Sunday, July 15, 2007

Swimming with trained dolphins, a memorable opportunity!

WHEN the Atlantic bottle-nose dolphin swam up to me in the sheltered lagoon, allowed me to hold on to his dorsal fin and rapidly towed me back to shore in seconds before kissing me on the cheek and waving goodbye, it was a defining moment of my holiday in Florida.

I had got up-close, hugged, rubbed and swam with a dolphin. And not just any dolphin. Celebrity actor dolphin Capricorn who fought Jaws - and won.

Swimming with dolphins has always been a dream of mine. But as I'm scared of deep water, fish and the sea, I assumed it was going to remain just that - a dream. But at Discovery Cove, an all-inclusive family adventure destination in Orlando, it became a reality. And more than lived up to expectations.

Rocky lagoons, lush landscaping, coral reefs, tropical rivers, waterfalls, a resort-style pool and gleaming pristine beaches await at Discovery Cove, giving guests the opportunity to swim and interact with dolphins, rays and thousands of fascinating sea animals.

And while it may be a man-made park, it looks like paradise - especially when exclusivity is key, and the park only admits 1000 guests, ensuring no crowds.

So in the dolphin lagoon, I lived my dream, while others lived theirs, swimming in the coral reef with colourful schools of tropical fish, snorkelling within inches of barracudas and sharks, housed behind clear acrylic partitions, and playing with hundreds of rays

And if that wasn't enough to keep guests entertained, there was free-flight aviary, tropical river and unlimited complimentary drinks and meals.

Ever since I'd been to Florida as a little girl, I'd always assumed Orlando equalled Disney World. But returning, some 20 years later and no longer a fan of Mickey Mouse, Winnie the Pooh and Tea-cup rides, I was pleasantly surprised that Orlando offered so much more, and was also a haven for us big kids too.

After shopping sessions in Mall at Millenia and Florida Mall to make the most of the exchange rate, the marine adventure park Sea World was calling - right across the road from our hotel, the plush (and massive) four-star Renaissance Orlando Resort. And, like its sister park Discovery Cove just across the road, it was amazing.

You could spend all week at this park, boasting over 200 acres of shows, (scary) state-of-the-art rides and animal encounters.

We fed stingrays; we screamed our way round rollercoaster rides Kraken and Journey To Atlantis; we ventured into the Pacific Point Preserve to marvel at sea lions and harbour seals; and said hello to Shamu, the killer whale.

We ate in Sharks Underwater Grill which immersed us in a fascinating underwater world where sharks of all shapes and sizes swam by, watched tonnes of theatrical shows and took even more educational tours.

And to round the day off we went to the Brewmaster's Club, where we sampled a portfolio of American beers, from lagers all the way through to full-bodied stouts.

With each sampling, a beer expert explained the ingredients, historic brewing processes, food pairings and gave tips on bringing out the full flavour of Anheuser-Busch beverages.

In America, everything is bigger and often better, and so it was all-too-tempting to spend time lazing by the hotel's sleek outdoor pool, enjoying a lazy brunch in one of their many sumptuous restaurants or snoozing in the spacious bedrooms. But we set the alarm and travelled an hour in the car to Tampa Bay to the renowned Busch Gardens, another family adventure park that entertains not just the kids.

The 65-acre Serengeti Plains habitat at Busch Gardens incorporates both animal attractions and adrenaline-fuelled rides, and this place is seriously impressive.

After walking round the authentic Myombe Reserve, the rainforest habitat of gorillas and chimpanzees we took a safari ride in an open-sided jeep tour, led by a guide who talked about the wildlife and allowed us to hand-feed giraffes and antelopes - a surreal experience.

It is the country's biggest zoo, boasting 2700 animals and it is almost impossible to see them all in just one day. We got up close with hippos, hyenas, meerkats, vultures, a Nile crocodile, baboons and more, in what can only be described as an intense wildlife tour where you walk around at your leisure, and experience hundreds of different animals. And then there are the rides.

SheiKra? Well, let's just say it's not for the faint-hearted. As the tallest dive coaster in the world, SheiKra features a 90-degree drop from 200 feet. Then there's Gwazi - a mammoth double wooden roller-coaster where trains pass within feet of each other at crossing speeds of 100mph.

Montu boasts a petrifying inverted diving loop at 60mph, while Kumba sends riders through a 135 foot drop, a full three seconds of weightlessness, and is one of the world's largest vertical loops.
There are affordable restaurants galore to cater for all tastes and, after a quick pit-stop to refuel, we visited the Moroccan Palace to see KaTonga, Musical Tales from Africa, a half-hour musical celebration of animal folklore of Broadway calibre.

No lying on the beach with a cocktail or two, reading novels and relaxing here. My adventure parks break far surpassed that. For I had serious fun, became a kid again, experienced wildlife in a whole new way and never once longed for a sun lounger and a Pina Colada.

So now, as I flick through my photo album, I dream of going back to Orlando to do some of the many things we didn't have time to do . . . and do all the things we did again.

SeaWorld will be launching its Aquatica water park early next year, which will blend up-close animal experiences with high-speed thrill rides, sandy beaches, crystal-blue waters and towering rock formations - and I, for one, will be there.

Travel facts

Seven nights at the Renaissance Orlando Resort at Seaworld with Virgin Holidays costs from £669 per adult and £199 per child, for departures between November and December, 2007. Prices are based on two adults sharing a room and include Virgin Atlantic flights from Gatwick to Orlando International.

Virgin Atlantic offer connecting flights from Edinburgh for as little as £10.

A one-day Busch Gardens/ SeaWorld ticket starts from £34 for adults and £28 for children. Virgin Holidays offer a two-park ticket which allows up to 14-days consecutive admission to both parks from £55 per adult and £50 per child. Discovery Cove is all-inclusive and starts at £145 per person, including dolphin interaction. Or from £165 per person get entry to all three parks for up to 14 consecutive days.

To book call 0870-220 2468 or visit

Quick "Facts about Dolphins"