Who doesn't love animals? From cute videos to services that allow people to pet sit their way to free lodging, it's safe to say we're fans. So when it comes to exploring nature, it's time to embark on the best wildlife experiences for animal lovers.
For the ultimate experience, we're talking about much more than petting the goats at the local zoo or swimming with the dolphins while vacationing in the Bahamas (although we've done both). Instead, we're talking about elevated excursions that range from bathing elephants in Thailand to feeding pandas in China to venturing out on a horseback ride across the Icelandic countryside. You see, a safari can't be the only travel adventure that lets you see some of the most beautiful animals up close and personal. Below find the six best wildlife experiences for animal lovers. Pick your favorite, and get ready to explore.
VISIT THE POLAR BEARS IN CHURCHILL
Churchhill, Canada, has been called the "polar bear capital of the world," and it's certainly a sight to see up close and personal—the bears can grow larger than 10 feet tall. Optimal viewing times occur from October to November when the polar bears are on the move from the tundra to the ice where they'll hunt seals all winter. If you want to go all out, you can book a stay at the Tundra Lodge, a rolling hotel that is placed right in the middle of the action each season. Expect views of the gorgeous animals during the day and night, plus views of the Northern Lights (if you're lucky).
VOLUNTEER AT ELEPHANT NATURE PARK
We're all for giving back, and this trip sounds like a win-win to us. Take a trip to Elephant Nature Park, an elephant rescue and rehab center in Northern Thailand (most of the animals have been mistreated in the past). You can spend a day or even a full week volunteering your services to take care of the elephants, all the while learning about the gentle creatures. If you're looking for a more intimate experience, book the Karen tribe tour away from the main park where bathing the elephants is on your to-do list.
RIDE HORSES IN ICELAND
There are a million reasons to go to Reykjavik, but now you can add one more to the list: riding Icelandic horses. The animals are particularly special since they have five different gaits, and they're easier for beginners to ride. (Oh, and did we mention the breathtaking views of the mountains and craters you'll see on your journey?) Pamper yourself with a Horses and Spa day through family-run business Islenski Hesturinn. It's exactly what it sounds like: a half-day of trotting around the volcanic countryside followed by a half-day of pampering in the spa.
TOUR SERENGETI NATIONAL PARK
You didn't think we would leave out the Serengeti, did you? East Africa's ecosystem spread out over 12,000 square miles includes Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, known for the migration of wildebeest and zebra. The park itself spans a distance larger than the state of Connecticut and is home to lions, elephants, cheetah, giraffes, and more. Treat yourself to a luxurious stay at Kirawira Serena Camp, located next to the western corridor, so you'll never be far from the action.
SEE THE KANGAROO SANCTUARY IN AUSTRALIA
This 188-acre kangaroo sanctuary in Alice Springs, Australia, is home to rescued baby red kangaroos and adults. Since the marsupials sleep during the day, the tours take place later in the afternoon so as not to disrupt their schedule. You'll get the chance to hold a baby kangaroo on a sunset tour, and the founder of the sanctuary is often the one who will show you around. If you're looking for something personal and inspirational, this may just be the trip for you.
MEET THE PANDAS IN CHENGDU
Since pandas are extremely endangered—there are less than 2000 in the wild—a visit to the Wolong Nature Reserve in Chengdu, China, needs to be on your list. The scientists at the reserve are working hard to breed the animals to increase the number of pandas in the wild, so visiting one of their outposts helps support their efforts. We think the Dujiangyan Panda Base about an hour and a half outside of the city offers the best tour: Through the Panda Keeper Program, you'll be able to assist in waking up the pandas as well as help make their food. Fun fact: Keep an eye on the little ones in the morning, as that's when they have the most energy.