Amy Hopkins and her family try a sleepover with a difference at the new Wolf Lodge at Port Lympne wildlife reserve in Kent
There’s something unnerving about watching a wolf greedily lock eyes on your baby, especially when the animal begins to paw at the pane of glass that separates them. My three-month old daughter, Annie, is perched on my husband’s knee, just inches from a pair of European grey wolves who can’t seem to take their eyes off her. We are sitting in the private garden of Wolf Lodge, at Port Lympne wildlife reserve in Kent, which is to be our home for the night. Our garden wall, with its two large windows, is all that separates us from the park’s wolf enclosure.
New for 2018, Wolf Lodge is the latest in a series of unique accommodation experiences to open at Port Lympne. There are now a handful of cottages inside enclosures, allowing intrepid guests to share sleepovers with rhinos, bears and most famously, tigers. The creation of these unique animal lodges has been a multi-million pound project, and it shows. You might be sleeping a few yards away from a pile of animal dung, but make no mistake, this is luxury accommodation.
Even without our furry neighbours, Wolf Lodge would be a special place to spend the night. A renovated Grade II cottage, it was originally one of the gatehouses of the sprawling 600-acre Port Lympne estate. Inside, the two stylish double bedrooms, each with an ensuite bathroom, are worthy of the finest country house hotel. Plus, if spending the night in a wildlife reserve isn’t excitement enough, Wolf Lodge also boasts a cinema room, popcorn maker and even a PS4 with a selection of games.
Unsurprisingly, these extraordinary sleepovers aren’t cheap. A night at Wolf Lodge starts from £409, and Tiger Lodge (the most expensive) rises to £800 a night in high season. However, all the money from your stay goes back into the park’s vital conservation work. You see, Port Lympne is not your typical zoo. Port Lympne and its sister park, Howletts in Kent, are part of the Aspinall Foundation, one of the world’s most successful breeders of endangered animals. Since its foundation 30 years ago, it has achieved births of hundreds of gorilla, black rhino and African elephants.
Several of the park’s keepers tell me that they are anti-zoo and many Family Traveller readers would say the same, but for animals facing extinction, breeding in captivity is often the only way to increase numbers. I am surprised to learn that even our neighbours the grey wolves are classified by the World Conservation Union as endangered or vulnerable in several European countries. I look forward to bringing Annie back here when she’s old enough to understand the serious conservation mission that underpins a fun day out at a wildlife park like Port Lympne.
Throughout the evening, we watch the wolves from our garden and later from the windows of our cottage. Disappointingly, I don’t hear any actual howling, but there’s plenty of snuffling and yapping. They are curious creatures and trot right up to the glass several times, allowing us to admire them close up. At 3am Annie wakes from her travel cot for a feed. I sit sleepily at the bedroom window, nursing my baby and watching a lone male wolf busily digging in the dirt.
The next morning, our wolves are nowhere to be seen. A bit like my darling child, it seems they’re most active at dawn and dusk. We enjoy a hearty breakfast in the Port Lympne Hotel, in a themed dining room that resembles a more upmarket version of London’s Rainforest Cafe, and then climb into a safari truck for a tour of the park. We trundle over the dirt tracks of the park’s 150 acre African Experience, where animals like zebra, wildebeest, antelope and critically endangered black rhino roam free. Our guide tells us he can do this trip ten times in one day and see different animals every time – not surprising, given that Port Lympne is home to some 700 animals.
As we make our way through the Kent savannah, a pair of nosey ostrich trot along beside us, pecking at my husband’s phone as he photographs them. Later, we wait patiently while Gucci, one of the female camels, mozies over to rub her hairy, malting body of the bonnet of our vehicle. For us, the highlight of the safari is feeding the Rothschild giraffe. Annie obliges us by snoozing in her car seat, giving her dad and I chance to spend time with Port Lympne’s graceful giants. We hold willow branches aloft – the giraffes go crazy for the sweet flavour – and the animals loom down, wrapping their long black tongues around the branches and expertly stripping the leaves. With their long eyelashes and soft sandy snouts, they’re even more beautiful close-up.
Back at Wolf Lodge I enjoy an indulgent soak in the roll top bath, made even better by the complimentary Bramford products. As the sun sets, we climb aboard our golf cart (every lodge comes with its own buggy) and make our way to dinner at Port Lympne’s Babydoll pizza restaurant. Driving through the park at dusk, it feels almost unbelievable that we’re allowed to do this. During the ten minute journey, we don’t pass another soul – not human anyway. We bid good evening to gibbons, spectacled bears and funny looking tapir and it’s like we have the entire place to ourselves. Somewhere in the nearby distance we hear the deep, guttural roar of a lion. Even though we’re less than two hours from home (north London) and have a new baby in tow, this feels like a real adventure.
During our stay I’m lucky enough to get a behind-the-scenes peek at the new Giraffe Manor, an attraction due to open in 2019 that is guaranteed to send wildlife lovers into a spin. Modelled on the world famous Giraffe Manor in Nairobi, Kenya, Port Lympne’s new attraction will be a 20 bedroom luxury hotel, where giraffes will wonder the grounds and poke their heads through guests’ bedroom windows. The park’s Managing Director, Bob O’Connor, takes me on a room-by-room tour of the derelict 15th century Grade II listed house that will soon be transformed into the new hotel. It’s one hell of a project, but I can tell it’s going to be sensational. The house sits on a hill overlooking the rolling Kent countryside and the views alone make it worth a visit. But, if you like the idea of waking up to a giraffe at your window without having to travel to Kenya, don’t hang about. There’s already a waiting list.
As we check out and say our goodbyes, I mention to one of the keepers that the wolves seem to have taken an unhealthy interest in baby Annie. ‘Makes sense,’ he replies. ‘It’s natural from them to want to pick off the smallest in the pack.’ Yes, it’s unnerving watching a wolf eye up my baby daughter as a lunch option, but perhaps not as unnerving as the prospect of these bewitching animals, and dozens like them, being wiped out. I want Annie to grow up in a world where wolves, tiger and rhino are more than pictures in a history book. Even though I don’t like the idea of caged animals, until conservation projects like the ones funded by Port Lympne are no longer needed, a night at Wolf Lodge is money well spent.
Where: Port Lympne Hotel & Reserve, Hythe, Kent
Price: An overnight stay at Wolf Lodge starts from £409. Day visits to the park cost £25 for adults and £21 for children
There are many ways to stay the night at Port Lympne, including cheaper options such as treetop houses and glamping.
Book and find out more: www.aspinallfoundation.org/port-lympne
All profits from Port Lympne Hotel and Reserve go directly to The Aspinall Foundation to further its vital work of restoring animals to the native homelands where so many have been driven to the brink of extinction by the ravages of mankind.