Gazing out over the rolling green landscape of coastal Kent, perhaps the very last thing one would expect to see is a black rhinoceros, that critically endangered, prehistoric-looking double-horned beast, trundling along in a field with its mate. And yet, just a stone’s throw from the deck of our lodge at the Port Lympne animal reserve, that was exactly the view we had.
Spending a night at the zoo is a perennial childhood fantasy; many a popular children’s book features a lock-in with exotic animals as its plot.
I had my fourth birthday party at a zoo. Photos record me and my friends riding on an elephant around a rather small enclosure. It was heavenly for me; perhaps less so for the elephant.
Luckily, over the past 30 years, attitudes towards animals in captivity have evolved. Enclosures have grown bigger.
Conservation now tops the agenda, and nowhere more so than at Port Lympne, where I took my daughter ahead of her fourth birthday, along with my husband and two-year-old son, to try out the wildlife reserve’s new Treehouse Hotel.
Luxury Escapism At Its Finest
Three years in the making, the modern luxury suites take full advantage of what must be one of the most unique views in Britain, with an entire wall of glass revealing a panorama of exotic animals and the sea beyond.
To my daughter’s disappointment, it turned out that “treehouse” was a misnomer – they are individual lodges set into the side of a hill, on the tree line; they are in no way attached to trees. But any regret at the lack of a pull-up rope ladder was quickly forgotten as we gazed at the rhinos below.
Port Lympne already offers glamping and cottages with chefs, but the luxury of the Treehouse stay represents a real step up. Filled with Bamford toiletries and designed with a serene Swedish-minimalism-meets-exotic-safari aesthetic, a stay in the Treehouse would offer a charming luxury break no matter where it was.
You can self-cater, have pre-cooked meals delivered from the reserve’s restaurant, or drive your golf cart (each lodge has its own) down to the Mansion Hotel, an early 20th-century country house that features spectacular frescoes and beautiful grounds, and serves interesting local wines and food.
And then there’s a charming clubhouse by the rhino field where Treehouse guests can have meals or snacks until 10pm each night.
This is luxury escapism in its best form. That it is attached to one of the world’s most impressive zoological establishments makes for an extraordinary weekend.
Port Lympne and its nearby sister park, Howletts, working in conjunction with the Aspinall Foundation, are leaders in the breeding of rare and endangered species, and pioneers in taking the animals they breed in captivity and returning them to their native habitats.
They were the first to reintroduce those black rhinos to Africa, as well as the first to reintroduce gorillas into the wild.
All this takes money, and every penny made from guests is ploughed back into the animals, funding breeding in Kent and the foundation’s wildlife preserves overseas.
A stay at the Treehouse Hotel entitles you to join any of the safari rides that take visitors around the 600-acre (240-hectare) park every half hour.
Bumping over the dirt roads through the hills, you are transported to the plains of Africa, where herds of wildebeest and antelope roam, an ostrich sits patiently on her egg, and a zebra pops up periodically, a beautiful juxtaposition with Romney Marsh, which rolls in the background towards the English Channel.
It is well worth paying extra for a bespoke VIP safari, in which an expert ranger takes you to the best spots for a (safe) close encounter with the African animals.
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A Child And A Monkey Conquer Their Fears
As our safari truck entered a lush green field, a keeper popped out and bellowed: “Dinner time!”
This, it turns out, is a universal invitation: within seconds, a gang of eight giraffes came thundering down the Kentish hillside, heading directly for our truck, around which the keeper hung buckets of food. One giraffe’s giant eye was close enough that I could count its lashes.
After a minute, the ranger pointed out to us which giraffe was the friendliest, and invited my children to stroke its nose.
In another close encounter, my family entered the enclosure of the black-and-white colobus monkeys. Led by the head of primates, I watched my usually timid daughter reach her hand out, bearing a peanut, to an equally timid, but peckish, monkey.
Watching each conquer their fears and work together was a joy.
As the nearby gorillas had their breakfast, our guide told us that it cost £1,500 (A$3,200) a week to feed the primates alone.
The charge for a stay at Port Lympne is not inconsequential, but the opportunity to learn about the animals – and help support the reserve’s important work – is the chance of a lifetime.
More Wildlife Stays In The UK
Beavers In Scotland
The House of Aigas, a sporting lodge overlooking the Beauly River in Inverness-shire, is run by Sir John Lister-Kaye, one of Scotland’s top naturalists. He or his team of rangers can show you an array of wildlife including ospreys, peregrines, red deer and pine martens.
In an estate loch you can see the first European beavers to live wild in Scotland for 450 years. Also included are field trips and days exploring the sea lochs and islands of the West Coast. A one-week all-inclusive stay, includes excursions into the wild Highlands.
Gorillas In Jersey
In the north-east of Jersey near Trinity, Durrell Wildlife Park is a haven for endangered species (including a family of western lowland gorillas).
There is also family-friendly accommodation – notably the “five-star” Durrell Wildlife Camp, where comfy “pods” can hold two adults and two children. Guests sleep in proper beds – and have their own shower and toilet facilities, plus a well-equipped kitchen.
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This article was written by Sally Peck from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.