Whatever Kew Gardens can do, ZSL can do better. And at least the capital’s largest animal kingdom is right here on our doorstep. The good news? The Christmas Lights trail is pretty darn impressive; magical, even.
If your first thoughts are about the animals, no need to be worried, as they’re all bedded down for the night, says the blurb literally everywhere (although we did pass a naughty camel, staying up well after his bedtime).
The self-guided tour starts gently through twinkling light tunnels, a canopy of over 100,000 glistening pea-lights overhead (watch out as every visitor was filming it all on their phones, spatially unaware, on our visit).
Then it’s a stroll through a light vortex whose playful rectangles change disco-neon colours, and a laser-flooded tunnel, the festive soundtrack morphing from classic to contemporary. Beyond are illuminated animal sculptures, Christmas trees made of sledges, outsize snowflakes, shimmering stars and gigantic baubles.
A highlight? The glowing fountains at the elegantly modernist Lubetkin penguin pool, which dance in time to the sounds of cheery Christmas classics. Elsewhere are singing trees, glittering flying flamingos and towering giraffe sculptures, and near the Gir Lion Lodges (where you can stay the night), a giant lion in the night sky. #Instagold, indeed.
The finale is at the historic Mappin Terraces, the 100-year-old imitation mountain landscape designed to provide a naturalistic habitat for bears, although none of course live there any more. Here the landscape springs – quite gasp-inducingly – to life with clever, mesmerising cartoon projections. It’s hard to believe we’re in London at all.
Along the route – of course – are inevitable bars and stops for hot drinks and streetfood, as well as a Father Christmas or two and a bit of street theatre here and there. We enjoyed toasting our marshmallows on the fire pits, too (mine was a sticky blueberry and Sipsmith gin number).
How else to wind up but knocking back mulled wine at the Christmas Village, before – in our case, anyway – sloping off to Primrose Hill, with its many boozy options to warm up. Peckish? Try underrated French bistro La Ferme for their good-value set menu.
In short, it’s well worth trying to grab a ticket before the whole thing sells out, as these things seem wont to do nowadays. So be like the cheetah – not the, um, anteater.Main image: ZSL