The Port Lympne Reserve
When one thinks of the traditional UK-based family holiday, scenes of furry company mascots, all singing, all dancing entertainment teams, manic kids clubs and over-crowded swimming pools come to mind; a daunting and rather scary prospect for any new parents who haven’t quite let go of their adult-centric past lives.
In this series of adventures, I go on a journey I and around our beautiful county of Sussex to discover, together with my chirpy 10 month year old daughter and willing husband, all the baby and adult-friendly bolt holes couples can escape to for calm but adventure-filled precious family times away, before they have to give in to the imminent world of kids clubs that lies ahead.
Our second weekend jaunt took us into the wild territory of Kent, with an overnight visit to Port Lympne Reserve. Set in over 600 acres, Port Lympne Wild Animal Park offers the ultimate safari adventure and short break experience.
In all honesty, when my family and I were invited to stay at the reserve, I was quite surprise that I had never heard if it before. The break sounded almost too good to be true; a Land Rover safari experience, opportunities to meet and feed the animals and an overnight stay in a ‘Shepherds Hut’. I decided that it would be more fun to not do the usual researching beforehand and just show up ready and raring for the unknown. My only reservation was whether the experience would be infant-friendly. I’m always up for adventures, but we all know there are some bare necessities that you just simply cannot do without when you have a little cub in your pack. I was assured that this was a ‘glamping’ experience and we would be well equipped with creature comforts. And so with my daughter and I sporting our safari-themed outfits (I like to dress the part, much to the embarrassment of my husband), the three of us headed into the wilderness.
The drive from Brighton is less than two hours and yet when you arrive, you feel a world away from the hurly burly of the British seaside. We pulled up in the plentiful carpark at 10:45am, a good time it would seem if you are looking to beat the queues. The staff were there to greet us, all full of the joys of summer and well trained to be knowledgeable in their fields. It was apparent from the offset that Port Lympne isn’t a commercial zoo, amusement park or in-your-face commercial attraction. It is a well-loved, unassuming and simply magnificent home to animals such as wildebeest, giraffe, black rhino, ostrich and zebra, where they are free to roam together as if on the plains of Africa. It is run by an extremely passionate team of people whose number one priority is that of the welfare of the animals.
Before we could say ‘leaping lizards,’ we were introduced to our personal guide, Amanda who would be driving us round the park in a rather plush zebra print Land Rover. With buggy piled into the back (such a convenient way to travel round, without having to worry about carrying little one and lugging round her vital supplies), we set off to meet our larger than life welcoming committee; the Black Rhinos. I had no idea that we would be privileged enough to be able to feed them ourselves! Admittedly I was incredibly nervous to start with and the protective Mother came out in me when we were given carrots to feed direct to their mouths. I really needn’t have worried – these rhino were calm, gentle and evidently beautifully kept; a family experience I will never forget.
Next up came close up encounters with Gorillas at feeding time, the ‘big cats’ in all their majesty and a drive through the ‘Asian Experience’.
What followed next was like something out of a David Attenborough documentary and once again we felt so very privileged to have had this opportunity. We took a guided drive through the ‘African Experience;’ 120 acres of Kentish savannah where the animals of Africa can roam freely. We cruised through the open plains and came up close to zebra, wildebeests and most enchanting of all, a whole family of giraffe, including a four year old new mother and her baby (only 5 foot tall!) Being less than a meter away from the head of a feeding giraffe is simply breath-taking, and seeing the look on my daughters face when she came eye to eye with the baby giraffe was magical. Our knowledgeable guide was only too happy to answer all our excitable questions and filled our heads with knowledge on his beloved friends.
There are a multitude of places to dine at Port Lympne, ranging from the high-end restaurant at ‘The Mansion’ to our choice for lunch; a BBQ outlet, rustling up some hearty burgers for hungry explorers. There are also plenty of picnic benches for those who like to BYO or for those with a wild side, you can even book a ‘Platinum Safari’ which not only takes you around the African Experience, but also involves having dinner at a table and chairs set up especially for you within that very enclosure, as animals freely roam around you!
After lunch, it was time for the Park’s newest feature; the Dinosaur Forest. Here you are invited to step into a prehistoric world with over one hundred dinosaurs, including favourites such as the T-Rex, Diplodocus and Pterodactyl. These beasts have stampeded into the park to form part of this amazing new attraction, one of the largest collections of life-size dinosaurs in Europe with each model being truly authentic and anatomically correct.
As we ventured into the forest, the rangers were on hand to give insight into these fascinating reptiles from the past. With over 40 species of dinosaurs on show and 103 life-sized models, it is sure to entertain all the family. Visitors can even download the Dinosaur Forest app enabling them to interact with augmented reality dinosaur content as they explore the forest. Forget Pokemon Go, this is way cooler!
As the afternoon drew to a close, it was time to check in to our ‘Shepherds Hut.’ In all honesty, I was nervously preparing to ‘rough it’ for the good of the review and in the spirit of being on a safari. As we walked amongst the wolves and the tiger enclosures, we came to a pinewood forest, which was riddled with little wooden glamping pods. Instantly feeling relief at the sight of wood rather than canvas, I thanked my lucky stars and headed onwards. Imagine my surprise when it was revealed that our actual accommodation was nestled amongst the trees in a corner of the forest accommodation area – a stylish wooden hut, surrounded by a picket fence, containing all the creature comforts I could wish for.
So there in the wild was my perfect ensuite pad, with underfloor heating, a wooden burning stove, kettle, double bed, TV and sofa…not to mention the complimentary Bamford products in the bathroom. This firmly confirmed that Port Lympne is the perfect way to go a little wild together with your infant, but with all the luxuries and comfort you could possibly ask for.
Pinewood isn’t the only accommodation on offer. There is a whole range of options available including luxurious hotel rooms in The Mansion, a ‘Treehouse Hotel,’ and ‘Bear Lodge’ that is situated right next to the bear enclosure.
Dinner that evening was taken in the ‘Pinewood Café’ a cosy little retreat just next to the forest, serving up some good home-cooking style fare. With a bottle of wine, a full tummy and memories of the day being relayed, we felt incredibly spoilt and looked forward to getting in touch with friends and recommending them to come and experience it all for themselves.
Port Lympne is quite simply a magical experience. It is suited for families with children of all ages, as well as brimming with romance for couples and adventure for group of friends. I urge you all to jump in your cars (having dressed in your safari-themed outfits) and make your way a couple of hours into Kent. It isn’t the cheapest of short breaks, but I promise you, the memories you make will be priceless.
Port Lympne Reserve
Nr. Ashford, Kent