St. Louis Zoo To Open Animal-Themed Hotel

St Louis zoo hotel penguins
Flickr, Jorge Rodrigo Gonzalez

The St. Louis Zoo has some major expansion plans in store for the next several decades, including an open savannah, a gondola crossing the park, a formal restaurant and a boutique hotel. The Missouri zoo will be making big changes to their existing park and developing a new site, bringing the total campus to over 100 acres, and creating new animal habitats and attractions. Don’t get ready to book yet, the full strategic plan is not due until the end of 2014, and construction could still be well into the future.

Where else can you overnight with animals, even if you don’t have kids?
Cincinnati Zoo has several after-hours options for families and kids, such as family camping outside the giraffe exhibit or inside the manatees building. You can even travel with the zoo on an African safari to Kenya.

Cleveland Zoo has a variety of fun overnight programs for children, but the adults have the option of a cash bar and make-your-own s’mores in the summer months. Costs are $90 to $300, depending on tent size.

The Houston Zoo Wild Winks program is primarily for children, but private events can be arranged. Want to sleep without the fishes? On November 1, adults can attend the annual Feast with the Beasts fundraiser event with 80 local restaurants providing food and drinks, animal appearances, and a performance by Smash Mouth. The zoo also hosts trips to Yellowstone, Alaska and Kenya.

San Diego Zoo Safari Park regularly offers “roar and snore” overnight camping excursions for children and families, and an “adults-only” option where you can learn animal facts for mature audiences only. Tickets range from $140-$264 per person, depending on age, membership, and tent size.

The Washington National Zoo hosts adults only for summer snore & roars including wine and cheese and an after-hours tour. Families and kids can choose their favorite animal or regional tour, from Amazonia to chimpanzees, but eat before you arrive, dinner is not on the menu.

Photo Of The Day: San Diego Flowers


My pick for today’s Photo of the Day comes from California-based photographer Alexis Wiener. She enjoys exploring and photographing the coast of San Diego, which is fortunate for the rest of us because her photography is imaginative and captivating. I can’t say for sure, but the flowers in this photo appear to be a Salvia Sage of some sort. If you know the exact type of flowers these are, please let me know in the comments. Regardless, they are vibrant, sprawling, beautiful and part of what makes the California coast so entrancing.

Sailing in San Diego, California

Budget Locations For Spring Break Travel

spring breakSpring break is just around the corner, and if you haven’t already planned a trip, our friends at Expedia have mined their price stats to come up with some of the most budget-friendly locations around. From family-friendly to party-hearty, these trips won’t break the bank.

Tampa, Florida
Home of the New York Yankees’ spring training camp, this sunny destination has much to offer both families and singles. A four-day, round-trip flight from New York into Tampa starts at $180.

San Juan, Puerto Rico
If you’re looking to brush up on your Spanish, check out Puerto Rico’s capital city, San Juan. A five-day, round-trip flight starts at $279 and with average lows hovering around 73° in April, San Juan is sure to please. This popular destination has made one of the most coveted travel spots this year, and new hotels make this an exciting spot for luxury and budget seekers alike.

San Diego, California
This sunny city is an increasingly popular Spring Break destination. For stays between March 8-16, there are a number of package deals available (flight + hotel) for less than $800/person on Expedia. For $772/person, you can stay at the beautiful Dana on Mission Bay between March 9-16 with travel from New York.

Orlando, Florida
Whether you’re headed to Disney World or just seeking fun in the sun, it’s possible to find flights AND hotels for under $300 total when traveling from New York City.

[Image Credit: Flickr via yazmapaz & ace heart]

7 Deadly Sins: The Best Fast Food Mexican Restaurants In Southern California

fish tacos at bull taco californiaIt really isn’t fair. California has sun, beaches, mountains and legions of fit, attractive people. But Californians also get to enjoy otherworldly tacos and burritos too. I know, I know, there are good tacos and burritos to be had in other parts of the country, but when it comes to fast food Mexican, California is still king.

Here’s how I like to roll when I’m visiting California: start the day with a breakfast burrito, feast on an grilled fish burrito for lunch and cap the day with shrimp or lobster tacos at dinner time. If I wasn’t always falling asleep early on the West Coast due to jet lag, I’d probably do another round of tacos late night too, if I could only stay up late enough to squeeze it in.

It’s very hard to distinguish where to get the best fast food Mexican fare in Southern California. Try one place and you’ll think it’s the best thing you ever tasted and then travel down the block to realize there’s someplace even better. But what follows is a run down of the best fast-food Mexican seafood tacos and burritos I had on a recent trip to Southern California (save for Rudy’s, which doesn’t do seafood).


La Sirena Grill (Laguna Beach, El Segundo, and Irvine)

I had a blackened shrimp burrito and my wife had a blackened wild salmon taco and a blackened tilapia taco here and everything was incredibly fresh and tasty. They have a sweet, tangy salsa that is out of this world. Much of what La Sirena serves is organic and even the containers they serve tacos in are made of corn.

carne asada tacos rudy's californiaRudy’s Taco Shop (Solana Beach, La Costa)

This place is the polar opposite of trendy La Sirena – there are no advertisements boasting about sustainability or humanely raised beef at this hole-in-the-wall joint but their carne asada is melt-in-your-mouth delicious and their chips are first rate too.

Rubios (Locations are mostly in suburban San Diego with a handful in other cities like Denver, Salt Lake City, Vegas, Phoenix and L.A.)

I know that some foodies are suspicious of chain places, but I am rooting for this one to make it out to Chicago. I had two grilled mahi-mahi tacos with roasted corn, cabbage and creamy chipotle salsa and a gourmet shrimp taco, which came with toasted mozzarella, jack and white cheddar cheese, bacon bits, avocado and two chili sauces.

fish tacos rubiosBoth were ridiculously good and were served with chips and beans on a real plate. The nice young kids who work at the Carlsbad location I patronized were fascinated by my interest with the place. To them, it probably seems a bit odd to be fussing over tacos and taking photos of them, but they’re spoiled they can get these beautiful things anytime they want them.

Bull Taco (Cardiff by the Sea, Oceanside, Petco Park)

This beachside taco stand advertises itself as “Inauthentic Mexican” but has become something of a local institution in just five years, serving unusual taco creations. Nathan, one of the chefs at the Cardiff by the Sea location, told me that all the cooks who work there are classically trained chefs. Only in California would serious chefs be found working in a taco joint and thank God for that.

bull taco shrimp tacosI devoured three tacos – grilled sea bass, shrimp curry and the coup d’gras, a lobster, chorizo and bacon beauty. Purists might balk at some of their concoctions but I would kill to have this place near my home in Chicago.

Bahia Mexican Restaurant (near the zoo in San Diego)

This modest little fast food place, with its colorfully painted chairs and tables, made me feel like I was in a working class neighborhood outside Puerto Vallarta. Big menu, low prices, no frills and it smelled great. After a long morning spent pushing my sons around in a stroller at the San Diego Zoo, I was starved, so I ordered a fish taco (grilled tilapia, $2.30), a shrimp taco ($3.30), and a lobster taco ($3.80).

bahia restaurant san diegoThe tortillas were very light and flavorful, the tacos were packed with seafood and everything was wonderfully fresh and delicious. My only complaint: the place is filled with vending machines selling junky toys and temporary tattoos, which my sons nagged me into buying. Halfway through my lobster taco, I relented and bought two sets of tattoos, but my 3-year-old didn’t like the one that came out of the slot for him. But even the tantrum that ensued couldn’t diminish the experience for me.

Taco Surf Taco Shop (Pacific Beach neighborhood in San Diego)

taco surf taco shopFor a place that’s filled with surfboards and is just a block away from the Mission Beach-Pacific Beach boardwalk along the ocean, this place is dark and slightly depressing. Taco Surf Taco has been featured as one of the best places to get a burrito in the country by Fox News and was also singled out by USA Today. I don’t agree with Fox News very often and I don’t agree with them on this call either.

The people working at TSTS are very friendly and my mahi-mahi burrito ($7.66) was big and tasty, but I didn’t think it was extraordinary. Another diner told me I should have tried their California burrito, which has steak, cheese and fries, but I’ll leave that one to Fox News and others. One other beef: horrible music. I had a Whitney Houston “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” earworm for days after hearing it at this place.

poquito mas tacosPoquito Mas (7 locations in L.A.)

I had two shrimp tacos ($6.50) at their West Hollywood location and I thought that the name of this place, which means “a little more” in Mexican, was appropriate – there were only three shrimp in each taco – not nearly enough for my tastes. They were tasty though and I especially liked their array of spicy salsas, but not their dicey tortilla soup.

Conclusion: If I had to crown my very favorite seafood, fast-food Mexican meal in California, and it really isn’t fair because all of these places are great, it would be a tie between La Sirena and Rubios. Their tacos and burritos literally brought a smile to my face. Please, please, please guys, come to Chicago. I’m begging you.

There are thousands of places to eat seafood tacos and burritos in Southern California and no list of the best places is comprehensive. What’s your favorite place?

[Photo and video credits: Dave Seminara]

A Zoo Hater Confronts The San Diego Zoo And The San Diego Safari Park

lions san diego zoo safari parkI do not like zoos. I have no ideological problem with them, but every time I bring my children to a zoo, I feel drained – financially, physically and mentally – by the time we’re ready to leave. When my wife and I had the first of our two children in 2007, I don’t think I’d been to a zoo in more than 20 years.
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But since then, I’ve been coerced into visiting zoos in Chicago, Brookfield, Illinois, Washington, D.C., Reston, VA, Zurich, Toronto, Baraboo, Wisconsin and a host of other places. And this week, I somehow got roped into taking my children to not one but two zoos: the San Diego Zoo and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park in Escondido.

These are reputed to be two of the best zoos in the world, but they’re also huge places that you can’t very well just duck into for a quick visit. Other than placating my sons, ages 3 and 5, my goal for the visits was to find out if these places were worthy of the hype and to determine if even a zoo-hater like me could be won over.


san diego zoo safari parkMy first impression of the Safari Park was overwhelmingly positive. You walk into the place and there’s a beached old Land Rover parked on the side of a small hill, next to a rushing waterfall. Speakers pipe in cool, tribal African music and the lush, tropical surroundings make you feel like you’re in the Hollywood version of a jungle set.

I had a vague impression that we were going to have our butts carted all around the place in some sort of vehicle or cart, but that isn’t exactly how it works. With the regular general admission ticket ($44), you get a 25-minute ride on the Africa Tram Safari, but have to walk the rest of the place. But if you want to spend more, there is a dizzying array of more expensive safaris, ranging from the $84 cart safari to the $599 ultimate VIP safari. Only in America can you drop a few grand on a trip to the zoo, right?


We opted for the cheapest ticket and I thought the Africa tram ride was more than enough for our needs. It’s a narrated ride that is about as close to an African safari as you’ll get in the U.S. You can probably see many of the animals we saw – giraffes, lions, cheetahs, rhinos, antelope, zebras and others – in a lot of zoos, but here you’re seeing them in a huge open space that looks like a much more natural habitat. (But if you want to get very close to the animals, you need to go on one of the more expensive safaris.)

lions san diego zoo safari parkAnd what’s more, our guide, Doug, even took it upon himself to give us some tips on how to reduce our carbon footprint. (I’ll be sure to slow down on the highways, Doug, thanks for the suggestion.)

My favorite animal was Vila, a 55-year-old gorilla that’s a great, great, great grandma who is believed to be one of the oldest “known-age” gorillas in the world. My sons dragged us all over the 1,800-acre park in search of all their favorite animals too, and, while it was a bit exhausting, I loved the fact that there are a host of unpaved trails that make you feel as though you’re on a hike out in the woods.

It’s not a typical zoo vibe at all and I liked that. But you will definitely need to watch your wallet at the Safari Park. There are opportunities to blow cash everywhere – you can even pay $6 to cut the Africa Tram line. If you’re on a budget, definitely bring your own food and drinks. A fountain soda goes for $5.19, a cup of soup is more than $7 and all of the other food and beverage options are similarly overpriced.

The San Diego Zoo, located in beautiful Balboa Park, in the city of San Diego, is more of a typical zoo experience, only better. The grounds are lush and expansive and the variety of interesting animals from all over the world is pretty astonishing. Everyone loves the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., but there you can walk for miles and see only a handful of animals. At the San Diego Zoo, the variety of wildlife in a similar sized space is far more impressive but you don’t get the feeling that the animal enclosures are cramped either.

macaw san diego zooLike the Safari Park, there are a host of expensive tour options and expensive souvenirs and refreshments, but given the fact that it’s right in the city, as opposed to the Safari Park, which is in a much more quiet, somewhat remote area, there’s no reason why you can’t duck out to get a bite to eat or simply bring your own lunch.

The amazing thing about the San Diego Zoo is that it really is like a little trip around the world. We saw animals from all over the planet: komodo dragons from Indonesia, gorillas from Africa, pink flamingos from the Caribbean, an anaconda from South America, and crested porcupines from India to name just a handful. And I saw a whole host of animals I’d barely even heard of before: a mang mountain viper, a Bornea sun bear, a Manchurian brown bear, an Andean bear, a West African dwarf crocodile, an Andean Cock-of-the Rock birds, and assassin bugs to name just a few.

I also liked the descriptions and the attempts to humanize the animals. We sat and watched the six gorillas for some time and I though the descriptions of their personalities was spot on: Paul “The Player” was indeed “handsome, charismatic and playful,” as he laid on his back, spread eagle with his hands covering his eyes, Ndjia, “The Thinker” sat in Rodin’s “The Thinker” pose, and Frank “The Tank” was every bit the “strong, independent, playful” lad he was made out to be.

san diego zoo signA few words of advice if you are going to be pushing children around this zoo at least part of the time. Go down Center Street and Park Way first toward the Pandas and Polar Bears because it’s a very long, steep hill. We did this part of the zoo last, when my kids were too tired to walk at all and I was exhausted pushing them in a stroller back up the hill to cap the day. And if your kids are as inquisitive as mine, don’t hand them the colorful map showing all the animals until you’re in the car ride going home.

My 5-year-old would see an image of an animal he liked -Porcupine! Zebra! Parrot! Bug house!- and then insist that we charge off to find that animal immediately, leaving me feeling a bit like Magellan looking for a spice route to the West Indies.


If you only have time to visit one zoo in the San Diego area, where you go depends on your preferences and where you’re staying. If you don’t want to stray outside the city limits, the zoo is the obvious choice. Those who want a more atypical experience and like the idea of seeing animals in a more natural habitat along hiking trails, trams or safaris should consider the Safari Park.

For sheer variety of animals, I’d go with the zoo – there are some 3,700 animals representing approximately 660 species in a 100-acre space, compared to about 2,600 animals representing about 300 species in an 1,800 acre space at the safari park. And the zoo has the advantage of free parking, though both of these places are worth visiting. Even if you hate zoos, like me.

[Photo and video credits: Dave Seminara]