10 Bucket-List Experiences for Animal Lovers

From jeep safaris in Sri Lanka to spotting Bengal tigers in India, tick off once-in-a-lifetime animal encounters with jungle favourites. And you can’t forget about the creatures of the sea as you dive into the depths of the ocean to witness bull sharks in Mexico’s coral reef.

Connect with the world’s most fascinating wildlife in their natural habitat as we uncover the top 10 bucket-list experiences for animal lovers.

Head to Florida Keys to spot bottlenose dolphins at Hawks Cay Resort

Aerial view of Hawks Cay Resort

Who said you had to go far for a unique animal experience? A holiday to Florida Keys in Hawks Cay Resort means you don’t have to leave the hotel to get up close and personal with your favourite marine life. Here, rooms look out onto an ocean-fed saltwater lagoon where you can watch as dolphins jump the waves. And if you want to learn a thing or two about the marine ecosystem, educational talks take place dockside every day.

Sip Champagne onboard a sunset cruise where if you’re lucky, you’ll spot groups of 10 to 30 bottlenose beauties showing off their acrobatic skills. Or, get wet and wild with a paddleboard experience which brings you closer to nature. Watersports are at the heart of this property and you can’t leave without reef snorkelling Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

Best time to visit: Late May to August

Volunteer at Elephant Nature Park, Thailand

Heard of elephants in the water

Located in Chiang Mai, around 60km from the city, is Elephant Nature Park, dedicated to helping distressed mammals. Their ‘hands off’ project allows you to observe the rescued elephants as they roll in mud pools, interact with their herds and swim the nearby river. And when you’re not admiring the world’s largest land animal, there are jungle walks to take advantage of where you’ll spot buffaloes wandering the wild.

Tour guides will take you on a 4x4 adventure through the countryside while sharing stories about the orphaned elephants. Better yet, you can help prepare the food for the elephants and walk alongside the water as they bathe. Did we mention there are also rescued dogs, cats, horses and goats? Alongside providing a home for endangered species, there’s a programme devoted to planting trees to help restore the surrounding rainforest.

Best time to visit: November to April

Scuba dive colourful corals in Riviera Maya, Mexico

Deep sea diving in coral reefs of Mexico

Get your marine life fix at Riviera Maya, where over 4,000 species await. It’s home to the world’s second-largest coral reef and stretches 1,000km around the Mexican coast. And don’t worry, you don’t have to be an expert scuba diver to witness its underwater delights. Newbies can take on beginner hotspots such as Isla Mujeres and Cozumel, where you’ll discover sailfish, pufferfish and seahorses.

Are you a pro diver? Then Playa del Carmen will challenge any deep sea swimmer. When you’re not taking on freshwater caves and sinkholes, check out Pared Verde (Green Wall) for an adrenaline-filled experience. Here, you’ll weave your way in and out of bull sharks, spot stingrays and admire turtles. Now that’s one for the wish list!

Banco Chinchorro is another must-visit where you can closely observe saltwater crocodiles in their natural habitat. But if you’d rather submerge yourself among 300 different types of fish, there are some wreck diving sites nearby attracting barracudas, lobsters and groupers.

Best time to visit: December to May

Hotels nearby:

Playacar Palace All Inclusive
Iberostar Quetzal All Inclusive
Sandos Playacar All Inclusive

Spot a wild tiger in Ranthambore National Park, India

Wild Bengal tigers in Ranthambore National Park, India

When it comes to memorable animal encounters, you’ve come to the right place. Located in the Sawai Madhopur district lies one of the biggest national parks in India. This protected forest is teeming with lakes, steep rocky hills and is home to sambar deer, wild boars, sloth bears and striped hyenas. And if you want to spot an elusive tiger in the wild, a jeep safari through its rural landscape is the way to do it.

Spread over 100 miles, trek via 4x4 down dusty trails that wind through canopies of leafy trees concealing furry monkeys and tropical birds. Listen closely as an expert tour guide tells tales of the sanctuary and its endangered species. And don’t forget your camera!

Best time to visit: April to May

Head to Portugal for an unforgettable whale-watching experience

People whale-watching from a boat

Renowned for its unparalleled beauty and biodiversity, the Portuguese coast is one of the fastest-growing whale-watching destinations in the world. Flaunting a winning combination of unique rock origins, deep waters and mild sea temperatures, it’s easy to spot over 20 different species along its waters. Holidays to Lisbon, in particular, will place you in the perfect location to spot marine life. Plus, there are over three thrilling whale tours to choose from, including luxury catamaran voyages.

Onboard you’ll meet a marine biologist who is on hand to answer any questions and provide extensive knowledge about sperm whales and blue whales, as well as Risso's dolphins. And pack your snorkel because no adventure is complete without taking a dip in the Atlantic, where you’ll also encounter manta rays and sea turtles.

Best time to visit: June to September

Hotels nearby:

Jupiter Lisboa
Hotel do Chiado
Radisson Blu Hotel, Lisbon

Visit Cyprus for flamingos at Larnaca Lake

pink flamingos at Larnaca Lake, Cyprus

Situated just two miles from the airport, find one of Cyprus’ best-kept secrets, Larnaca Lake. You don’t have to be a bird enthusiast to appreciate the 20,000 flamingos found here during the winter season. Split into four areas, including Alyki, Orphani, Airport and Sorro; it’s the ultimate migration destination and one of the most important habitats in Europe for waterfowl.

Flooding the salt water with vibrant shades of pink, watch as feathered friends feast on brine shrimp before flocking south towards Africa. Be sure to keep your eyes peeled for a black flamingo. This rare breed was last spotted in 2016 and is thought to be the only of its kind in the world.

Best time to visit: November to March

Hotels nearby:

Sentido Sandy Beach
The Josephine Hotel
Golden Bay

Picnic with the penguins at Boulders Beach, South Africa

penguins on bolder beach

There are many flawless beaches in Cape Town, but Boulders Beach offers something special. Discover a colony of African penguins waddling its sun-kissed shores. In fact, it’s the only place across the globe where you can get close to these tuxedo-wearing creatures. There are currently 2,000 to 3,000 birds residing along the coast, with rangers patrolling every day to ensure the safety of these endangered species.

It’s not just great for animals, but families can access neighbouring Foxy Beach, where a sheltered cove of soft white sands and crystal clear waters will tempt you in. Not to mention it’s the ultimate picnic spot! Who else can say they’ve snacked on a sandwich beside a penguin? And for Instagram-worthy shots, wander its broadwalk to admire the vistas from up high.

Best time to visit: January to August

Discover one of the world’s best safari destinations, Sri Lanka

jeep safari in sri lanka with elephants

Hugging the Indian Ocean, Yala National Park brings you closer to the untamed world of wildlife in Sri Lanka. Spread over a sprawling 130,000 hectares of forest, shrubs and lagoons, it’s a playground for leopards and bears alike. Providing a safe space for animals, you can only access one of five blocks via a jeep safari. Nevertheless, that one block alone will create memories that last a lifetime as you witness herds of elephants and buffaloes roaming grassy plains. And that’s just the beginning!

From fan-tailed peacocks kicking up clouds of dust to monkeys swinging amidst the treetops and dozing crocodiles lounging the lakes, there’s no escaping nature. Guided tours are also highly recommended if you want an all-access pass to the best wildlife spots. Or for a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience, you can stay off-the-beaten-track in the park’s campsite to experience the animal kingdom at night.

Best time to visit: January to May

Hotels nearby:

Riu Sri Lanka
Centara Ceysands Resort & Spa Sri Lanka
Taj Bentota Resort & Spa

Take a city break to Romania for wild bear encounters

wild bear in romania forest

Discover the biggest brown bear sanctuary in the world where over 100 previously mistreated animals now revel in 69 hectares of oak forest in the Carpathian Mountains. From climbing trees to swimming in pools. Take a guided tour to learn more about these four-legged friends (warning tissues may be needed). Prepare to be inspired as you hear how animal activist Cristina Lapis saved the life of zoo-kept Maya the bear, which started this foundation.

There’s also Max, who was once a chained tourist attraction cub and now spends his days enjoying the sun and sound of nature. Harrowing histories are not the only thing you’ll encounter during this experience. There’s also a bear museum housing the famous teddy from Mr Bean, and a three-metre-high bear created to celebrate the birth of Princess Charlotte.

Best time to visit: September to December

Make a pitstop at Abu Dhabi’s award-winning Falcon Hospital

falcon

There’s so much more to Abu Dhabi than glitz and glamour, and the Falcon Hospital proves just that. It’s the first and largest public institution in the United Arab Emirates that provides complete veterinary care to over 11,000 falcons yearly. Most desert safari experiences offer a chance to discover falconry, although guided tours of this award-winning specialist hospital are available and highly recommended.

You can visit the luxurious wards where the birds are kept, explore the museum that gives insights into the noble desert sport of falconry, and even wander the hospital’s lush gardens. You’ll also be able to see falcons swoop through a free-flight aviary, witness a falcon pedicure and watch as expert doctors perform life-saving surgery from the viewing gallery.

Best time to visit: April to May

Hotels nearby:

Sheraton Abu Dhabi Hotel & Resort
Conrad Hotel Abu Dhabi Etihad Towers
InterContinental Abu Dhabi

Danielle Gunner

About the author

As a frequent jetsetter, Danielle is an expert in all things travel. From foodie trips in Rome to hunting down the best beaches in the Balearics and Christmas shopping in New York. She’s also the mum of a very cute but mischievous toddler, meaning she has some great family holiday hacks too. Check out all her travel tips & tricks!