I had always thought that Longleat Safari Park was a place to visit in the summer, or at least in warmer times of the year. But when I was kindly given tickets to visit by Moneysupermarket to review as one of Britain's best days out... I jumped at the chance.
After looking through what was on over the Christmas period, my excitement grew. A chance to ride a steam train to meet Father Christmas! My two sons will flip with joy at the sight.
So just 3 days before Christmas... we set off early to Wiltshire.
As we arrived the sun just started to shine. The long road snaking down the hillside towards the big house, gave us sneaky views of golden lions on large gates, a giant Christmas Tree and an Ice Rink. We opted to experience the Safari before the Christmas delights at the Mansion House.
We travelled up through woodland and came out to the top of the hillside. Stretching down before us we could see small dots of animals. From the back seat there was squeals of 'I can see a Giraffe' or 'Is that a Rhino?', their excitement was infectious. We started from the top, and after a quick loo stop, we drove through the enclosures of the Giraffes, Zebra's and Rhino's. And then on to the Monkey enclosure.
Please excuse the high pitched squeals. Yep - one of our family highlights! The little blighters. You can opt out of the Monkey enclosure if you don't want to risk your aerial!
Then forward... into Big Cat territory. Rufus, my youngest is a big cat fan. He sleeps every night with his toy tiger 'Tigey' which he had on our first family visit to Longleat 3 years ago. Tigey had come with this time to return to his homeland and say hi to his fellow Tigers.
We really didn't expect to see the Tigers so close. I thought they would be lounging in their huts.. sleeping. Happily, no. They were prowling around, a huge beast crossed the road within metres of us. It was breathtaking. Paws the size of dinner plates. At this point my boys were hushed in the awe of such a gorgeous creature.
We followed the road on into the lion's area. When suddenly we came to a stop. Two lionesses bounded across the road, quickly followed a by a line of tiny lion cubs. We all squealed with delight! Nine leaping, lion cubs (could be part of the 12 days of Christmas?).. snuffled, climbed and played amongst the trees.
The Safari was such a delight, much excitement and wonder. It truly didn't disappoint. It really didn't matter that we were on a day out in December, the sun was bright, and most of the Safari was spent in the warmth of the car.
On to the house for a date with the man in red. I had already bought tickets quite easily via the Longleat website, using their on-line booking system. I had printed off the tickets at home, and advised them of the ages and names of my boys before they arrived to meet Father Christmas.
We arrived at the train station in good time. Everywhere was bedecked with garlands and baubles. Christmas music was playing. We boarded the Santa Express, a small red steam train with beautiful bright yellow carriages. As the train set off, past the lake, we could see the Sea Lions jumping up around the paddle steamer.
Rounding the corner we gasped at the sight - a winter wonderland. Snow! As the train pulled into stop, we could see an avenue of fir trees and lanterns, marking the way through the snow covered woodland. We jumped out of the carriage and ran up the path. Past the Elves and on to the little wooden cabin at the end. Hesitantly Rufus knocked on the snow covered door... it creaked open and a smiling elf stood there.
'What's your name?' she asked.
'Rufus' he replied
'Well you better come in and meet him' she said.
We stepped through the door. The warm glow of a real roaring fire lit up the faces of the elves and there sat beside the fireplace was Father Christmas in his long red coat and black boots. Father Christmas asked the boys if they had been good, and said he knew they had done well at school and were kind to their friends. He then gave them gifts with their names on, and wished us a very Merry Christmas.
It was truly magical. Snow covered Lapland had come to Longleat. He had even bought six of his reindeer too. We waited by the steam train until all of the passengers had in turn seen Father Christmas.. when his last visitor had been, he walked down to the train to wave us all off. A really lovely touch.
Back at the house, we visited the Jungle Kingdom and the Adventure Castle. We feasted on mince pies and drank mulled wine. Watched the ice skating and listened to the singing Christmas tree.
There really is so much to see at Christmas time in Longleat. Next year I might book to see the Pantomime too.