The Sistine Chapel. The Taj Mahal. These are typical line items on a bucket list. And while we’re all for seeing the wonders of the world, as animal lovers, we have to confess that nothing makes us as giddy as a good nose-to-nose experience with an adorable creature. If otters holding hands warms your heart and cats on Roombas makes you giggle, make a little room on your bucket list to get up close and personal with the fuzzy and four-legged. Ready to hug pandas and swim with seals? Read on for more animal experiences to add to your must-do-in-this-lifetime list.
1. Snuggling Up With Pandas in Chengdu, China
For the ultimate panda fans, it’s Chengdu, China, or bust. A whopping 80 percent of the world’s pandas live here, and the area’s official Research Base is their sanctuary. However, this isn’t a zoo -- rather it’s a hub for ecologists and scientists to study, protect, and breed our favorite roly-poly bamboo-eaters. The bears are treated to 600 acres of space to roam, but visitors can get many close-up moments with them, including a visit to the nursery to see the new litters. Red pandas are also on hand, when you want to mix it up. Guests who are willing to pay a sizable extra fee even get supervised one-on-one time with a panda.
2. Hopping Around “Bunny Island” in Japan
Bunny lovers, meet your Shangri-La. The Japanese island of Okunoshima is overrun with around 1,000 tame rabbits. Everywhere you turn, there are cottontails hopping around the pathways, dozing in a sunbeam, or chasing after treats. In terms of the latter, it’s best to avoid cabbage or other raw veggies and stick to packaged rabbit food. (Too much roughage isn’t good for these little guys.) If you want to be a real hero to the hares, bundle up and come on a weekday that’s a little chilly or rainy. Fewer tourists visit on those days, which means the rabbits will be extra hungry -- and extra appreciative of your treats.
Where to Stay: Those sightseeing in Hiroshima can make a day trip to Okunoshima. The Sheraton Hotel makes a solid home base.
3. Monkey-Spotting in Manuel Antonio National Park, Costa Rica
There are dozens of reasons to visit Costa Rica, from surfing to sunbathing to soaking in the country’s “pura vida.” But animal lovers often come for one reason: monkey mania. And travelers who love these little primates can get their fix at Manuel Antonio National Park. Here, you can spot a plethora of these guys on their home turf. The country’s tiny squirrel monkeys, capuchins, spider monkeys, and howler monkeys are all represented -- and they’re not shy; they’ll drop right down among the tourists to do tree acrobatics, nibble on fruit, or walk down the trail next to you. Other wildlife on hand includes sloths, raccoons, and the illusive agouti -- along with any number of birds, reptiles, and amphibians.
Where to Stay: Makanda by the Sea has luxury accommodations surrounded by wildlife, all a five-minute drive from the national park.
4. Nuzzling Donkeys in County Cork, Ireland
The humble donkey may not initially rank as bucket-list material when compared to more majestic animals like elephants or pandas. But trust us, this animal sanctuary will melt your heart. Set on a clover-green patch in County Cork, Ireland, this refuge feels quintessentially Irish. It’s also totally aligned with their animal-loving mission: to rescue as many neglected donkeys and mules as possible. Visitors are welcome to walk around the sanctuary for free and pet all the four-legged nuzzlers they encounter. Donkeys are incredibly social creatures, and the younger ones will scramble to get attention from those passing by. Don’t forget to swing by the gift shop where any purchases can be put toward helping more of these abandoned animals find refuge.
Where to Stay: The 19th-century Ambassador Hotel Cork has a distinct atmosphere that also reflects its Irish roots.
5. Snorkeling With Seals in South Africa
SeaWorld has nothing on this: Animal Ocean tour operators take travelers out into Cape Town waters where they’re immersed in a 360-degree world of seals. As the guides say, snorkelers will come “mask-to-whisker” with the playful sea pups. Be prepared for a bit of seaside smelliness (hey, the occasional whiff of fish-breath is all part of the close-up experience); a touch of motion sickness (Dramamine can help); and a whole lot of flippers splashing by. Best of all, travelers are meeting the seals on their own turf, so they get to see the natural behavior of these guys in the wild at their comfort level. In other words, it’s about as far from an aquatic theme park as you can get.
Where to Stay: The intimate, boutique Cape Heritage Hotel gives a charming alternative to the mega-chains in the area.
6. Riding the Rails to a Cat Station Master in Japan
Leave it to Japan to take the idea of a mascot to the next level of cuteness. Back in 2007, Wakayama Electric Railway appointed a cat named Tama as its official station master. Dressed up in a cat-sized cap and badge, the calico kitty became a sensation and saved a floundering railway line, turning Kishi Station into a thriving tourist destination. After Tama passed away, her job was filled by the fluffy Nitama, who continues the tradition. Visitors to Kishi Station can meet Nitama during her “office hours,” which are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. (Note that Nitama is off duty on Mondays and Thursdays.) Kitty souvenirs, a cat/railway-themed cafe, and a feline-themed train add to the attractions.
Where to Stay: Osaka is a little over an hour away by car or two-and-a-half by train, and the Swissotel Nankai Osaka is chock-full of features.
7. Admiring Elephants in Phuket, Thailand
Those coming to Thailand can participate in a plethora of elephant experiences -- seeing them in spangly getups at theatrical shows, riding them around at various trekking agencies -- but most of these involve some truly punishing treatment to the animals. (We’ll spare you the details.) Skip these attractions and visit the Phuket Elephant Sanctuary. Instead of performing for humans, the gentle giants here get to rest, play, and bond with each other. Basically, they get to be elephants. And visitors can meet the herd and spend time near these guys as they frolic. (Afternoon itineraries include feeding time.) Those keen on giving back more and getting bonding time in return can sign on to be week-long volunteers and help with food prep and cleaning the enclosures.
Where to Stay: Set inland, away from the area’s thumping party scene, the Villa Zolitude Resort and Spa offers a quiet sanctuary.
8. Dog-sledding With Huskies in Alaska
In Alaska, dogs aren’t just “man’s best friend” -- they’re trail lookouts, bear alarms, and even all-weather transportation. In other words, they’re life-savers, quite literally. It was sled dogs that transported a diphtheria serum to the town of Nome back in 1925, sparing the entire population of an epidemic. Today, that relay is commemorated in the state’s famed Iditarod race. But visitors don’t have to compete at pro levels to experience a musher’s life. Educational tours can teach travelers the process of raising and training a sled dog, treat you to a ride, and give you plenty of photo ops with these hardy pups. If you’re lucky, you can visit some of the puppies-in-training that are set to become the next generation of sled-pullers.
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