If you're passing through the San Francisco Bay area or Santa Barbara, you've got amazing chances to get up close and personal with exotic butterfly species, guaranteed to bring out your inner child.
The reimagined California Academy of Sciences, which reopened in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park in September 2008, gets all the hype. Its LEED platinum-certified building design includes an energy-efficient "Living Roof" of native plant species. Inside, the longest lines of visitors are found waiting to enter the four-story living rain forest, home to over 600 birds and butterflies. The terrascape impressively recreates ecosystems from Borneo to Madagascar and Costa Rica. But the jostling crowds and sky-high admission price ($25 per adult, $20 for children aged 7 to 17) are turnoffs. If you go, get there early so you can take advantage of absolutely everything the museum offers, including planetarium shows, which can sell out before lunchtime.
Far more humble, the somewhat outdated, old-school Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History actually may have its big-city competitor beat when it comes to viewing butterflies. Its "Butterflies Alive!" exhibit may be pint-sized, but you're immediately immersed in a world of flowering gardens and dozens of butterfly species, all easily identified with the interpretive field guide cards available inside the open-air exhibit. Kudos to the docents who teach everyone how to walk carefully and avoid smooshing any of the 1000 free-flying butterflies, all raised in the on-site nursery. Sure, it's not as flashy as the SF museum, but the price of admission ($10 per adult, $6 for children aged 3-12) is easier to swallow.
Photo: Zebra heliconian (Sara Benson)