When you have been a young, enterprising couple and then you become a young, enterprising couple with a kid, things change. Actually, life changes entirely. That applies to every single aspect of life and it applies to your travels, too. Gone were the days when I would have to kill several hours in shopping malls while my wife touched every single piece of clothing on display (does anyone know why women have to touch everything, even if there’s no way they’re gonna buy the piece? Message me). Also gone were the alternating tides of elation and despair in Las Vegas casinos, the spontaneous “let’s do that this weekend” getaways and the days of arriving with half-empty suitcases. They were replaced by the needs of a toddler, by being constantly on the lookout for clean restrooms and by an entire new world of travel discoveries of the family travel variety. Oh, and by my daughter’s endless zest to see animals.
Don’t get me wrong. She doesn’t just LIKE animals, like all kids do. She goes absolutely nuts about them. So slowly but increasingly intensely, seeing animals became a part of our travel plans. A huge part.
I can today proudly say that I have seen it all. I visited zoos and animal parks. I swam and splashed with dolphins. I took boat tours to see alligators and huge detours to see even more alligators. Now, let me put in a word about zoos. I know they’re not ideal for animals. However, I appreciate the efforts undertaken by zoos to provide the best possible conditions for animals and the successes they had in conservation. So I don’t condemn zoos, because I believe it’s important that children growing up in urban environments get a chance to get in touch with animals, appreciate them and learn about them. That’ll make them more perceptive to ideas of nature protection. However, I understand the positions of those who are critical of zoos and accept these opinions, I just don’t adopt them.
With that out of the way, I want to tell you about the three best animal encounter / animal viewing experiences I have made with my family. All of them are in the USA, which may be due to the fact that we have spent the bulk of our vacations there.
The “Dolphin Whisper” in South Padre, Texas
I have taken my share of dolphin boat rides, but none of them came even remotely close to this South Texas experience. Scarlet and her husband operate a small nature center in Port Isabel, at the foot of the bridge leading to South Padre Island. Scarlet is the number one regional authority on dolphins in the area. She took us with her on her small boat in the laguna, where the water is shallow and warm. She knew exactly where the dolphins were, what they were doing and she could tell a story about each and every single one of them. More yet, the dolphins came to her boat because they recognized her and knew she was taking care of them. We were stunned spectators seeing how Scarlet interacted with the dolphins. This was not one of those tours for which billboards scream “Guaranteed sightings!!!”, it was a truly one-of-a-kind, first-hand nature experience. I must mention Scarlet’s dog Rozzi who accompanied us onto the boat and was reliably the first one to notice the dolphins coming closer, indicated with a barking signal. At one point, the dog even jumped into the water and frolicked with the water creatures. Like I said, one of a kind.
Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Tucson, Arizona
I may be a little biased here because the Tucson area is my favorite place in the world. Still, the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, not far from Saguaro National Park, was an unforgettable experience I would recommend to anyone. The place is a mix of botanical garden, animal park and museum and they do an amazing job explaining the nature of the area. Inside, an exhibition talks about history and biological diversity and outside, you walk through a parklike area that consists of a surprisingly large variety of plants. A number of animal enclosures are embedded in that scenery. One could walk for hours here, marvel at the views and enjoy the natural beauty.
Assateague Island, Maryland
Assateague Island is one of the few places in the Eastern USA where wild horses roam. Well, actually semi-wild, because the herd is occasionally rounded up, counted and taken care of by Park Rangers with the National Park Service. Assateague Island being an island, it has a number of good beaches and when you spend time there it is well possible that a few of the horses show up. Most of them don’t come for sunbathing, though. You shouldn’t get too cozy with them, they are still somewhat wild and don’t appreciate tourists coming too close for a selfie. It’s a great experience seeing those animals wander around between tourist groups, seemingly oblivious to the attention they create.
While these are my favorite memories, a few others deserve honorable mentions here. There is Big Pine Key in the Florida Keys, which is the only place in the world where you can spot Key deer. The small animals roam the streets, so if you get off the Overseas Highway on the island, chances are good you’ll see some. There is the zoo in Hanover, Germany, which is (based on my visit to every animal park imaginable in Germany) the best one in the country, because they really go out of their way to create nature-like enclosures. Speaking of zoos, Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa, Florida was the most kid-friendly one I ever visited and is a should-do activity for families with kids at the Florida Gulf Coast. Still in Florida, Sea World in Orlando has a good behind-the-scenes tour that will give you an idea of what the institution does to rescue creatures in danger and to protect sea turtles. A similar experience can be had at the aquarium in Clearwater. In Portugal, the Rio Formosa National Park near Olhao in the Algarve region is the only place in Europe where you can see wild flamingos and it’s a very scenic area on top of that.
A short post scriptum is in order here. I was inspired to write about my beastly travel experiences by a great post by my friend Arundhati. She is a wordsmith like no other and if you haven’t done so already, follow her blog The Travelling Diary of a Dippy-Dotty Girl.