Having endured endless viewings of Madagascar 3 since it was on telly at Christmas, my love for lions, zebras, hippos and giraffes has been rapidly diminishing. My four-year-old son is obsessed with the film and everyone in it, and has been pestering me on a daily basis to take him too the remote tropical isle. Sadly, not being rich in time or money, I have had to curb this particular request, but I did decide to offer the next best thing – a trip to the zoo.
I haven’t set foot in a zoo in years, and must admit I was as excited as my little one as we headed down the M3 to visit all the animals at Marwell Zoo for the day. Do you think we’ll see Gloria? the small one squealed from the back seat, referring to Jada Pinkett Smith’s hippo in the film. I’m sure we will I reassured him. Hoping to goodness that the bloody hippos weren’t hiding when we arrived.
I had planned the trip down to Marwell as an opportunity for quality time, just me and the boy, before he goes off to big school in September. Since his little sister arrived on the scene, time alone just the two of us is a rare treat, so we decided to book into the neighbouring Marwell Hotel for the night too and make a real mini-holiday of it.
Marwell Zoo is set in 140 acres of beautiful parkland. It’s easy to find from the motorway and is less than an hour and a half from central London. From ring-tailed coatis to poison arrow frogs, snake-necked turtles to Amur leopards, cotton-top tamarins to meerkats and giraffes there’s more than 170 species to see as well as daily animal talks and train and tractor trips around the grounds.
As soon as you enter there is a little hut offering a Wildlife Trail challenge for a pound.. Kids (and their grown-ups) can follow the trail round the park, collecting stamps on the way. Once the book is full you take it to the gift shop at the end and are rewarded with your own Marwell Zoo sticker. And what kid doesn’t love stickers?
We headed off on our stamp-collecting mission and first stop was the penguins (more Madagascar stars, of course). The boy loved watching them jumping off rocks and swimming underwater. There’s a special viewing space so you can see below the surface and what really makes Marwell great for kids is opportunities like this to get really close to the animals. There are walkways and viewing platforms throughout the park, with a new lemur walkway due to open in the summer, but the land is so expansive you never feel that the animals are restricted in any way.
Our trail took us past the penguins and into rhino and zebra inhabited fields. Through tiger territory and past the most beautiful snow leopard you’ll ever see. There are interactive exhibits all around the zoo, and opportunities to take part in quizzes and activities run by the knowledgeable staff. There’s also a cafe which does decent food at reasonable prices (it even sells wine!) – we got a main course to share, a drink each and a couple of ice creams for under £15, which isn’t bad at all compared to most theme park prices.
Having enjoyed our ice cream pit stop and marvelled at the tiger and her cubs, we took some time out from the animals so my own little beast could run off some energy in a playground. There are several of them around the park, offering different equipment for different ages. It’s good to have something else to entertain the little darlings, and is a perfect opportunity for a sit down for us big ones!
On our way back round to the gift shop and to finish our trail, we went to visit the hippos, and boy am I glad we did. I haven’t seen Little Man smile so much since he worked out what Christmas was. He loved watching them wallowing in the water and splashing each other, before clumsily bounding across a field in search of food. Visit to Gloria – done.
Having spent almost five hours enjoying all Marwell had to offer, we finally decided it was time to exit the main gate and cross the road to the Marwell Hotel.
Looking rather like a lodge from an African safari park, the Marwell Hotel is a family run venue set within sprawling woodland. The focus is on fun for families staying here, and children are gifted with an activity pack on arrival. My son was also offered a glass of milk as he slumped onto his suitcase while I was checking in. As we entered our family room I heard a sharp intake of breath before an enormous WOW as the little man spied the bunk beds on the other side of my double. Once I’d reluctantly agreed to his idea of me sleeping in the bottom bunk and he the top, we headed down to the swimming pool on site.
Once we were suitably exhausted from all the excitement of the day, we donned our glad rags and set out to dinner. The charming thing about the Marwell Hotel is attention to detail and a real effort to make families feel at home. My son was brought another glass of milk as soon as we sat down, and was engaged in conversation by our charming waiter who saw him gazing at the sports screen in the bar so promised to keep him abreast of the scores in the England rugby game which was taking place. He kept his word and the kid was kept occupied and happy throughout the meal as our waiter not only informed him of any score change, but explained how and why they came about with more knowledge than I could ever impart!
I’m not sure what I was expecting when it came to food in The Dining Room, but it certainly wasn’t what was presented. The staff are friendly and polite, without being overbearing, and happily took our order in a nice relaxed amount of time – my choice of a goat curd salad with poached pear, followed by a wild mushroom ravioli, and the boy’s of garlic bread with cheese followed by fish, chips and peas.
As we were first to arrive when the restaurant opened, I had no neighbouring diners to ogle as they ate before making my choice, and I must admit I expected pleasant but plain meals before we entered, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. First off I was presented with a delightful celeriac amuse bouche topped with a roasted parmesan crisp, then my delightful start arrived, looking so damn good it seemed a shame to eat it! Washed down with a warming glass of Malbec (for me, not the boy) we were off to a good start. And our mains didn’t disappoint either. My ravioli was one huge piece of homemade pasta stuffed with the most flavoursome wild mushrooms, a hint of truffle, and accompanied by a delicate garnish of rocket and herbs. And I was pleased to see that The Boy’s dinner was clearly all freshly made, with excellent quality fish in his goujons and a big enough portion to feed a kid twice his age. He was ecstatic with his final course of ice cream with a chocolate brownie, while I tucked into the most delicious rhubarb and custard creme brulee.
I haven’t raved about food in a family venue this much for more than a year and I really have to say that the Marwell Hotel restaurant is worth a visit regardless of whether you are residing there or even visiting the zoo. If you’re ever in the area, make sure you book a table for dinner, you won’t be disappointed.
Having utterly exhausted ourselves we returned to our room for a much-needed night’s sleep. The rooms are basic but functional, and all have TVs showing all the Sky channels as well as DVD players – you can pick from a huge selection of kids films at reception.
As we prepared to head home the next morning we discussed our favourite parts of the weekend over breakfast – eggs benedict for me and a huge pile of pancakes drowned in maple syrup and crispy bacon for him.
I liked the tigers, I told him, and I enjoyed our dinner together and going for a swim…. My best bit was putting my head in the hippo’s mouth*, he answered back, and the bunk beds. Easily pleased, these four-year-olds, especially if you find the right place to take them…
*disclaimer: the hippo was a bronze statue – no need to call Childline just yet
- Marwell Zoo and Marwell Hotel are both open all year round. See www.marwell.org.uk for more information on the zoo and to book tickets so you skip the queue on arrival, and www.marwellhotel.co.uk for more information on rooms or to book a table in the restaurant.