It was our anniversary and we didn’t want to escape too far but we were looking for something different. We certainly found it at Port Lympne Hotel, Kent and enjoyed a superbly relaxing two-day break.
From the moment we arrived, we were entranced. The reception is housed in the library and the shelves spill with old books – the perfect welcome. The house was built in 1911 for Sir Philip Sassoon with later additions after WWI and abandoned after WW2. It was in a sorry state when John Aspinall bought it in 1973 to cope with the overspill from his venture Howlett’s Animal Park. The house was restored over a ten year period and the animal reserve began to take shape.
The rooms are named after the guests that Sir Philip Sassoon entertained there. We were shown to the Sir Winston Churchill room, overlooking the garden with views beyond the trees to the flatland of Romney Marsh. It was absolutely stunning and a joy to wake early and sit up in bed, enjoying the vista. It was exceptionally quiet, a few bird calls and the odd animal noise but nothing disturbing at all. Bliss.
Our room had a new shower suite but the other rooms retain the original bathrooms from 1911 with art deco porcelain ware and tiles. Quite extraordinary given that most homeowners take on a total revamp once they have purchased a new property. Everything was clean and warm, and most importantly, the bed was comfortable. There was also a plentiful supply of hot drinks and biscuits which will always be a huge plus to me.
I was offered a peek into the other rooms: T E Lawrence, Sir Herbert Baker, The Rex Whistler and the two bridal suites – Sir Philip Sassoon and Charles Chaplin. All were unique and any one of them would be a pleasure to stay in; all had fabulous views.
There are six rooms at the moment and two more were quietly being prepared during our stay.
Dinner and breakfast were served in the dining room that was rather breathtaking, even a little intimidating. The mural was painted by Martin Jordan, a self-taught artist and over 200 animals adorn the walls and ceilings. In John Aspinall’s words ‘It is to be a tribute to the heroism of wild animals in the face of their continuing persecution by mankind.’ As we were alone in the room that evening I enjoyed spotting the various species, right down to the butterflies and insects that hide in the cornices and window frames.
The hotel bar was restful and elegant, again with the safari theme but with all the comfort of the house. There is a TV on the wall which is almost the only reminder that the world still exists beyond the grounds.
Just off the hall was a reception area, The Whistler Tented Room. Sir Philip commissioned his friend, Rex Whistler, to paint, on canvas, this room in 1933. It is thought to be the best example of his work in existence. The mural suffered badly from damp and decay when the house lay empty and restoration was undertaken by the Tate Gallery. The hotel is a popular wedding venue and this room is a rest area for guests; toilets and cloakrooms are located here. The hotel staff were busy preparing for a wedding that would take place the day following our visit – so we timed things perfectly.
The beautiful gardens that surround the hotel are tranquil and soothing and if you never strayed toward the animal reserve you would barely know it was there.
One the second night we drove round to Bear Lodge, one of the other types of accommodation at the reserve – glamping on a hill overlooking the bear and black rhino area. Each ‘tent’ sleeps 6 and has simple kitchen and bathroom facilities, and a wood burner for colder evenings. There is a clubhouse and play area so it’s perfect for families.
We visited the clubhouse to try the Mongolian barbecue we’d heard so much about. We were shown bowls of three sizes that we were to fill with a choice of meat and/or fish in one, vegetables another and lastly, noodles and rice. There was a selection of sauces – satay, sweet and sour, curry etc and we were to add a large tablespoon before taking over to the cooking area.
It was the perfect portion size and our meal was ready in minutes. You could leave it to the chef or get stuck in – so we did. It was great fun but the heat was intense and I had great admiration for the chef who effortlessly coped with four meals at once, time after time.
No matter where your accommodation on the reserve entrance into the parks is included, as is travel on the safari trucks. These run every fifteen minutes and there are various stop-off points along the way so that you can disembark and wander through different sectors of the reserve.
Private safari tours take place throughout the day and evening and I would definitely make use of these when we visit again. Whereas the trucks follow a given route the safari jeeps go across the terrain among the animals. There are other experiences on offer and you can find more about them on the website.
During our stay the staff were attentive and friendly – the right kind of friendly – not too intrusive and not over chatty but they really were a huge part of the enjoyment of our time there. We spent far too long just sitting and enjoying the view but it was so restful it was hard to drag ourselves away.
We thoroughly enjoyed our break but it would be far too quiet if you are looking for something with a bit of a buzz. As it was, we were glad of the quiet and respite.