The idea of the perfect vacation looks different for everyone. For animal lovers, the greatest travel memories and life-changing experiences come courtesy of up-close-and-personal animal encounters and thankfully that’s a burgeoning trend in travel – who isn’t obsessed with Yellowstone right now. Here are five of our favorite escapes where talking to the animals is all part of the thrill.
Big Sky Cattle Wrangling in Montana
The hit television series, Yellowstone, has done much to resurrect the intrigue of the wild wild west and Montana’s big sky, cattle-wrangling lifestyle. Once privy only to real cowboys on working ranches, cattle wrangling has now become a vacation adventure option. A number of working cattle ranches are welcoming guests to live out their cowboy and -girl fantasies – including riding on horseback while driving cattle across the wide-open range.
This 37,000-acre working Montana ranch, Paws Up Resort, offers the ultimate (upscale) immersion – complete with trail rides, chuckwagon dinners, and yes, cattle drives. Hundreds of stunning Black Angus cows roam the ranch’s rolling pastures. For the most immersive stay, book into one of the canvas ‘glamping’ tents by the river for that feeling of sleeping under the stars but with all the creature comforts: cushy four-poster beds with duvets, even a dreamy copper soaking tub.
Flying Falcons in Vermont
Falconry – aka the ‘ancient sport of kings’ – has existed for thousands of years, primarily among the aristocrats of medieval Europe, the Middle East, and the Mongolian empire. Today, ‘commoners’ are getting their turn through classes with master falconers (who study seven years for the title). Experiences typically show off the birds’ flight and faithful return to their handlers – rather than focus on the prey caught. But the real fun comes when travelers fly the birds (hawks, falcons, eagles, and owls) themselves.
Green Mountain Falconry School operates an exhilarating class at The Equinox Golf Resort & Spa, in Manchester, Vermont. Here you can immerse yourself in an introductory falconry lesson, ‘hawk walk’ and flying a trained Harris hawk. Return, after class, to the historic hotel for a dip in the pool or time in the spa, before setting out again – this time on a ‘Golden Hike’ with the resort’s chief happiness officer (CHO), Cooper, a five-year-old golden retriever.
Seal Watch on the California Coast
From LaJolla to San Francisco, the sight of seals (and sea lions) lazily sunbathing is just part of the coastal California vibe. One of the most spectacular places to soak in the scene is the Carpinteria Seal Sanctuary (one of just four remaining seal rookeries). The sanctuary is home to nearly 100 adult seals who, every March, give birth to their cubs here. To protect the seals, the beach at the sanctuary is off-limits, but a public overlook on the bluff offers close views of the marine animals.
Within easy (and picturesque) driving distance to Carpinteria, the Belmond El Encanto in Santa Barbara combines California craftsmen and Spanish colonial glam in a stunning hilltop masterpiece. The hotel’s 92 rooms (including suites and bungalows) fuse 1920s style with modern artistry, heated floors, and marble baths. After a day of seal-watching and hiking the bluffs in Carpinteria, book a sound bath meditation to further unwind then dip into the hotel’s vibey zero-edge pool.
Horse Whispering in Tucson Arizona
‘Horse whispering’ – the therapeutic connection between human and horse – was made popular in Nicholas Evans’ book, ‘The Horse Whisperer’ (and later, the film of the same name played by Robert Redford). One of the real-life leads in the equine therapy world is the cowboy and horse-whisperer Wyatt Webb, founder of the Equine Experience at Miraval, an award-winning, destination spa in Tucson, Arizona. Webb recently (after 25 years in the saddle) hung up his cowboy boots in retirement. But his legacy lives on.
Check into one of Miraval’s casitas, with its soothing earth tones, Himalayan singing bowls, and meditation pillows (some come with soaking tubs, outdoor showers, and fire pits), and head straight to the stables. Miraval’s equine therapy experiences help guests overcome their own fears and self-doubts. One of the seemingly simple tasks guests are charged with: Raising a horse’s hoof and cleaning it. The concept is that horses can read energy, and only when they feel safe will they cooperate. As Webb, founder of the program has been famously quoted: “It’s not about the horse, it’s about you.”
Swim Alongside the Manatees in Florida
There’s so much to love about manatees, a.k.a. ‘Sea Cows.’ These glorious, lumbering, giants (some weighing up to 3,000 pounds) thrive in warm spring waters. Extraordinarily gentle (even alligators pass them by), the manatees’ greatest threat is humans, via boating collisions and propeller injuries. Crystal River, on the Gulf Coast of Florida, is the only location in North America where it’s legal to swim alongside the wild West Indian manatees that migrate here. Restrictions (on boat size and speed) are strictly enforced in Crystal River’s Kings Bay and Three Sisters Springs – especially during the migration season – as is the ‘no-touch’ manatee policy.
Surrounded by King’s Bay (home to more than 400 migrating manatees that arrive each winter for the warm 72-degree waters) Plantation on Crystal River has long been celebrated for its dedicated ‘swimming with manatees’ excursion. Prime manatee viewing season runs from mid-November through March (which can be chilly in these parts) so we love that snorkels and wetsuits are provided, along with hot chocolate, coffee, and warming ‘boat coats.’