The Tiger Lodge @ Port Lympne
When I was 14, I went on safari in South Africa with my school. I had wild dreams of seeing herds of giraffes in the wild and coming face to face with big cats. It didn’t happen - turns out animals in the wild are pretty scared of a braying mob of teenagers. But last week, I finally got to fulfil this teenage dream. In Kent.
I was invited to stay in Port Lympne’s latest opening, the Tiger Lodge, which would mean finally coming face to face with, well, tigers. I’d checked out the site and done my research. But what I didn’t expect is how unbelievably magical the whole experience would be. This is Disneyland for nature nerds.
As a self-professed nature nerd, though, I have my reservations about zoos. However, as other people who’ve stayed there have also noted, Damian Aspinall’s foundation that’s based at Port Lympne well and truly breaks the mould of the zoo stereotype.
Let’s start with the lodge itself…
A beautiful wooden cabin that would look just as at home in the Swiss Alps is nestled at the end of a rhodedendron-lined private driveway that, on one side, houses your housemates for the night - Tugs and Ingrid.
The gate opens to your private golf cart (at first this felt slightly superfluous and a bit MTV Cribs, but trust me, you need it to get around the enormous reserve) and a beautifully planted garden, that leads onto a decking platform from which you can see all the way down to the English Channel and even, on a clear day, over to France.
Chances are, though, that’s not the view you’re here for. Stepping inside the cabin reveals a beautiful, African-inspired decor that’s both quirky enough for kids and luxurious enough for adults to feel like it’s worth every penny it costs. Take the tigers away, and it’s still one of the most incredible spaces I’ve ever been lucky enough to stay in. The two bedrooms (one twin, one double) are thoughtfully appointed with crisp linens and fur rugs, the bathroom is filled with Bamford products, the fridge comes fully stocked with gloriously indulgent snacks and proper grown-up drinks.
Antiques jostle with modern conveniences, record players and real wood fires compete with the shiny, shiny TV and drawer bursting with board games for your attention.
But really, anything man-made competing for your attention here seems like a losing battle. A giant wall of glass that extends across both the lounge and twin bedroom to the rear - and behind it, two enormous, beautiful tigers.
They’re given an enormous amount of space in which to roam, so I wasn’t actually holding my breath for them to appear.
Then, as if by magic - they both strolled over to say hi. Turns out they can see into the lodge as clearly as we could see out, and they came lolling around outside the window. Tugs took a nap outside the bedroom wall, so I sat next to him in awe (and taking selfies, obviously). Being that close to him makes you appreciate the sheer magnificence of the tiger - the giant pads on his feet, their softly dishevelled fur, their beautiful long eyelashes… swoon.
That night, we took the golf buggy for a late-night safari through the park - with the Tiger Lodge, you get access through the reserve in the evening to head to Babydoll’s, the park’s newest restaurant that’s named after the foundation’s oldest gorilla.
Driving there was great fun, seeing all the animals on the way to dinner (shout out to the tapir who came to say hi when we got stuck halfway down a road) and the meal itself was absolutely delicious - actual, restaurant quality food rather than the usual microwaved fare peddled by other *unnamed* zoos…
Heading back, however, was a slightly more Jurassic Park affair. It was hilarious, as it is completely pitch black, you can hear the baboons screeching and lions growling (no, I’m not kidding), and we bombed back to the cabin with time to spare to drink the complimentary bubbles and play the Logo Game in front of a roaring fire.
When we finally awoke, the tigers were back at the window saying hi - and unfortunately, bye. As we packed our bags, it was pretty tough to concentrate, as Tugs rolled onto his back and Ingrid sat grooming herself, it was like leaving beloved housecats behind - I think I might even have shed a slight tear.
When we’d finally torn ourselves away from the lodge, we headed down into a beautiful garden and the grounds of the resort’s manor house. It’s here that we ate a huge breakfast, in a room hand-painted with incredible murals of African plains and jungle scenes. There’s even hidden artifacts in the walls to keep everyone occupied while waiting for breakfasts to arrive…
As luxurious and lovely as the lodge and resort is, it’s also deeply and fundamentally educational. The next step on our Lympne odyssey was to head out on a safari tour to see just what it is that the team do here. Guided by one of the park’s incredible rangers, we were given a real taste of just what it is that sets the Aspinall Foundation apart.
Focussing on those animals that don’t grab all the headlines just as much as the megastars, we learned all about the truth behind endangered stats and why saving a creature that gets less love in the media (here, the wild horse) is just as vital as saving panda bears - who, incidentally, are no longer endangered thanks to the efforts of foundations such as these.
We learned about the plight of the gorillas and the efforts that the Aspinall trust goes to to ensure their ongoing survival (favourite fact of the day : they actually send them over to Africa once they’re ready to be rehomed - on aeroplanes. That’s something I would really like to witness).
Heading down past various wild beasts and cutesy characters, we then arrived at the plains - the sprawling section of the park reserved for African animals living side by side. There’s deer, zebra, giraffes, rhinos, ostriches, antelopes… and on the private safari (well worth opting for at £15 a head), we headed off-road and over to the animal that our guide actually described as ‘polite’ - giraffes.
Our guide had brought some branches for us to try and entice them over, and as their politeness presumably dictated, they headed over to say hi and nibble what we’d got for them. It was - in a word - delightful. Stroking a giraffe and letting them strip branches of bark in your hands was really quite incredible, and as they’re such softly-gestured creatures, they even gently nudge your hands away from the danger zone on the branch to avoid accidentally biting.
Ethically, I can’t fault Port Lympne. I was sceptical as to how a foundation could, for want of a better word, exploit the privacy of animals and keep their moral standing in tact, but the park always, always puts the animals first, even where you suspect they could make more money by putting the profits at the fore.
Investing in those less glamorous creatures (the tapir, the rhino, the wild horse) may not hit the headlines, but it makes a real difference. By making money hosting these luxury breaks, everyone’s a winner - staying there genuinely opened my eyes to the plights of certain animals and the real moral issues with zoos around the world and the way we often tend to humanise animals rather than empathise with what they actually need; and the animals themselves get money invested in them that probably wouldn’t be raised at the galas that those flashier animals get (I see u, elephants). They also help to avoid inbreeding, a real problem when faced with declining populations.
The foundation was founded over 30 years ago and has become one of the most successful breeders of captive endangered animals in the world. They’ve been responsible for breeding 138 gorillas, 38 black rhinos, 123 clouded leopards, 20 African elephants… I could go on. They also manage conservation projects in Congo, Indonesia, Madagascar and Gabon, and play an important role in educating local communities about the importance of protecting these animals for future generations.
The lodge enticed me to Port Lympne, the hospitality won me over and the tigers stole my heart, but it’s the heart and soul with which the foundation care for their creatures - big or small, beautiful or unusual - that really, truly made it magical to witness.
A night at the Tiger Lodge in low season costs from £375 per night, rising to around £800 in high season.
Port Lympne has a host of other accommodation options include deer lodges, manor house stays, self-catering treetop houses or glamping; see aspinallfoundation.org. All profits go back into the foundation.