Family safari holidays

Why Yala in Sri Lanka is on our family safari wish list

Last updated 14th March 2024

A family safari holiday is the ultimate bucket list tick, but South Africa isn’t the only option as Siobhan Grogan recently discovered at Hilton Yala Resort in Sri Lanka.


Hilton Yala Resort, Sri Lanka

Elephant spotting, sand dune rolling and excellent junior safari programmes make the new Hilton Yala Resort in Sri Lanka unexpectedly child-friendly. Plus, the elegant spa, creative dining and plush pool villas mean parents will give it a thumbs-up too


Elephant crossing, Hilton Yala, Sri Lanka

Hilton Yala Resort is hidden deep within the jungle

The excitement builds before we’ve even spotted the hotel. On the bumpy track through the jungle, a group of monkeys strut down the road ahead of our bus, tails high in the air. When they spot us, they scramble up nearby trees and watch us pass from overhead.

Located on Tissamaharama on Sri Lanka’s lush south-east coast, there’s no doubt that this brand-new Hilton, which opened in August 2023, is surrounded by nature on all sides.

Made for a safari and beach holiday

It’s squeezed between the Indian Ocean and the Yala National Park; a protected area of nearly 130,000 hectares that is home to 44 varieties of mammal and 215 bird species.

Even the vast swimming pool is built around the trees that were already there before the hotel existed.

Animals are free to wander round the resort

There are no fences either so animals are free to wander across the property. Unsurprisingly, that means there’s no room service on offer here to attract any four-legged passers-by and we’re told we must only travel around the resort at night on a golf buggy rather than by foot. To show us why, a staff member points out a small shed used to store cleaning provisions, its door heavily dented by a roaming elephant who sensed an open packet of sugar inside.

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Lobby, Hilton Yala Resort

Hilton Yala Resort isn’t short on style

Set around a meandering pool complex with sunken sun loungers and shaded day beds, Hilton Yala Resort looks more like a chic spa than a safari hub. There are just 42 rooms and even the smallest comes with its own outdoor jacuzzi.

Premium pool villas sleep four and are best for families, with their huge outdoor terrace overlooking open jungle and a large private swimming pool for cooling off in the Sri Lankan sunshine. All rooms are in neutral shades of caramel and cream, with a telescope for stargazing and a freestanding bath by the window for spying monkeys while you soak.


Dine by Design, Hilton Yala, Sri Lanka

The hotel restaurants will tempt even the fussiest children

Dining is seriously laid-back at Hilton Yala Resort so kids are welcome everywhere. At one point, I even see a waiter crouched low next to a baby in a high chair keeping him entertained so his parents can eat in peace.

There’s all-day dining too which makes it easier to adapt to jet lag and early mornings out on safari.

Don’t miss the tamarillo ice cream

The alfresco Sandali restaurant offers a familiar Western menu including burgers, steaks and tacos, while Dhira serves contemporary Asian cuisine on a candlelit terrace that wraps around one side of the main hotel building.

Outstanding Sri Lankan dishes include spiced curd chicken with braised lentil and wilted onion greens, and mutton chopped roti with chilli sambol and mango chutney. Be sure to ask for the homemade nachos from the vegan menu to start – we ended up ordering them every night.

The creative flavours of ice cream and sorbet also take some beating: think rotisserie pineapple and coconut, bourbon, and tamarillo and wasabi.

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Yala National Park, Sri Lanka

Safari is the main attraction for families

Unlike many South African safari lodges, there’s no minimum age to join game drives at Hilton Yala Resort. In fact, children under-five take part for free while safari tours are half price for kids up to the age of 11. The hotel can even provide car seats for the open-sided jeep.

We head out with head ranger Sajith Withanage, who has us all instantly spellbound with his limitless knowledge of animals, plants and birds.

Yala is a leopard spotting legend

Within minutes of entering Yala national park, he’s pointed out a leopard, almost entirely concealed within the trees, but just metres away. We watch another stalk through the undergrowth then disappear into the jungle. Minutes later, we come across a group of elephants, chomping grass, then some water buffalo clambering into a watering hole where a crocodile is just visible wallowing below the surface.

Later, on a walking safari, Sajith shows us how to spot animal footprints and dung, how to find our way if lost using just a termite mound (they usually bend to the north while animals claw at them from the east), and how to listen out for the distinctive ‘monkey alarm call’, which warns other animals when a leopard is close by.

Watch out for wild peacocks in the trees

We see a mongoose, a bronze back snake slithering across the path, wild boar, a colony of tiny stingless bees, monitor lizards and wild peacocks perched high in the trees.

Afterwards, we discover sundowners laid out for us in a clearing surrounded by lanterns. We feast delightedly on Tuk Tuk cocktails – a more-delicious-than-it-sounds mix of mango chutney and local gin – and deep-fried leaves from the elephant ear plant, described by Sajith as, “the Pringles of the jungle.”


Beach, Hilton Yala Resort, Sri Lanka

Kids get their very own safari experience

If children fancy an even more hands-on experience, Hilton Yala Resort offers over-fives an extra two-day Junior Ranger Programme where they’ll discover how to identify animal tracks and bird calls, head out on a bush walk and then try spotting animals on their very own safari with Sajith to earn their final badge and certificate. They’ll finish gathered round a campfire to learn all about the stars and planets, which Sajith points out with a lightsabre-style laser that will thrill all junior Star Wars fans.

Try outdoor cooking in the jungle

Families can also try an outdoor cooking class in the jungle, go lake fishing or visit the Sithulpawwa rock temple, an ancient Buddhist monastery believed to date back to the 2nd century BC that towers over the National Park below.

Finally, don’t think you’re missing out on the prized safari and beach holiday here. Stray just behind the hotel, and there it is, a wildly beautiful beach; noisy waves crashing against rocks, steep sand dunes for sliding down, and the best view of a blazing Sri Lanka sunset.

How to plan a Sri Lanka safari

How to get there

Direct flights to Sri Lanka, from 10 hours 35 minutes

Where to stay

Hilton Yala Resort

Double rooms from £448 per night

Find out more and book Hilton Yala Resort