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Hilton Yala Resort: The Luxury Oasis On Sri Lanka’s South Coast

Forget what you think you know about Hilton hotels. In Sri Lanka’s Yala National Park, the brand has evolved. Meg Honigmann recently visited to discover how.

After driving past water buffalo and egrets lounging by the sides of the safari scruff, bouncing through the national park and making your way down a dirt track, you come across Hilton Yala Resort. Emerging like a mirage, tall slate lines and grinning staff welcome you with cold towels to wipe away the dust of the journey – and then calm descends.

The Vibe

Self-proclaimed Jurassic Park in vibe, this hotel is built into Sri Lanka’s Yala National Park and is very much in tune with its surroundings. Staff talk of elephants strolling past reception, and they’re not joking: a store cupboard has been known to have its doors taken off its hinges by an elephant hunting some sugar inside it. They also mention the occasional leopard slinking by.

While we didn’t see these particular guests inside the hotel grounds during our stay, we did see monkeys sitting along the entranceway and lizards the size of a large backpack clambering around the bushes. This is a safari resort where the wildlife comes to you.

The Rooms

Forty-two villas are dotted so carefully amongst the trees that you’d be forgiven for thinking you were the only one staying at this property. All rooms are sizeable and private here; we checked into the serene and chic premium suite which comes with a private pool, and where a large and comfortable open-plan sitting room and bedroom widen out – via a walk-in wardrobe – into a huge bathroom with both a bath and a separate shower. Outside, a large balcony leads to a sitting area under the trees, and a slender private pool invites you to cool off after a day’s safari. Crucially, rooms also come with air conditioning strong enough to cut through any level of humidity.

The Food + Drink

Food is a real highlight of the hotel, much of it locally-sourced. Think Jaffa crab curries with pillowy paratha breads, and prawns in a life-changing black pepper glaze. It’s a widely-acknowledged fact that there are two levels of spice in Sri Lanka – the version they offer westerners, and the real one that the locals eat – so ask for more spice if you think you can handle it.

The cocktails too are carefully thought through: the Crouching Leopard is a sweet amaretto pink with just the right amount of froth, and the Sour Tree is Hilton Yala’s take on a margarita, more subtle but with a tart and sweet mix of tamarind and salt. You can choose between two restaurants: Dhira, which offers traditional Asian cuisine or Sandali which focuses more on Western dishes. Both are excellent, but the quality and flavour of all of the dishes at Dhira makes it hard to want to eat anywhere else.

Breakfast is another highlight. The hotel’s creative take on eggs Benedict combined prawns and a curried hollandaise, while the red rice pancakes with vanilla butter were good enough to make you want a two-course breakfast every day. Alongside these, the tempting buffet offers an array of local, fresh fruits including red bananas and furry rambutan alongside dried figs and nuts and a mouth-watering banana bread.

The Little Extras

Local art hangs across the property and is complemented by beautiful displays of wildflowers in the bedroom. Service goes above and beyond, case in point was on our return from an afternoon of safari when we were greeted by lanterns leading to a crackling bonfire, cocktails and snacks. The hotel is also working with Sri Lankan-run conservation trusts, including the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society (WNPS), Yala Leopard Diary and the Wilderness and Wildlife Conservation Trust (WWCT), to equip safari rangers with the knowledge and tools needed to understand and protect indigenous flora and fauna.

The To-Do List

You could come to Hilton Yala and just switch off; lying by the pool, eating the entire menu and sleeping in total luxury. And we wouldn’t blame you. But that would be to waste the brilliant surroundings and exciting activities on offer. Highlights of a stay here are undoubtedly the bush walk and safari guided by the world-class ranger, Sajith Withanage. Knowledgeable about everything from the leaves, to the stars, and the colourings of blue birds (did you know that our eyes play a trick on us and they’re actually grey? Us neither), he met us each day with a broad smile ready to answer every question with good grace.

The safari might sound more exciting than the bush walk, but be prepared for your expectations to be put in check by the sheer amazement of the latter. Ascending through dense forest and emerging onto huge rocks gleaming orange in the late afternoon sun, Yala spreads out below, visible from all angles. Along the way we saw peacocks against a backdrop of a deep pink sunset, and heard the warning calls of monkeys and deer telling us that a leopard was near. The trick of the trade when spotting a leopard, as Sajith shared with us on our safari the next day, is not to look for one directly, but instead to look for anything that looks a bit out of place in the environment. It takes years of practice – so don’t worry if like me you prove totally hopeless at this – but it works; on our outing we saw two leopards, crocodiles, water buffalo and hordes of elephants.

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