Where the wild things are
When you think of wildlife-watching expeditions, you probablyhave visions of tracking cheetahs on safari in Africa or spottinggiant tortoises in the Galapagos, but more and more outfitters are offeringsimilar jaunts a little closer to home. Not only are these outings cheaperthan far-flung journeys, they're often perfect for the entire family. Whetheryou're partial to land or sea creatures, these five getaways will give you achance to learn about some of your favorite animals in gorgeous environmentsthat also happen to be perfect for hiking, kayaking, snorkeling, andother pursuits. Finally, an excuse to really get wild on vacation!
Play with manatees - Central Florida
At around 1,000 pounds, manatees,sometimes referred to as "sea cows,"are like big, wet, blubbery teddy bears.From October through March theymigrate inland and congregate by thehundreds in the spring-fed, 72-degreelagoons of Central Florida's CrystalRiver National Wildlife Refuge, about75 miles north of St. Petersburg.Catch a tour boat from the town ofCrystal River to swim, scuba dive, orsnorkel with the lumbering beasts,which are protected-for now, atleast-as an endangered species. Captain"Manatee Joe" Detrick offersdaylong conservation-oriented toursfor no more than six people at a time($85 per person; fun2dive.com).While you're there
To tour the refugeunder your own power, rent a kayak orcanoe from Manatee Tour & Dives($35 for a half day; manateetoursusa.com). Further explore the Florida wilds by checking out native bobcats, riverotters, and crocodiles (from a distance,naturally) at the Homosassa SpringsWildlife State Park, just seven milessouth of Crystal River (floridastateparks.org/homosassasprings).Where to stay
Crave another encounterwith the manatees? The PlantationInn & Golf Resort offers swim toursin addition to country club-style golfand tennis, and beach volleyball (roomsfrom $114; plantationinn.com).
Make tracks for moose - Northern Maine
The sparsely populated north woodshere are home to 6-foot, half-tonmoose, which feed on vegetation inthe marshy inlets of Millinocket Lake(about 200 miles from Portland). Glidesilently into their habitat by canoe,courtesy of the New England OutdoorCenter (NEOC). Guides lead morningand evening tours to watch themoose, but loons, osprey, beaver, andmuskrat abound, too ($49; 800-766-7238 or neoc.com). Grab an oar frommid-May through July, and Septemberthrough October for peak sightings.While you're there
NEOC guides will also lead rafting trips on the Dead,Penobscot, and Kennebec Riversnearby (from $89 per person for a fulldayouting); just let them know ifyou're looking for an adrenaline rushor a more low-key, family-friendly option.They'll even teach novices howto fly-fish on local rivers that arefamed for their landlocked salmon(from $118 per person per day, includingequipment). Back on terra firma,hoof it over to Baxter State Park,home of 5,267-foot Mt. Katahdin, thenorthern end of the Appalachian Trailand a very challenging eight- to10-hour round-trip hike.The park's many bogs and ponds areprime moose habitat for do-it-yourselfwildlife watches (just use common senseand always give a moose a wide berth).Hike the three-mile round-trip route tothe crowd-free DwellyPond to see them, orrent a canoe at TroutBrook Farm campgroundto spy onmoose that feed nearthe shores of LakeMatagamon ($1 anhour; 207-723-5140).Where to stay
Therustic log cabins at TwinPine Camps have fullkitchens and sleep up toeight (from $190 pernight; neoc.com).
Have a whale of a time - Maui, Hawaii
Like honeymooners flocking to theHawaiian islands, humpback whalesmake a 3,500-mile migration fromAlaska and the North Pacific each fall.They breed and nurse their young beforereversing course in the spring. Forequal parts adventure and learning, booka tour with the nonprofit Pacific WhaleFoundation (PWF), which funds oceanresearch, education,and conservation effortswith its whalewatchingoutings, ledby naturalists fromDecember throughmid-May ($32 for atwo-hour tour; pacificwhale.org). Year-round,PWF also runs snorkelingtrips to see thegreen sea turtles thatgather at the underwaterlava spans known as Turtle Arches($80 for a five-hour outing). Or take aPWF cruise that tracks wild bottlenose,spinner, and spotted dolphins cavortingin the waters around the island of Lanai($80 for a five-and-a-half-hour trip).While you're there
Back on the beach,dip into the latest trend, paddlesurfing, which combines stand-upsurfing and outrigger paddling fora full-body workout. Action SportsMaui starts beginners in flat water,but for instant big-wave access trybody boarding, in which surfersuse fins to propel themselves intothe rollers (lessons from $89 to$109; actionsportsmaui.com).Where to stay
The ocean-sideHyatt Regency Maui Resort & Spaoffers after-dark stargazing sessions withits resident astronomer-and his planetarium-on the resort's rooftop (from$325 per night; maui.hyatt.com).
Explore wolf and bear country - Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho
The nation's first national park is asanctuary for two of the West's toppredators: Northern Rocky Mountainwolves and grizzly bears. These foodchainkings-along with elk, bison,foxes, and coyotes-inhabit the vastand remote Lamar Valley in the park'snortheastern corner. Go there safaristylewith Wildlife Expeditions outof Jackson, Wyoming (summer ratesfrom $1,695 per person for four days, including meals and lodgingin park-adjacent motels; wildlifeexpeditions.org). On thedaylong tours you'll ride inSUVs that have open rooftopsfor unobstructed viewing,and naturalists will leadyou to where the bison, elk,eagles, moose, and moreroam. At dawn and dusk(prime times to catch harderto-see animals like wolvesand grizzlies), guides will setup powerful sighting scopes.While you're there
You can'tvisit Yellowstone withoutfollowing the herd of othertourists to the park's geothermalfeatures, includingits famed geyser, Old Faithful,and the bubbling Mudpots.But the more physicaleffort you put into seeingthis park-such as on thethree-mile climb up Observation Peakor the 12.5-mile Blacktail Deer Creek-Yellowstone River Trail hike that drops1,100 feet to the river's edge-the morerewarding and uncrowded it is.Where to stay
Since Wildlife Expeditionsruns its trips from Jackson, bunkpre- or post-safari at Snake RiverLodge & Spa in Teton Village (roomsfrom $319 per night, 866-975-7625or snakeriverlodge.com). If you lovedthe invigorating fresh air during youroutings, hit the spa for the Spirit ofWyoming exfoliation, a scrub scentedwith cedar, pine, and juniper ($190for 75 minutes).
Try seal spotting - Vancouver Island, British Columbia
The cold, nutrient-rich waters off PacificRim National Park on VancouverIsland's remote west coastsupport teeming coloniesof sea mammals. FromMay through October, SubtidalAdventures sets outaboard a hard-hulled inflatableboat to the BrokenIslands, a group of morethan 100 protected islets innearby Barkley Sound ($89*for three hours; subtidaladventures.com). En routeyou'll spot breaching graywhales, rock outcroppingscovered in seabirds, harborseals with their pups, andbeaches blanketed by California andStellar sea lions. Captain Brian Congdon,a former Broken Islands parkwarden, provides expert guided toursas well as warm, windproof "cruisersuits," a must-have in the wet andchilly weather (even in August).While you're there
Hike North America'slast remain ing temperate rainforest to long, driftwood-strewnbeaches and starfish-filled tide pools.Based just outside the park in thebohemian harbor town of Tofino, SurfSister leads two-hour or two-day surflessons ($75* to $195*, including boardand wet suit; surfsister.com).Where to stay
If you become enchantedwith Tofino, stay at one of the manyB&B's in town, such as the BriMar(rooms from $150*; brimarbb.com). Orreserve a rustic-chic cabin just stepsfrom the shore at Terrace Beach Resortnear the town of Ucluelet (from$349* per night; terracebeachresort.ca).
* All prices are in Canadian dollars.