NEW YORK — One of the best-kept secrets in New York City is the delightful Bronx Zoo, located on Fordham Road at the Bronx River Parkway in the Bronx. The Bronx sits at the northernmost tip of the city — the only borough attached to the North American mainland. Getting there seems challenging to the uninitiated — but you can catch the bus at the corner of Madison Avenue and 54th Street and be there in about 30 minutes.

I learned about the bus from the Marriott Hotel concierge. She also gave me good directions, told me the cost — but did not tell me that the $5 had to be paid to the driver in quarters. On the way to the zoo the driver would not accept my $5 bill — but he had mercy on me and let me ride even though I had no quarters. Then he warned me to get quarters from the zoo before I got on the return bus.

I was unable to get quarters anywhere in the zoo — so I walked for a mile outside the zoo to a gas station with a food mart — and they gave me quarters for a $5 bill. (I advise getting a pouch of quarters before you leave your hotel.)

Because the Bronx has a reputation as a dangerous place where you could be mugged or stranded, zoo personnel encourage visitors to arrange for transportation with a car service. The only trouble is that a car service is very expensive — $107 one way — and not something the average tourist is likely to try.

(The Bronx is named for Swedish commercial sea captain Jonas Bronck, who was a pioneer settler in 1639.)

In a vast, forested space of 265 acres, where over 4,000 animals wander, the Bronx Zoo is considered the largest metropolitan zoo in America — and one of the best zoos in the world.

Operated by the Wildlife Conservation Society, it opened in 1899 — when there were still lots of trees left — with 843 animals. One of the first animals acquired was the American bison. Once numbering 50 million in North America, the numbers had been decimated — but by 1907 the Bronx Zoo was sending bison to several other American refuges — and the bison population rebounded.

The snow leopard was another early occupant as the zoo became the first to exhibit them anywhere in the Western Hemisphere. Today, the leopards are no longer endangered.

By the 1940s, the Bronx Zoo became the first zoo to phase out cages and exhibit animals in naturalistic habitats.

In 2006, the zoo served 1.9 million visitors from around the world. New York is hot and humid in the summer, but the trees provide coveted shady spots, making it easier to walk from one end to the other. I visited in June — but September or October would be better times to go.

(Next time, I want all eight of my grandkids to be with me, too!)

At a time when zoos are often criticized for showing little compassion for wildlife, the approach here is refreshing. Giraffes with their ungainly necks wander in large, tree-lined spaces. (Contrast that with the tiny quarters given giraffes at Salt Lake's Hogle Zoo, including the small drab building where they go for food.)

In fact, animals throughout the Bronx Zoo give the impression of being appreciated in a natural habitat. A ride in the Skyfari gondola across the zoo will persuade even the skeptical. The Bronx Zoo is also known for its cultivation of vanishing species through carefully managed breeding programs.

The newest exhibit is the African Wild Dogs — an endangered species — initiated a year ago on the zoo's African Plains, along with giraffes, cheetahs, lions, zebras, etc. Probably the zoo's most innovative project is the Congo Gorilla Forest — a 6.5-acre African rain forest habitat that is home to 400 animals of 55 species, including 23 lowland gorillas, one of the most important breeding groups of their kind in the country.

There are a number of daily feedings and demonstrations — such as tiger enrichment sessions at Tiger Mountain, primate training at the Monkey House, penguin feeding at the Sea Bird Colony and a bee-eater buffet at the World of Birds.

Other exhibits include the Baboon Reserve, the Wildfowl Marsh (rare ducks), the Rare Animal Range (the Formosan sika deer and South American guanaco), the Holarctica (polar and grizzly bears, Trumpeter Swans, cranes), the Sea Bird Aviary (Magellanic penguins, Inca terns, guanay cormorants), Bird Valley (eagles, owls and vultures) and Jungle World (Tapirs, gibbons, hornbills, fruit bats, black leopards, otters and langurs).

The zoo is a veritable animal wonderland — and the impression made on visitors is that they have escaped the city (somehow) and found a forested preserve that is remarkably pleasant. It could be an island refuge — in this case an island quite naturally separate from urban ills. Zoo personnel were, in my experience, gracious, knowledgeable and helpful — and the physical land area is so large that even crowds of people become easily absorbed.

A number of events are held at the zoo on a seasonal basis. For instance, "Boo at the Zoo" is Oct. 20-21 and 27-28 and includes magic shows, spooky stories, music, costume parades, storytelling, a hay maze, pumpkin painting and giveaways. Visitors are encouraged to visit "all our creepiest critters."

On Nov. 4, Harvest Day becomes a celebration of music, storytelling, hayrides and apple cider as the zoo shows its respect for autumn. A stroll along the zoo's Mitsubishi Riverwalk under a canopy of gorgeous colors is advisable.

Holiday Lights, sponsored by Delta Air Lines and Pepsi, will be Nov. 16-Jan. 6, 2008. There are bright lights and festive entertainment during those days.

It is only food and drink that could be more prevalent — The Dancing Crane Cafe is a roomy, indoor, spacious restaurant with food and pop (which you will need a lot of in the summer — stay hydrated!), and the Bronx Zoo Store, which sells food and souvenirs. Such a large zoo requires several more restaurants.

If you have never been to a terrific zoo or you have been uncomfortable with zoos that are not animal-friendly, you should plan a long, leisurely visit to the Bronx Zoo.