Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Traveling on the Wild Side

Everyone has a wild side, especially travelers. We instinctually seek out the unknown, explore the unexplored and we traverse the globe looking for excitement. It's in our nature, which might be why we feel a kinship with our friends in nature. 

I've met plenty of interesting people in plenty of interesting places around the world. But I have to admit, some of the most memorable souls I've shared a laugh with, had fur and tails.  Zoos, parks, mountains, forests - the lower levels of the food chain are sometimes much better company than the top.  As long as they don't turn you into a chew toy, seeking out or stumbling upon animals, either in the wild or in feigned wild, can add a whole new element to your vacation. 

Washington, D.C. is a great example. The city is full of tourists exploring monuments, museums and memorials. Most are worth a visit, but the Smithsonian National Zoo takes the action out of the past and into the present. The National Zoo is free like many of the museums in D.C., and it has undergone a makeover in recent years to make for a park that flows well from top to bottom. The main attraction is usually the pandas, and the new baby panda Bao Bao that has set Washington on another panda craze. But there is much more to the zoo, including a small mammal house packed with everything from meerkats to marmosets. The deepest belly laugh I ever heard come from my 10-month-old daughter was when a golden lion tamarin bounced around in front of her. The tamarin was very effective – we left the Zoo with a toy version.  
At Disney World in Orlando, one of the secret trick’s I’ve found is to arrive at Animal Kingdom park early, hustling right to the safari ride first thing. The animal activity is more energetic than later in the day. On my last visit a herd of giraffe followed the truck for most of the ride.

Other zoos around the world are also worth a visit. In Vienna, Austria, in the gardens of the famous Schonbrunn Palace, lies a sprawling zoo. But instead of paying, visitors can get a glimpse of the animals by walking along the pathway running behind the menagerie. It loops up and around, affording views through a fence of rhinos and other zoo inhabitants. It is a fun contrast to the grandeur and opulence found in much of this great European city.
But you don’t have to save a specific itinerary slot for a zoo or safari park. Many times animal encounters are unplanned, making them all the more exciting.

On a drive back from Canada, I had the pleasure of seeing a moose trotting through the forest along the road. In Interlaken, Switzerland, high in the Alps, a St. Bernard and mountain goats greeted passengers disembarking from the mountain train, a scene straight from a postcard. Staying at a lake house at Eagle Rock Resort in the Pennsylvania mountains, we woke one morning to a large family of deer nibbling on grass a couple feet from the back door. The loud but lazy sea lions at San Francisco’s Pier 39 left a lasting auditory impression, and the wild bison that surrounded my car in South Dakota’s Black Hills came close to leaving an impression in my fender. And of course, the pigeons in Venice’s St. Mark’s Square are one of the most iconic images in Italy.  
The lure of animals has to do with genuineness and unpredictability – and our desire as travelers to experience both. We want to live like temporary locals when we go to a foreign place, which entails eating, drinking and acting unlike we normally would at home. It's easy to do that in Dublin or Santiago or Los Angeles. Customs can be learned, cultures can be appreciated and languages can be absorbed. But what happens when the language is chirping or roaring and the culture is walking on all fours? Well, as a traveler you get a genuine form of unpredictability, and that can cause some very memorable experiences. Just make sure your camera is at the ready and you’re at a safe distance.