In the past, whenever I had thought about safari trips, Sri Lanka had not crossed my mind as a destination. In fact, until recently Sri Lanka had rarely crossed my mind as a destination for any reason at all. When I arrived I had no idea what to expect, outside of vaguely stereotypical images in my mind of colours and chaos; of noise and scent and a way of life fairly juxtaposed to that which we encounter in Europe. I found all of that, but far down in the south I also found a serenity in nature which I had never before associated with Sri Lanka. Welcome to Yala National Park.

Yala National Park is a vast, sprawling area which encompasses jungle, mountain, coastline, and now a luxury resort. Hilton Yala Resort opened at the tail end of 2023 with the aim of attracting wildlife tourism to the area, but doing so in a respectful and sustainable manner.

Sri Lankan National Parks are very much still the domain of the animals who lived here first and permission was only granted for this resort to exist based on stringent conditions that the operation would be sensitive to that ethos.

As a result, the property was specifically designed to leave natural migration paths untouched, meaning animals regularly wander through the grounds of the hotel. If these encounters seem a little too close for comfort, rest assured that a team of highly-skilled Rangers are on-site 24/7 to make sure problems are avoided by affording the wildlife its due respect. In short, if one of that team calls and instructs you to stay inside your villa for a short while, you do it.

Why Stay Here?

The blend of luxurious and rustic is simply wonderful. Access from the main road to the hotel gates is along a pretty rough dirt track (no tarmac here, in keeping with the commitment to leaving the park as untouched as possible) but on arrival at the door the atmosphere could not be farther removed.

A cool drink and cold towel await you, as does a team to take care of your bags, and the rigours of that road immediately begin to melt away. It’s more likely than not your welcome party will also comprise a few of the local monkeys – I was there for four days, and every time our group left and came back they were on the gate waiting for us – but this is just the beginning of your contact with the local wildlife.

The complex itself is pretty large, covering an impressive chunk of land running down a hill to a pretty epic coastline. At the top is the main hotel building, home to two restaurants and a coffee bar, with a second building just next door containing a gym and spa. Massages and beauty treatments are offered there and are well worth the (actually relatively low) price – after a couple of days’ safari your muscles will be tight and tense and a massage will be very welcome indeed.

That coastline is not a place to lounge and paddle (the breakers would carry you off right away), but there is a massive communal pool right at the heart of the property which provides ample space to cool off in the heat, and the top-tier villas have private pools. The veranda area in the main building is massive, with astonishing sweeping views down to the ocean, and is another great spot to enjoy the weather and a cocktail. It would be a waste, though, to come here and only enjoy the amenities on site, and the true luxury is the knowledge and assistance of the Ranger crew.

The highlight of the resort is undoubtedly the things you can discover when you step outside the boundaries (not walls – they would disrupt the animal behaviour). Doing so is not without danger so should not be done without backup from the Ranger team, but their knowledge and experience only serves to enhance the experience.

Head Ranger Sajith Withanage was our group’s companion the whole time we were there, leading us first on a bush walk – during which we learned how surprisingly useful elephant dung can be, and which noise from the monkeys was to warn of a nearby leopard – then on a magnificent jeep safari through the park, a dawn hike to an ancient mountain-top monastery, and finally a walk along that coastline to see crocodiles, water buffalo and eventually some spectacular surf and sunsets. No other property has a team with this expertise, and this alone makes Hilton Yala worth choosing.

How’s The Food?

Hilton Yala Resort

Breakfast every morning was a buffet serving a thoughtful mix of local staples and familiar western fare. The two main restaurants offer a wide variety of grilled meats, traditional curries and fresh seafood: the mutton chopped roti was one of the greatest things I’ve ever eaten and I had it more than once, but if you’re not a fan of such repetition there’s plenty to keep you entertained.

If you’re in the mood for something extra-special, Lanthaaruma offers bespoke dining experiences in outdoor settings. Tailored menus with wine pairings and torchlight under the stars are a wonderful way to enjoy Sri Lankan cuisine, and you’ll even have a Ranger on hand to deal with any uninvited guests.

One thing not on offer is room service, and with good reason. This may be standard practice at a luxury hotel but Yala Resort is not a standard luxury hotel, and room service was deemed unsuitable by the Rangers as having all that food around would cause trouble with the wildlife.

Any scepticism we had about the realism of that claim was put to bed on the first morning of our stay, when we awoke to find an elephant had smashed a storeroom door open to get at the bag of sugar someone had forgotten to close. This really is their habitat, and we’re just humble guests.

What Are The Rooms Like?

Hilton Yala Resort

There are only 42 keys in the hotel, leaving ample space for each room. Entry level rooms are pretty big, with high-end fittings and jacuzzis on the balconies, while suites have a mini plunge pool on their small terrace.

The closer to the ocean you get the bigger the rooms are, with a row of villas featuring a decent-sized private pool right at the edge of the property. These are a decent walk from the main building where all your meals will be taken, but the extra space and privacy is worth it.

Calling a buggy from reception is always an option if mobility is an issue, and mandatory after dark for safety reasons. Hotel policy is that the wooden paths and bridges are for guests; dirt tracks are for the wildlife – refer back to that storeroom door to find out why.

The attraction of Hilton Yala Resort is undoubtedly the safari possibilities. I had never seen a leopard before, only encountered elephants in the zoo, and peacocks, as far as I knew, were the fairly underwhelming birds swaggering around Holland Park.

A few days spent at Hilton Yala Resort completely changed all that, offering an incredible education in the nature and culture of Sri Lanka. As nice as the rooms were and as tasty as the food was (seriously, that mutton chopped roti) it is impossible to understate how much of a privilege it was to have the company of Sajith and his team as our mentors.

Whether it was serving us cocktails of local rum and mango chutney by firelight, explaining the proper etiquette for when a baby elephant mistakes your watch for a tasty treat (he very nearly got away with it) or teaching us the fascinating history of a 2,000 year old monastery perched on the park’s highest summit, they elevate the experience no end.

Hilton Yala Resort

Rooms from £448; hilton.com