World zoos – and hotels for their two-legged visitors

Although my wife thinks I’m a clown, I’ve never been that keen on the circus.  But show me a zoo — a good zoo — and I’m happy.

Not only is the zoo in Bristol, England, the fifth oldest in the world — established in 1836 — it also happens to be next to my former high school. As teenagers working in the school’s Stone Library, we students were routinely interrupted by the roar of lions, the scream of monkeys and the bark of seals. Once, during an important exam, I looked up from my desk in the school’s Tribe Building and found myself eyeball to eyeball with a giraffe — through a window, of course. Perhaps that’s when my love of zoos started to develop, in tandem with my love of exotic travel, that is.

Bristol is a fascinating city, once one of Britain’s great ports and home to the Clifton Suspension Bridge. It also has some good hotels these days, worth a visit in their own right. Minutes away from the zoo — and, by definition, my high school; and please don’t mention my name in those parts if you know what’s good for you — is the thoroughly charming Number Thirty-Eight Clifton, a beautiful 10-bedroom Georgian townhouse, sympathetic of scale and run with great attention to detail, as grand as it is cozy. In the center of town, meanwhile, Hotel du Vin, one of an  national chain, offers clubby, urban chic in a setting that references the city’s rich historical association with the wine, port and sherry trade. If only these two hotels had been around in my day — although on second thought, if they had, I’d have gotten even less work done than I actually did. No kidding.

In the last 20 years, zoos everywhere have upped their game:  In all responsible zoos, preservation, conservation and education are now generally considered key, and the best ones are excellent practitioners of these disciplines.

Last May, I wrote about the hidden gardens of Jerusalem for WAG. I was back in the Holy City recently and decided to revisit another of my favorites, Jerusalem’s Biblical Zoo (aka the Tisch Family Zoological Gardens). Although no longer devoted entirely to animals mentioned in the Hebrew Bible  — many of which are now extinct, or even unidentifiable by dint of translation — the zoo is now well-known for its work with endangered species. If you thought you’d missed your chances of ever seeing a Syrian brown bear, Nubian ibex or North African addax (white antelope), you must wend your way to Jerusalem, where  these endangered species have been conserved at the zoo and are now flourishing. 

Fifteen minutes from the zoo by taxi, in the heart of West Jerusalem, I’ve spied migratory eagles and red-wattled lapwings from its outdoor terrace. The Waldorf, opened in 2015, is far and away the most luxurious hotel in a city that these days doesn’t want for good hotels. It has history (the building was the former HQ of the British Mandate in Palestine), it has glamour, and, as close to my heart as any zoo, it has The Palace Restaurant. Under the baton of Chef Itzik Barak, The Palace’s seven-course tasting menu might include the exceptional “Seven Species,” a dish that pays homage to the herbs, grains and pulses mentioned in the Bible, along with slow-cook veal cheeks and a richly caramelized duck breast. Please don’t mention this to any zoo animals.

A little closer to home, Florida often seems awash with zoos and animal parks.  One I have been meaning to get to for some time, but only discovered on a recent trip, is the relatively modest Gumbo Limbo Nature Center, which bills itself as a “coastal and marine and environmental experience.” This place is terrific. Aside from preserving marine life, it educates locals and visitors alike in how to care for marine ecology. Not the least of the work is rescuing injured turtles within a five-mile span of beaches, surely God’s own work. In fact, anyone who knows the Florida coast will be familiar with turtle conservation and what a great job Gumbo Limbo and other organizations like it are doing.

A mere mile south of Gumbo, the Boca Raton Resort makes any trip to Florida a joy. I’m a long-time fan of this historic property, established in 1926 — and not least because its  attractive bungalow rooms are pet-friendly. Clap paws for that. At the Boca Resort, it seems as if every blade of grass has been cut with a nail scissors, so perfectly manicured is it. Its vast and lush gardens and grounds are a haven for birds and, when it comes to facilities, the Boca Resort leaves other resorts standing. From its exquisite guest rooms, many of them traditional but with a bit of Positano dash, to its gorgeously appointed swimming pools, tennis courts and world class spa, Andalusian courtyards and kids’ FlowRider Flow House, not only does the Boca Resort have it all, but to put it crudely it offers — has always offered — a big bang for your buck. 

And I haven’t even mentioned its bars and restaurants, 15 I think at the latest count, including the ritzy Blue (at the top of the famous, pink Tower building) and the thoroughly authentic Tuscan restaurant, Luca, overlooking Lake Boca Raton. I have no problem saying that I don’t know of any resort in Florida — or anywhere else for that matter — which has such varied and sophisticated food offerings. You could eat your way around the Boca Raton Resort and its oceanfront sister property, the Boca Beach Club, for an entire month and never get bored. Nor, believe me, would your pooch.

Back in London, and just a few Tube stops from the London Zoo in Regent’s Park – surely one of the world’s greats – I reacquainted myself with Pearl, who, unlike zoo creatures, is a thoroughly domestic animal.  Pearl is the resident Golden Retriever at Rosewood London, one of the city’s top hotels and a sister hotel, incidentally, to The Carlyle in New York. I absolutely love the super dog-friendly Rosewood, with its stunning courtyard entrance (a rarity in space-squeezed London) and front desk staff and concierges who know exactly what you want before you know yourself.

In the hotel’s elegant Mirror Room, the bibulous, art-inspired afternoon tea includes elaborate pastries referencing artists like Alexander Calder, Damien Hirst and Banksy, with Ruinart Blanc de Blancs Champagne for lubrication. Just a step away is the Holborn Dining Room, the hotel’s jumping brasserie, where the ‘club cut’ roast rib eye certainly cut it with my small party, as did a very English curried mutton pie.

And please may I recommend the hotel’s Sense spa? I tend to be sceptical of the longer term benefit of fancy-pants massages, but after a signature Maison Caulières “Ode au Repos” upper body treatment – a veritable workout for the head, back and shoulders – I left with a definite spring in my step and felt better for days after. Bravo, Rosewood.

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