Book up-close animal encounters
from icy Alaska to Costa Rica
By Rebecca Matheson Ortiz
This is a common question at my house lately, as it prompts the hilariously unferocious "Roar!" from my toddler.
Like so many of us, she's learning about wildlife from books, toys and trips to the zoo, and her love for nature is growing, along with her childlike dreams of tracking polar bears, running with lions and swinging from jungle vines with monkeys, Tarzan style.
And as she dreams, I plan vacations that will give us up-close animal encounters through escorted tours, safaris and cruises.
Make childhood wishes a reality on these five trips, where you can safely observe your favorite beasts in their natural habitats with the aid of knowledgeable guides. Options include viewing elephants on a Kenya safari and sighting bears on the Alaskan frontier.
In your pursuit of the wild, browse itineraries offered by travel discounter Vacations To Go through the links provided.
With raised cameras and pounding hearts, explorers stand in awe as herds of elephants stomp past open safari vehicles. Lions stalk gazelles and wildebeest, sprinting at speeds up to 50 mph and leaping as far as 36 feet. Feel the exhilaration of untamed nature on "Kenya Safari Exploration" with Gate 1 Travel, where you can have once-in-a-lifetime encounters with zebras, hippos, rhinos, leopards and more at four different national parks and reserves.
In Nairobi, let a gangly giraffe eat from the palm of your hand at a sanctuary for an endangered subspecies, the Rothschild's giraffe, and visit baby elephants at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, which rescues and rehabilitates orphaned pachyderms.
In Samburu National Reserve, lucky groups might spot cheetahs, leopards and zebras. A night spent in Aberdare National Park's The Ark, a safari lodge with three viewing decks and a ground-level bunker overlooking a well-lighted watering hole, yields picture-perfect peeks of animals. In the summer months, visitors to Masai Mara National Reserve might witness the natural wonder of the Great Migration, perhaps from the basket of a hot air balloon during an optional excursion, as thousands of animals pass through the park.
Many departures are available for this 10-day safari with prices from $2,749.
Playful polar bears
Head to the icy tundra of central Canada with Tauck and BBC Earth for the "Manitoba: Polar Bear Adventure" tour, which conveys sightseers from Winnipeg to Churchill, the Polar Bear Capital of the World, for close encounters with these lords of the Arctic.
The tiny town's location on the shores of the seal-rich Hudson Bay and Churchill River makes it prime autumn stomping grounds for these creatures as they bulk up for winter. Set out in a special tundra vehicle for excursions that proffer unobstructed views of the magnificent beasts, while an onboard naturalist answers questions about their behavior and more. Though the bears appear white, their skin is black and their fur is transparent, reflecting light to give the illusion of a snowy coat. You might witness nose-to-nose greetings or even the head wags that indicate a bear wants to play.
Arctic foxes, snowy owls and other species also are worth watching for, and you might spy beluga whales making their way up the Churchill River. For a more hands-on event, enjoy a dog-sledding demonstration before attempting a ride yourself.
Prices for this six-day sojourn start at $6,990 for dates in October and November.
Bright blues and "achoos"
Set sail with Silversea Cruises' Silver Galapagos expedition ship, bound for Ecuador's remote Galapagos Islands. This volcanic archipelago, which straddles the equator about 600 miles off the Pacific coast of South America, is teeming with diverse vegetation and wildlife that inspired Charles Darwin. And the animals here generally don't fear humans, allowing us interlopers to get close for pictures and observation.
Zodiac boats deliver cruisers and accompanying experts, including nature guides and lecturers, to the islands' shores. The Galapagos are home to penguins, giant tortoises and basking marine iguanas, the world's only seagoing lizards, which can reach 5 feet in length. You might notice their crusty little snouts, as marine iguanas expel the excess salt they ingest by sneezing. Gesundheit!
Meanwhile, birders should be on the lookout for the mating dance of male blue-footed boobies as they display their azure feet to attract females. Hint: The brighter the blue, the better their chances. For a look beneath the waves, don a mask and snorkel alongside reef sharks, tropical fish, eagle rays and even curious sea lions that might try to frolic with you in the waves.
Weekly departures of this seven-night cruise are offered throughout the year, with the exception of a single sailing scheduled in September (2020 trips are available, too). Traveling between San Cristobal and Baltra islands, Silver Galapagos itineraries vary by sailing date but include a stop at the Charles Darwin Research Station for a look at conservation projects and other scientific endeavors. Prices begin at $6,020 for a Dec. 5 sailing.
Trekking across Costa Rica? Make it a family affair on "Monkeys, Jungles and Volcanoes." There's never a dull moment as Trafalgar guests travel from the roughly 47,000-acre Tortuguero National Park, where leatherback, hawksbill and green sea turtles nest beside the Caribbean Sea, to the region surrounding Arenal Volcano for dips in thermal springs and treetop walks (or a zipline adventure) through the rainforest.
See brightly colored toucans, sleepy sloths and playful monkeys, including white-faced capuchins and aptly named howlers -- known to kick up quite a ruckus with their yelling -- on a canal cruise through Tortuguero and while traipsing canopy bridges in Arenal Volcano National Park. The tour spends its final days on Costa Rica's Pacific coast at Manuel Antonio National Park, where an optional snorkeling excursion brings you up close to angelfish, parrotfish and the occasional dolphin.
Prices for this eight-day escorted tour start at $1,615 for 10 departures from February to November.
Humpbacks and hibernators
In Alaska, the icy walls of hulking glaciers are a feast for the eyes, but don't let them distract you from the telltale puff of water that indicates whales nearby. On G Adventures' "Alaska Journey" you'll navigate the fjords of the Kenai Peninsula by boat, hike through the sprawling 6 million-acre Denali National Park and Preserve (with its towering, 20,310-foot eponymous peak) and get a behind-the-scenes look at the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward, all thanks to the tour operator's partnership with National Geographic.
While cruising the fjords, sharp-eyed boat passengers might see up to six different species of whales, including migrating humpbacks and orcas with their distinctive black-and-white skin. Listen for the bark of sea lions and the chirp of seabirds that build their colonies here.
About 98 percent of the U.S. brown bear population lives in Alaska, and in summer and fall these beasts eat up to 90 pounds of food per day to prepare for hibernation. When the tour breaks for a full day of leisure time in Homer, consider a floatplane excursion to Katmai National Park and Preserve, home to about 2,200 Alaskan brown bears, and watch as these usually solitary critters congregate at Brooks River by the dozens to chow down on spawning salmon.
This small-group tour is suited for guests ages 12 and up. There are nine departures from June to August -- prime bear-watching season -- with prices from $3,749.
The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published in Winter 2019. Please visit Vacations To Go or call (800) 680-2858 for current rates and details.