Indulge your wild side with a safari in deepest Kent
Get up close to the animals at Port Lympne Hotel and Reserve, says Matthew Partridge
As I ambled down the track in the twilight, making my way to the treehouse where I was to spend the night, I could hear the howling of wolves and the shrieking of primates. However, the savannah on either side of me was not African, but was, like myself, located only a few miles from the towns of Folkestone and Hythe, around 90 minutes by train from London, in Port Lympne Hotel and Reserve.
Set up by conservationist John Aspinall, Port Lympne combines several elements. Firstly, like most zoos, you have the animal enclosures, which hold 900 animals from 75 species, ranging from European wolves to Asian tigers and African rhinos and baboons. Many of these enclosures are extremely large, allowing for good views of the animals in as close to their natural environment as possible.
Included in the price of day admission is an hour-long truck safari, which not only passes by some of the enclosures that are not accessible from the walking trails, but also takes you to the 100-acre safari park, where giraffes, antelopes and zebras roam freely. You can upgrade to a more personalised extended safari where you are taken in a smaller jeep, allowing you to get even closer to the animals, or to small group experiences where you can interact with the animals under the supervision of a ranger.
The rhino experience that I went on highlights another important part of Port Lympne, which is its commitment to conservation as well as adventure. Indeed, not only does it care for many species that are either endangered or nearly extinct, helping preserve them, but it also works in conjunction with its partner charity, The Aspinall Foundation, on programmes designed to reintroduce these animals into the wild. This important work helps to rebuild their numbers so that future generations can enjoy them.
This isn’t simply a case of taking the animals and letting them loose, but involves them “being supervised as they learn to live on their own and deal with everything from the local wildlife, to pests and parasites”, says Nick Turk, deputy head of the rhino section. Indeed, in the two decades Turk has been working at Port Lympne, he has been involved in the rewilding of six rhinos, which have in turn produced over 30 babies.
Port Lympne can be enjoyed as a day out, and the crowds of happy families I encountered during the day demonstrate that many people do. However, if you really want to get the best out of your experience, you can stay overnight. Not only does this let you experience the reserve outside opening hours, in effect giving you access to your own private zoo, but it also allows you to experience the delights of the restaurant and the rooms.
Lounging with the beasts
There are several different types of accommodation, including hotel rooms in the Edwardian mansion originally commissioned by the 20th-century politician and arts patron Philip Sassoon. This mansion also hosts the garden restaurant that provides excellent food. During my stay I enjoyed Port Lympne smoked salmon and grilled king prawns, with grilled vegetable panzanella salad, garlic and lemon butter. In the morning, I had an English breakfast, and took an afternoon tea in one of the drawing rooms.
However, larger groups may enjoy some of the more specialised accommodation, including the treehouse apartments, which not only offer stunning views of the nearby countryside, but also boast a range of amenities, including two bedrooms and a living room with cooking facilities. There is also a nearby clubhouse where you can enjoy a beer, toast marshmallows over a fire, or simply relax in a sofa with a good book.
For those who are even more adventurous, there is the option to go “glamping” in luxury tents, as well as the various lodges, which allow you to get up close to the animals. Perhaps the most exclusive of these is the Lion Lodge. Designed in true African safari style by Victoria Aspinall, the hotel’s creative director, the lodge has a glass wall, which allows you to view the lions from the comfort of the living room, or while lounging in the wood-fired bath, with just a pane of glass between you and the beasts of the jungle.
Matthew was a guest of Port Lympne Hotel and Reserve. Treehouse from £499 in winter to £959 in peak summer season, see aspinallfoundation.org/port-lympne