10 of the best wildlife experiences to have on holiday

Channel your inner Sir David Attenborough and make wildlife a focus of your next holiday.

Ask anyone for their holiday wishlist and it’s likely a wildlife encounter will crop up somewhere. Seeing incredible creatures in their natural habitat is an exhilarating privilege – an experience that gives you the sense of glimpsing into another world, one completely unlike ours.

But which animals should you put on your ‘to see’ list – and where’s best to see them? We asked the experts at Saga Travel to give us their countdown of the best wildlife holidays for 2024.

And if you’re worried you’ll be left disappointed by wildlife no-shows – or that you’ll be too far from the action to see what’s going on, we’ve included some fantastic images  captured on Saga tours, showing just how close you’ll be getting to creatures big and small…

Wildlife travel - Lion in South Africa -Credit: Saga Travel/David
From safaris to birdwatching trips, Saga Travel has lots of wildlife experiences for your next holiday

1. Whales in western Canada

Have a whale of a time

Whales adore the waters off Canada’s western coast. Countless pods patrol the Pacific here, making it one of the best places in the world for a close encounter with the planet’s largest mammals. Join a whale-watching trip from Vancouver Island and you might spot a pod of orca or grey whales cruising around or spy a humpback’s tail fluke emerging from the water just metres away.

While smaller boats have more flexibility in terms of bringing you to the whales, don’t discount the idea of a cruise. Choose an itinerary that takes you up the coast and into Alaskan waters and you’ll have plenty of opportunity to spot whales from up on deck or even from the comfort of your cabin. And, if you’re really lucky, you’ll witness humpbacks bubble-net feeding – an extraordinary sight.

Top tip

Add another incredible animal experience to your Canadian adventure with a few days at Knight Inlet Lodge. Set in the wilderness on the edge of a fjord, it’s an incredible spot to see majestic grizzly bears in the wild.

2. Turtles, tree frogs and toucans in Costa Rica

A real nature experience

Want bang for your buck? Look to Costa Rica. This verdant slice of Central America hits you with as many different wildlife encounters as it can, making it one of the ultimate wildlife holidays around. Turtles scuttling across the beaches of Tortuguero.

Scarlet macaws, toucans and parrots squawking in cloud forests. Butterflies and hummingbirds flitting between tropical flowers. Howley monkeys, red-eyed frogs and sloths attached to every other tree branch (or so it seems).

To make the most of this bounty, leave the wheels behind and strike out on foot. Wander along treetop bridges, follow trails through lush national parks, and hike through forests to seek out nocturnal creatures after dark. It’s not all hard work, though. Reward yourself with dips in volcanic hot springs and cold beers beside Pacific breakers.

3. Orang-utans in Borneo

A rainforest adventure

Dame Judi Dench fell for the graceful orang-utans she met while filming her Wild Borneo Adventure – so much so, she adopted three of them – and it’s likely they’ll steal a piece of your heart, too.

These gentle creatures make their homes in the tall trees of Borneo’s rainforests, swinging between vines and building their nests on high branches out of harm’s way.

Seeing them in the wild is thrilling, but it’s also well worth stopping by a rehabilitation centre, like the world-renowned sanctuary at Sepilok.

Not only will you get a close-up of these beautiful animals, but you’ll also gain a real understanding of the threats they face (Bornean orang-utans are classified as critically endangered by the WWF), and the tireless work being done to try and save their habitat here.

Top tip

Orang-utans are far from the only wildlife you’ll clock in Borneo. Sail down the mighty Kinabatangan River and you could spot pygmy elephants splashing and proboscis monkeys hanging from the trees. Saga’s escorted tours also include time at a conservation centre for the world’s smallest bear: the Bornean sun bear.

4 Tigers in India

Eye of the tiger

Step into the pages of Kipling’s Jungle Book as you explore the wilds of India. While the number of tigers was once in steep decline, conservation efforts in recent decades have boosted numbers to more than 3,000.

Ranthambore National Park is the big name when it comes to tiger safaris – it’s the ideal add-on to a Golden Triangle itinerary, and easy to access for morning and afternoon game drives. For something a little more off the beaten track, try the parks and reserves in central India, like Pench or Bandhavgarh.

Expert guides will give you the best possible chance of sighting those elusive stripes (plus the rare white tiger), as well as leopards and sloth bears.

5. Whale sharks and manta rays in the Maldives

Take to the water

It can be hard to prise yourself off those sugar-white beaches in the Maldives. Or to tear yourself away from the deck of your overwater villa. But you really should – the world beneath those Tiffany-blue waters is something else.

House reefs at most resorts teem with life, but for serious wow-factor, go in search of the biggies: whale sharks and manta rays. These gentle giants cruise around the warm, plankton-rich waters of the South Ari Atoll, just a short boat ride from this fabulous five-star resort.

Whale sharks can be spotted year-round, while peak season for the mantas – whose wingspan can top six metres – is usually February-April.

6. Birdwatching in Spain

Holiday with our feathered friends

If you like to keep your eyes to the skies, Spain is a brilliant choice for a birdwatching holiday.

Head south to the Costa del Sol or Costa de la Luz for the Doñana National Park – a migratory ‘superhighway’ – and the chance to spy black kites, booted eagles and honey buzzards soaring on thermals above the Strait of Gibraltar.

Or you could aim north. From Cantabria’s green mountains, sand dunes and rocky cliffs you can keep watch for griffon vultures and eagles. You’re also in easy reach of Picos de Europa National Park, an incredible landscape of toothy peaks, oak forests and beech groves, where brown bears and Iberian wolves roam free.

7. Komodo dragons in Bali

See the largest lizard on earth

They’re probably the closest thing to a dinosaur that you’ll ever see. Komodo dragons: 10 feet long, 300 lbs and covered head to claw in armoured scales so tough they’ve been dubbed ‘nature’s chainmail’.

They roam around on a scattering of Indonesian islands, protected as part of a national park. They might be the world’s heaviest lizards, but they can clock speeds of up to 11mph when they want to – a specialist guide will help you to see them safely in their natural habitat.

Bali’s the nearest big name to the islands – combine the two and you’ll enjoy your wildlife experience with a side-order of hushed temples, Balinese cooking classes and sunsets with toes in the sand.

8. A classic African safari

Go wild!

It wouldn’t be a wildlife holidays wrap-up without a classic safari, and nowhere does them quite like east Africa. Pair Kenya and Tanzania for a full house of quintessential safari images: elephants lumbering past Mount Kilimanjaro; big cats on the hunt for lunch; giraffes grazing on the plains of the Serengeti; zebras mooching around the vast Ngorongoro Crater; and rare black rhinos sunbathing in the Maasai Mara.

Game drives generally take place early morning and late afternoon, so you’ll want a decent place to spend the in-between hours – this itinerary’s got everything from Kilimanjaro-view pools to four-poster beds on offer.

Top tip

South Africa is another safe bet for the Big Five and is a great option if you don’t want the safari to be the sole focus of your trip. Combine a few days on a wildlife reserve with Cape Town, the Garden Route or the winelands (or all of the above).

9. Polar bears on the edge of the Arctic

Visit the polar bear capital of the world

Sitting on the shores of Canada’s Hudson Bay, on the edge of the Arctic Circle, is the small, sleepy town of Churchill, Manitoba (population: 870). It’s known as the polar bear capital of the world. Hundreds of them congregate here each autumn, waiting for the sea to freeze over so they can head out onto the ice in search of seals.

Though they occasionally venture into town (residents leave doors and cars unlocked just in case), your best chance of spotting them is out in the blinding white wilderness. A Tundra Buggy will transport you across the unforgiving landscape in toasty warm comfort; when you find the bears, a raised viewing platform keeps you a safe distance from curious claws.

Autumn skies tend to be overcast in Churchill, but if you’re lucky enough to get a clear night, you might also witness another amazing natural sight: the Northern Lights.

10. Snow monkeys in Japan

Monkey around

Enjoying a long bath in a hot spring is a way of life in Japan. And not just for people – the fluffy macaques who live in the mountains of Nagano are also partial to a soothing soak.

Head to the forested Jigokudani Valley and you’ll find a rock pool fed by natural hot springs. It’s part of the Jigokudani Monkey Park, an area created to protect the monkeys and their habitat from nearby farming.

You can visit year-round, but it’s during the winter, when there’s a fresh blanket of snow, that this scene is at its most photogenic. The conditions make it tricky to actually photograph, though – the steam tends to fog lenses, while the cold quickly drains batteries. Instead, just stand back and smile as you watch a mother bathing her little one or a group of males casually dangling arms over the pool edges while they lounge.

Written by Laura Weeden she/her