France’s No 1 wild animal park
I’ve always loved giant pandas. Well, how can you not? With those soft cuddly bodies, benign expressions, and dramatic markings, they’re high on most people’s list of favourite animals. But for most of us, the chances of seeing one are pretty slim unless you can afford a holiday to a reserve in their Chinese homeland.
So I’m beside myself with excitement as I scurry along the paths at the Zooparc de Beauval towards the giant panda enclosure. The chateaux and gardens of the Loire Valley are a huge draw for visitors from across the world, but last year France’s No 1 animal park pulled in 1.1 million visitors. Not just to see the giant pandas, but koalas and snow leopards, white tigers and lions, manatee, marmosets and more than 8,000 wonderful creatures, both large and small.
Nestled in a wooded valley outside St-Aignan, the Zooparc de Beauval is just one hour from Tours by car and 45 minutes from Blois and its sumptuous Royal Chateau. So whether you’re travelling in a family group with grandchildren or simply, like us, can’t resist a good animal attraction, Beauval is a must-see on any trip to the Loire Valley. And yet few British visitors have discovered it.
Still family run, Beauval began on a very small scale in 1980 to house a private collection of exotic birds. By the end of the decade, the collection had grown to include the first big cats and bears, and from 2000 to 2008, the park was welcoming around 400,000 visitors a year.
But in the economic crisis of 2009, Beauval took a dramatic step forward and doubled its publicity budget. Within two years, visitor figures were up 30% and with the arrival of the two giant pandas in 2012 – one of just five zoos in Europe to borrow these captivating animals – visitor figures topped 1 million.
Every year, Zooparc de Beauval aims to add to the visitor experience. We arrived just after the Easter opening of the lavish new hippo enclosure with underwater viewing area and high level decking. Sadly the hippos were snoozing happily in the spring sunshine but there was plenty of activity elsewhere.
The two giant pandas were particularly obliging, one of them investigating some objects in his landscaped enclosure; the other, adjacent but in separate quarters, just relaxing on a high level branch, paws hanging down and eyes blissfully closed. It was a very special moment to stand so close and see them across a deep ditch rather than through wire – a policy that Beauval are adopting with all their new enclosures.
We were lucky too in the Australian house where the koalas, not known for high levels of activity, were feeding and generally hanging about. Literally.
There are 450 births a year here and in the course of the day, we stood captivated as a mother orang-utan played with her tiny baby; gorilla mothers cradled their tots in their arms; and two young snow leopards played a lively game of tag whilst mother kept a watchful eye out for bad behaviour.
Although 95% of the visitors here are French, we were impressed to find that information panels are in English too. Information talks – ‘les animations’ – are currently just in French but English texts could be available soon. Many of the species here are not only unique in France but also rare in other European collections. And for every large creature, you’ll find loads of small ones.
Not far from the giant tortoises, inside a tropical bird house, we were marvelling at the wonderful plumage when a small animal shot out from under the foliage like a clockwork toy – a miniature armadillo who proceeded to put on a demonstration of high speed soil excavation. And we’d no sooner marvelled at the majestic silverback gorilla, than we were watching the acrobatics of the small monkeys and marmosets.
Wear comfortable shoes and be aware that many of the paths are undulating, due to the valley terrain. There is however a lift up to the new hilltop hippo area and the spectacular birds of prey show which ends with squadrons of birds flying free over the tiered arena – eagles and pelicans, parakeets and storks in a riot of colour and squawks.
My biggest tip would be to try and avoid French school holidays – not always the same as ours – but don’t worry if you can’t. There is plenty of parking in well-numbered car parks. And don’t be put off by crowds at the entrance or just inside the gate. Nobody seems to followed the numbered ‘sens de visite’ trail on the information leaflet, so do as we did and head to the far corners of the park first. By the time you work your way back to the entrance, the crowds will have cleared.
Better still stay over. There’s so much to see here that it’s a shame to rush things. Zooparc de Beauval has two on-site hotels, just 500m from the park gates and each with spacious car parks.
Le Pagode, in flamboyant Chinese style, opened this Easter with landscaped gardens, outdoor pool, and spa. We stayed in Les Jardins de Beauval opposite, where accommodation is in circular pavilions overlooking gardens and lakes complete with exotic waterfowl. Our vast room with bay window was bright and relaxing with comfortable chairs, large floor cushions and Indonesian style decor including bed with muslin drapes. Hotel and restaurant staff were both efficient and friendly.
So next time you think about the Loire Valley, don’t just think chateaux and gardens … think pandas and koalas. Just think Beauval!