I never really thought of visiting zoos as a children’s activity; I’ve always enjoyed meandering in zoos as an adult whenever I travelled. Now that I have a toddler who is thoroughly fascinated with making monkey and lion sounds all day, now I see the appeal of taking along your kids to see living, breathing, amazing animals.
Our friends in Dunkirk had two little toddlers of their own, so naturally it was Yeys all around when they suggested to visit what was touted as the “Best Zoo in Europe”. Hmm, I’ve seen some pretty incredible zoos before — I still have vivid memories of Sydney Zoo’s Bird Show, and of the boat ride in Singapore’s River Safari. Would Pairi Daiza hold up to its hype? I surely hoped so.
Off we went! The drive to the zoo was interesting; after you get off the highway (as a side note, Belgium has one of the most relaxing highways we’ve ever driven in), we drove through small towns and narrow farm roads for quite some time before we reached Pairi Daiza. Since it was the summer break, there were already quite a small crowd queued at the entrance, but parking and entry were fairly organized once we got there.
Pairi Daiza is divided into several themed areas, and boy, they spared no expense to set each scene. There’s the “Kingdom of Ganesha”, an Indonesian-themed area where elephants roamed and orangutans played. The replicas of ancient temple ruins actually gave me Angkor Wat vibes, but overall, as a Filipino, I did feel that was once again walking through somewhere in Southeast Asia with all the oh-so-familiar luscious green trees and plants.
Another area of the park that I enjoyed was the “Land of Origins”, which was dedicated to Africa. There was plenty for the eyes to devour, from the thatch-roofed huts, animal wading pools, and majestic beasts that loomed before and above you.
To say that the zoo was massive is an understatement. Spotted everywhere were picnic nooks, grand gardens and restaurants. It was getting a bit too crowded in the Safari area, so we made a beeline for one of the zoo’s main draws, the Panda Enclosure in The Middle Kingdom. Bamboo lined the paths leading to the enclosure, and lo and behold, we got to see what must have been the most active group of pandas I’ve ever seen so far. I can’t tell how old the pandas really were, but it reminded me of my husband and his brothers when they try to rumble and wrestle each other for fun.
So the verdict — was it truly the “Best Zoo in Europe”? I give it to them that the zoo has amazing, gorgeous sceneries, and wandering about is an amazing treat for the eyes. The themed backdrops were so beautiful, in fact, that to me, they have upstaged the animals, ie. if there were perhaps no animals in this zoo, I still would have perhaps visited it just for the gardens (I probably won’t drive two hours all the way from Dunkirk, though).
While I wasn’t totally blown off my feet (perhaps I came in with expectations too high), I still think that our visit was well was worth it. Apart from viewing the animals, the children certainly had tons of fun running around the garden paths, monkeying around in the large playground, and raiding the chicken nuggets tray in the Chinese buffet in Temple des Délices (this was where we opted to have lunch, since it had the shortest queue. Was pleasantly surprised with the child-friendly choices!).
So maybe I’ll hold off on confirming whether Pairi Daza is indeed the best zoo in Europe until I’ve seen the competition. What I’ll say though, is that if you have kids as playful and energetic as the pandas we’ve seen here, then there would be plenty of space and beautiful scenery for them to wild out here.