The sexy scaled curves of Wild Coast Tented Lodge lend a slice of cocooned luxury to Yala National Park – a place where the Indian Ocean meets jungle and Sri Lanka’s most majestic wilderness still reigns, writes Nicola Moyne
‘Look, there, through the bush – do you see her baby? They want to cross over,’ Damien whispers, while simultaneously signaling for our driver to back up a little, creating a makeshift path large enough for the family’s safe passage.
Deep in Sri Lanka’s Yala National Park, I’m surrounded by a pack of mud-baked safari jeeps jostling for prime position. A herd of elephants, including several infants, has emerged from the protective scrub of dense Rosewood some 30 feet away to cross the undulated dirt track in front of us and Damien, one of the park’s oldest and most respected rangers, is quietly keeping order. ‘Sometimes the other hotel’s jeeps don’t respect the animals, but I never want to see the wildlife being harassed,’ he explains in low, dulcet tones despite a bustle of engine revs in the background. ‘They are my passion; this job is my life.’
His quiet, determined devotion to conservation is admirable, as is his standing amongst the rangers – who abide by his traffic-control hand gestures, allowing the elephants to pass unvexed through a malaise of camera-clicking tourists.
I’ve been in the 378-sq-mile park on Sri Lanka’s southeast coast for approximately 40 minutes. So far, we’ve spotted a herd of half-submerged water buffalo cooling off in the midday heat, saltwater crocodiles taking their sun-soaked afternoon naps, and a roving family of wild Sri-Lankan elephants navigating the crowds. Now, we’re hurtling through the dry, cracked earth towards one of Damien’s favourite haunts in the park: Leopard rock.
Life at Wild Coast Tented Lodge, a pioneering wildlife property on the fringes of Yala National Park isn’t exactly for the faint-hearted. You need an escort just to enter the restaurant come dusk for fear of a chance encounter with one of the more rowdy locals: leopards, elephants and sloth bears, who regularly make a surprise appearance in the grounds at night. But every thrill and promise of adventure is matched by a touch of luxury in the boutique colonial-style hotel, whose giant, curved cocoon suites envelop freestanding handmade copper bathtubs, sumptuous four-poster beds and butter-soft leather bucket chairs.
‘And then, as if on cue, we spot him – his golden coat glistening through the bush’
Panoramic jungle views come as standard here, as does a free-form azure swimming pool, which softly weaves its way through the open-air, bamboo-clad bar and restaurant. Sundowners are served on the property’s wild, wave-breaking beach and the gourmet menu delivers fresh, seasonal produce, such as pan-seared yellow fin tuna with fluffy coconut rice and tamarind broth, and traditional Sri Lankan mango cheesecake (both absolutely delicious, and presented on locally produced ceramics so chic I immediately enquire about where to buy them in bulk).
No detail has been overlooked: even the 28 ‘cocoons’, beautifully curved and clad in sustainable Indonesian teak, are laid out in the shape of a leopard’s paw to honour Yala’s most famous resident. But for all its luxe-safari furnishings and resplendent starch-white linen tablecloths, it’s the hotel’s strong eco stance that really sets it apart from its competitors. Home to Sri Lanka’s foremost leopard conservation station, Wild Coast Tented Lodge uses a solar plant to power 40 per cent of the hotel’s energy and recycles guests’ water to landscape the grounds.
‘It’s a hotel that really cares about nature, about conserving the beauty here,’ Damien tells me as we pull up in leopard rock, hushed and hopeful. And then, as if on cue, we spot him – his golden coat glistening through the bush. He emerges from the trees just metres away from the back of our jeep, strong and athletic: the elusive Sri Lankan leopard in all his majestic glory. How could you not want to conserve such beauty?
A stay at Wild Coast Tented Lodge starts from approximately £690 per night on a fully inclusive basis, based on double occupancy. This includes daily breakfast, lunch, dinner, beverages including house spirits and wines, safari victuals, one daily game drive, WiFi, taxes and all service charges. For further information, or to book, visit resplendentceylon.com/wildcoastlodge-yala or click on the links above.