On a recent vacation Shari Belafonte, the actress and daughter of crooner Harry, fell asleep to the sound of roaring lions. Four big cats, kept in an enclosure just yards from her elevated bungalow, were preparing for an evening meal. In her mind, she was in Africa. But in reality, Belafonte hadn't left California. She was just 25 minutes outside the seaside town of Monterey at Vision Quest, a bucolic 51-acre wildlife sanctuary.
What Belafonte knows is what many Americans are discovering: that you don't have to trek beyond U.S. borders to experience exotic wildlife. Exponentially less expensive than a 20-hour flight to the Bushveld of South Africa or the remote rain forests of Costa Rica, domestic safaris can be nearly as exciting--and far more accessible for families with kids. Since safaris are all about quietly watching wild animals, be smart about knowing whether your child can sit still for a couple of hours or more--generally, by the age of 9, kids are captivated enough by the wildlife to watch silently. tip sheet discovered these places well off the beaten path:
Vision Quest Ranch, Salinas, Calif. Four canvas-walled bungalows, equipped with baths, TV/VCRs and refrigerators, overlook a five-acre elephant playpen. Wake up to a picnic-basket breakfast brought tentside by an elephant that waits for you to share a portion of your fruit ($225 per couple per night, plus $50 per child; call to make prior arrangements for kids younger than 13; visionquestranch.com).
Spring Creek Ranch, Jackson Hole, Wyo. Ride in open-air vehicles on a guided safari in the Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks to see wolves, mule deer, birds of prey and bighorn sheep (recommended for kids 13 and older; from $310 based on double occupancy, including breakfast; springcreekranch.com).
Everglades National Park, Fla. Kids as young as 5 will enjoy stalking alligators, manatees and exotic Great Blue Heron in the isolated wilderness of southwest Florida (call 239-695-2591 for ranger-led outings; stay a half-hour's drive away at the Olde Marco Island Inn on Marco Island; rates from $129; oldemarco.com).
Elkhorn Slough Safari, Monterey, Calif. Hop aboard a pontoon boat for a close-up look at sea otters, peregrine falcons and sea lions. Kids as young as 5 will love the abundance of sea and bird life (adults, $28; children, $20 for a two-hour tour; elkhornslough.com). Stay at the nearby Captain's Inn at Moss Landing (from $110 based on double occupancy; captainsinn.com), where each room offers harbor views and even comes with binoculars to help you spy on seals--or your little sister.