Feeding more than just the animals at the zoo

Base Camp at Whipsnade Zoo.

Base Camp at Whipsnade Zoo. - Credit: Archant

Something a little different for you this week, as the school summer holidays are now well under way. I took our 12 year old for a sleepover at Whipsnade Zoo (15-25 minutes from Harpenden/St Albans) so had a great chance to try out the new and very swish River Cottage Kitchen and Deli that has just opened there.

The exterior of River Cottage at Whipsnade Zoo.

The exterior of River Cottage at Whipsnade Zoo. - Credit: Archant

Family day out food has a bit of a poor reputation in the past, and I was very curious to try the latest Hugh-Fearnley Whittingstall outpost. As you drive into Whipsnade Zoo, keep driving round to the right and park next to the River Café. It is a very modern restaurant with huge windows so wherever you sit, inside or on the large terrace, you can see breathtaking views over the Downs.

I am sure this is the reason Hugh FW and team decided to open here. The terrace has one of the best views of any restaurant in the area – if it was open to the public it would be heaving. Instead, we arrived for lunch and chose a lovely table on the smart terrace.

It is a short menu, with nibbles, puds, three ‘light’ options and five ‘main events’ – the main courses include fish of the day with fennel, new potato and tomatoes (£11), grilled saddleback pork loin, carrot and ginger slaw, and bbq beans (£13) and I chose cauliflower, spiced yellow split peas and crisp onions which at just £10 was generous and delicious.

The kids menu was great – at £6 or £7 you could choose beef meatballs with white beans and cheese sauce, grilled or roast fish fillet, mac and cheese or herby saddleback sausage which all come with roast potatoes, carrots and brocoli or salad. This included apple or orange juice or water. There is obvious care in sourcing, and for the quality of ingredients, I was happy with the price I paid.

Lunch at River Cottage, Whipsnade Zoo.

Lunch at River Cottage, Whipsnade Zoo. - Credit: Archant

The deli next door sells cartons of juice, coffee, rolls and a few baked goods if you are passing on a tour of the park and just need a snack.

We spent a few hours exploring the park and at 4.30pm checked into a Lookout Lodge; our ‘elephant’ lodge was one of just nine cabins set in a quiet, tree-covered part of the park. We were given welcome drinks (Prosecco for parents!) and settled in; our lodge had a balcony, chairs, twin beds, a sofa and all-important kettle and plug sockets and was very smart. Others have double beds and all the sofas can squeeze in two children (there are family nights and over 14/adult nights too). Zoo keepers collected us in old Leyland DAF truck and we visited rhinos and bongos before being driven around the park to see zebra, tigers (the new cubs were hiding from us) and meerkats.

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Dinner was in the Base Camp restaurant overlooking the aviaries and pelican ponds. It is a huge improvement from last time I visited, with stylish grey and orange interiors and high ceilings. We had sharing boards of olives and warm breads, and my main course of spiced fish with tzatziki, rosemary potatoes, wilted greens and roasted tomatoes was delicious. Younger guests could have smaller portions of the main courses or chicken goujons, fish and potatoes or pasta, so they all seemed happy. Sorbet, ice cream, pannacotta and cheese were served for pud – again, so much nicer than the old counters where you had to queue up and get sandwiches. If you go in the day, you order from electronic pads at the table. Our day ended with a torchlit walk to see the flamingos, lions and cheetahs, who are quite active at night!

The lodges were quiet and comfortable and we had an early wake up call to go to breakfast; there was bacon, eggs, hash browns etc, pastries, fruit and yogurt, and plenty of good coffee, which I needed. Our last adventure was to give the lemurs and bears their breakfast! It was a fab adventure for the school holidays and a very calm and interesting way to explore Whipsnade, whatever your age.

The view from River Cottage at Whipsnade Zoo.

The view from River Cottage at Whipsnade Zoo. - Credit: Archant