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Spring Travel | Magazine

New England travel destinations that will make your kids smarter

Instead of collecting plastic souvenirs, stick close to home for family-friendly experiences you won't forget. Soak up maple syrup production in Vermont and pad around with penguins in Connecticut.

Sergio Membrillas for the boston globe

IT FEELS AS IF we’re headed into space, and in a way, we are. It’s beyond black, but for the celestial canopy of flickering, far-off stars, and it’s hard to tell where the horizon ends — or the road, for that matter. In the darkness ahead, I finally see a row of dim red lights and pull up alongside them. We catch glimpses of ghostly shadows crossing the street toward the domed silhouette of a small building, and we know we’ve found the right spot.

We’re on a mission to discover new places and new ideas at the same time. While traveling is, by itself, a great teacher, certain destinations enable you to take on-the-road learning one step further, with unique educational experiences designed for kids and grown-ups alike. Instead of heading home with just a souvenir T-shirt or plastic trinket, we hope to return with newfound knowledge.

So with our GPS set to “learn,” my wife, 6-year-old daughter, and I arrive at the Frosty Drew Nature Center and Observatory (frostydrew.org) in Charlestown, Rhode Island, which hosts public stargazing nights every Friday (weather permitting) in one of the darkest patches of sky between New York and Boston. We huddle around a giant telescope with about a dozen other amateur astronomers and take turns counting craters on the waxing moon. Then the guide swivels the scope around and we take a look into the Orion Nebula, the glowing gases of which contain enough cosmic material to form 200,000 stars, each the size of our sun.

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If you arrive before sundown, there’s a lot to see on the ground, too: The observatory is near several beaches and inside the Ninigret National Wildlife Refuge, an 858-acre nature sanctuary with 4-plus miles of wide hiking trails, a clear-blue kettle pond, and views of nearby Block Island. Early spring is actually a great time to be here, as nature wakes from its slumber before the mosquitoes do. From May through August, Frosty Drew recommends that visitors wear pants and long sleeves, even on hot summer nights, because ticks and mosquitoes like to prey on stargazers.

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After getting our fill of the night sky, we drive another 25 minutes or so to Mystic, Connecticut, where we all settle into the polished rustic embrace of the Engine Room (860-415-8117, engineroomct.com). The brick-and-iron backdrop recalls the building’s factory history, though it now churns out comfort food, craft beer, and bourbon instead of Lathrop marine motors. My wife orders the seared scallops with smashed potatoes, and I can’t resist the house-made tagliatelle with creamy Parmesan sauce, roasted Brussels sprouts, and bacon lardons. I don’t even like Brussels sprouts, to be honest, yet I inhale them — along with a side of the house-smoked salmon jerky.

We spend the night at The Whaler’s Inn (860-536-1506, whalersinnmystic.com), a patchwork of refreshed historic buildings near the waterfront. Our junior suite in the early-20th-century Main Inn has high ceilings, surprisingly tasteful furnishings, and a separate kid’s alcove with sturdy, built-in bunk beds and a Roku-enabled TV. Genevieve, my junior reporter, gives the setup a thumbs up.

In the morning, we make our way to the Mystic Aquarium (860-572-5955, mysticaquarium.org) for a ticketed event: Pancakes With Penguins. It’s certainly not the best breakfast in Mystic, but that’s not the point. We and maybe two dozen other penguin lovers are the only ones in the aquarium before it opens, with access to most of the indoor exhibits — and some very special guests.

A few minutes into breakfast, a trainer pops into view pushing a big plexiglass prism holding the headlining act: two of the aquarium’s endangered African penguins, Blue Blue and Purple Green (named for the identifying color bands on their wings). After a brief presentation on the animal’s characteristics and the aquarium’s conservation efforts, we’re able to interact with them from inches away — and they’re adorable, curious, and friendly.

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Genevieve isn’t the only one giddy for penguins; one woman is near tears with excitement. In fact, while there are a number of kids at the event, there are even more adults who simply love the waddling water birds.

My wife, Gina, experiences a moment of elation, too, though it’s not penguin-induced. Since reading Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus, she’s been obsessed with the cerebral cephalopods — but they’re often too shy to be seen when we visit amid the din of a weekend crowd. There are perks to being the first ones in the aquarium: The giant Pacific octopus on exhibit is downright frisky and playful first thing in the morning, showing off for Gina and leaving her beaming.

Wanting more time to wander, we return later in the day for the full aquarium experience, although it’s so crowded this time it feels slightly overwhelming, as if a tour bus suddenly unloaded at your favorite coffee shop. But Mystic’s is a beautiful aquarium, with delightful sea lions, great interactive exhibits for the kid, and blessed sunshine. Now, don’t get me wrong: We love the New England Aquarium in Boston and have been members for years. But it’s so dark inside, and in the spring, I crave sunlight and fresh air. In Mystic, many of the exhibits are outdoors, including the beluga whales — who swim right up against the glass to say hello with a delightful, goofy grin.

After a light lunch with smoothies (try the Moca Javacado or PB&J) at Karma Kitchen Mystic & Juicery (860-536-7233, karmakitchenmystic.com), we take a stroll around Mystic in the preseason quiet. It’s the rare 21st-century downtown that still seems to have more bakeries than banks, along with other upscale hipster catnip like craft beer pubs, oyster bars, and quirky artisan shops. (We even passed a second juicery just a few hundred yards from Karma Kitchen.)

Our next learning escapade is at the impressive Mystic Seaport Museum (860-572-0711, mysticseaport.org), a 19-acre waterfront compound that brings the area’s maritime history to life. On this blustery day, we mostly stick with indoor activities, and there are a lot to choose from. In Home Port, we try out antique games and learn the secrets to drawing waves, boats, and clouds, and it’s a struggle pulling Genevieve out of the entertaining Children’s Museum section, even after an hour of playing sailor. No matter the weather, though, take a mesmerizing stroll through the old captain’s quarters and other seafaring relics below deck aboard the fully restored Charles W. Morgan. Built in 1841, it’s the last remaining wooden whaling ship in the world.

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If the ship deck and salt air awaken your inner mariner, the museum also hosts a full calendar of classes and workshops in traditional skills. You can learn to hammer molten metal in Basic Blacksmithing, shape barrel staves and build a wooden bucket in Coopering for Beginners, or try your hand at night-sky navigation, wood carving, and open-hearth cooking, among others.

Sergio Membrillas for the boston globe

I’M MORE COMFORTABLE cooking with a gas stove than a giant fireplace, so for our next educational excursion, we drive north to Norwich, Vermont, home of King Arthur Flour (800-652-3334, kingarthurflour.com). The employee-owned Goliath of gluten operates a busy year-round baking school with classes for amateurs, kids, and professionals at its stunning flagship campus.

We arrive early for lunch at the on-site bakery and café, a dramatic decahedron made from exposed timber beams and, if the heavenly smells are any indication, sugar and spice and everything nice. Genevieve watches the bakers in action through a big window, and after lunch we browse the locally made goodies and wish-list kitchen wares on offer beneath the cathedral ceilings of the store. (Class participants get 10 percent off, which is all the excuse I need.)

Classes at the baking school fill up fast, but I was able to squeeze into a four-hour sourdough tutorial, along with about 14 other amateur bread makers. A woman behind me remarks that it “feels like fantasy camp”; with our ingredients and tools all tidily arranged before us on pristine butcher block benches, and a view of the Vermont countryside out the window, she has a point. If you’ve ever wished you could be a part of the culinary challenges and kitchen camaraderie beneath the tent of The Great British Baking Show, I insist you make this pilgrimage.

Our group consists of both beginning and experienced bread bakers, and in what is essentially a delicious and hands-on chemistry class, our instructor, Sharon, covers a lot of ground in just four hours. I learn valuable new tricks for kneading and shaping dough, working with different flours, and getting pro results from a home oven, among other things. And of course, we’re dismissed with some tasty souvenirs: Three freshly baked loaves and a dollop of sourdough starter.

The baking school offers a variety of classes for kids and families, but my wife and daughter opt to spend the afternoon at the marvelous Montshire Museum of Science (802-649-2200, montshire.org), just a mile away. When the weather warms up, there’s an outdoor science park with cool water experiments and miles of trails, including Planet Walk, which offers an at-scale hike through the solar system. But the indoor exhibits are more than enough to keep Genevieve busy almost the entire time I’m in class.

In the Air Works exhibit, Genevieve starts her own jug band by squeezing balloons that play a pipe organ made of bottles, then gets to work directing fluff balls through an enormous two-story maze of tubes and tunnels by altering the airflow inside. At the staffed Science Discovery Lab upstairs, she experiments with manipulating her own artwork with mirrors, then gets sucked into the addictively challenging puzzles and games of Solve It! and in the Destination: Space! exhibit (open until August 4). Her favorite part is building a foam model spacecraft and then testing its flight-worthiness. She straps her creation to the launchpad, then simulates the grueling conditions of launch and reentry by making it spin and shake with the fury of a literal mad scientist, to see if the vessel falls apart or survives the strain of space travel.

We retreat to the nearby Norwich Inn (802-649-1143, norwichinn.com), where our room has a cozy gas fireplace and fold-out sofa bed for the little one. I’m eager to sample the English-style ales brewed on-site at Jasper Murdock’s Alehouse, and while the restaurant is busy, we’re able to wait for a table playing cards by the fire in the main inn’s enormous 18th-century living room. The food in the pub room is comfort style without being too heavy, and the malty, Irish-style Whistling Pig Red Ale is a perfect spring beer. If you’re looking for a livelier town, Hanover, New Hampshire, offers many more lodging, dining, and shopping options just across the Connecticut River.

Sergio Membrillas for the boston globe

The next morning, after a breakfast of French toast with Vermont maple syrup in the more formal dining room, we set off to see how glassware is made at the Simon Pearce Flagship Store, Restaurant, and Glassblowing Studio (802-295-2711, simonpearce.com) in Quechee,  Vermont. We watch, captivated, as a pair of artisans rhythmically gather molten glass from the blinding heat of the furnace, twirl and snip the 2,000-degree glowing goop, and gradually shape delicate stemware from it. We also marvel at the roaring waterfall outside and take a peek at the jumbo turbine below that converts its kinetic energy into electricity for the studio.

Our final stop is up the road (and up, then over, then down, then right, then up again . . . just follow the signs) at Sugarbush Farm (800-281-1757, sugarbushfarm.com), a 500-acre, family-owned cheese and maple syrup farm in Woodstock. We’re welcomed with free samples of 15 varieties of cheese produced on-site, plus tastes of four different grades of maple syrup for dessert. (The smoked cheddar is so good, and the farm store so stocked with local delicacies, that those free samples inspire us to spend almost $100.)

A series of trails winds through the farm’s roughly 9,000 tapped maple trees, and syrup season runs from late February into early April if you want to catch a boiling day in action (always call ahead, since the whole operation, not to mention the road leading to it, is weather dependent). The sugar house offers a year-round, self-guided introduction to maple syrup production — I thought I was pretty darn syrup savvy, but I learned a lot — and by late spring, most of the farm animals are out to greet visitors.

We came home with baking supplies, three kinds of cheddar, a half-gallon jug of maple syrup — and some intangibles, too. The other day, Genevieve randomly rattled off traits of the African penguin, and I finally know how to bake a good loaf of sourdough. Sometimes the best souvenir isn’t what you buy, but what you learn. 

Jon Gorey is a frequent contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to magazine@globe.com. Get the best of the magazine’s award-winning stories and features right in your e-mail inbox every Sunday. Sign up here.