Britain’s closest safari to those you would experience in Tanzania and Kenya, Port Lympne Hotel & Reserve in Kent has been busy opening a series of animal-themed lodges and overnight hideaways. Jessica Way, intrigued and eager to find out more, visits with her family, ready to seek adventure staying in the fabulously unique Tiger Lodge!
As far as new experiences go, staying overnight in an exclusive luxury lodge, within a tiger enclosure, just a sheet of glass (thankfully reassuringly thick!) between us, certainly makes it up there as one of my most memorable and noteworthy overnight stays.
I first visited Port Lympne two years ago, reviewing their new Treehouse Hotel studio suites and VIP safari experience. I was impressed enough back then, however developments since have moved on at a rip-roaring pace, and so a re-visit was justifiably due.
It has been possible to stay overnight within the Port Lympne Reserve for many years, with options of both the boutique luxury Hotel (also a fabulous wedding venue) and the more rustic (and more affordable!) glamping selection of shepherds’ and new forest dens. However these new ‘animal-themed lodges’, with Tiger Lodge being the most illustrious of them all, have been a highly adventurous and innovative project for the reserve.
As well as Tiger Lodge (which was launched last June) there’s also now Bear Lodge, Rhino Lodge, Giraffe Cottage, Wolf Lodge and Hog Deer Creek! And while of course these new accommodation experiences are part of a clever commercial exercise, all profits made are invested straight back into supporting their many significant conservation projects overseas to protect endangered species. In fact The Aspinall Foundation is internationally renowned as a conservation charity and world leader in breeding, protecting and reintroducing endangered animals back into the wild where they can live free – just as they should be.
The story dates back to 1957, when John Aspinall (known to all his friends as ‘Aspers’) purchased Howletts Wild Animal Park, Kent. Sixteen years later, the nearby Port Lympne was opened as a park with an authentic African safari experience. The dedicated staff at each of the parks work together to support their conservation projects overseas, spanning four continents and protecting over one million acres of vital rainforest.
Aspinall’s passion for protecting animals can be traced back to his youth. During his years at college in Oxford, he loved the book Nada the Lily by H. Rider Haggard, about an illegitimate Zulu prince who lived outside his tribe among wild animals. In 1956, Aspinall moved into an Eaton Place apartment with his first wife. In the back garden, Aspinall built a garden shed housing a capuchin monkey, a nine-week-old tiger, and two Himalayan brown bears.
John’s dreams of reintroducing gorillas, bred at Howletts and Port Lympne, back into the wild, began 14 years on, in the early 1970s, pretty much as soon as he had started collecting and breeding them. John’s son, and current chairman of The Aspinall Foundation, Damian Aspinall, continues to keep his father’s dream alive, believing that reintroducing animals into their natural homes will help to conserve the wildlife and their habitat.
Today, the two wild animal parks are home to over 1000 animals and 100 different species. Over the past few years alone, they have reintroduced a range of animals, including black rhino, Javan langurs, Javan gibbon, European bison and western lowland gorillas, back to the wild.
I wonder if Damian read to his two daughters (Tansy and Clary) Judith Kerr’s much loved children’s story, The Tiger Who Came to Tea, about an anthropomorphised tiger who interrupts a little girl called Sophie and her mother during their afternoon tea, eating up all their food – drinking all of the water out of the taps – and even polishing off all of Daddy’s beer.
Well, I think Tiger Lodge is pretty much as close as you would like for this story to come true! Ingrid, our resident tiger, strolled past the floor-to-ceiling window, she slept alongside it, she looked in at us, her giant furry paws so close you could almost imagine you were touching her – it was incredible.
As far as our afternoon tea was concerned though, rather than letting Ingrid eat us out of house and lodge, we opted for a delicious wood-fired pizza from the park’s Italian eatery ‘Babydoll’s’, set right next to a cheetah enclosure.
From our lodge, this was just a short golf buggy ride through the park. This is certainly one of the advantages of staying overnight at Port Lympne. Once the 600-acre park has emptied, staying guests have the opportunity to explore the park at nightfall, with straightforward maps, and easy-to-navigate road systems – there are even night-goggles available.
During the day we really made the most of the park, thoroughly enjoying an encounter with rhinos, falling in love with the tapirs, and an absolute must was the two hour Giraffe Safari adventure. Of the eight giraffe, five of them are the Rothschild sub-species, and critically endangered. It was great to help feed them, seeing even the shyer (babies) of the family, Mwezi and Bakora, enjoying their feed with their 45cm long tongues!
By the evening, back in our lodge, there was still time to put our feet up, and to enjoy the home-from-home, super-stylish lodge – worthy of an article in its own right, even without a mention of the tigers or safari experiences. The rustic wood shabby-chic interiors, complete with velvet and leather armchairs, a retro record player, well-stocked bar and a highly welcomed Nespresso machine.
There are board-games, books, DVDs, fluffy dressing gowns and slippers, cosy-cushions – even a log burner for making your stay just about as cosy and romantic as it could get. Complete with not forgetting your own private balcony with breathtaking views across the sea.
Alternatively, you could be tempted to have your own pretty spectacular private party here, making the most of the impressive sound system and very special secluded location. Perhaps Ingrid might decide to join you at the window and show you how the big cats do it!
I’m afraid this type of excitement does come with a fairly hefty price–tag, costing £950 for staying overnight midweek, and as much as £1000 at weekends. The lodge sleeps four people, so, for a truly unique experience, priced (based on full-occupancy) at £250 per person, you can see why it has been such a success.
In fact the bookings have been so forthcoming for Damian and his team, with almost no availability just a few months after launch, that they have recently completed the work on opening a second (almost identical and equally as intimate) luxury lodge, naming the two as Zemo and Zarka.
Our stay exceeded our high-expectations, and what is impressive about Port Lympne is seeing just how passionate and heart-felt the staff are when talking about their animals, and the conservation work of the charity. Some of the statistics we were told were quite upsetting, and made the accomplishment of Port Lympne’s success stories all the more important and meaningful. Before heading home, we stopped off to see more of their conservation in action at Howletts, just a short drive away and home to the largest herd of African elephants in the UK.
We left not only having had an unforgettable experience together as a family at this award-winning attraction, but with the feeling that, even if only in a small way, we had contributed something to the excellent work they do there, breeding and ensuring the survival of endangered animals. It was a wonderful stay in a beautifully enchanting location.
You can search for availability and book online via the website aspinallfoundation.org/port-lympne or call the short breaks team on 01303 234112.
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