Sri Lanka’s prime safari destination blends back-to-nature hotels with upscale luxury camping retreats. Leopards, elephants and sloth bears – Yala National Park is the most popular safari spot in Sri Lanka for good reason: its vast scrubland is teeming with wildlife year-round, giving visitors the best chance of spotting the country’s “big three”. Whether you opt to stay in the region’s rustic eco lodges or exclusive resorts, you’re in for an unforgettable adventure. Here’s our pick of the best places to stay around Yala National Park.
“Glamping” doesn’t quite cut it when trying to describe Wild Coast Lodge. This is an ultra-luxurious, romantic safari experience, where the “tents” include teak floors, four-poster beds and handmade copper bathtubs. The entire hotel – from the classy bar to the snug library and TV room – has been built to blend into the landscape, a divine intersection of forest and ocean, where elephants, leopards and monkeys roam.
The chalets at Cinnamon Wild Yala offer either beach or jungle panoramas from their wide, private verandas – but you’ll probably be torn between this view and the one from the treetop bar. If you want an extra-special dining experience, book dinner by the lake, watching out for the resident crocodiles (staff will escort you) before ending the evening on an infrared night drive, where you might spot leopards on the prowl.
Sitting between Yala National Park and the holy town of Kataragama, Safari Lodge Yala is close to shops and restaurants, unlike many of the remote lodges around these parts, while still providing easy access to the most popular wildlife spot in Sri Lanka. Peacocks and other critters wander around the cobblestone paths and between the freestanding bungalows (which are great for families and small groups) – don’t forget to pick up a pre-packed breakfast if you’re heading out for an early-morning safari.
One of the larger luxury Yala resorts, Jetwing Yala backs onto a prime stretch of rugged beach; time it right to watch turtles hatch (five of the main marine species make landfall on Sri Lanka’s south coast between April and July to lay their brood), or enjoy a bonfire-lit dinner on the sands. If rattling around in a safari jeep all day has left your bum bruised or shoulders shuddering, you’ll find numerous cures back at the hotel – take your pick from Balinese massages, a dip in the 75-metre-long (246ft) pool or a strong, cold cocktail.
Guests at Uga Chena Huts, another of Yala’s luxury-camping-like retreats, can enjoy morning and evening safaris every day of their stay, at no extra cost. But if that doesn’t convince you to splash out, perhaps the opulent digs will. The 14 huge thatch-roofed cabins sprawl out over 7 acres (2ha) of land, flanked by wildlife-packed Yala National Park and the crashing Indian Ocean. Every room has a private plunge pool, so if it’s seclusion you’re after, this is it.
KumbukRiver Resort sits on the northern edge of Yala National Park. At just under an hour from the lesser-used Galge park entrance, it’s not the most convenient if safaris are your priority, but there’s plenty to keep you entertained, such as mud baths, fishing expeditions and village visits. The main draw has to be the quirky lodgings: choose between a truck-turned-cabin, a giant treehouse or (perhaps the most unusual of all) a huge elephant-shaped villa.
Saraii Village is for you if you like to be up close with nature. The open-sided, multi-level treehouses with king-sized beds and mud chalets with simple outdoor bathrooms put you a mere muslin drape away from the elements. For an extra fee, you can enjoy breakfast at nearby Wirawila Lake, or try your hand at palmyrah weaving with local craftswomen.
Wifi will be the last thing on your mind at the Kingdom Eco Lodge and Farm, where wild elephants roam and guests can help maintain 30 acres (12ha) of mango, banana and papaya trees. The two eco lodgings are basic but well kept and have serene lakeside views. Nearby Lunugamvehera National Park – home to water buffalo, wild boar and more – offers a crowd-free alternative to Yala National Park.
With Yala National Park to the east, Bundala National Park to the west and a rugged coastline to the south, EKHO Safari Tissa is a fine launchpad for outdoor adventures and animal enthusiasts. Cosy earth-toned rooms overlook the sparkling pool, beyond which lie Tissa Lake and a verdant wildlife sanctuary. Take a wander around Tissa town to find an array of restaurants (try Chef Lady for top-notch seafood) and intricate Buddhist temples.