Who can ever forget the day of the Great Chocolate Explosion? While 46 second-graders watched from the glassed-in observation deck of the Ben & Jerry Ice Cream Factory, a gasket blew out on a 1,000-gallon blending tank down on the production floor. With one fantastic WHOOSH, a hurricane of chocolate ice cream swept the room, wall to wall, floor to ceiling, and in an instant every white-garbed worker was totally chocolate-coated. In that same instant, every delighted 7-year-old determined then and there to work at Ben & Jerry's just as soon as they finished school.

The Ben & Jerry factory in Waterbury, Vt., 30 miles east of Burlington, attracts more than 100,000 visitors a year. That makes it the state's second most popular tourist site, just behind the Shelburne Museum. Perched just off the highway on the side of a hill, the place looks like a farm machinery outlet that hasn't gotten around to paving its parking lots. In summer cars chug through the deep dust, which in late winter and all through the spring turns into a good Vermont mud wallow. But that doesn't stop the visitors who pull in -- on a good day, as many as 800 to 900, many of them with kids.

And yet this is just one of New England's attractions that appeal to the younger set. The Topnotch ski resort in Stowe, Vt., for example, offers special spring packages that combine skiing and indoor tennis with maple sugaring tours. And throughout the area are scattered museums oriented toward children, among them:

The Lutz Children's Museum in Manchester, Conn.

The Science Museum in Hartford, Conn.

The Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum in Brunswick, Maine.

The Mystic Seaport Museum in Mystic, Conn.

The Ben & Jerry Ice Cream Factory tour begins in a small lobby from which visitors are shepherded upstairs to a viewing room for a 10-minute slide show. It's a wacky, upbeat pitch that tells the tale of how a couple of Vermont hippies (born and raised on Long Island) turned a hand-cranked ice-cream freezer into a $30 million (annually) business in less than 10 years. It's the kind of success story everybody loves to love. When the lights come up, everyone is grinning. The kids grin because they know samples are only minutes away. The grownups grin because they know now that the road to riches is just over the next hill and that every mile is paved with guffaws.

With the cheery image of Ben and Jerry, a couple of good guys in beards, flannel shirts and baggy pants, fading on the screen, the tour moves out onto the glass-fronted walkway that overlooks the factory floor. Down below, half a dozen workers in white coveralls hustle around through a Rube Goldberg landscape of stainless steel tanks, pipes and gauges, happily doing what's necessary to turn out 1,500 gallons an hour of super premium ice cream. No one down there looks very hassled. In fact, they look as if they're having a fine time, an effect that's heightened as every once in a while one of them glances up and waves.

An engaging guide, who looks more like a high-school cheerleader than an accessory to Vermont's burgeoning tourist industry, divulges the facts: All heavy cream comes from a St. Albans dairy cooperative. No preservatives, no additives. Currently the three top favorites are Heath Bar Crunch, New York Super Fudge Chunk and Cherry Garcia.

Departing the observation deck, the tour passes a life-size rag doll, bundled up in arctic gear, laid out atop one of the holding tanks with a hand-printed sign around its neck that says "Many are cold, few are frozen."

Amid chuckles, samples of the flavor of the day are handed out. The tour ends in a lavishly stocked gift and souvenir shop, where mammoth ice-cream cones are sold at the "scoop window."

In late March and early April, when elsewhere daffodils are spiking through, in much of New England the skiing is at its blue-sky best. The bitter blasts of winter subside and sun-tanned skiers swoop the trails, often minus mittens and earmuffs. Virtually all the ski resorts offer packages with every conceivable combination of lodging, meals, ski tickets and evening entertainment. These can range from bare-bones economy to deluxe accommodations at resorts featuring gourmet fare.

Topnotch, in Stowe, is known for its ski-tennis packages, with a half day of skiing twinned with a half day of indoor tennis. But in the spring, you can add maple sugaring tours as well. It's the sunny days and freezing nights of spring that produce Vermont's famous maple syrup, locally known as Northern Comfort. Every year, Topnotch offers maple sugaring tours to the woodlands where the rising sap is tapped and funneled through long plastic lines to the "sugarhouse" for the final boiling down. Visitors are shown each step of the process and, on departure, are treated to snow cones: scoops of fresh snow, glazed with maple syrup.

It's no surprise that New England, home of some of the country's oldest and finest schools and colleges, is home as well to some of its most prestigious museums, including some of particular interest to children. The Lutz Children's Museum in Manchester, Conn., and the Science Museum in Hartford, Conn., regularly schedule exhibits and hands-on demonstrations geared particularly to children 16 and under.

And in Maine, just 25 miles northeast of Portland on the campus of 194-year-old Bowdoin College in Brunswick, is a small and all-too-often overlooked museum that children invariably find fascinating. It's the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum. Robert E. Peary and Donald B. MacMillan, both U.S. admirals and both Bowdoin graduates, were, of course the leaders of the famous 1909 expedition to the North Pole.

Full-grown, beautifully mounted polar bears as well as penguins, musk oxen, seals and walruses, on display along with tents, arctic dog sleds, authentic Inuit fur clothing, cooking and eating utensils, all guarantee a wide-eyed hour or two for even very young children. Inuit jewelry and carvings are also for sale.

On the Connecticut shore, the Mystic Seaport Museum has year-round attractions for young people. These include do-it-yourself tours of America's last whaling ship, a three-masted bark called the Charles W. Morgan, which floats at dockside. Kids are welcome to explore the decks and cabins and whaling equipment (though swarming through the rigging is not encouraged).

Within the Mystic Seaport complex there are more than 60 different craft demonstrations. These include fireplace cooking, scrimshaw, woodcarving, knot tying, blacksmithing and sea chanty concerts and dances. There is also a planetarium, which around Easter features daily shows of the springtime heavens.

Linda McK. Stewart is a free-lance writer living in New York City.


BEN & JERRY'S: The ice-cream factory is open seven days a week, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tours run every 15 minutes during the summer, less often at other times of the year. From Exit 10 on I-89, head north on Rte. 100 toward Stowe. Ben & Jerry's is one mile from the interstate on the left. For more information: Ben & Jerry Ice Cream Factory, P.O. Box 240, Waterbury, Vt. 05676, (802) 244-5641.

TOPNOTCH: At this year-round resort in Stowe, Vt., a favorite is the ski-tennis plan. A half day of skiing is twinned with a half day of indoor tennis, including both group and individual instruction. Rates begin at $103 per person per night, but children sharing their parents' room (and Top Notch rooms are blessedly spacious) stay free, ski free.

A stay at Top Notch for maple sugaring excursions comes to $87 per person per night for a minimum stay of three nights. Breakfast and dinner are included, and of course tennis and skiing are also available at a daily rate.

For more information: Topnotch at Stowe, P.O. Box 1260, Stowe, Vt. 05672, (802) 253-8585. THE MUSEUMS:

Lutz Children's Museum, 247 S. Main St., Manchester, Conn. 06040, (203) 643-0949. Open Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, 2 p.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. (also open Thursday evenings, when the admission is free, 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.). Admission is $1 for adults, 50 cents for children 17 and under, 75 cents for seniors.

Science Museum of Connecticut, 950 Trout Brook Dr., West Hartford, Conn. 06119, (203) 236-2961. Open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sundays 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $3.50 for adults, $2 for children 3 to 12 and seniors, 50 cents for ages 1 to 3.

Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum, Bowdoin College, Hubbard Hall, Brunswick, Maine 04011, (207) 725-3000. From mid-June through August, the museum is open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. Hours are shorter during the school year; check before you go. There is no charge for admission.

Mystic Seaport Museum, P.O. Box 6000, Mystic, Conn. 06355-0990, (203) 572-0711. Open daily 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $10 for adults, $5 for children 5 to 18; children under 5 are free.

-- Linda McK. Stewart