Travel

Escape Routes: Go on an African safari adventure in, er, Kent

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Stylist’s editor-in-chief Lisa Smosarski discovers a British treehouse like no other – complete with rhinos, tigers and giraffes

There are many things I expect of a night in a luxury treehouse in the English countryside – stroking a rhino, hand-feeding tigers and taking a night safari in a golf buggy weren’t high on that list. However, Port Lympne Reserve, near Ashford in Kent, is cheerfully pushing the boundaries of the mini-break. 

Fast becoming Stylist’s resident treehouse correspondent, I’ve become quite the expert in sleeping in swaying trees in all weathers, but Port Lympne’s Treehouse Hotel is not your traditional treehouse. This ingenious new property, on the periphery of a wildlife park, is actually a family of eight stylishly designed suites positioned at treetop height – trees recently vacated by a family of snow leopards, incidentally. The two-bed apartments are as comfortable as a luxury city flat, but with a wall of windows and wooden terrace overlooking the rhinos on the ‘savannah’. 

Port Lympne's Treehouse Hotel: Treehouses have come a long way...

Port Lympne's Treehouse Hotel: Treehouses have come a long way...

I’ve never been on a safari, and certainly didn’t expect to be just two hours’ drive from London. But minutes after arrival, I find myself riding in an open-sided safari truck and watching giraffes, wildebeest and bison in the ‘wild’. And I get to feed loads of amazing creatures. I throw nuts to gorillas sitting five metres away, staring intently, waiting for their snacks; stroke a rhino called Rosie whose surprisingly soft mouth nestles against my hand as she gobbles her carrots; feed giant sticks of maize to giraffes; hand-feed tigers through their cage (tigers!); and, my favourite of all, enter the colobus monkey enclosure to give them nuts, which they cheekily grab from my hand.

Port Lympne is an award-winning wildlife park set over 600 acres of Kent countryside but, despite the day visitors, this is a luxury travel experience. While we’re here, we’re ferried around in khaki safari trucks and zebra-print Land Rovers, then whisked to the clubhouse – a marquee with firepits – for chilled champagne and toasted marshmallows by candlelight. The clubhouse offers an African-inspired barbecue, but we opt instead for dinner on our terrace and, ignoring our own fully fitted kitchen, order a hot Mediterranean buffet from the chef, which he very kindly delivers. 

Lisa found it easy to make friends on holiday

Lisa found it easy to make friends on holiday

Each suite has its own golf buggy which, somewhat amazingly, you can take out on your own at night. It feels a bit Jurassic Park after dusk, just you and the animals. It’s exhilarating and eery in equal measure to be mere feet from the lions devouring their dinner and rolling around like pet moggies in the dust (before you panic, the larger animals aren’t roaming free, and some areas are off-limits at night, so it’s not quite Born Free, even if it feels like you’re in the wild).

This is a travel experience so unique in the UK that I am as excited as a six-year-old the second I arrive – a feeling that lingers weeks after I go home. And with so many amazing animals to see – and the alternative of £99-per-night glamping pods to stay in – I’m immediately planning a return visit. Especially as there will be bears soon, too. Lions, tigers and bears? Oh my…

A night at the Port Lympne Treehouse Hotel starts at £300 for four, including park entry and golf buggy use; a guided walking tour costs £42; animal experiences from £50