I’ve always loved Whipsnade – from summer holiday days out with my mother, to taking my own children on visits, and even driving there every day for a fortnight when my teenage daughter Rosie – an aspiring vet – did work experience there.
So how could I turn down the chance to meet the animals out of hours and experience an overnight stay in one of the zoo’s Lookout Lodges?
And who better to take with me for such a treat than Rosie – a chance for some rare special time together, now she’s all grown up and moved away (and not a vet after all).
Apart from the animals, the loveliest thing about Whipsnade, I always feel, is the sense of abundant green space, both within and around the zoo.
And the Lookout Lodges, next door to the rhinos’ spacious paddock, take full advantage of this position, overlooking the beautiful Chiltern Downs.
That spaciousness did, however, mean that we walked absolutely miles during the two days of our visit – and some of us can still feel it in our knees. Though to be fair, we could have used the car during the time we weren’t actually on our guided visit.
The Lookout Lodge experience entitles guests to two full days’ access to the zoo, so we began our visit at lunchtime, with a stroll round our favourite enclosures before checking in at the Lookout Lodges at 4.30pm.
The nine cosy log cabins, each named after one of the zoo’s animals, are equipped with everything you need for a comfortable night's stay, including ‘proper’ beds, linen and towels, a hairdryer, a kettle and even – to my great relief – a small electric heater.
A little time to settle in and a welcome glass of prosecco, and then, just as the last of the regular visitors departed for the day, our experience was about to begin.
Setting off on our Sunset Tour, the knowledgeable guides introduced us to some of zoo’s residents and told us about them, and about the zoo’s conservation efforts for each species.
They included the fascinating herd of white rhinos, with adorable nine-month-old calf, Nandi, who we watched hiding behind his mum, much like a human toddler, after annoying his dad.
We were shown the stunning male bongo antelope with its beautiful markings and elegantly curved horns, and the pair of adorable red pandas.
The clever chimpanzees came running when our guides threw pieces of red pepper into their island enclosure, and showed their intelligence by using a stick to ‘fish’ out bits of pepper that landed in the moat.
Our two-course pre-ordered dinner was served in the Base Camp cafe, with wine available to purchase, overlooked by the sinister-looking marabou stork, or ‘undertaker bird’.
As the evening drew in and the animals started to settle down for the night, torches were handed out for the Torchlit Tour, which would eventually lead us back to our lodges.
The colourful, squawking flamingoes glowed neon in the twilight, three female African hunting dogs huddled in a sleepy heap, and three Amur tigers dozed peacefully side by side.
But Khari, the magnificent African lion, gave us something to dream about, patrolling past within inches of us as we watched from behind the glass wall of his enclosure.
After a peaceful night in our comfortable beds, as I left the Lookout Lodge compound early the next morning to head to the nearby shower and toilet block, I was greeted by a mother and baby wallaby peering in through the gate at me – wallabies and mara (like giant guinea pigs) roam wild at Whipsnade.
A walk down to breakfast was followed by an early morning tour. We learned about the pair of wild boar with their cute stripy piglets, and the rockhopper penguins with their spaghetti-like headgear.
The lolloping wolverines were a species I’d never seen before. With their luxuriant auburn fur shimmering in the sunlight, you’d never imagine these large relatives of the weasel, busy doing their early morning roly-polys, are such ferocious and efficient killers.
But for me the highlight of the visit was an exclusive visit to the ring-tailed lemur enclosure, where the delightful, inquisitive creatures leapt up nose to nose with us on the fence to find the food our guides had put out for them.
Adorably furry and strokeable as they looked, we complied with our guide’s request not to touch them – however tempted.
At 10am, as the zoo opened its gates once more to the public, our Lookout Lodge experience was complete and we the rest of the day was our own to explore Whipsnade – or even head down to London Zoo for the day, should we so desire.
While my knees were complaining, my spirits were soaring – our very special overnight adventure had been uplifting as well as educational.
Lookout Lodge stays for families or adults only are available to book until the end of October, with prices ranging from £298 to £418 for two adults sharing a lodge.