

click to enlarge KATE LADDISON

The weather didn't dampen my son Oliver's spirits at all. He immediately grabbed the "Elphabet" card the park staff gave him and ran off in search of the 26 life-size elf statues positioned around the neatly manicured wooded paths and gardens. Each elf punches a different letter out of your card; collect them all to earn your diploma from Elf University.

The game seemed silly to me, but Oliver loved it. Santa's Village has kid excitement down to a science. He also enjoyed exploring an elf house, sitting in cupcake-shaped chairs, and climbing into an igloo and onto an enormous snowman.

The park offers a good mix of low-tech attractions — the climbing structures, playgrounds, ball-toss games and a reindeer petting zoo — combined with typical twisty-turny fair rides. Happily for a mom prone to motion sickness, all of the rides are geared toward young kids, not adventurous teenagers. There are spinning "Drummer Boy" drums and fire trucks that circle around a "burning" building. I'd never been on a roller coaster but agreed to accompany Oliver on the one here. I can't say I enjoyed it, but I was happy to scream right alongside my shrieking son.

The biggest bonus of the rain-soaked day: no lines. In fact, we rode some rides as many times as we wanted. Bumper cars: 40 minutes. Drivable antique cars: 12 circuits. Roller coaster: until mom said it was time to get off. The only rides that weren't appealing were the ones involving cold sprays of water, but I imagine that on any summer day, the Yule Log Flume and Hot Shots Fire Brigade would guarantee wicked wet fun. Did I mention there's a kid-size water park, too? Called Ho Ho H20, of course.

While the elves, gingerbread and carnival rides delighted Oliver, my husband and I were more impressed with family-friendly amenities such as free strollers, numerous well-located benches and clean, spacious bathrooms. Park staffers, aka Santa's Helpers, were truly helpful in sluicing water off ride seats with their squeegees. Every time we exited a ride, they asked if we had enjoyed ourselves. We also loved how green and clean the park looked, with lupines and bachelor's buttons in bloom and window boxes and hanging baskets everywhere, even in the covered gazebo smoking areas.

We chatted with some folks we met while warming up in the gingerbread house. Their 8- and 10-year-old kids were enjoying their seventh visit, and it made me think we could happily celebrate Christmas twice each year for many years to come. We never did run into Santa — we stopped by his cabin, but he wasn't around. Guess we'll catch him in December.

Santa's Village: 528 Presidential Highway, Jefferson, N.H., 603-586-4445, santasvillage.com

click to enlarge COURTESY OF SANTA'S VILLAGE
Know before you go:
  • Santa's Village is open daily from mid-June to early September. July hours are 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. The park is also open on some weekends from September through December.
  • Admission prices: ages 4 and older, $27; ages 62 and older, $25; under 3, free.
  • All rides, shows and activities in the park are included in the admission price.
Where to eat:
  • We were happy with our pie at Nick's Pizza Emporium in Santa's Village. It had a nice, chewy crust, and we added freshly chopped onions and peppers to our olives and pepperoni. It was impressively unlike typical, greasy theme-park pizza.
  • You could also visit the Burger Meister Food Court for — you guessed it —  burgers, as well as fries, soups, salads and sandwiches.
  • Don't want to shell out dough for food in the park? Pack a picnic lunch and eat at one of several picnic tables scattered around the park, or on the grassy field near the Ferris wheel.
Where to stay:
  • On a recommendation from Kids VT copublisher Colby Roberts and family, we stayed at the Lantern Resort motel and campground. "Resort" might be a bit of an exaggeration, but we loved the fact that it was a two-minute drive from the park. Our room was equipped with a coffeepot, minifridge and microwave. The Lantern offers hayrides and campfires, which we skipped due to rain. But we did sign up for free stories from "Miss Sleepytime," who visited our room at 7:30 p.m. to read to Oliver — a sweet touch. 850 Route 2, Jefferson, N.H., 603-586-7151, thelanternresort.com.
Also nearby:
  • Santa's Village is about a 45-minute drive from North Conway, N.H., in the White Mountain National Forest. Take a trip on an old-fashioned train on the Conway Scenic Railroad: 603-356-5251, conwayscenic.com. Or visit the MWV Children's Museum: 603-356-2992, mwvchildrensmuseum.org.
  • See friends from your favorite books come to life at Story Land theme park: Glen, N.H., 603-383-4186, storylandnh.com.
  • If you're looking for a more outdoorsy adventure, try Clark's Trading Post in Lincoln with trained bear shows, a Segway Safari and a climbing tower, among other things: Lincoln, N.H., 603-745-8913, clarkstradingpost.com.

Billings Farm & Museum: Animal magnetism

A few years ago, I discovered something that in retrospect should have been obvious: Kids love farms. I learned this when we started taking our daughter, Agnes, 4, to daycare on a working dairy farm in Barnard. Now her brother, Brian, 2, joins her there every day. They come home a little muddy and smelling like silage, but it's all fine — I mean, where else can children get up close and personal with real farm animals and marvel at their excrement?

Answer: at Billings Farm & Museum in Woodstock, which happens to be about two miles from where we live. Even though Agnes and Brian spend their days on a dairy farm, they still jump at the chance to go to Billings, so we take them there when the weather's nice and we all need a few hours out of the house.

click to enlarge TOM MCNEIL

Billings is technically a museum of Vermont agriculture circa 1890, but don't let the farm's slogan — "gateway to Vermont's rural heritage" — scare you away. While the museum complex does house exhibits of antique farming implements, 19th-century cultural ephemera and an "authentically restored" Victorian farmhouse, the lure of the place, especially for kids, is the fully functional dairy farm, frozen in time.

We arrived at noon on June 3, one of the three Ice Cream Sundays in National Dairy Month, when visitors get to make and sample maple and coffee ice cream. The museum has plenty of other special events throughout its season, including Junior Farm Vet for a Day, Time Travel Tuesdays and Hay Day. These are always fun, but you don't need to visit during a special event. In my experience, kids are never bored by big animals.

I held out the prospect of ice cream as a reward for good behavior, which sometimes helps keep the kids in line. This time, they probably didn't need motivation: They immediately ran to the horse barn to gaze at Jim and Joe, the 2000-pound Belgian draft horses that pull wagons and plows on the pastures and fields. The white beasts were munching hay and bulging from their corrals. The kids were mesmerized. A few feet away, a museum worker was giving a lesson on what and how much cows and horses eat: a perfect sideshow for adults or kids old enough to appreciate the wonder of cows eating 70 pounds of food and drinking a bathtub full of water per day.

From there we walked into the calf nursery and then the dairy barn. In the latter, about 40 beautiful Jersey cows were lined up in their stalls eating hay and peeing and pooping at will. There were farmworkers around to keep an eye on things, but the barn is remarkably open. A word to the wise: Make sure your kids don't go too close to the cows' hindquarters; they might get splattered or kicked.

click to enlarge TOM MCNEIL

We wandered back outside to the green, fenced-in pastures dotted with sheep. The sheep weren't shy; they're covered in lanolin-filled wool, and they let the kids bury their hands in it. For the kids, time just melted away. I brought them back to reality with a suggestion of ice cream, served from the dairy bar next to the pristinely kept farmhouse.

After our snack, we were off to see the chickens and get a lesson in roosting from a museum docent — they're all nice, patient with kids and more than willing to indulge silly questions. It's the perfect mix of fun and education.

We broke away from the hens and followed one of the farm lanes out to Tom and Jerry, the other draft horses, standing in the pasture. Agnes and Brian climbed the split-rail fence to pet the horses' brown hides and marvel at their placid immensity. The baaa-ing of lambs called us back to their corral, where another museum worker was standing with an adult sheep on a leash. He explained that Vermont's agricultural history started with sheep farms, but the result — 80 percent of the state's forests were cleared for grazing — was an environmental disaster.

In part, that's what prompted George Perkins Marsh to conserve the 550-acre woodland on the slopes of Mount Tom, just across the street from Billings Farm. Frederick Billings and Laurance Rockefeller continued that stewardship, laying the foundation for both the museum and nearby Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park.

We've walked the carriage roads in that park many times, and almost went back again after seeing the sheep. But Brian needed a nap — and I was ready for a break — so we headed home, back to the 21st century.

Billings Farm& Museum: Route 12 and River Road, Woodstock, 457-2355, billingsfarm.org

click to enlarge TOM MCNEIL
Know before you go:
  • Most of the fun activities at Billings Farm are outside, so try to visit when the weather is nice.
  • Billings Farm is open daily May 1 through October 31, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; November through February on weekends, 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.; Christmas and February vacation weeks, 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
  • Admission prices: ages 16 to 61, $12; ages 62 and over, $11; ages 5 to 15, $6; ages 3 to 4, $3; under 3, free.
Where to eat:
  • Get great sandwiches for a picnic at Village Butcher: 18 Elm Street, Woodstock, 457-2756. Or Woodstock Farmers' Market: 979 West Woodstock Road, Woodstock, 457-3658, woodstockfarmersmarket.com.
  • For home-cooked dishes in a casual, sit-down environment, go to Mountain Creamery: 33 Central Street, Woodstock, 457-1715, mountaincreameryvt.com.
Also nearby:
  • Check out raptors and other birds of prey at Vermont institute of natural science: 6565 Woodstock Road, Quechee, 359-5000, vinsweb.org.
  • For educational fun regardless of the weather, go to the Montshire Museum of Science: 1 Montshire Road, Norwich, 649-2200, montshire.org.
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