Written by Denise Koek
From the glistening waters of Long Island Sound to the colonial villages of Easton, Weston, and New Cannan, Fairfield County embodies the very best qualities that the city and the countryside have to offer. Luckily, you and your family can partake of that culture without spending an arm and a leg. The best part of these budget-friendly day trips? You’ll only need a tank of gas (or less) to get there.
806 Federal Rd.
Why Go? It's an authentic-looking mine kids can dig through in search of “treasure.” Mother Earth Gallery & Mining Co. also has a gift shop full of delicate crystals, unique candles, wind chimes and other items that adults will enjoy browsing.
Insider Tip: Mother Earth offers a complete birthday package as well as outings for schools, scouts, camps and other non-profit organizations.
Must Do: The Mother Earth Mining Experience, educational and fun for little treasure-seekers. Outfitted with miner's lamps and a glow-in-the-dark bucket, kids are allowed to dig through the cave's sand walls for five minutes, searching for hidden gems. Kids can keep every natural rock and mineral they find.
The Fine Print: The mining experience is available any time during regular store hours. The price is $16 for each treasure-seeker. Mother Earth suggests, but does not require, that they be at least 5-years old.
144 Oenoke Ridge
Why Go? The colorful, spacious grounds of the New Canaan Nature Center provide both an environmental education center and a sanctuary that is dedicated to helping kids and adults understand, appreciate and care for nature. The Nature Center offers year-round family fun in the form of innovative environmental educational programs and events.
Insider Tip: Visit its website—the home page is chock-full of entertaining and family-friendly activities. You’ll find youth and family programs, “Mommy, Me & Nature” classes and colorful, easy-to-read trail maps.
Must Do: Take advantage of December’s Winter Wonderland program. It includes horse-drawn wagon rides, visits with Santa, cookie decorating, holiday trains, chestnuts on an open fire and more.
The Fine Print: Buildings and offices are open Monday to Saturday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. but the grounds are open dawn to dusk daily. A donation is requested for visits to the visitors’ center and grounds; special events entail a small fee. Winter Wonderland, for example, is priced at $8 for members and $12 for non-members, with an additional cost for attractions like the sleigh ride.
Cove Island Park
1281 Cove Rd., Stamford
Why Go? SoundWaters bills itself as the leading environmental education organization on Long Island Sound and offers programs not only at its Coastal Education Center, but aboard the SoundWaters, a three-masted, 80-foot schooner. The facilities include a Learning Lab and a variety of environmental displays.
Insider Tip: Hours may vary if education programs are in session.
Must Do: Spend some time enjoying the Teaching Aquarium. In addition to housing freshwater animals that live in local rivers, the aquarium has aquatic tanks holding animals from the Sound and coastal salt marshes. It has a touch tank as well as special tanks that provide a home for horseshoe crabs and diamondback terrapins.
The Fine Print: Exhibits are free to the public. The center’s hours are Monday to Friday, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m..
2325 Burr St.
Why Go? The Fairfield center borders the beautiful, 155-acre Roy and Margot Larsen Wildlife Sanctuary. The center features an indoor setting for the interpretation of its land, forest and freshwater wetland ecosystems. It also provides an enchanting butterfly garden, a farm pond (full of frogs, turtles and ducks), a greenhouse featuring the beguiling-sounding “Fairy Garden” and other nature-related exhibits.
Insider Tip: The center offers events like the “Badge Bonanzas for Boy and Girl Scouts,” and an interesting rotation of classes on such subjects as “Backyard Birding.”
Must Do: Visit the “Live Birds of Prey” Compound, which is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Where else will you have the opportunity for face-to-face meetings with owls, hawks, falcons and vultures?
The Fine Print: Open year-round, the center operates Monday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.; trails are open daily from dawn to dusk. Members and children under 12 are admitted free; for non-members, suggested donations are $2 for adults and $1 for a child.