Thursday, January 20

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

Ppolar bears snore. Maybe not all of them, but certainly the hulking beast that slept near me, my wife Nicola, and our two young children. Deep, grumpy exhales, not unlike mine, were cheerfully informed by George, nine, and Lottie, seven.

The nocturnal habits of the world’s largest land carnivore were revealed to us during a stay in Pairi Daiza (paradise in Persian), a peculiarly beautiful zoo and botanical gardens in a most unlikely location: the deepest Wallonia, the francophone and economically distressed region of southern Belgium.

Founded in 1993 as a humble bird sanctuary around the remains of a 12th century Cistercian abbey and neighboring manor house, today Pairi Daiza is home to 7,000 animals, along with the largest Chinese and Indonesian gardens in Europe, spread over 65 hectares ( 160 acres) of perfect scenery.

A sight of bear at Pairi Daiza zoo.
A bear sight

To put this in context, the London Zoo houses 16,000 animals on just 15 hectares outside of Regent’s Park. Pairi Daiza, voted the best zoo in Europe in the last three years for the Diamond Theme Park Awards, the Oscars of the Zoo World, is vast and ever-expanding.

It was the last accelerated growth of the park in the Belgian countryside in the municipality of Brugelette, an hour’s drive from Brussels, which offered us the opportunity to hear the nocturnal snorts of a polar bear.

Daniel Boffey and his children and a sea lion
Daniel Boffey and his children have a close encounter with a sea lion. Photography: Daniel Boffey

Two years ago, in recognition that its sheer size makes it difficult to cover in a day, even for the liveliest wildlife watchers, let alone a young family, Pairi Daiza opened 50 rooms with views of bears, wolves , deer and seals.

Last year they went further. A new section of the zoo, titled the cold land, opened, complete with 50 other rooms that share glass walls with polar bears, walruses, penguins and Siberian tigers.

The new high-spec accommodation includes underwater rooms, so you can watch aquatic animals swim underwater and feed themselves, all from the comfort of your bed or indeed from your own hot tub.

The rooms are not recommended for those who want a quiet start to the day, although the polar bears were courteous enough to keep their roars around us to a minimum. We experienced snoring during a rather creepy, late-night walk back from one of the zoo’s restaurants. But the new “immersive” hosting has proven immensely popular, and it’s easy to see why in an environment like this.

Pairi Daiza is the “childhood dream come true” of former lawyer and financial advisor Eric Domb, 61, who is obsessed enough with the place to live in it and maintain a vacation home in a tree among the pandas. red.

Domb is, to put it mildly, a collector. It is said that his favorite animal is the elephant. The zoo has 23, two Africans and 21 Asians, the largest herd in Europe. He also has a fascination for China – he traveled to Shanghai and brought in a team of landscapers to help build his Middle Kingdom world, home to five giant pandas, and a Chinese garden, filled with azaleas, camellias, and maple trees with pink and purple flowers. Visitors are advised that it is best enjoyed barefoot.

On a trip to Vancouver, Domb saw a Twin Beech seaplane that he thought would inspire his guests. After several stops, the plane arrived in 2015 at the Lac de la Plate Taille, south of Charleroi, the only water surface in Belgium large enough for landing, before being transported to sit by the lake of the zoo, where it is A source of curiosity for both visitors and the common seals that live in that part of the zoo. Like many theme parks, Pairi Daiza has a train going around it, but this one is run by a fully functioning early 20th century steam engine rescued from Poland that whistles at an almost alarming rate.

Zoos must work hard to justify their existence, and the image of an eccentric Belgian collecting trinkets from around the world for a European audience might prove off-putting to some. I came in as a zooskeptic and my son wanted to know where they got the animals from. But Pairi Daiza’s stated purpose is to save species from extinction and introduce them into the wild if possible, while seeking to educate visitors about the broader culture of the lands the animals come from, and why all of that is. important.

Full Moon Hostel
Full Moon Lodge at Pairi Daiza

The zoo has been a member of the European Association of Zoos and Aquariums since 1994, coordinating breeding programs for endangered species to ensure a healthy gene pool. There are fewer than 26,000 polar bears in the wild, and the number is rapidly decreasing as their sea ice habitat shrinks. Pairi Daiza currently has two males and two females. Then go International polar bear has awarded the zoo “ambassador” status in recognition of their efforts. Scientific programs include finding a cure for herpes in elephants and inventing a pregnancy test for pandas.

It is also a place of refuge. Two underweight walruses recently arrived from a zoo in St. Petersburg that closed during the pandemic, and they are doing well now. This fall, the local media was full of a story about a stowaway raccoon He was offered a home after being found aboard the Dutch freighter Singelgracht upon his return from a trip to Baltimore. Last year, 477 turtles, snakes, lizards and alligators, discovered by border control or abandoned by their owners, were taken in by the zoo. Emergency sinking, an old whaling ship anchored in the lake as accommodation for the park’s reptiles and amphibians.

Polar bear house at Pairi Daiza zoo
Polar bear house

There is no set route around the park – visitors are encouraged to get a little lost and find something new. Waterways or rugged landscapes are used wherever possible as a means of delimiting enclosures. When we arrived, and a flock of pelicans were flying overhead, my first impression was something akin to Jurassic Park, albeit with a brewery and a replica of a wood-framed Taoist temple serving Chinese food, like two of the nine outlets in catering.

As part of the accommodation package, visitors have two full days of access to the park, which we take full advantage of. But we will have to go back. There were just too many things that we didn’t have time to see or actually hear. I wonder if Siberian tigers snore.

The trip was led by Pairi Daiza: Le garden of worlds. An overnight stay for a family of four in a room with a view of the sea lions costs from € 373including Half board and unlimited admission to the zoo for two days. An underwater room close to polar bear costs of € 630

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