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The best places to go with your kids—and your parents

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Where to go

Bass Lake

The N.C. Wildlife Resource Commission maintains several fishing holes around the Triangle—places in city- or county-owned parks where families can fish in stocked ponds. We suggest Bass Lake in Holly Springs in southern Wake County, because it is accommodating to parents and children. Older fishers can cast their reels from the end of the handicapped-accessible pier (the bathroom facilities and parking lot are also handicapped-accessible). And the young ones are almost certain to pull one in: Catfish are stocked monthly between April and September. Fishers can also borrow tackle from the pier office. There's no fee to fish at the lake, but you do need a fishing license at Bass Lake, as you do to fish anywhere in the state, if you don't want the park ranger cutting your bait. Licenses are between $15 and $35 for the year. —Mosi Secret

An afternoon and a boat are all you need for a good time at Bass Lake Park & Retreat Center in Holly Springs. - PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE
  • Photo by Jeremy M. Lange
  • An afternoon and a boat are all you need for a good time at Bass Lake Park & Retreat Center in Holly Springs.

Drag Bingo

Believe me when I say that a gambling event hosted by drag queens is some of the best family fun offered in the Triangle. Drag Bingo, the raucous semi-regular fundraiser for the Alliance of AIDS Services-Carolina has raised close to a half-million dollars since it began in 2002. Drag diva Mary K Mart and relative straight-man John Paul Womble host the bingo games and drag floor show with wit and snark that, like the best of Sesame Street, meets adults at their level without corrupting the kids. And like the best of culture in the Triangle, it appeals to an incredibly diverse crowd—church youth groups play alongside members of ACT UP. Each event has a theme: Last year, a 6-year-old donated her birthday money to AASC and was rewarded with a Candyland-themed bingo night in her honor. Hot dogs, veggie burgers and other snacks are on sale, but no beer—it's alcohol-free.

Drag Bingo finds a temporary home outdoors in the Rose Garden at the Raleigh Little Theater July 19 and Aug. 2 while its usual home, the Durham Armory, undergoes renovations. Keep an eye on their Web site, www.dragbingo.com, for further updates. —Fiona Morgan

Minor league baseball

Every ballpark should be as fun, as inexpensive and as pleasant as the Durham Bulls Athletic Park. The stadium, which opened in 1998, is clean and beautifully designed, with good sightlines even in the grassy outfield. And while the AAA minor league Bulls team—affiliated with the current first-place Tampa Rays—play a serious game that's fun to watch, there are lots of fun in-between-innings entertainment for kids who might not be all that interested in the game. The organizers go out of their way to make the Bulls fun for 5-year-olds. (I'm still waiting for mascot Wool E. Bull to beat one of the kids around the bases.) Even the concessions are relatively cheap and healthy—though rest assured you can get beer and cheese fries. Clean, spacious bathrooms and a shaded break area make this an accessible place for everyone. Several nighttime games include fireworks—which send some small kids into fits of terror, so check the schedule. —Fiona Morgan

For our eastern neighbors, the Carolina Mudcats, the AA minor league affiliate of the first-place Florida Marlins, play at Five County Stadium in Zebulon in eastern Wake County. Built in 1991, the stadium has a homey feel. Bring your glove to catch a foul ball or home run that might clear the 400 feet to the center field fence. Tickets are cheap, ranging from $5-$10, and kids under 6 are free; senior citizens receive a $1 discount. —Lisa Sorg

Farmers' markets

Saturday mornings in the summer are a great time to take the kids—and the parents—outside for fresh food, sunshine and people watching. Area farmers' markets offer locally grown produce, free-range meat and dairy. Most also include chef demos, crafts from local artisans and live music.

The Durham Farmers' Market is arguably the best kid destination, thanks to the big green lawn where children can play and dance to the music, usually provided by an impromptu gathering of fiddle, guitar and percussion. Besides the fresh food vendors, there are a handful of baked and prepared foods available, too, including ever-popular empanadas, and some crafts. Little kids will want to climb onto the turtle sculpture in Durham Central Park. The market's new pavilion offers clean bathrooms, too.

The Carrboro Farmers' Market is also features live music, and kids can enjoy the playground at the Carrboro Town Commons. Prepared foods are available at the nearby Weaver Street Market. And Red Hen, a resale boutique for kids' clothes and toys just down Weaver Street, is conveniently open at 10 a.m.

The Moore Square Farmers' Market on Wednesdays in downtown Raleigh isn't as expansive at the State Farmers' Market that's open daily. But the location, under the oak trees between City Market and the Marbles Museum, opens up many possibilities for lunch and play. —Fiona Morgan

Clyde's Critter Crossing

A truly odd and fantastic sight is the home of Clyde Jones, the locally beloved chainsaw folk artist known for his colorful "critters." The exterior walls of Clyde's house are covered in murals, and the backyard is full of his many creations, made from logs, stumps, paint and various scraps. The critters aren't for sale, so don't bring your checkbook—just your camera (and bug spray!).

Clyde's place is in the quiet old mill town of Bynum, about 10 miles south of Chapel Hill near the Haw River. Unfortunately, the Bynum General Store shut down in 2006, so your best bet for nearby refreshments is either Pittsboro to the south or Fearrington Village to the north—another good place to watch the cows go by. —Fiona Morgan

Click for larger image • The wood critters guard the yard of artist and sculptor Clyde Jones in Bynum. - PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE

Maple View Farm

Milk comes from cows. That's an especially fun fact for kids to learn about when the happy Holsteins roam free before their eyes. Maple View Farm is locally well known for its ice cream and glass bottles of milk at area stores. For a fun outing, trek to their HQ in rural Orange County. Hoof-and-mouth disease, absent from the United States for 50 years but still a threat overseas, has made visits to the farm itself a no-go, but you can see the idyllic pastures from rocking chairs on the front porch of the Maple View Farm Country Store. Outside, there are hay bales and a field for kids to play in, as well as picnic tables—feel free to bring your own food, but expect to indulge in the fresh, handmade ice cream. —Fiona Morgan

The Scrap Exchange

Walk around barefoot in the home of a small child, and you're likely to find little pieces of plastic embedded in the soles of your feet. Give that child an empty Kleenex box, and she's likely to come up with an elaborate, imaginative game that makes it clear just how unnecessary it is to spend money on more plastic junk.

If you're looking for craft inspiration and your child is hunting treasure, check out The Scrap Exchange, a downtown Durham nonprofit that collects odds and ends from all over—vellum paper, shiny stickers, beads, glass science slides, upholstery fabric, foam noodles—and sells them, quite cheaply, to artists and inventors of all ages. A visit to their space in the Liberty Warehouse (across from Durham Central Park) is a fascinating tour of oddities. They also offer birthday parties, with goodie bags that recycle those random odds and ends kids love. —Fiona Morgan

Click for larger image • Lilly Wiedeba, 9, browses toy trains available for sale at The Scrap Exchange in Durham. Wiedeba is using items purchased at The Scrap Exchange to make a birthday present for her father. - PHOTO BY JEYHOUN ALLEBAUGH
  • Photo by Jeyhoun Allebaugh
  • Click for larger image • Lilly Wiedeba, 9, browses toy trains available for sale at The Scrap Exchange in Durham. Wiedeba is using items purchased at The Scrap Exchange to make a birthday present for her father.

Saxapahaw/Haw River

Once the home of the Sissipahaw Indians, Saxapahaw is an old cotton mill town located in the bend of an S-curve and sliced by the Haw River. For the perfect summer evening, head to the farmers' market and music series, held each Saturday from 5-8 p.m. through September.

The town is small enough so as to sidestep any notion of parking meters, so ditch the car in one of the few lots or, as others do, along the road. Start around 5 p.m.—before the skeeters get hungry—with a brief hike along the Haw River Trail, reached by crossing the bridge (there's a sidewalk) and turning left, or east, onto one section. The trail is wider on this route, and you can detour to the water's edge or continue walking through the woods. (The western part of the trail is more primitive, poison-ivy ridden, and frankly, is littered with trashed washed up from the last deluge.)

Head back to the market around 5:45, and choose from the cornucopia of local and organic goods: Recent offerings included honey, chard, strawberries, wine, meat and eggs. To satisfy an immediate hunger, stop by the barbecue truck for a plate of pork and slaw, or a Frito pie with a nitroglycerin after-dinner mint.

Music starts around 6 and ranges from salsa to country to bluegrass. Spread a blanket on the shady hillside and send the rugrats to the kids' play area, patiently manned by parents and nonprofit groups.

Saxapahaw is 10 miles from Chapel Hill, as the crow flies. From points eastward, take Highway 54 west to Saxapahaw-Bethlehem Church Road. Flanked by untamed woods and rolling pastures, it's a gorgeous drive. Saxapahaw is a tad over the Orange-Alamance County Line. There are a lot of signs directing you to the market. —Lisa Sorg

Click for larger image • Orquesta GarDel, a 12-piece salsa band, plays to a large crowd at the Saxapahaw Rivermill Farmers' Market Music Series, which happens near the banks of the Haw River each Saturday through September. - PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE
  • Photo by Jeremy M. Lange
  • Click for larger image • Orquesta GarDel, a 12-piece salsa band, plays to a large crowd at the Saxapahaw Rivermill Farmers' Market Music Series, which happens near the banks of the Haw River each Saturday through September.

Carousel and pedal boats at Pullen Park

Want to know the best park for kids? Follow the crowds to Raleigh's Pullen Park, which was absolutely packed—every parking place taken and then some—on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend. Tots, toddlers, tykes, even a few teens, though most of the latter seemed to have a younger sibling in tow. And yes, many parents and other adult supervisors pushing the kids on swings and slides and paying the $1 charge to ride the best carousel in these parts or the kiddie railroad or the biddy boats. (The paddle boats, for kids of all ages, are $5 for half an hour; they seat up to four.) The place gives happy meaning to the word diversity—every age, skin hue and hairstyle was represented in force.

Pullen is well supplied with covered picnic areas that can be reserved, free of charge, for family gatherings and parties, as well as with tennis courts (also free) and an indoor swimming pool (not free—annual and daily admission cards are available). It's less well supplied with open fields, one reason Raleigh's eyeing the Dorothea Dix land across Western Boulevard to the south as the popular Pullen is overrun. —Bob Geary

Click for larger image • Eric Ammons, age 5, enjoys the classic carousel, a favorite attraction at Pullen Park in Raleigh. - PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE

Wafting the Eno River

"Wafting" means taking a canoe or kayak ride that's light on paddling and heavy on relaxation and observation. "Riverdave" and "Riojosie" Owen offer a peaceful floating tour of the Eno River and its natural mysteries most every day—and each Friday night, when the sights and especially the sounds form a different landscape. Kids can look out for the six species of turtles that live on the river, while adults can relax and learn. The guides' knowledge and infectious love of nature make this experience well worth the $13 per person charge. (Life vests are provided, but you might want to bring your own to avoid that boathouse funkiness.)

Wafting happens at West Point on the Eno City Park, also home to the historic West Point Mill, open on weekends, and the annual Festival for the Eno on July 4 weekend. West Point is one of several Eno points of entry that offer terrific hiking trails and swimming holes. —Fiona Morgan

Batting cages

Ah, nothing says summer like the crack (or ping) of a baseball bat.

Budding (or aging) baseball and softball stars can work on their swing at the batting cages at Homestead Park in north Chapel Hill. Cages are available for baseball (at various speeds) and fast-pitch and slow-pitch softball, so tykes trying to learn to keep their eyes on the ball can start slow and work their way up. Tokens are available at the concession stand. Homestead Park also has an aquatic center, and if, in addition to your parents and kids, you have your dog in tow, unleash your him or her for a romp at the nearby dog park. —Lisa Sorg

Click for larger image • Steve Pizek watches family member Matthew Junker, 10, take practice swings at the batting cages at Homestead Park in Chapel Hill. - PHOTO BY JEYHOUN ALLEBAUGH

N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences

The headliner at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh is definitely the Acrocanthosaurus skeleton, all 40 feet of it. At 54 percent actual fossilized bone, it's the most complete Acro skeleton anywhere—but then, it's one of only three anywhere in the world. In its day, which was 110 million years ago, the high-spined (acro-cantho) lizard was the champion of the natural world, though how it would've matched up with the heavier, slower Tyrannosaurus Rex 45 million years later is a question the museum leaves up to the kids—and to the dads who, the day we dropped in, seemed equally into it.

The museum's a happening mix of cool exhibits (whales, waterfalls), explanations (how radiometric dating techniques work, and why we know the continents broke apart between 195 millionand 205 million years ago) and films (Beneath the Blue dives 3,000 feet down in a bathysphere with high-definition cameras to show life off the North Carolina coast). And it seems like there's always an Audubon society, Savewater.org or other group making a special appearance with artifacts and figures about the issues affecting the planet and our little corner of it. The museum's front door is on Bicentennial Plaza between the Capitol and the Legislature Building, near the corner of Jones and Salisbury streets. —Bob Geary

Click for larger image • Enter another world at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences - PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE

Museum of Life & Science

The Museum of Life and Science in Durham has been the favorite local museum of kids and parents alike for many years. A recent expansion has made it bigger and more wonderful than ever, with hours' worth of activities indoors and out. There are now more than 150 animals on site, including the six-acre "Explore the Wild" exhibit with black bears, red wolves and lemurs, and a farmyard with pigs and chickens and such. And of course there's the famous butterfly house, in which you can walk among exotic winged creatures who might just land on your nose. —Fiona Morgan

Strawberry picking

The time is ripe for taking the kids out to the farm for fresh strawberries. Drive up, take a quick walk into the fields and pick fruit right off the vine. It's a good idea to bring your own container (I recommend using those plastic sand buckets that have been sitting in the garage since your last trip to the beach) and remember to plan for mud if it's been raining. High gas prices might make one of the dozens of smaller local farms a better bet this summer, but there are a few destinations worth the drive. Always call before you go to make sure the farm's not picked out.

Lyon Farm in Creedmoor (just north of Falls Lake in Granville County—up U.S. 15 from Durham or Creedmoor Road from Raleigh) offers fruit and veggie picking all summer long. Buckwheat Farm in Apex has goats, horses, peacocks and chickens to visit. Vollmer Farm(in Bunn in Franklin County) is the only organic pick-your-own strawberry field in the area. It has a market, café, and a 40-acre playground called The Back Forty that offers a jumping area, slide and lots of activities (but it's not open every day, so call). —Fiona Morgan

Click for larger image • At Buckwheat Farms, a pick-your-own strawberry farm, Kris Lee finds a prize fruit. - PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE

Where to eat

American Tobacco

This massive renovation of the old American Tobacco Campus transformed a complex of empty tobacco buildings into a destination that shows off Durham's historic skyline. There's a little touch of Epcot in the form of a "river," the water feature that flows down from the old railroad tracks through islands of concrete.

The Music on the Lawn concert series, co-sponsored by North Carolina Public Radio WUNC's Back Porch Music, offers free outdoor entertainment (bring chairs or blankets) and a place for kids to run around in the grass. There are two family-friendly restaurants with some outdoor seating Tyler's Taproom (burgers, pub grub and lots of great beer choices for parents) and the Mellow Mushroom (with a mushroom-shaped booth, if you're lucky enough to get it, and a baseball theme to honor the Durham Bull's ballpark across the street). If your family has a more adventurous palate, try the noodles or sushi at Cafe Zen. —Fiona Morgan

Carolina Inn

Chapel Hill's upscale, historic hotel opens up its green space for Fridays on the Front Porch, a free music series starting at 5 p.m. The buffet is a little pricey (beer, wine and cocktails are on offer, too), but the bluegrass music is always good. The crowd, as you might expect, is a bit preppy—think seersucker suits and fraternity/sorority date night. But there are also lots of kids running around, so everyone can feel welcome. Unlike many outdoor music series, this one offers some seating, but you'd be wise to bring a blanket as backup to sit on the shaded lawn. —Fiona Morgan

Click for larger image • The Big Fat Gap performs at the Carolina Inn for the Fridays on the Front Porch music series. - PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE

Elmo's Diner

You can tell immediately by the gallery of duck drawings hand-colored by patrons of all ages that Elmo's Diner opens its arms to families. The menu has something for everyone—veggie fare, kids' stuff, low-cal healthy fare, breakfast any time, burgers and milkshakes. Both the Durham and Carrboro locations are true diners, comfy booths and all. The only drawback is they can get a little crowded at lunchtime. —Fiona Morgan

Click for larger image • Wilder Semans, 6, plays with her straw while at dinner with her siblings (left to right) Tucker, 1; and Annabel, 4; and mother, Connie at Elmo's Diner in Durham. - PHOTO BY JEYHOUN ALLEBAUGH

Brightleaf Square

Decades before American Tobacco opened its doors, the old brick Liggett & Myers warehouses at Brightleaf Square became one of the earliest renovation projects of the kind. But it wasn't until a 2004 renovation that Brightleaf really opened up by creating a brick pedestrian courtyard that expanded space for outdoor seating at restaurants and general hanging out. A family-friendly Friday evening outdoor concert series has added to the appeal. Older kids especially will appreciate the freedom to browse the shops, including a record store, vintage clothing and gifts. Older folks will enjoy the antiques store and will find it relatively easy to get around. There are nearly a dozen restaurants in Brightleaf, plus another half dozen in the surrounding area, ranging from upscale (the Brazilian steakhouse fare at Chamas or Greek food at Taverna Nikos to the crowd-pleasing (such as Satisfaction's pizza or your choice of two Mexican places), so somehow, everybody will be happy. —Fiona Morgan

Southern Village

This "new urbanist" development off Highway 54 in south Chapel Hill offers a Sunday night music series throughout the summer, with a mix of big band, jazz, rockabilly and world beat music, along with performances by the Long Leaf Opera Company and the North Carolina Symphony. Most events are free. There are also a handful of theater events and a weekly farmers' market Thursday evenings. Bring your own chairs or blankets. For picnicking, choose between Weaver Street Market's Southern Village outpost or slightly pricier options like takeout pizza from Pazzo. For a sit-down dinner, there's burgers and such from the Town Hall Grill or Asian food at Merlion. —Fiona Morgan

Weaver Street Market

The lawn of Weaver Street Market is the heart of Carrboro. Both the Sunday Jazz Brunch and the Thursday After Hours event offer a chance to sit and hear free music—usually jazz, acoustic or old-timey—and eat a picnic meal. Expect to see Carrboro's bohemian crowd, and at the market, kids can indulge their freedom of expression alongside hula hoopers and jugglers of all ages. It's a great place for dog-watching, too. Bring your own chairs or blankets. And in case you can steal a moment to work or play yourself, bring your laptop to take advantage of the free Wi-Fi Internet access. —Fiona Morgan

Click for larger image • Two men enjoy conversation during Sunday brunch at Weaver Street Market in Carrboro. - PHOTO BY JEYHOUN ALLEBAUGH

Broad Street Café

This Durham café has found its niche as a kid-friendly venue where adults can gather for coffee and conversation. There's a kids' play area with toys and books. The light menu of sandwiches, salads, baked goods and smoothies is slowly expanding. And Broad Street offers live music five nights a week, including a kids' music program Sundays at 4:30 p.m. (there's usually a $3 to $5 cover). It's an ideal spot for the preschool and early school-age crowd. With plenty of comfortable seating and free Wi-Fi, it's entirely welcoming to those without children, too. —Fiona Morgan

Locopops

The pure, sweet simplicity of Locopops is its greatest appeal: Mexican-style paletas, made of fresh fruit and locally produced ice cream, in a wild variety of flavors. Mojito, tamarind, hibiscus and mango chile are standards, while cookies and cream and strawberry are favorites of small children (and Duke students). The constantly rotating "funky flavors" often include herbs like cardamom, basil and rosemary. None is sweetened with corn syrup. The business is cash-only, with a small seating area, but the bean-bag chairs and kids' toys make it very inviting. And Locopops isn't just kid-friendly, it's pet friendly—chicken and beef pops are available for dogs. This little business now has six locations in the Triangle. Don't let the summer go by without a taste. —Fiona Morgan

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