After 12 years since it was first conceived, Arctic Passage has finally opened on May 23rd 2015. I’ve wanted to see it for a while, but got delayed a few times. Well, at last I was able to make it up to Madison to check it out on July 31st, and I’m happy to say that it didn’t disappoint . First, a little background: Arctic Passage was first unveiled in 2003 as part of a campaign known as “Zoo Century,” which also included the North American Prairie and Children’s Zoo complexes. It was originally set to open in 2007, but a series of funding problems delayed the project quite a bit. The project originally consisted of new homes for polar bears and harbor seals, along with bringing in caribou and snowy owls; there was also a large Arctic vessel that would serve as a viewing and educational area. After staying dormant for a while, the Zoo revealed a whole new design in 2013: the polar bears and seals stayed, but several changes were made such as the addition of grizzly bears, an indoor dining area, a tundra buggy, a few more interactive elements, and the removal of the vessel. Construction finally began in 2014, with the opening coming along this spring. The location also stayed the same, taking the place of a series of hideous bear grottoes (home to polar, grizzly, American black, and spectacled bears), a rocky mountain goat exhibit, a goat feeding pen, a lush area for muntjacs and pelicans, and the old flamingo exhibit. All right, let’s dive in. The complex starts off with the Glacier Grille, a mostly blue building with some metallic features. I didn’t go inside, but took a quick peek. From what I saw it appeared to be a decent-sized dining room, with the best part being (of course) one wall consisting of large windows into the polar bear habitat. The trail to the exhibits actually begins off to the side of the restaurant with animal exhibits mainly on one’s left, and a stone landscape with the occasional plant or visitor interactive display on the right. A path juts to the left, and comes up to a window into a bear den – similar to what can be seen at Brookfield’s Great Bear Wilderness. Back on the main path, the first viewing point looks out on the lower half of the home of the great white bears. This is currently home to Suka and Sakari, a sister-brother twin pair born in Toledo. The exhibit is great with tons of lush grass, several hills and varied terrain, a den, a large pool, some good-sized rocks for scratching, a long log, and even a couple of trees. If I were to estimate, the exhibit is about the size of San Diego’s, which to me is a good size. The path goes past a log that children can crawl through before coming across the underwater viewing window, which is a little small but still nicely sized. The central plaza of Arctic Passage is next, and was incredibly busy on my visit. Outside the shaded viewing area is a trap bear cage that guests can crawl into – I couldn’t resist ! Huge viewing windows look out across the entire polar bear habitat. Half of the view is across the surface of the pool, and the other half is the remaining land area with the indoor off-display building to the right. A small indoor hall is seen in between the two bear habitats – I am assuming this where a bear demonstration can take place or possibly rotating bears can go. Next to this hall is more huge windows into the habitat for grizzly bears. It is here, by the way, that (to me) the one and only weakness of the bear habitats can be seen; parts of the exhibit walls consist of blank gray concrete. On the bright side, at least the remaining walls are either mock rock, a small amount of chain-link, or glass viewing areas; and the exhibits are greatly designed, so the concrete isn’t very distracting. Carrying on – the grizzly bear habitat, with the residents being two sisters named Ash and Lexi, is almost identical in size to the polar bears’ – maybe a little larger. And, much like heir larger polar cousins, they also have plenty of lush grass, a den, logs, rocks, and a few trees. The sisters also have some wood stumps and a flowing stream into a shallow pool. Walking down the path, visitors come across a Tundra Buggy (probably to make up for the loss of the vessel?). People can walk in and see a few bear artifacts, sit behind the wheel, and look at large photographs to find the camouflaged animals within. Another window area for the grizzlies is seen here as well. Arctic Passage wraps up with a viewing area into the harbor seal habitat, home to a trio of seals, but I only saw one because the others were off display for veterinary care. There is indoor access to the left, a couple rock islands for soaking up the sun, and a huge pool – half is shallow, and the other half is quite deep. This is probably the weakest part of all of Arctic Passage. Don’t get me wrong; the exhibit is in my opinion better than the previous one (which is always good) and it isn’t awful. It’s just that compared to everything else in the whole area and especially some other seal/sea lion pools I’ve seen, this one is disappointing. People first see the pinnipeds across a moat above the water. Then the path declines to the right of the exhibit, and the complex concludes with a large underwater viewing window for the seals. On a side note: I’ll be honest; the amount of gray concrete (both on the exhibits and around some of the visitor areas) did slightly taint my experience. As said before, although it didn’t get to the point of being very distracting, it was enough to take notice. It took a long time, but the wait was mostly well worth it. Arctic Passage is an impressive complex, especially since it was a small free zoo that pulled it off. It has great bear exhibits and plenty of creative elements for the public. The disappointing seal pool and some of the concrete keep it from being truly spectacular, but I felt it was a great addition to a great small zoo. While I don’t think most Zoochatters would rank the polar bear habitat as among the best of the best (like Detroit or Columbus), I wouldn’t be surprised if it was in the next tier (like alongside Hogle’s Rocky Shores or Como’s Polar Bear Odyssey). For me though, it’s the best I’ve seen - even better than San Diego’s Polar Bear Plunge.