Chena Huts resort – in Yala National Park on Sri Lanka’s southern coast – brings The Jungle Book to life (with a little less singing): elephants frolic on the beach, flamingos flock in the lagoon and, come summer, baby turtles hatch and shimmy into the Indian Ocean. Lavish mop-topped huts are a little more ‘born with a silver spoon’ than ‘raised by wolves’ – each has a private plunge pool, freestanding bath tub and climate control – but, set in seclusion amid the trees, the call of the wild can be answered swiftly.
Get this when you book through us:
A 30-minute massage for two; GoldSmiths get a signature dinner for two
11am, but flexible, subject to availability. Guaranteed early check-in or late check-out will be charged as an extra night. Earliest check-in, 2pm.
Double rooms from £528.86 ($652), including tax at 20.01 per cent.
The room rate includes all meals; morning and evening game drives; entry to the National Park with snacks and drinks, and transport in a shared vehicle; selected wine, beer and spirits; and snacks and soft drinks from the daily restocked minibar.
The resort’s ingenious design ensures the flora and fauna remain undisturbed: buildings are spaced out to let wildlife roam freely, paths are raised over vegetation to let it grow, and elderly tree trunks pierce some of the structures.
At the hotel
Private beach, seven acres of wilderness, lagoon, 24-hour guest assistance, free minibar (excluding alcoholic drinks), on-site security, free WiFi. In rooms: Panasonic flatscreen TV and DVD player, Geneva sound system with Bluetooth connection, tea- and coffee-making facilities, minibar, air-conditioning, bottled water.
Our favourite rooms
Each palm-thatched, domed sanctum is equally desirable – there’s little deviation from the stylish mod-safari decor. However, Pavilions 1 and 2 nabbed the best views and are a little closer to the restaurant.
The hotel’s outdoor heated pool (open 10am to 8pm) is camouflaged in jungle greenery and set a little inland, so you’ll hear the trickle of its waterfall before you spy its glimmering jade-toned tiles. A small bar is tucked away under the waterfall, and loungers around the sides are shaded by trees.
Chena Huts Spa, set by the pool, has two thatched treatment rooms for soothing body-buffing rituals, massages and facials.
Bring mosquito repellent to keep away the critters you don’t want to see, and binoculars for spotting the ones you do.
If things get a little dirty, don’t sweat it – guests get six items of clothing freshly laundered, each day, for free. The resort can be navigated by wheelchair (although outside may be trickier), and there's one accessible room.
The wild nature of the resort makes it unsuitable for snack-size little ones.
The hotel’s as green as its leafy surrounds: dining is locally sourced and seasonal food, green products are used throughout, and the hotel’s huts are designed in low-impact, energy-efficient style with LED lighting, solar panels and biogas units. There’s a seawater treatment plant on site, too, and guests are ferried about in electric buggies.
Ask staff to set up a table in romantic seclusion by a beach bonfire under the stars.
Khaki king (and queen).
Named after the Great Basses Reef Lighthouse visible from its terrace, Basses restaurant is a laid-back eatery atop a raised platform on the beach. Maps and hurricane lamps add a nautical tinge to recycled-wood furnishings and a palm roof. Open walls and alfresco tables allow guests to gaze over the ocean, and meals showcase local ingredients in fish curries and coconut sambals, with a few modern European picks on the menu. The breakfast menu will lure you like a leopard to its prey with pineapple and cinnamon muffins, French toast with caramelised apples, kiribath (a treditional Sri Lankan dish made with rice) and an omelette station.
Sundowners are mixed and sipped in the resort’s sunken ocean-facing bar, leading off from the restaurant. Fashioned from local wood (in eco-friendly style) and filled with pouffes to plonk down on to, you can listen to the waves murmur as you sip a cocktail, cool glass of wine or fresh watermelon juice.
Breakfast from 6.30am–9.30am, lunch from noon–2.30pm and dine from 7.30pm–10.30pm.
The hotel’s palm-thatched huts are scattered through the lush tropical trees alongside Yala National Park on Sri Lanka’s south coast, a 40-minute drive from Tissamaharama town.
Fly in to Colombo Bandaranaike Airport then either hop on a connecting flight to Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport, an hour’s drive from the resort, or Mawella Lagoon domestic airport, a two-hour drive away. Cinnamon Air flies to both, once a day. With three days’ notice, private transfers from Colombo, roughly a five-hour drive, can be arranged with the hotel from US$240 a car. Call our Smith24 Team on 03300 376 891 to arrange flights and transfers.
First-timers in Sri Lanka may feel more comfortable hiring a local driver, as traffic can be a nail-biting affair; the hotel can help you to arrange this. Self-drivers can hire a car at the airport; you’ll need an international licence and recognition permit (available from the AA office in Colombo, +94 11 242 1528) From the capital, choose either the six-hour inland route via Ratnapura’s waterfalls, or the five-hour coastal route with a pitstop in colonial city Galle. From Tissamaharama town follow the B422 and B499 roads south, then turn right onto Chaaya Wild Yala Hotel Road to reach the resort.
Worth getting out of bed for
Most of your time will be spent watching the greenery for a glimpse of the local wildlife. Yala National Park is a ravishingly beautiful, lavishly biodiverse expanse of grassy plains and dense jungle: leopards, elephants, white-tailed deer, crocodiles, sloth bears and colourful flocks of birds co-exist peacefully here (food-chain withstanding) – grab your zoom-iest camera for morning and evening game drives, included in your room rate with a picnic. Bundala National Park, renowned for its theatrical feathered friends and prehistoric relics, is an hour’s drive away. For closer-to-home exploration, ask a member of staff to take you on a tour of the property; it’s possible to spot crocodiles and buffalo by the lagoon, or elephants taking a break on the beach – in summer, baby turtles hatch and make a dash for the surf. If you’re staying a little longer, visit the Great and Little Basses reefs, best reached from Mirissa town (around a three-hour drive), where dolphins and whales frolic, and divers can explore Portuguese wrecks. Kataragama, an hour’s drive north, is home to an ancient Hindu forest shrine (thousands of pilgrims descend on the town in July and August for holy festivities).
A safari beach holiday is just that: a holiday, by the beach, on safari. So expect to share your sunlounger with elephants, leopards and giant lizards and forget the idea of any alone time with Mr Smith, or that intriguing book you picked up at the airport. This is not the Caribbean coast – you will be cautiously surveyed by gamekeepers in raised sentry towers and, unless you have the upper body strength of Michael Phelps, you probably won’t be getting your trunks wet in the Sri Lankan riptides. But, we’re not staying in these grass-roofed, air-conditioned huts for any old beach break.
Sam, our safari guide, is dressed like Mick Dundee’s sidekick ‘Wal’ for authenticity. He escorts us along the raised walkways to our hut; each hideaway is sheltered by dense mangroves, which are tall enough that you can’t see over them and thick enough to disguise who (or what) might be watching you through them. We’re instructed to walk in the middle of the path and request an escort between 6pm and 8am. There’s even a bell at the door, which we have to ring to let reception know we’ve arrived safely.
Despite the hut’s impressive interior (super king-size bed, low-slung ceiling fans and floor-to-ceiling patio doors), our attentions are immediately drawn to the private plunge pool, which is presently inhabited by no fewer than a dozen black-faced monkeys. We briefly admire the trimmings inside and head out for a timely reminder that we are the visitors, not them, with a cheeky warning of leaves and fruit tossed loosely in our direction. We’re left in no doubt that if they wanted to shoot to harm, they could and would, with questions asked later.
As we leave our new jungle dwelling to eat at the ‘all-inclusive’ dining hut, another gang of cackling, hairy ne’er-do-wells mockingly play on the raised pathway and in the leafy canopy. We wisely choose to treat them with the same respect as any congregating teenage hoodies – showing no fear, we walk with an unwavering gait straight past them, ignoring their disapproving chatter and chuckles. After a slap-up Sri Lankan meal and a round of cocktails, sharing stories of ‘whoas’ and ‘wows’ with other guests and their safari successes, we return to the hut to find two neat piles of monkey dung on our doormat. Lest we forget our place, this is their turf and they will have the last laugh.
The huts themselves come equipped with every mod-con one could imagine. The contrast between the rustic, mud-and-grass exterior and the luxurious interior is a pleasing evocation of modern jungle life. Natural materials and contemporary features harmoniously blend, and there’s a large, double-ended bath tub in the bedroom, his and hers sinks, a fully stocked minibar and a James Bond-style lighting-control panel. A round, rattan day-bed is a nest of cushions, placed in front of a suitably large TV, which we have no temptation to engage with as the real life Jungle Book plays live outside on our patio.
Having set the alarm for a 4am start, we pile, bleary-eyed, into the open-sided truck for our morning safari; with two drives included in our stay we hope to see as much of the native wildlife as possible. We’re rattled down near-undriveable tracks to join dozens of trucks at the entrance to the Yala National Park. We’re apprehensive about our chances of seeing anything amid this cloud of like-minded leopard-seekers, but our driver knows what he’s doing, switching tracks and cutting corners until we’re free of the masses. Soon, mongooses, buffalo and crocs make themselves known to us. Our driver even scopes out a safe place for a comedically rushed bathroom break behind some bushes, staying close by to ward off unwanted attention from the locals. An impromptu breakfast of tea and cakes out of the truck’s boot follows.
Back on the trail, with all the clarity and colour of a childhood memory, this little adventure is quickly reminiscent of me trying on my Grandad’s reading glasses – everything is much larger, closer, and a little more dreamy than imagined. The bugs and butterflies are easily four times the size of anything a British summer could throw at us, the lizards at least as long as I am tall, and – the highlight, bigger and more beautiful than featured in any Attenborough documentary – the parade of majestic elephants right in front of us. To our delight, the lead male sidles up to our four-wheel drive, giving the nearside front tyre a test kick with his trunk. Like a true second-hand-car salesman, he nods knowingly at the driver and continues on his merry way, with wifey in tow. There’s clearly more than enough room for two Mr and Mrs Smiths here on the plains.
After a bumpy, dusty return to base camp, we swap another early-morning safari for a dip in the serene communal pool before trying the spa’s unconventional treatments. As a regular traveller, Mr Smith is happy to have his biorhythms realigned, while I choose a Sun-Seeker Body Wrap. Then, we relax (further) with a mojito at the swanky sunken bar, sharing anecdotes from the day’s expedition and reflecting on the sunbathing crocodiles, feasting eagles, stealthy leopards and – of course – the awe-inspiring elephants. Clearly well-versed in the daily ‘show time’, all had performed brilliantly to Chena Huts’ stage direction – good job guys, BAFTAs all round!