Where the desert and rainforest meet: The Green Planet, Dubai

Dubai is home to many unexpected attractions;  skiing in a shopping mall, water-sliding through a tank of sharks, and zip-lining past the world’s tallest building amongst others. However, this week saw the opening of a unique attraction in the region  – The Green Planet.

The Green Planet is the first biodome in the region and it recreates a rainforest ecosytem in a creative, informative and absolutely beautiful way. After being welcomed by the wonderful staff – about whom more later – you are whisked up to the canopy on the 4th floor to begin the adventure.  You then gradually descend through the layers of the forest, from the canopy to the aquarium in the flooded rainforest via the midstory and forest floor.

With over 3000 plants and animals and a carefully controlled environment, the Green Planet does an incredible job of recreating a rainforest. The air is filled with birdsong and butterflies, and the displays of information and insects both stimulate and inform. The variety of species is astounding; we were looking forward to seeing the toucans, porcupines and sloths, but weren’t expecting to see bird-eating spiders and poison dart frogs too!

However, the most impressive aspect of The Green Planet experience was, in fact, its staff. I have never encountered a more knowledgeable, friendly and professional team at an attraction such as this. Their expertise and passion for the rainforest was second-to-none and there was no question that they couldn’t answer. Visitors are encouraged to linger and to appreciate the full sensory experience of the biodome. The staff were able to talk to children in an informative and fun way, knowing birds by sight and by sound, explaining the habitat and habits of the snakes and frogs, showcasing particular insects and butterflies and even allowing some controlled and well-managed handling opportunities.

Our visit to The Green Planet surpassed all of our expectations and we can’t wait to go back. Open from 10am-10pm during the week and 10am-midnight at the weekends, admission costs 95aed per adult and 70aed for children aged 2-12.

www.thegreenplanetdubai.com

Glorious Gibbons in Phuket

Oh, Phuket, the dream destination for strolls on white sandy beaches lapped by the Andaman Sea, attempting new watersports, and drifting through lazy days by the pool. That is until one of your children falls over, needs three stitches in his chin, and has to avoid water for several days. Oh.

Fortunately for the land-bound, Phuket is also the home to one of the most fantastic animal conservation projects in Thailand.

The Gibbon Rehabilitation Project, in Thalang, has been working since 1992 to rescue, rehabilitate and, where possible, release gibbons rescued from the tourist industry and illegal captivity.  The Project, which is funded entirely by donations and staffed by volunteers, also has a strong educational mission, seeking to educate local communities and tourists about the illegal trade in wildlife and the importance of environmental protection.  The volunteer staff on duty are passionate about the cause and are incredibly knowledgeable about the history and work of the project and about the resident gibbons.

The-Gibbon-Rehabilitation-Project

The Project base itself is small but perfectly formed: a visitor centre with an abundance of information; a gift shop stocked with gorgeous gibbon themed t-shirts, crafts and gifts, many handmade locally, sold to raise funds for the Project’s work; and the main attraction – the gibbons!

The aim of the project is to rehabilitate and release the rescued gibbons and, between 2002 and 2013 they released 31 gibbons into the protected forest of the Khao Pra Theaw non-hunting area. Even better than that, 11 wild-born gibbons were born in the reintroduction site during that period.

However, there are a few individual gibbons, non-native species or those badly affected by the injuries or trauma sustained in captivity, which cannot be released. There are also a few residents which call the project home after release attempts failed when they repeatedly returned.  These long-term residents live on-site in fantastic forest enclosures, visible to visitors but kept at a sufficient distance to allow them to live as naturally as possible. This provides the visitor with the opportunity to see these beautiful animals in their natural habitat without them being exploited or harmed.

The boys instantly fell in love with one of the most vocal residents, called Gibby. A Golden-cheeked gibbon donated to the Project in 2008, Gibby was in the enclosure closest to the information centre when we visited and she provided endless entertainment with her distinctive loud singing and acrobatic demonstrations. Gibby definitely knew how to play to the crowd!  The Project shop sold locally hand-made soft toys which were too hard to resist,  and we somehow left with two life-sized Gibbys… However, as every penny goes back into the Project’s conservation work, it was well worth the small cost and the slight embarrassment at the amused looks of passers-by and airport staff on our return home!

 

The GRP is now working on a new release site in Chiang Mai due to limitations of space at the Phuket site. Whilst it’s great news that the Project is so successful in its rescue and rehabilitation work that it requires more release sites, it’s sad that the demand for their work continues unabated, as a result of the on-going use of gibbons in the tourist industry.

If you’re looking for something to do away from the beach in Phuket, you won’t be disappointed by a visit to the Gibbon Rehabilitation Project. More information about the work of the project and their fundraising, including their gibbon adoption programme can be found at www.gibbonproject.org

 

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Art in abundance – a family in Florence

Florence, the birthplace of the Renaissance and of gelato, is renowned for its abundance of world-class art. The museums, galleries and architecture are a dream for art lovers and provide an opportunity to appreciate some of the most exquisite beauty ever created by the human hand.

Unless, as a rule, you happen to be under the age of 10. If you’ve ever suggested a day of art appreciation to children, you’ll know that being “dragged around” galleries and ancient cities is “BORING”. The ennui sets in early in the day, the feet become leaden, and parents steel themselves for a day of compromise and disappointment. Exhortations that the painting you are looking at is world famous, hundreds of years old and the epitome of its genre are met with rolled eyes and heavy sighs.

The dictionary defines art as: ‘the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form…, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power’.  Nowhere exemplifies this more clearly than Florence, from the ornate facade of the Duomo, topped with Brunelleschi’s iconic red-tiled dome, or the ramshackle beauty of the Ponte Vecchio at sunset, to the countless treasures of the Uffizi Gallery. But in Florence, where art is closely woven into everyday life, the extraordinary has become the norm.  And this is what makes the art of Florence a family affair.

The streets are lined with gelaterie, their creamy fare decorated with fresh fruit and piled up in glorious, inviting mounds; pizzerie with rows of sumptuous pizza slices on display; and windows filled with confectionery that would delight Willy Wonka himself.  The small side streets are a maze of beautiful window displays, with artists sketching and selling their work on every corner. Performance artists enchant children of all ages, masquerading as statues or filling the air with giant bubbles to chase and catch. It is not only a feast for the eyes, but for all the senses, and the artistry of the everyday appeals to children in a more accessible way than “proper” art.

However, even appreciating the beauty all around you, the lure of the formal art scene in the city can’t be ignored. Fortunately, the museums and galleries are accessible to all ages and there is something that will appeal to even the most reluctant pint-sized art critic.

For example, the interactive exhibits and the free information app at the Museo Galileo  (www.museogalileo.it) keep little hands busy, while the giant globes and scientific equipment occupy the mind; the layout and design of the Uffizi Gallery, combined with excellent signage, allows for a truncated visit with weary children without missing the best of Botticelli, Michelangelo and da Vinci; and the magnificence of Michelangelo’s David  makes the queue for the Galleria dell’Accademia well worthwhile.  The sight of my children genuinely lost for words at the scale, precision and beauty of David was a moment to be treasured.  For the first time I could see that they “got” it and aren’t destined to be complete philistines for life!

It can be easy to underestimate the ability of children to appreciate art, but there is no denying that tiring gallery and museum visits can try the patience of even the most laid-back parents and children. Florence is the perfect antidote.