...15 days or more
GO ON SAFARI When a zoo will no longer do, pack your kids off to Africa to see the real thing—the thunder of 1,000 hooves, the flash of tooth and claw. An African safari is a big commitment of time and money, so choose your operator wisely. After 24 years of experience in Tanzania (known for its stable government, good accommodations, and the highest density of wildlife on the continent), Thomson Safaris (800/235-0289; www.thomsonsafaris.com; 13-day Classic Camping Safari from $3,490 per adult and $2,590 per child under 12, without airfare) is an alpha dog in the field. This outfitter also knows what works for families: carefully paced trips, stays at campsites as well as lodges with pools, plenty of game viewing, and guides who are master kid wranglers. Before the trip, your children can exchange letters with Tanzanian pen pals, and later meet their mates during a school visit.
A typical day: start with a Land Rover ride to spot black rhinos. In the afternoon, stop at a Masai village, and in the evening, snack on freshly toasted cashews around a campfire. Children should be at least six years old to appreciate the sometimes-arduous journey. But rest assured, teens have been known to drop their beastly attitudes after hearing elephants trumpeting just outside the tents. Awesome.
Also consider: a family safari with Micato (800/642-2861; www.micato.com; 12-day Kenya and Tanzania safari $4,049 per adult without airfare, $3,645 for a third person sharing the room) or Abercrombie & Kent (800/554-7016; www.abercrombiekent.com; 15-day East Africa adventure from $5,985 per adult without airfare, $4,100 per child under 12).
SADDLE UP AT A RANCH Who wouldn't leap at the chance to wear a cowboy hat and boots, swagger across a dusty corral, and tell an 800-pound horse where to go? There are hundreds of ranches around the country—some are working cattle operations, others bona fide resorts (golf, anyone?), but the majority are family camps, with cabin accommodations, kids' programs, barbecues, and square dancing. A standout is CM Ranch in Dubois, Wyoming (800/ 455-0721; www.cmranch.com; $1,290 per adult for minimum one-week stay, $1,075 per child 512, including all meals and riding), at the foot of the Wind River Mountains. No riding experience is necessary; everyone learns in the saddle (think Western, not English). By the end of your week you'll all be ready to take part in Saturday's team penning event by herding cattle in an arena.
Ranches, by the way, are ideal for family reunions—a Chicago clan has had gatherings at Tanque Verde Ranch, just outside Tucson, Arizona (800/234-3833; www.tanqueverderanch.com; doubles from $290, including all meals and riding), for 25 years now; at last count they occupied 14 rooms.
To get an idea of what's out there, consult Ranchweb.com (707/939-3801), which sorts ranches by their specialties. (Ranch owners pay to be listed, but it's still a useful tool.) Off the Beaten Path (800/445-2995; www.offthebeatenpath.com) organizes top-of-the-line Western adventures of all sorts and can advise on the best ranch for your posse.
STAY AT A FARM Reach into a nest to find a warm chicken egg. Squirt milk from a cow's udder into a hungry kitten's mouth. These days, more and more farms around the country are taking cues from Europe's agrotourism movement and opening the barn doors to families eager to play Farmer in the Dell. You'll rise early, do some chores (if you feel like it), mingle with the livestock, and join your hosts for home-cooked meals.
Some of these getaways are full-fledged working farms. Liberty Hill in Vermont (Rochester; 802/767-3926; www.libertyhillfarm.com; adults $85 per night, children under 12 $40, including breakfast and dinner), for example, has 70 cows, and guests are welcome to help out in the barn. Other places, like Hull-O Farms in the Catskills (Durham, N.Y.; 518/239-6950; www.hull-o.com; adults from $110 per night, kids 59 $50, including breakfast and dinner; minimum two-night stay), keep livestock around mainly to amuse the guests. You can try your hand at milking Hull-O's small herd of dairy cows, or befriend the goats, pigs, donkeys, and sheep. And there are always chicks (a new batch of peeping Rhode Island Reds comes by mail every two weeks).
When it's time to relax, the Kennetts at Liberty Hill take visitors on hayrides down to the old swimming hole. Guests at Hull-O can visit the nearby Catskill Game Farm to ogle exotic species—a stopgap solution for a family who's saving up for that African safari.
There's no central list of U.S. farms that accept guests, but you can search Web sites for your state (such as www.pafarmstay.com for Pennsylvania and www.vtfarms.org for Vermont).