8 great summer adventures for your kids

Heather Anderson

Got kids? If so, you probably know that a pilgrimage to New Hampshire’s Story Land and a swan boat ride in Boston Public Garden are standard summertime fare. But if you just muttered “been there, done that,” or you prefer to get your kicks at less-trodden venues, then check out the list below of eight great summer-only ideas that our kids — ages, 5, 4 and 2 — think are way cool.

1. MENDON TWIN DRIVE-IN 

At dusk, four cousins — the youngest clad in pajamas — pile into the backseat of an SUV bound for one of the state’s four remaining drive-ins. We pay the $20-a-carload entrance fee, then jockey for the best real estate at this twin-screen, 800-car-capacity outdoor theater that first opened in 1954. Viewers stake their claim with lawn chairs and portable radios tuned to 89.3 FM, then dash to the snack bar for popcorn, wing-dings, cheese dogs and lemon slush.

Susan Swanson and Kathy Gorman have owned the joint since 1987. They call the drive-in “an affordable night out,” adding that nothing beats watching “two first-run movies under the stars.” At show time, games of tag and touch football wind down. Families snuggle beneath blankets. And 1950s nostalgia gives way to “Horton Hears a Who.”

Location: 35 Milford St., Mendon. For show times and directions, visit www.MendonDriveIn.com. Or call 508-473-4958.

2. WINGAERSHEEK BEACH

Among the pre-school set, Wingaersheek — located along the Annisquam River and Ipswich Bay — gets our vote for best sandbox. It offers tidal pools for catching hermit crabs, rocks for climbing, soft sand and clear water. “It’s definitely our favorite beach,” says Melrose’s Laura Clarke, mother of Abigail, 6, and Declan, 3. But, she adds, knowing when to go is key.

Best bet? Five o’clock in the evening. That’s when the parking ($20 weekdays; $25 on weekends) is free. And the likelihood of sunburns falls precipitously. “We pack a dinner and literally hang out ‘til 8 p.m.,” says Clarke. “You get to see the sun setting and watch the tide go out. It’s just peaceful.”

Location: Exit 13 off Route 128. Atlantic Street, Gloucester. For

information, call 978-281-9785.

3. STRAWBERRY PICKING AT CIDER HILL FARM  

Nothing conjures up summer like fresh strawberry shortcake or vanilla ice cream with mashed berries. For years now, the 145-acre Cider Hill Farm in Amesbury has been our top pick for pick-your-own strawberries. The best time to pick them is now through July 4.  Blueberries, which produce until late August, follow suit.

Cider Hill is open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. seven days a week. We urbanites consider it a great place to commune with Mother Nature, as well as to buy locally made cider and honey. So pack a picnic lunch, wear a wide-brimmed hat, bring a cooler for your booty, and be sure to sample the farm’s heavenly sugar-coated cider doughnuts on the way out.

Location: 45 Fern Ave., Amesbury. For information and growing schedule, visit www.ciderhill.com. Or call 978-388-5525.

4. ROGER WILLIAMS PARK ZOO

Spread over 430 acres, this urban oasis boasts one of the oldest and best zoos in the country. Citysearch.com users voted it “Best Family Outing” in 2001, and “Travel & Leisure Family Magazine” has ranked it one of the country’s top 10 zoos.

Well worth the hour-long ride south of Boston, the zoo features nearly 1,000 animals representing 156 species from around the world. The elephants, kangaroos and giraffes made the biggest splash among our preschool set. We also saw monkeys, moon bears, seals, a snow leopard and penguins as well as farm animal exhibits. If you have all day, check out the park’s playground and covered carousel, or rent a paddle boat.

Location: 950 Elmwood Ave, off I-95 in Providence, Rhode Island. For information, visit www.rogerwilliamsparkzoo.org. Or call 401-785-3501. Adults, $12; children (3-12), $6.

5. SALEM WILLOWS

It’s pure honky-tonk (OK, some might say seedy). But nothing beats a seaside arcade full of classic coin-ops  like Ms. Pacman, Centipede and Space Invaders. On a recent night, our kids dropped quarters into the skeeball machine while teens laid claim to the air hockey tables.

If you’re a New York transplant, think Coney Island of long ago. You can still drop 10 cents into Zoltan and have your fortune told by a mechanical gypsy, or into the Wheel of Love to see if you’re “hot stuff” or “bad news.” The arcade is a treasure trove of vintage pinball machines mixed among high-tech video and virtual reality games.

Farther down the strip, young ones can enjoy the kiddie rides including an historic carousel. As for food, the chicken chop suey sandwiches are popular and supposedly famous (we have no idea why). We suggest packing a picnic and catching a concert beneath the willows. Before leaving, head for the twinkly white lights of Hobbs for some homemade ice cream or hot buttered popcorn.

Location: 173 Fort Ave., Salem. For information, visit www.salemwillowspark.com. Or call 978-745-0251.

6. DAVIS’ FARM LAND 

It’s one big petting zoo full of alpacas, dwarf goats, miniature donkeys, emus, llamas, sheep and cows. Actually, Davis’ Farmland — the latest incarnation of this seventh-generation farmstead, operating in Sterling since 1846 — is the largest private sanctuary of endangered livestock in North America.

We like the pony rides and narrated, tractor-pulled hay rides. Bring your bathing suit as the farm also boasts one of the biggest sprinkler parks in New England.

Location: Redstone Hall Road, off Route 62, Sterling. For information, visit www.davisfarmland.com. Or call 978-422-MOOO.  Cost: $16.95; under age 2 is free.

7. BRADLEY PALMER STATE PARK FOUNTAIN POOL

This big, clean wading pool is hidden within a park of easy hiking trails along the Ipswich River. Features include lifeguards, bathrooms and a grassy picnic area. The mushroom-shaped fountain is the centerpiece of the pool, popular among the under-10 set.

Location: Route 1 to Ipswich Road; Asbury Street, Topsfield. For information, visit www.massparks.org. Or call 978-887-5931. Cost: $5.

8. SAINT ANTHONY’S FEAST IN THE NORTH END

Religious festivals are a summer tradition in Boston’s (once) Italian neighborhood. Accompanied by marching bands, revelers carry statues of Catholic saints through the streets, and families come together to feast. The biggest — the “Feast of all Feasts” — is Saint Anthony’s, celebrated each year on the last weekend in August.

Come for the culture (and a lot of “kiss-me-I’m-Italian” kitsch). The streets teem with pushcart vendors hawking fried calamari, cherrystones, fried dough, cannoli, biscotti, pizza, sausages and slush. Pull up a seat on the curb to watch potato sack races, watermelon-eating contests and old timers swaying to live music.

Location: Endicott Street, North End, Boston. For information, visit www.stanthonysfeast.com. Or call 617-723-TONY.