By Rhonda Carrier
Sitting on the terrace of the restaurant of the Chessington Safari Hotel, a glass of wine in hand, I watched as the kids frolicked by the river and the light around us ebbed away to reveal a crescent moon gleaming in the sky, and for a moment I wondered why on earth anyone would pay thousands of pounds to go all the way to Africa.
'The giraffes take the leaves you hold out for them with surprising gusto, to the point that 10-year-old Ethan, holding on tight to the end of a branch with two hands, was nearly lifted into the air.'
It helped that the weather was scorching – ideal for a short break at this themed hotel with views right over the animal reserve from many of its rooms. The hotel in itself would have been enough for the boys, with its indoor swimming pool, giant cushions on which to sprawl to watch movies such as Madagascar playing on a loop in the lobby, restaurant serving interesting African specialities as well as more familiar fare such as pasta and steak, and that expansive grassy river bank to play on.
But these are really only the icing on the cake. The Wanyama Village and Reserve, part of Chessington's zoo, remains open after-hours to hotel guests, so you can wander among the meerkats, ostriches, zebras and other creatures before or after dinner, play African instruments and games, and take up various animal-themed sporting challenges.
Also exclusive to hotel guests at Chessington are the early-morning giraffe-feeding sessions, when small groups head out to the reserve's viewing tower to give these extraordinary creatures their breakfast. Unlike many animal-feeding sessions at Chessington and elsewhere, these are open to all ages, although I have to say that my five-year-old Zac did find it all a bit overwhelming – the giraffes take the leaves you hold out for them with surprising gusto, to the point that Zac's 10-year-old brother Ethan, holding on tight to the end of a branch with two hands, was nearly lifted into the air.
Another essential part of a safari-themed mini-break at Chessington is the zoo and themepark's Zufari: Ride into Africa. Briefed by an expedition leader and warned not to go into a dangerous cave, you board a 4X4 and head out into the reserve, encountering white rhinos, zebra, giraffes and other animals – and, need it be said, entering that forbidden cave...
What's really great and probably unique about Chessington World of Adventures is that the themepark and zoo are not separate entities but are intermingled, so that you can alternate a ride or two with a stroll through an animal section such as the Trail of the Kings with its lions, tigers and gorillas, or the Monkey & Bird Garden.
The latter was one of the highlights of the weekend for my monkey-mad 9-year-old, as it allows you to walk freely through an enclosure amidst leaping marmosets and tamarinds. If you think your kids might like this, make sure they're wearing closed-toes shoes or, like me, they'll miss out (the monkeys like to bite exposed toes). Beside the Monkey & Bird Garden there's also a smallish but very good Sea Life Centre with quite a lot of inhabitants you don't often see elsewhere.
Chessington is quite a tame themepark, with a couple of rides that will satisfy thrill-seekers and plenty for younger kids. Zac was particularly delighted by Vampire, which, having one of the lower height restrictions of any proper European rollercoaster (1.1m), allowed him to get a taste of the kind of big rides that his eldest brother loves so much. Said to be the world's only suspended coaster to travel above the trees, its hanging trains swing freely as it heads into the last tunnel, like bats flapping their way into the darkness. Also popular with the boys was the Bubbleworks dark (and wet) boat-ride and Tomb Blaster, the best laser-gun dark-ride we've experienced.
We came away from our short break at Chessington buzzing with everything we'd seen and done and vowing to return before too long. I was feeling smug, too, thinking how much money I'd save on taking them to Africa itself, when everything one needed was here. But I was wrong.
'That was brilliant, Mum,' said nine-year-old Ripley on the short train ride back into central London. 'It's made me want to go on a real safari. Can we?'
Read more about days out and family breaks at Chessington World of Adventures Resort.