Travel and philotherianism (love of animals) often go hand in hand. Folks venture to Alaska to see whales, to Africa for lions, to the Galapagos for blue-footed boobies. I once edited an article on Australia and New Zealand that mentioned so many four-footed natives that the piece turned into an animal glossary.
But other popular destinations, best known for their views or ruins, their beaches or cuisine, offer a bonus of animal encounters. So keep your eyes peeled for these following species in unlikely places.
Oahu’s dolphin swim teams
You pretty much have to turn in your human card if you don’t love dolphins. I’ve held onto them while they swam in Mexico, and fed them at a Hawaiian resort that had impeccable stewardship credentials, but those were captive situations. And while sightings are not at all uncommon off Hawaii or Southern California, the only place I've ever been able to swim with these sleek, graceful creatures in the wild has been off Oahu. Dive from the bow of an excursion boat, courtesy of Wild Side Specialty Tours or Ko Olina Ocean Adventures, to perfect your flutter kick beside spinner dolphins.
Stay: The legendary Kahala Hotel & Resort, just outside Waikiki’s hustle and bustle, offers some of the state’s most luxurious accommodations, a top-rated spa, and a 26,000-square-foot dolphin lagoon.
Click here for rare Caribbean monkeys and other unique animal encounters.
Monkeys of the Caribbean
I've been to more than 25 Caribbean islands, but I’ve seen monkeys only on Nevis. Of course, the species is hardly indigenous to the West Indies; the black-faced vervet monkeys were brought to this volcanic, 36-square-mile island from Africa 300 years ago, and they’ve flourished. And while it’s unlikely that you’ll see them cavorting on the beach, just drive up into the heavily forested interior to spy the rambunctious 2-foot-tall primates swinging from the trees and devouring mangoes by the side of the road.
Stay: The Four Seasons Nevis reopened two years ago after a $120 million reconstruction and renovation. Golfers will love the 18-hole par 71 golf oceanfront course designed by no less than Robert Trent Jones Jr.
Albino donkeys in Sardinia
Sardinia is a resort island, famed for its luminous green waters off the Costa Smeralda; for its contributions to the Italian table (such as pane frattau); and for its curious stone ruins (called nuraghes) left over from the Bronze Age. But head just off mainland Sardinia’s northwest coast to the 20-square-mile island named Asinara, and you’ll discover rare, indigenous albino donkeys. Indeed, “Asinara” means "island of donkeys,” and it’s a wildlife and marine preserve with little development—a pristine complement to Costa Smeralda’s jet-set atmosphere.
Stay: Albino is a day trip from the secluded glamour of Pitrizza, a Starwood Luxury Collection Hotel featuring environmentally friendly, grass-roofed villas set along gorgeous pocket coves.
Penguins Down Under
Though penguins are largely associated with Antarctica, visitors to Australia may find that there's an irresistible “penguin parade" just 90 minutes from Melbourne, on Phillips Island. The penguins appear every night at sunset. But note that in order to keep them coming back, photography is not permitted. Better to lock in your memories by donating to Australia’s Penguin Foundation, which is dedicated to conserving the species and rescuing and rehabilitating sick penguins.
Stay: Located within walking distance of the Melbourne Museum and St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the modern, bling-y Park Hyatt offers impressive amenities, including an indoor swimming pool and traditional high tea in the chic, designated Tea Lounge.
Elk herds in Wyoming
The Jackson Hole/Grand Teton National Park area is famous for its glorious mountain ranges: Ski them in winter, hike them in summer. Wildlife viewing is likewise a big draw, and most folks crane their necks to spot bighorn sheep, the moose that hang out near the glacial lakes, and the official state animal, the American buffalo. But don’t discount the 7,500 elk located, surprisingly, just a few miles from the airport in the National Elk Refuge. Sleigh rides are available so people can get up close and personal with the herd, which is one of the largest in North America.
Stay: The exclusive Amangani resort, which occupies a superb position atop a butte 2,000 miles above sea level, features a panoramic poolside view of the Tetons and the Snake River Valley.
Florida’s Key deer
Deer aren’t exactly exotic. You can see them in Jersey. (I know, I grew up there.) But for me the most enchanting thing about the Florida Keys is the reliable appearance of unflappable Key deer. Like something out of a children’s book, they come in miniature, standing at about 2 feet and weighing in at around 60 pounds. And they swim from low-lying island to low-lying island. I remember kayaking off Little Torch Key and getting my paddle stuck in shallow water as a Key deer waded in beside me, moving faster and more efficiently than my aerodynamic boat. Those cute little antlers barely broke the waterline, but the deer made it to shore before I did.
Stay: Sunset Key Guest Cottages is a 27-acre private island resort located 500 yards off Key West; the Westin-branded property offers homey touches like a daily breakfast basket delivery.
Elephant adoption in Thailand
Visitors to Bangkok may be surprised and enchanted by elephants walking the city streets, but that’s a hard life. When logging — the primary “livelihood” of elephants — was banned in 1989, Thai elephants, forced into the cities, became endangered. But humane initiatives centered in northern Thailand mean that it’s possible to “adopt” the elephants and maintain them in nature, where they belong. It’s even possible to bathe them and ride them like real mahouts (elephant keepers) under the supervision of such organizations as the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation and the Thai Elephant Conservation Center. Both are affiliated with local resorts.
Stay: Chiang Rai’s Anantara Golden Triangle Resort & Spa, enviably positioned near the borders of Burma and Laos, offers a three-day mahout training course where guests can feed, bathe, and ride elephants through the forest.
Texas animals A to B
Not many people think of animal viewing in Texas, but the experience of spotting both armadillos and bats will make anyone’s trip to the Lone Star State both unusual and memorable. The Texas nine-banded variety is the only armadillo species found in the U.S., and it’s the state mascot. They’re ubiquitous in and around Austin, as are the roughly one million bats that hang from the Congress Avenue Bridge and take off en masse at sunset. The flight of the largest urban bat community in America is a local spectacle.
Stay: The Four Seasons Austin’s position on Lady Bird Lake not only affords guests a heated lakeside pool and walking trails, but prime views of the Congress Avenue Bridge.