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We’re going to the zoo: sleeping with polar bears on a trip to southern Belgium | Belgium holidays

Polar bears snore. Maybe not all of them, however definitely the hulking beast that slept close to me, my spouse, Nicola, and our two younger kids. Deep, growly exhalations, not dissimilar to my very own, I used to be cheerfully knowledgeable by George, 9, and Lottie, seven.

The nocturnal habits of the world’s largest land-living carnivore had been revealed to us throughout a keep over at Pairi Daiza (Persian for paradise), a peculiarly lovely zoo and botanical gardens in a most implausible location: deepest Wallonia, the Francophone and economically struggling area of southern Belgium.

Based in 1993 as a humble fowl sanctuary round the remnants of a Twelfth-century Cistercian abbey and a neighbouring stately dwelling, as we speak Pairi Daiza is dwelling to 7,000 animals, alongside with the largest Chinese language and Indonesian gardens in Europe, unfold throughout 65 hectares (160 acres) of picture-perfect panorama.

A bear’s-eye view at Pairi Daiza zoo.
A bear’s-eye view

To place this in context, London zoo homes 16,000 animals on simply 15 hectares on the fringe of Regent’s Park. Pairi Daiza, voted Europe’s top zoo for the past three years by the Diamond Theme Park awards, the Oscars of the zoological world, is huge and ever-expanding.

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It was the park’s newest development spurt into the Belgian countryside in the municipality of Brugelette, an hour’s drive from Brussels, that provided the alternative for us to hear a polar bear’s nightly snorts.

Daniel Boffey and his children and a sea lion
Daniel Boffey and his kids have a shut encounter with a sea lion. {Photograph}: Daniel Boffey

Two years in the past, in recognition that its sheer measurement makes it troublesome for even the most sprightly of wildlife spotters to cowl in a day, not to mention a younger household, Pairi Daiza opened 50 rooms with views of the bears, wolves, deer and seals.

Final yr they went additional. A brand new part of the zoo, entitled the Land of the Cold, was opened, full with a additional 50 bedrooms sharing glass partitions with the polar bears, walruses, penguins and Siberian tigers.

The brand new high-spec lodging contains sub-aquatic rooms, so you may watch water-dwelling animals swim underwater and feed, all from the consolation of your mattress, or certainly your personal whirlpool bathtub.

The rooms should not advisable for individuals who fancy a lazy begin to their day, though the polar bears had been courteous sufficient to maintain their roars round us to a minimal. We skilled the loud night breathing throughout a relatively eerie stroll, late at night time, again from one in every of the zoo’s eating places. However the new “immersive” lodging has confirmed immensely well-liked, and it’s straightforward to see why in a setting like this.

Pairi Daiza is the “childhood dream come true” of former lawyer and monetary guide Eric Domb, 61, who’s obsessive sufficient about the place to dwell in it, and maintain a treehouse vacation dwelling for himself amongst the crimson pandas.

Domb is, to put it mildly, a collector. His favorite animal is alleged to be the elephant. The zoo has 23 – two African and 21 Asian – the largest herd in Europe. He additionally has a fascination with China: he travelled to Shanghai and introduced over a workforce of landscapers to assist construct his Center Kingdom world – dwelling to 5 large pandas – and Chinese language backyard, filled with pink and purple flowering azaleas, camellias and maples. Guests are suggested that it’s best loved barefoot.

On a trip to Vancouver, Domb noticed a Twin Beech seaplane that he thought would encourage his company. After a number of stops, the airplane arrived in 2015 at Lac de la Plate Taille, south of Charleroi, the solely water floor in Belgium large enough for the touchdown, earlier than being transported to sit alongside the zoo’s lake, the place it’s a reason behind curiosity for each the guests and the harbour seals that dwell in that a part of the zoo. Like many theme parks, Pairi Daiza has a prepare encircling it, however this one is run by a totally functioning, early-Twentieth-century steam engine salvaged from Poland that whistles alongside at a tempo simply on the proper facet of alarming.

Zoos want to work onerous to justify their existence, and the picture of an eccentric Belgian gathering baubles from round the world for a European viewers may very well be offputting to some. I arrived as a zoo-sceptic, and my son needed to know the place the animals had been taken from. However the said objective of Pairi Daiza is to save species from extinction and introduce them into the wild if attainable, whereas in search of to educate guests about the wider tradition of the lands the animals originate from – and why all of that issues.

Full Moon Lodge
Full Moon Lodge at Pairi Daiza

The zoo has been a member of the European Affiliation of Zoos and Aquariums since 1994, coordinating breeding programmes for endangered species to guarantee a wholesome gene pool. There are fewer than 26,000 polar bears in the wild, with numbers diminishing shortly as their sea-ice habitat shrinks. Pairi Daiza is at the moment introducing two males and two females. The NGO Polar Bear International has granted the zoo “ambassador” standing in recognition of its efforts. Scientific programmes embody discovering a treatment for elephant herpes and inventing a being pregnant check for pandas.

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It is usually a place of refuge. Two underweight walruses just lately arrived from a zoo in St Petersburg that closed throughout the pandemic, and they’re now doing effectively. This autumn, the native media was filled with a story about a stowaway racoon provided a dwelling after being discovered onboard the Dutch freighter Singelgracht on its return from a trip to Baltimore. Final yr, 477 turtles, snakes, lizards and caiman crocodiles, found by border management or left deserted by homeowners, had been taken in by the zoo’s Mersus Emergo, a former whaling ship anchored by the lake as lodging for the park’s reptiles and amphibians.

Polar Bear House at Pairi Daiza zoo
Polar Bear Home

There isn’t any set route round the park – company are inspired to get a little misplaced, discover one thing new. Waterways or steep landscapes are used wherever attainable as a means to parcel off enclosures. As we arrived, and a flock of pelicans soared overhead, my first impression was of one thing akin to Jurassic Park, albeit with a brewery and a reproduction wood-framed Taoist temple that serves Chinese language meals, as two of 9 catering retailers.

As a part of the lodging package deal, guests have two full days of entry to the park, which we totally exploited. However we can have to return. There was merely an excessive amount of we didn’t have time to see or, certainly, hear. I ponder if Siberian tigers snore?

The trip was supplied by Pairi Daiza: Le Jardin des Mondes. A one-night keep for a household of 4 in a room overlooking the sea lions prices from €373, together with half-board and limitless entry to the zoo over two days. A sub-aquatic room shut to the polar bears prices from €630

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