I must admit that I am somewhat animal crazy. Wherever I travel, I check out what animal experiences I can enjoy nearby. I love to get close and personal with anything from the animal kingdom that lives locally, be it furred, scaled, or feathered. And if you can stay somewhere where you barely have to get out of bed to interact with the animals, even better.
Sadly, there any many experiences touted to tourists that might be fun for you, but not for the animals, so it is important to check and double-check that these experiences are willingly participated in by the animals and that they are well-kept and looked after. In this list, I have only included experiences that are enjoyable and ethical for humans and animals alike.
And, as these are animal experiences that are to be enjoyed right from where you are staying, I tried to choose places to stay that are eco-friendly and sustainable as well.
Giraffe Manor, Nairobi, Kenya
Imagine sitting down for breakfast, and an 18-foot-tall giraffe sticks its neck through the open window and demands to share your treats. Giraffe Manor is literally that: a 1930s manor house set outside of Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, with the grounds being home to a herd of giraffes that are not shy in the slightest. Not only do you get to interact with the giraffes while you are staying in the manor, but nearby is also an elephant orphanage and the Karen Blixen Museum.
Pro Tip: This is not a cheap overnight stay, but the price includes transfer to and from the airport, plus full board.
Mfuwe Lodge, Luangwa Valley, Zambia
Who doesn’t like a fresh mango? At the Mfuwe Lodge in the Luangwa National Park, the elephants certainly do. Each mango season around November, when the ripe, wild mangoes in the lodge’s gardens fall to the ground, the wild elephants living in the valley come to the hotel to pick the sweet treats. Walking straight through the hotel’s lobby and freely around the grounds, they do not seem to disturb the daily goings-on in the lodge but are by now a normal sight, coming back every year. Time your visit right, and you will see a sight like no other.
Pro Tip: This might be obvious, but book your slot early because this is a popular once-a-year spectacle.
Taronga Zoo, Sydney, Australia
The opinions about zoos tend to be at extreme ends to each other. People hate them because you will see wild animals behind bars; people love them because of their rehabilitation and conservation efforts and applaud them for looking after injured wildlife from the region. Taronga Zoo in Sydney is a good zoo dedicated to the protection of local animals while also offering species-sensitive places to exhibit their international critters. And you can stay overnight right in the middle of the zoo. You have the option of staying in an eco-resort or glamping in luxury tents. Both offer the luxury of watching the sun set over the spectacular Sydney skyline with its opera house and bridge, with koalas and kookaburras around you. You might even wake up in the morning to a lion roaring steps away from your bed.
Pro Tip: Take the local commuter ferry to the zoo from Circular Quay for a great way to arrive.
La Fregate Island, Seychelles
Fregate Private Island in the Seychelles is not only a luxury resort but a nature reserve. The entire island is dedicated to preserving and nurturing the local flora and fauna with success stories such as the endemic Wrights Gardenia beetle and the Magpie Robin. It also has a Giant Tortoise nursery, where guests can adopt a tortoise. The island is teeming with lizards and around 100 species of birds and is a breeding ground for both Hawksbill and Green Sea turtles. It is surrounded by incredible marine wildlife. Eighty percent of the food served on the island comes from the island, making sustainability more than just a buzzword here.
Pro Tip: Book a nature walk with one of the resident biologists to learn about the endemic species.
The Marine, Hermanus, South Africa
How about sitting on your hotel balcony, drink in hand, and watching the whales swim past along the coast, a few yards away from you? Hermanus, an hour-and-a-half drive outside of Cape Town, is the capital of whale watching. Between July and November, this part of the coast sees so many whales migrate past that you can spot them right from your room.
Pro Tip: Book a sea-view room, with potential whale watching from your bed or even bathtub, or splash out on a suite, where you get a private terrace with a front-row seat.
Manta Resort, Pemba Island, Tanzania
Manta Resort on Pemba Island, part of the Zanzibar archipelago off Africa’s east coast, is a magical island hideaway. Set between the forest and the white beach opening toward the Indian Ocean, you have a luxury hotel with garden rooms and individual villas either fronting a lush garden or the sea. And then there is one very special place to stay: The Underwater Room. A separate man-made island, it is a floating villa with an underwater bedroom. Staying here, you are not only quite literally surrounded by the turquoise waters, but you can recline on your bed and watch manta rays and shoals of reef fish swim past your window. At night, when you read in your bed, fish are attracted to the light and peek into your window.
Pro Tip: This is a true hideaway, as you will be served your meals on the deck and spend your 3 nights (minimum stay) in utter privacy. You can use your kayak to visit the main resort, or the phone to call for transport.
Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp, Chiang Rai, Thailand
Staying at the luxury Anantara Resort in Chiang Rai in northern Thailand, you can opt for an overnight stay in a so-called jungle bubble. The hotel has teamed up with the Elephant Camp next door, which is home to a herd of rescued elephants that have been given a new lease of life. Staying in the Perspex dome kitted out with all amenities you would expect from an Anantara stay allows you to sleep under the stars and watch the elephants go about their business steps away from your bed.
Pro Tip: Not to be confused with the backpacking favorite of Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai is a 3-hour drive further north and a perfect base for trekking and hiking through the countryside dotted with caves, secluded hill tribe communities, and ancient temple ruins.
Mustang Monument, Wells, Nevada
There is nothing quite as spectacular as seeing a herd of wild horses galloping free. Nevada's mustangs descend from the domesticated horses brought in by the Spanish in the 16th century, and as such, are not technically wild but feral. And technically not completely free but protected in a 900-square-mile ranch that belongs to the Mustang Monument eco-resort. Either way, they live and roam practically free, untamed, and in spectacularly large groups of up to some 150 animals enjoying the countryside. The sustainable resort acts as a reserve for the wild horses which are threatened elsewhere. You can not only enjoy the luxuries of the stay, in cottages or luxury tipis, but also have an adventure or two: from obviously horse-inspired rides, safaris, or roping lessons, to archery, historic hikes, and GPS tracking. All the while, you’re on the lookout for hundreds of mustangs galloping past you.
Pro Tip: While you are unleashing your inner cowboy, you can also take cooking classes and learn how to prepare the perfect barbeque.
The Grampians Motel, Halls Gap, Victoria, Australia
While many of the above stays were luxury and resort-like, this one is a humble motel in the Grampians, a mountain range some 3 hours’ drive west of Melbourne. Hiking country with lush forests and mountain hikes, Halls Gap is a popular getaway from the city. While the Grampians Motel is, quite honestly, more than adequate but certainly not anywhere close to being a luxury hotel, it is, however, fabulous for waking up to the kangaroos. Just outside the rooms, at the back of the property, is a large expanse of grass full of kangaroos in the morning and late afternoon. You can wander around them with your coffee in hand, take pictures, and they do not seem to be phased at all. In all my time in Australia, I have never seen quite so many kangaroos in one spot.
Pro Tip: Beware when booking the deluxe spa room because it is not near a day spa, nor does it have a treatment room, but instead, you have a jacuzzi next to your bed. A little odd, but on a cold night, it might come in handy.