The snow was drifting down outside our hotel window in Aviemore and we had a two year old and a baby to entertain. I’d heard a little about the Highland Wildlife Park in Kincraig so we bundled our babes into the car and drove gingerly the 8 miles hoping the park would actually be open in this weather. But this is the Cairngorms and snow does not phase the Cairngorms, its people or its beasts.
We bought our tickets then drove on and, extremely randomly, passed some camels in the snow. It all began to take on a slightly surreal, hallucinogenic hue. I’m old school, I’m used to seeing camels in the sun so seeing them marching past in a blizzard was bizarre. Mr Toddler meanwhile was on red alert shouting ‘Wow, wow, wow’ at these strange creatures he’d never encountered before.
We parked up and bundled our tots into so much snowgear they looked like they were going undercover and began the walking tour with our trusty map.
In just under an hour of wandering through snowflakes we saw a Red Panda, an Amur Tiger, Vicuna (which I’d never heard of but Mr Husband told me make very nice suits!), Eurasian Crane, Snow Leopards, a Wolverine and that was just the tip of the iceberg.
We did it all with the buggy which was tough going, it was so exhausting watching Mr Husband push and drag it through the snow, but he only managed it because we have an extremely light Out and About double buggy. It’s wonderfully designed for outdoor living and I doubt many other buggies would have coped in the snow so well. [I haven’t been paid to say this.] The park is buggy friendly but the snowfall created a huge challenge (for him).
After an hour we went back to Antlers Cafe to defrost and there we saw the Japanese Macaque Monkeys (I’ve just realised it sounds like the monkeys were in the cafe sipping tea like some Tetley advert. Their enclosure is right next to the cafe). They were frantically digging in the snow – Mr Toddler kept shouting ‘banana’ at them, as in every picture book every monkey is pictured with a banana (they must detest this stereotype), so Mr Toddler was quite convinced they’d find yellow fruit in the snow. No joy.
We then got snowsuited up again for the Main Reserve Guided Tour – you can self-drive this section of the park, as long as you follow the guidelines of not being absolutely stupid and getting out of your car/feeding the animals etc. but due to the snow the park had shut this option down to the general public. Instead they allowed us to sign up for a free guided tour (suggested donation £1) and our lively tribe were in the back of a tour mini bus with the guide and a desperately quiet couple who didn’t ask a single question, make a single sound and probably wished they weren’t on a bus with me, Mr Toddler, Mr Baby and ‘I love to ask a million questions’ Mr Husband. On the main reserve we saw the larger animals; the deer, elk horses, ox and bison.
Throughout the day feeds and talks are given by the keepers. The food attracts the animals right up to the gate – they are SO close – and the keepers tell you lots of factoids about the beasts, the planned breeding schedule for the animals and individual stories about each character so it’s worth timing your day around these talks. The male polar bear feed, starring Walker and Arktos, at 1.15pm was a highlight. The bears eat, snuffle around, play fight with each other and roll down the hills repeatedly. We were also informed that the older bear will shortly be getting romantic with the UK’s only female polar bear Victoria (slim pickings) as he has the better DNA match.
By that point we’d been onsite for five hours, dipping in and out of the cafe and shop area to defrost and check the babies were happy, but the cold was starting to get to us all and the snow was getting heavier so we peeled off a few layers to actually fit the kids into their car seats and headed back to the hotel with that deep exhaustion you get from a day in the snow.
The Highland Wildlife Park is £15 for adults, £11 for 3-15 year olds and Mr Toddler and Mr Baby were free. I initially balked at these prices but once inside the park you see where the money is going and you can spend an entire day there so I felt it was good value overall.
|April to October||10 am to 5 pm (last entry 4 pm)|
|July to August||10 am to 6 pm (last entry 5 pm)|
|November to March||10 am to 4 pm (last entry 3 pm)|
Winter opening – On days with deep snow and ice it’s advised to phone before starting out on your journey to avoid disappointment (01540 651270) – we didn’t do this but we fly by the seat of our pants.
In the summer you can bring your own food to eat at the park’s picnic tables.
If you’re not keen on animals in captivity then this explains the park’s aims allowing you to judge for yourself.
We drove just over two hours from Aberdeen to Aviemore and stayed at the Hilton Coylumbridge – click here for a profile.
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