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 towering beast that slept beside me, my wife Nicola and our two young children. Deep, rumbling exhalations, similar to mine, were happily informed to me by George, nine, and Lottie, seven.

The nocturnal habits of the largest terrestrial carnivore in the world were revealed to us during a stay at Pairi Daiza (paradise in Persian), a particularly beautiful zoo and botanical gardens in a most incredible place: the deepest in Wallonia, the French-speaking and economically troubled region of southern Belgium.

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

A bird’s-eye view

To put this in context, London Zoo is home to 16,000 animals on just 15 acres bordering Regent’s Park. Pairi Daiza, voted best zoo in Europe for the past three years by the Diamond Theme Park Awards, the Oscars of the zoological world, is vast and constantly expanding.

It was the park’s latest growth spurt in the Belgian countryside of the municipality of Brugelette, an hour’s drive from Brussels, which gave us the opportunity to hear the nocturnal sniffs 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, recognizing that its size made it difficult for the most keen of wildlife watchers to cover in a day, let alone a young family, Pairi Daiza opened 50 rooms with a view of the bears, the wolves, deer and seals.

Last year they went further. A new section of the zoo, titled the Land of the Cold, has been opened, with 50 other rooms sharing glass walls with polar bears, walruses, penguins and Siberian tigers.

New upscale accommodation includes underwater rooms, so you can watch aquatic animals swim underwater and feed, all from the comfort of your bed, or even your own hot tub.

Rooms are not recommended for those wishing to start the day lazy, although the polar bears were courteous enough to minimize their roaring around us. We experienced the snoring on a rather odd, late night walk back from one of the restaurants in the zoo. But the new “immersive” hosting has proven to be extremely popular, and it’s easy to see why in a setting like this.

Pairi Daiza is the ‘childhood dream come true’ of former lawyer and financial consultant Eric Domb, 61, who is quite obsessed with where to live and reserves a treehouse vacation home among the red pandas.

Domb is, to say the least, a collector. His favorite animal would be the elephant. The zoo has 23 – two Africans and 21 Asians – the largest herd in Europe. He is also fascinated by China: he traveled to Shanghai and brought in a team of landscapers to help him build his Middle Empire world – which is home to five giant pandas – and his Chinese garden, filled with azaleas with pink and purple flowers, camellias and maple trees. Visitors are advised that it is best to eat it barefoot.

During a trip to Vancouver, Domb spotted a Twin Beech seaplane that he said could inspire his guests. After multiple stopovers, the plane arrived in 2015 at Lake Plate Taille, south of Charleroi, the only body of water in Belgium large enough for landing, before being transported to sit on the edge. from the zoo lake, where there is a cause of curiosity for visitors and the harbor seals that live in this part of the zoo. Like many theme parks, Pairi Daiza is surrounded by a train, but this one is run by a fully functioning early 20th-century steam engine salvaged in Poland that whistles at an alarming rate right next to it.

Zoos have to work hard to justify their existence, and the image of an eccentric Belgian collecting trinkets from all over the world for European audiences might put off some. I arrived as a zoo-skeptic, and my son wanted to know where the animals had been taken from. But Pairi Daiza’s stated goal is to save species from extinction and introduce them to the wild where possible, while also seeking to educate visitors about the larger culture of the land the animals come from – and why everything this is important.

Full Moon Lodge
Full moon lodge in 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 genetic heritage. There are fewer than 26,000 polar bears in the wild, and their numbers are rapidly declining as their sea ice habitat shrinks. Pairi Daiza currently has two males and two females. The NGO Polar Bear International has granted the zoo “ambassador” status in recognition of its efforts. Scientific programs include finding a cure for elephant herpes and inventing a pregnancy test for pandas.

It is also a place of refuge. Two underweight walruses recently arrived from a St. Petersburg zoo that closed during the pandemic, and they are doing well now. This fall, local media were full of a story about a stowaway raccoon being offered a home after being found aboard the Dutch freighter Singelgracht on its return from a trip to Baltimore. Last year, 477 turtles, snakes, lizards and caiman crocodiles, discovered by border control or left abandoned by owners, were taken in by the zoo’s Mersus Emergo, a former whaler anchored by the lake for shelter the reptiles and amphibians of the park.

Polar bear house at Pairi Daiza zoo
Polar bear house

There is no set route around the park – guests are encouraged to get lost a bit, to find something new. Waterways or steep landscapes are used whenever possible as a means of dividing up enclosures. When we arrived, and a flock of pelicans flew above us, my first impression was of something akin to Jurassic Park, albeit with a brewery and a replica of a Taoist temple in wood frame that serves Chinese food, like two of the nine outlets.

As part of the accommodation package, visitors have two full days of access to the park, which we have fully exploited. But we will have to come back. There was just too much that we didn’t have time to see or indeed hear. I wonder if Siberian tigers snore?

The trip was provided by Pairi Daiza: The Garden of the Worlds. An overnight stay for a family of four in a sea lion view room costs from € 373, including half board and unlimited entry to the zoo over two days. An underwater room near polar bears costs € 630

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