A Night at the Zoo

La Fleche Zoo, France

What do you get if you cross an Alaskan hunting lodge with a pack of Arctic wolves in northern France? Asks Lydia Gard

The safari lodges at La Flèche zoo are the first of their kind in Europe, which is a wonder in itself.

Why did nobody think of this sooner?  To sleep in the middle of a zoo, when everyone else has left and the animals are making their dusk calls… It’s the stuff of fairy tales.

Sea lions clap and polar bears pace rhythmically, but as zoos go, this one is up there. There’s not a plastic sign in sight, jungly vines drape over walkways, it’s lush, green and clean. Even the bins are clad with wood. It’s as natural as the unnatural can possibly be. While there’s the fear with anything ‘themed’ that Walt Disney might be lurking in a wardrobe ready to belt out a show tune, the lodges are so painstakingly designed and meticulously curated that it’s hard to remember you are in France at all, let alone in a zoo.

When the crowds start to drift home, you are lead to a log gateway accessed by a code, revealing lodges Bali and Sumatra overlooking the Asian Tigers or Hudson and Alaska lying with the wolves. Each has it’s own private garden, with a terrace and lawn, an outdoor shower and a dining area complete with floor to ceiling glass onto the enclosure. As of October, you can also sleep with polar bears in Arctic Lodge (below), or hang out with the lemurs in one of three treetop houses.

La Fleche Zoo

It’s in your lodge that you kick back with supper, already in the fridge, potted in little glass jars. Delicious, home cooked and fresh, the prawn and quinoa salad, herb tossed pasta and summery berry-filled trifle lends itself perfectly to being eaten al fresco with a lovely bottle of red, all supplied by a local artisan chef. Around the corner above the rocking chair a bag of freshly baked croissants is hung on a hook in the morning (by the animals, or so you tell the children to elicit squeals of fearful delight).

Everything you need is here. It’s not that you can’t reach the outside world, more that you don’t want to ruin the magic of being at one with the animals, watching them stretch and yawn as the morning light scatters a thousand dancing leaves across the forest floor. Inside Alaska Lodge, triple bunk beds whittled out of tree trunks have small reading lights at each pillow side and a stack of children’s atlases scattered around to fuel adventurous spirits (you could conceivably sleep 6 including a baby in a cot). In the main living area the four-poster bed is slung with airy draped fabrics and topped with a fur throw. The brave will sleep with the curtains open. (You’ll know when the wolf’s eyes are on you. Call it instinct. Waking at first light to meet their silent gaze, passive and peaceful, eyes locking in a moment of mutual wonderment is haunting, time-delay stuff).

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It’s wood on wood wherever you turn. The wide plank floor boards and walls are limed to a cool grey, while antlers replace cupboard handles in the kitchen and a real Inuit canoe is slung in the rafters like the skeleton of a huge whale. Lamp bases are created out of antlers and the coffee table is a refashioned railroad cart with a huge slab of wood on top. All views are onto the enclosure, and deep leather armchairs or reindeer fur stools offer plenty of places to slouch or perch when the wolves pay a visit.

There’s nothing little red riding hood about it. They can’t gobble you up through toughened glass, yet few things silence a 4-year-old like being nose to snout with an Arctic wolf. Especially if they have committed wolf facts to memory: they eat their entire prey including the bones, can consume up to half the weight of a 6 year old in one sitting… Wolves are revered and feared in equal measure in folklore and fairy tales. But it’s a hard heart that doesn’t feel a certain kinship, a freedom of spirit by the rare privilege of lying feet away from these lovely, noble creatures. Even if they are behind glass.

La Flèche Zoo offers an overnight half board stay in a safari lodge from £92pp per night, with children from £50, including a 2-day pass to the zoo. 50km outside Le Mans in the Sarthe region, take the overnight ferry from Portsmouth to Caen and it’s a 4-hour drive.