Since 1929 the San Antonio Zoo has charmed every Texan within a hundred-mile radius. To avoid the Saturday and Sunday throngs, try arriving first thing in the morning during the week before the school groups (and remember, there's no law saying you have to take your own kids). The lack of crowds allows you to truly appreciate the architectural and decorative touches that make the zoo at once rambling and intimate. Newer additions, like the coral snake sidewalk and the cavelike small-cat house, blend harmoniously with the hefty stone structures erected by the WPA during the Depression. And I love the conjunction of classy and tacky—for example, the beloved bronze pride-of-lions statue at the entrance (climbing encouraged) versus the Mold-A-Rama machines that make a plastic giraffe or koala while you wait.At nine on a Thursday morning, dozens of zoo workers were out and about, raking leaves, pruning plants, cleaning cages. One woman was scrubbing the boulders in the cheetah's habitat (which explained the puzzling label on a big white bucket outside: "Cheetah Diluted Bleach"). Two zookeepers were working with Sababu, a black rhino, using fat carrots to coax her into standing still for an exam: She's pregnant, and they hope to get her used to being touched. Sababu's baby won't be the only mini-rhino here; right next door is an almost one-year-old white rhino, Binti Vya Amani (which the zoo claims means "daughter of Fred").
The variety of birds here is amazing; I was stared down by a stately East African crowned crane, which wears its head feathers à la Pebbles Flintstone, and I now know why Australians nicknamed the kookaburra the laughing jackass. In the non-avian department you can see all the classic zoo fauna—elephants, giraffes, lions, tigers, and bears—as well as the less-common likes of tahrs and markhors, two kinds of large, horned Central Asian goats. And I never miss visiting Tumbo and Uma, the resident hippos, whom I first met in 1982; they were feeling antisocial this time, though, and deliberately turned their broad backsides to their fans. The resulting view persuaded me, come snack time, to opt for lemonade instead of Blue Bell ice cream. 3903 N. St. Mary's Street, between Mulberry and Hildebrand (210-734-7184; www.sazoo-aq.org). Labor Day to Memorial Day: open every day 9 to 6 (tickets sold until 5); summer hours: 9 to 8 (tickets sold until 6). Adults $7, children 3 to 11 $5, under 3 free. Train scheduled to resume running in early spring; call 210-736-9534 to check (adults $2.25, children 3 to 11 $1.75, under 3 free). Most areas wheelchair accessible.