Of all the zoos in New York City, the Bronx Zoo is the biggest and the most quintessential. As the name suggests, it's also in the Bronx, and for people like me who rarely leave Brooklyn, the Bronx feels as far north as Canada (even with a car!). Which is why our nearly four-year-old daughter and her baby brother had never been until this Labor Day.
My husband had offered to entertain the kids that morning so that I could get some work done, but in a backhanded way, first by announcing his super-ambitious plan to take them to the zoo (Really? Why not the playground?), and then by dropping comments like, "It would be a lot easier if you came." Truth is I didn't have that much work to do. And I did want to go to the zoo. I hadn't been since I was 15.
The drive up was much shorter than I imagined--30 minutes in no traffic. Fully expecting that we'd to have to park in a lot nearby, I printed out a coupon for one, but we found a spot steps from the entrance on Boston Road near E. 180th Street. It was just before 10 am, so we did a loop at the nearby Boston Playground until the gates opened, and strolled past the Bronx River cascading along the park's edge, dotted with trash.
Once we were in, and staring at the map before us, I realized we were in for a looong day. Unlike other city zoos, which feel so small you can practically walk through them blindfolded, the Bronx Zoo is densely wooded and vast--at 265 acres of winding paths and habitats, it's the largest metropolitan zoo in the U.S. It's also the kind of place that will wipe out your most reluctant napper. There's even a 43-acre section you can only access by monorail, which a 25-year-old man recently jumped out of so he could be "one" with the tigers. Not the greatest decision, it turns out.
You may want to upgrade to the most premium ticket possible, because you will inevitably walk past things like the Bug Carousel, and end up paying more money for these "extras" (the butterfly house is another). Or you can just practice your art of distraction, and steer them toward all the odd animals. We saw strange monkeys who resembled David Bowie in his Space Oddity, crazy hair phase. Skipped an entire exhibit devoted to mice. Spotted tons of lemurs in the Madagascar exhibit, as crazy looking as the movie. Watched tigers taking a bath in a swimming hole, diving underwater and everything. (Big cats like water? Who knew?) On the way out, I read an alarming fact--the world's wild tiger population now hovers around 3,200, one of the many reminders you'll find throughout the zoo about the state of endangered wildlife. I wondered if I would ever see a tiger in the wild, and how many would be left when my daughter reached my age.
She, meanwhile, just wanted to see the elephants. There are only two at the Bronx Zoo, and they are in that Wild Asia monorail section.
I sat out the elephant sighting--strollers aren't allowed on the monorail, and I was loathe to wake a napping 11-month-old, but the report back was that it was the highlight of the trip. The monorail stops right in front of them, the only time they pause the ride, and the kids squeal with delight.
As I waited, I watched as children climbed aboard complacent camels for a bumpy joy ride. I also obsessively Googled places for us to eat afterward, based upon this story: "Where to Eat Near the Bronx Zoo."
In all honesty, "What are we going to do for lunch?" is the thing I thought most about as we walked around the Beaux-Arts pavillions and stopped for the sea lions. Thankfully, Serious Eats has helped many a family out by posting about the ethnic joints near Arthur Ave., famous for its Italian delis and restaurants, but now offering everything from Yemeni to Trinidadian food. We settled on Estrellita Poblana III, mainly because we love Mexican, but the fact that they took credit cards was a plus.
When they brought out the trio of salsas, I felt that we had scored that elusive authentic Mexican restaurant jackpot--although my chile rellenos were not as good a rendition of the classic as my husband's carnitas platter. The black beans were also too delicious to not have lard in them, so consider yourself warned if you think your beans deserve better. We were just thankful they brought everything out quickly. After a long day of lions, tigers and bears, we had a cranky girl on our hands and a dozen sugar packets on the floor, remains of our futile attempt to keep our son happy. It was time to inhale our lunch, and leave.
I would have loved to walk around Arthur Ave., and find the perfect spot for antipasto or gelato. But now that we know it's such an easy daytrip, we'll be back. I'm sure the zoo will look gorgeous this fall.
The Bronx Zoo has just begun its month of weekend Halloween programming, Boo at the Zoo. It's open 10am to 5pm daily, and until 5:30 on weekends and holidays. Basic admission is $15; $13 for 65+; $11 for ages 3 through 12; free for under 3. Visit bronxzoo.com or call 718-367-1010 for more info.