September 23 2014 Latest news:
Tuesday, April 10, 2012
From the moment it was announced the first pandas were coming to the UK in 17 years, our fate was sealed.
www.flybe.com or 0871 700 2000.
www.norwich.airport.co.uk or 01603 428700.
Malmaison Edinburgh, Tower Place, Edinburgh: www.malmaison.com or 0131 4685000.
Holiday Inn Express, Picard Place, Edinburgh: www.hieedinburgh.co.uk or 0131 558 2300.
Edinburgh Dungeons, Market Place, Edinburgh: www.thedungeons.com or 0871 423 2250.
Edinburgh Pass: www.visitscotland.com/surprise
Edinburgh Zoo: www.edinburghzoo.org.uk
Visitor information: www.visitscotland.com
It really didn’t matter if they were housed in John O’Groats or Land’s End, we had to be there.
You see my daughter, Beeka, is somewhat obsessed with these black and white bears.
A collection of 70-odd stuffed toys crammed in her bedroom testifies to the fact and a trip to indulge her passion was an absolute dead cert winner for a surprise 11th birthday present to remember.
Pandas in her world are all called ‘Chingo’ a name she came up with herself because of their Chinese origin. This is a girl with a mind of her own.
Thankfully the fluffy ones’ new home turned out to be in the fine city of Edinburgh and the idea formed of a perfect trip which would appeal to the whole family.
I grew up with a childhood punctuated every Easter and Christmas with the eight-hour car journey from Norfolk to Scotland and that really is no way to start a birthday trip so we were delighted to take advantage of the airport on our doorstep.
Daily Flybe flights between Norwich and Edinburgh take just an hour and there is nothing quite like picking your daughter up from school, knowing she’s having tea 400 miles away – and we’ll be there in an hour.
Flybe check-in staff helped maintain the surprise element of the trip. The poor girl honestly believed she was having her birthday tea at the airport and the ruse about having to the check the size of our bags for our summer holiday as the reason for being there.
If she suffered disappointment she didn’t show it and in any case, it all evaporated when we arrived on the plane and her delight made the subterfuge worthwhile.
Norwich Airport offers the simplicity and relaxed atmosphere lacking in London’s great monoliths. The lack of queues and ability to park next door to the terminal win it for me every time.
The flight itself was straightforward and Edinburgh Airport was quick and efficient – we were sitting down for tea at our hotel within two-and-half hours of take-off.
We stayed in two hotels during the trip.
Malmaison Edinburgh is on the dockside area near the Royal Yacht Britannia and offers a classy base for the city. The locally-produced food we ate there was excellent – mussels and a T-bone steak – and there were generous portions of spaghetti bolognese for the children.
The rooms were to a high standard and we were provided with two double beds which was a welcome improvement on the usual pull-put beds offered to most families of four in hotels.
Our other base was the Holiday Inn Express in the city centre. The location was perfect and with a short walk to the shops on Princes Street and the historic Royal Mile and castle, really could not have been better placed.
Equipped with Edinburgh Passes which guarantee entry to most of the city’s major attractions, we headed off for the highlight of the trip.
Time slots are allocated to see Tian Tian (Sweetie) and Yang Guang (Sunshine) and you have to book although this can be done easily enough online. We had an hour or two to explore the rest of the zoo before our allocated time and there really is plenty to keep everyone occupied. The highlights included the penguins and the koalas but there was really just one thing on Beeka’s mind – getting in to see the main event.
Unfortunately for us, the larger male panda – Yang Guang – was ill on the day of our visit and could not be seen. But this did not diminish the moment the whole trip had been arranged for: Beeka coming face to face with a real panda.
Pandas sleep for the majority of each day and when they are not sleeping they are eating. Some visitors only get to see the backside of a sleeping big round bear, but Tian Tian must have known this was Beeka’s big day and at least made a bit of an effort.
At first, all fears seemed to be realised when we saw the giant round bottom sleeping soundly on its raised platform. Beeka was delighted anyway, but that turned to sheer joy when Tian Tian woke up, turned over and sat staring straight at her biggest fan. We only had about 20 minutes in with Tian Tian, but after the pictures were taken and daughter’s needs satisfied, it felt about right.
The rest of the zoo trip was dominated by the other great delight – the zoo shop. For an 11-year-old girl obssessed with black and white cute fluffy things, this was heaven.
The only place I have seen rival this was Beeka’s own bedroom. As you might expect, Edinburgh Zoo offers an awful lot of panda-related merchandise. We might not have been stretching to the £600 giant panda but pretty much everything else was in her sights.
Beeka had been saving her money for months for this very moment. She didn’t even know the visit was coming so soon, but every penny had been squirreled away for a visit to the zoo shop.
Parents more used to telling their children not to waste money on things they didn’t need or want were impotent here as the tide of black and white enthusiasm took hold. We left carrying so much there were doubts about making the airport baggage allowance on the way home.
The rest of the trip was spent enjoying some of the city’s other sights. My nine-year-old son particularly enjoyed the Edinburgh Dungeon with its genuinely scary Sawney Bean attraction and everyone got something out of the Camera Obscura exhibits on the Royal Mile.
Edinburgh is a great city to visit with a bit of everything, but the addition of the pandas and the convenience of a quick flight from home to the city centre makes it a winner.
A quick flight and journey home meant this was actually one trip we were all able to enjoy without feeling like we needed a holiday at the end of it.
Now of course the problem is to accommodate the new arrivals. The new Chingos have been introduced to the existing inhabitants of Beeka’s bedroom and a fine collection of mats, cups, mugs and a sweatshirt will keep alive memories of a great visit.
The trip gave us one of those moments you know your child will remember forever and you really can’t do better than that.