500 Places to Take Your Kids Before They Grow Up highlights great family trips, sights, and activities around the world. Below you'll find five underground escapes that mix science, exploration, kitsch, and history.
What: Howe Caverns & Secret Caverns: The Story of the Dueling Caves
Who: Ages 6 & up
Where: Upstate New York
The closer we got to Howe Caverns, the vintage upstate New York tourist attraction, the more billboards for it we passed -- "visit beautiful howe caverns, only 6 miles away!" -- nostalgic throwbacks to an earlier era of roadside advertising. And a few yards past every Howe Caverns sign stood another more gaudy sign, hand-painted in a psychedelic style reminiscent of Grateful Dead album covers, luring visitors instead to Secret Caverns. Naturally, we had to visit both.
Howe Caverns is the granddaddy of American underground attractions -- discovered in 1842 by farmer Lester Howe, it really took off in 1929, when walkways, lighting, and elevators were installed, and it still has a sweet, wholesome sort of Depression-era charm. While caves such as Mammoth Cave and Carlsbad Caverns are bigger and more spectacular, Howe Caverns doesn't try to gussy things up with laser lights and animatronics -- you're underground, it's chilly and damp and echo-y, it's gosh-darn spooky, and that's enough. Eighty-minute guided tours lead you through its various chambers, including a wedding chamber (yes, many couples have chosen this spot to tie the knot) and a quarter-mile boat ride on the underground Lake of Venus. Above-ground there are some other touristy activities like gemstone mining and pony rides, and the on-site restaurant has panoramic views from its big plate-glass windows. My kids thought it was totally cool . . . until we drove on down the road to Secret Caverns.
Secret Caverns is even smaller and more anticlimactic -- a long stairway down to one passageway with a 100-foot waterfall. No big deal. The reason to come here is to revel in its roadside kitsch. The extravagant painting and tongue-in-cheek humor of its billboards are a good indication of the wackiness to be found at Secret Caverns. A supersized bat is painted over the entrance, and droll exhibits within include the "mummified remains" of a tour guide and goofy accounts of its 1928 discovery by a pair of cows. The guided tour often devolves into an improv routine, with the guides making up outrageous names for the rock formations they pass (often different names on the way down and back up). It's a fairly bald sendup of Howe Caverns, but then, Howe Caverns gets all the tourists -- let Secret Caverns have all the fun.
What: Mammoth Cave: Kentucky's Subterranean Supremo
Who: All ages
Where: Cave City or Park City, Kentucky
Growing up in Indiana, I remember driving down back roads past ramshackle barns with fat yellow letters emblazoned on their roofs: see mammoth cave. It always beckoned to us kids like some kind of exotic Shangri-La, or maybe the Eighth Wonder of the World, thanks to this old-timey advertising campaign.
In many ways Mammoth Cave is the eighth natural wonder of the world -- it's the planet's longest system of caves, stretching for more than 360 underground miles (and that only counts the parts explored so far!) and going as deep as 379 feet below the surface. There's so much to see here that it can't be viewed all at once, so park rangers have developed many tours, ranging in duration from half an hour to 6 hours. While one quarter-mile loop is suitable for small children and the elderly, at the other end of the spectrum lies a tour for teens and adults that requires strenuous climbs and crawling through narrow passages. You could do more than one, since there's little overlap -- some focus on the geology or biology of the caves, while others explore its history from prehistoric dwellers to 19th-century tourists to tuberculosis patients to present-day environmentalists; others switch off the electric lights and roam the dark caves with kerosene lanterns. Reservations are essential in summer -- all the tours book up quickly.
Kentucky is geologically ripe for caves, with a vast subterranean drainage system that bored through its limestone bedrock. Draining water leaves behind not only the stalagmites and stalactites kids learn about in science, but also rippled formations like flowstone and dripstone. Embedded in the walls you'll see fossils -- blastoids, crinoids, gastropods -- left from the days when this region was a vast shallow sea. The ceiling soars 192 feet over Mammoth Dome; the floor sinks 105 feet below the walkways in the Bottomless Pit. I loved the fanciful names given to various "chambers," such as Fat Man's Misery, Giant's Coffin, Frozen Niagara, and the Snowball Room.
We were glad to find that the surface landscape -- 53,000 acres of lovely hardwood forests -- offers loads of other fun activities: hiking, horseback rides, bird-watching, or canoeing along more than 30 miles of river.
Contact Visitor Center/Park Headquarters, South Entrance Rd. (tel. 270/758-2328; www.nps.gov/maca).
What: Carlsbad Caverns: Colossal Underground Refuge
Who: Ages 6 & up
Where: Carlsbad, New Mexico
Native Americans always knew there was a giant cave system snaking around under the porous limestone reef of the Guadalupe Mountains. But white settlers only stumbled upon it a century ago, after noticing vast hordes of bats swarming out of a hole in the ground every summer day at sunset. Some 100 caves lie within today's park, an underground world of pale limestone where every fantastic and grotesque shape imaginable (and unimaginable) has been sculpted by natural forces -- from frozen waterfalls to strands of pearls, soda straws to miniature castles, draperies to ice-cream cones. Above all, what is impressive here is the sheer size of the cave, a constantly cool (56°F/13°C) refuge from the 100°F (38°C) heat outside in the Chihuahuan Desert.
The main cave open to the public, the immense Carlsbad Cavern, offers several options. With smaller kids, you may just want to take the elevator from the visitor center down 750 feet to the Big Room, which is a pretty understated name for this jaw-dropping rock chamber whose floor covers 14 acres. If you're more ambitious, follow the traditional explorer's route from the historic natural entrance, winding down for a mile into the depths through a series of underground rooms to the same Big Room. A self-guided tour from here runs 11Ã?4 miles over a relatively level path, taking about an hour. Rangers along the path point out some of the more evocative formations, demonstrating the still-growing dome stalagmites and the daggerlike stalactites jabbing down from the ceiling.
Tours of other sections of Carlsbad Cavern range from the easy Left Hand Tunnel, a half-mile lantern tour, to the difficult Hall of the White Giant tour, which requires you to crawl long distances, squeeze through tight crevices, and climb up slippery flowstone-lined passages. The 21Ã?2-hour tour of Slaughter Canyon Cave is a far more strenuous cave hike from a different cave mouth altogether. And if the kids don't like being underground too long, they can still join one of the most popular activities at the caves, a sunset gathering at the natural entrance (May-Oct) to watch a quarter-million Mexican free-tailed bats flap out of the cavern to wheel out over the desert for a night of insect feasting. After all, that's how the Americanos found the joint in the first place.
Contact: 3225 National Parks Hwy. (tel. 800/967-CAVE or 505/785-2232; www.nps.gov/cave).
What: Cheddar Gorge & Wookey Hole: Where Brits Go Underground
Who: All ages
Where: Cheddar & Wells, England
Say "cheddar" and your kids will think of cheese, and indeed this Somerset village near Bath is the home of cheddar cheese. But it's also an area rich in underground caverns, one of them within Cheddar Gorge, the other just outside the nearby cathedral town of Wells. These are hardly undiscovered caverns -- they are commercially developed tourist sites, with some cheesy (pardon the pun) special features added -- but the caves themselves are impressive; and I for one secretly like the goofy add-ons.
More than a million years old, the Cheddar Caves have some spectacular sections, including cathedral-like Gough's Cave and Cox's Cave, with its calcite sculptures and brilliant colors. The operators have jazzed things up with holograms and optical effects, such as the Crystal Quest, a dark walk "fantasy adventure" taking you deep underground. Britain's oldest complete skeleton, 9,000 years old, is gruesomely displayed in the Cheddar Man exhibit. Adults and children over 12 years of age who want even more can book an Adventure Caving expedition, which is pricey but intriguing; there are also rock-climbing classes. Away from the caves, you can climb 274-step Jacob's Ladder, which has been set up as a walking timeline of Earth history. At the top, Pavey's Lookout Tower offers grand Somerset views, on some days as far as Wales, and a 5km (3-mile) walking trail lets you explore the Mendip Hills.
Ten kilometers (61Ã?4 miles) south of Cheddar, at the source of the Axe River, lies another set of caves with an irresistible name: Wookey Hole. It takes 2 hours to tour this extensive set of limestone caverns, which includes an underground lake. Prehistoric people lived down here at least 50,000 years ago; ancient legend maintains that a stony figure in the first chamber is the Witch of Wookey turned to stone. Wookey Hole has its share of tacky features like the Magical Mirror Maze and Pirate Adventure playroom, but the Edwardian penny arcade is worth trying out, a collection of antique game machines that are surprisingly fun to play, even for PlayStation addicts.
What: The Caves of Majorca: Journey to the Center of the Earth
Who: Ages 6 & up
Where: Majorca, Spain
The Mediterranean resort island of Majorca is a place of sand, sun, and fun, wildly popular with European vacationers and a quick flight from Barcelona, Spain. Part of the Balearic archipelago, tourism has been Majorca's raison d'etre for the past couple of centuries, after being popularized by 19th-century artistic types like George Sand, Frederic Chopin, and, later, Robert Graves. In those days, visitors would never dream of coming to Majorca without touring the spectacular caves on its east coast. Two of the most amazing are an easy drive from Palma, Majorca's main town.
Rich in literary associations, Cuevas de Artà are said to be the inspiration for Jules Verne's 1864 tale Journey to the Center of the Earth. (Verne may have heard or read about the caves; it is not known if he ever actually visited them.) Formed by seawater erosion, the caves are about 32m (105 ft.) above sea level, and some chambers rise about 46m (151 ft.). In the entrance vestibule, notice the walls blackened by torches used to light the caves for tourists in the 1800s. The Reina de las Columnas (Queen of the Columns) rises about 22m (72 ft.) and is followed by a set of rooms named after the sections of Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy: a grim, forbidding cavern called "Inferno," then a field of stalagmites and stalactites (the "Purgatory Rooms"), which eventually lead to "Paradise." The stairs in the cave were built for Isabella II for her 1860 visit; in time, such celebrities as Sarah Bernhardt, Alexandre Dumas, and Victor Hugo arrived for the tour.
The roof appears to glitter with endless icicles at Cuevas del Drach (Caves of the Dragon), a short drive from Cuevas de Artà. These Dragon Caves contain five subterranean lakes, including Martel Lake, 176m long (577 ft.), the largest underground lake in the world. It was named after E. A. Martel, the French speleologist who charted the then-mysterious caves in 1896. Boating on the lake, you can look up at the intricate formations and marvel anew.
Contact: Cuevas del Drach, Porto Cristo (tel. 97-182-07-53). Cuevas de Artà, Platja de Cañamel (tel. 97-184-1293).
This article is an excerpt from 500 Places to Take Your Kids Before They Grow Up, available in our Online Bookstore now. Author Holly Hughes has traveled the globe as an editor and writer -- she's the former executive editor of Fodor's Travel Publications, the series editor of Frommer's Irreverent Guides, and author of Frommer's New York City with Kids. She's also written fiction for middle graders and edits the annual Best Food Writing anthology. New York City makes a convenient jumping-off place for her travels with her three children and husband.
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