The domed restaurant at Wild Coast Tented Lodge is open to the elements on all sides and it is bucketing rain, as it has been for most of the afternoon and evening here on the edge of Yala National Park, on the south-east coast of Sri Lanka.
The only other people in a restaurant for dinner are an elderly English couple I have not met, so I call a cheery good evening. The Relais & Chateaux safari resort has been open just a couple of weeks, and there’s only a handful of guests on the property.
“Our travel agent told us this was a five-star luxurious place, not some camp in the jungle,” the woman unleashes. “We’ve been on plenty of safaris, you know, but here, we are right in the middle of the jungle, with little between us and the leopards.”
The grounds are like something out of “Jurassic Park”. Supplied
I do my best to be kind and to appease her but given that the words “wild” and “tented” are in the name of the property, I am thinking they should probably find another travel agent. I am also thinking, in today’s travel lexicon, luxury means different things to different people. Another thought: this lodge is not for everybody.
But isn’t that the case with the most extraordinary of places?
Wild Coast Tented Lodge is the third resort developed by Resplendent Ceylon, a high-end accommodation company started in 2005 by the Fernando family of Dilmah Tea fame and fortune.
They do not do things by halves – styling Sri Lankan properties that sing to a location’s hymn book, then go for soaring high notes of spectacular uniqueness.
The suites are striking, white pods with porthole windows. Supplied
Eco-conscious but edgy
Wild Coast, too, is site-appropriate, spectacular and unique. With architecture by Sri Lanka-based Nomadic Resort, known for eco-conscious, organically edgy structures, and interiors by Amsterdam-based furniture designer Bo Reudler, the property is a big design statement. And yes, indeed, it is very open to animal encounters – deliberately so. It sits in scrubby dunes between the wild Indian Ocean and Yala National Park, with no fences in between.
Even getting to the resort, I discover, is something of a wild adventure.
The main areas are open-air structures with dome-shaped roofs formed by a woven bamboo net structure. Supplied
I’m led through the property to my tent. It’s a fair walk along meandering paths of more of that crunchy stone and past bush-shrouded “cocoon suites” – 28 in all, striking white pods with porthole windows that collectively look like an alien landing. They are grouped around watering holes, in the hope of attracting Yala’s wild animals.
The suite is colonial expedition glam – gorgeous. Supplied
Inside my suite, the mien is colonial expedition glam; there’s a free-standing handmade copper bathtub, a four-poster bed, teak floors, canvas walls, touches of dark leather and repurposed metallic hardware. It’s gorgeous.
The Fernando family, of Dilmah Tea fame, do not do things by halves – as seen in the meals. Supplied
With huge bends of thick bamboo holding it all up, stone underfoot (again), a beautiful chandelier made of an ocean-washed branch and atmospheric lighting, it’s a theatrical experience – like The Island of Doctor Moreau without the creepiness. The restaurant and bar look out across the pool, lawn and on to the ocean. The soundtrack is crashing waves and chirruping critters.
The next morning is safari time and we are in our vehicle and away at 4.30am, even though the park doesn’t open until six. This is because hundreds of safari vehicles – literally hundreds – converge on Yala, where traffic management is a work in progress. Even though we are quite near the park entrance, compared with most hotels, we are second in line.
As we wait in the darkness, and the line of vehicles grows, we chat. The only other two guests in the vehicle are the chief executive and chief financial officer of a large US banking concern who have had a lot of luck on safari, most recently in India with tigers. They’re anticipating more. They were in Yala the day before and saw elephants but none of the elusive Sri Lankan leopards they came to see.
As the gates open, our knowledgeable guide, part of the expert expedition staff at Wild Coast, whisks us away from the throng to the quietest corners of Yala. And while we see stunning birds – with a peacock at every turn – more elephants, monkeys and plenty of deer, we see no leopards. We return for breakfast at 10am.
In the afternoon, rain threatens. Our guide informs the Americans that “leopards do not like to get their feet wet”, so the likelihood of seeing them is slim. It’s a likelihood the Americans are willing to go with. So we set off for a more remote part of the park. And it pours. It’s beautiful out there and the low-end-of-the-food-chain creatures are relaxed and out in droves because they also know that leopards do not like to get their feet wet. But it’s a dark, stormy, cold and somewhat disappointed trip back to the resort for us all. (That’s the nature of safari: you pay your money, you take your chances.)
The elusive Sri Lankan leopard, for which Yala National Park is famous and which the Americans came to see specifically. Supplied
The next morning I am checking out and have a transfer booked for 9am so I decide to give the game drive a miss.
“Oh madam, it’s your transfer. They would have waited,” one of the management team tells me later. “You really should have gone.”
On entering the dining hall for breakfast, I find out why. Seated there are the complaining couple. Only they are no longer the complaining couple. They are the elated couple. They have just got back from the drive and, “We were first in the line! At 6.05am we saw a leopard! Sitting right on the track in front of us. He was grooming himself, then he just sauntered away. He was with us for 10 minutes!”
They saw sloth bears, elephants, the works. And for the slightly immobile woman, getting in the safari truck had not been a problem. The obliging resort staff had backed the high vehicle up to one of the little bridges crossing the pool so she could merely step into her seat.
In that moment, I am happy for them. Really, I am. Well, I am happy for the Americans who went as well. And I have learnt another truth. As sure as leopards do not like to get their feet wet, when a person is in a safari camp, that person should go on all safari drives possible.
Especially when that person is somewhere as magical and surprising as Wild Coast Tented Lodge on the edge of Yala National Park.
- Rates Bed and breakfast from $US384 a tent a night, twin share. All-inclusive from $US445 a person a night, twin share. This covers all meals, beverages and two game drives daily. Two-night minimum stay applies.
- Note Yala National Park does close to safari drives for extended periods to allow regeneration.
- For more see resplendentceylon.com and yalasrilanka.lk
Full details are available from the link below:
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