A far cry from the crowds in Kathmandu, Tiger Tops Karnali Lodge is on the border of Bardiya National Park, a swathe of wildlife-rich jungle in far-western Nepal. Spread over 928 square kilometres, Bardiya occupies a wild pocket of the Terai, a lush, subtropical region with a thriving ecosystem. Rustic and remote, Karnali is off the beaten track, but the embracing welcome and soulful safaris more than make up for the travel time. Spend your days spotting animals from vintage Land Rovers, on walking safaris (a rare treat in Asia) or cruising for crocodiles on the Karnali River. In the evenings, toast the sunset from the fire pit before settling down to dinners that are chock-full of organic goodness from the hotel’s farm.
10am, but flexible, subject to availability. Earliest check-in, noon.
Double rooms from £177.16 ($242), including tax at 24.3 per cent.
Rates include all meals and safari activities. Transfers, alcoholic drinks and any optional extras incur an extra charge.
Tiger Tops’ founder Jim Edwards was a pioneer of green tourism. As well as helping to establish Bardiya in the Seventies, he started the International Trust for Nature Conservation, which carries out anti-poaching work, tiger monitoring and conservation in Nepal and beyond.
The hotel closes during July and August each year.
At the hotel
Fire pit, lounge, free WiFi in the main lodge, laundry. In rooms: free bottled water, blackout curtains and Lavaanya bath products.
Our favourite rooms
Karnali was built by local craftsmen in a traditional Tharu style, with hardwood furnishings, earthen walls and pitched ceilings. In the rooms, the decor is decidedly understated – as with everything here, Mother Nature gets centre stage. Go for one of the Signature Rooms, which are more luxuriously dressed, sporting a topcoat of calming cream tones. True to their name, the Traditional Rooms are a more rustic, wallet-friendly option.
There’s no call for formality, so don’t waste space on evening outfits.
All of the common areas are wheelchair accessible, as are some of the guest rooms (though they’re not specifically wheelchair-adapted).
All ages are welcome, but over-sixes will get more out of the national park and safari activities. Babysitting can be arranged with a day’s notice.
Tiger Tops is involved with multiple conservation efforts in the national park, including all-important anti-poaching measures. It has also established eco clubs at several local schools, and provides funding and resources to thousands of children in the region. At the lodge, all the buildings were constructed in line with the regional style, by local craftsmen who used local materials. The organic farm provides almost all of the greens eaten on-site, and solar panels help keep the hotel’s footprint light. Paper is recycled, there are no single-use plastics and the bath products are eco-friendly to boot.
Pull up a pew at the main table or request a private one.
This is tiger country – your safari gear will do just fine.
Meals at the lodge feel like a family affair – there’s no menu and guests often choose to sit at the communal table. In keeping with the lodge’s green outlook, the bulk of the fruit, vegetables and herbs are plucked from the hotel’s organic farm, and everything else comes from suppliers in the region. There’s usually only one option on the menu each evening, drastically reducing food waste. The chefs are flexible, of course, and will always tailor meals to fit dietary requirements or children’s preferences. Their repertoire includes plenty of Nepalese and Western options; usually, there’s a local dish one evening, a European one the next. Meals tend to be in the dining hall, but if it's balmy, tables can be set up on the lawns.
Drinks are served in the main lodge and around the fire pit, the go-to gathering place for pre-dinner cocktails.
Breakfast is available from 6am to 10am. Lunch and dinner are flexible, depending on when guests want to eat.
Tiger Tops Karnali is on the edge of Bardiya National Park, a wildlife-rich reserve in Nepal’s western Terai region.
The closest airport is Nepalgunj, 85 kilometres from the hotel. International arrivals should touch down at Kathmandu, then hop on a domestic service to Nepalgunj, a flight that lasts around an hour. The drive from Nepalgunj takes roughly an hour and 45 minutes; private transfers in a four-wheel drive are NPR5,500 a person (but rates come down as the number of passengers goes up).
Most guests don’t do any driving of their own. Self-drive rental cars are virtually non-existent in Nepal, and UK licence holders need an International Driving Permit (IDP) before they can get behind the wheel. You won’t need a car once you arrive, as you’ll be in a vintage, open-top Land Rover Defender while out on safari.
Worth getting out of bed for
Karnali has always been a springboard to explore the national park, and is quite happy playing second fiddle to Nature’s grand designs. That’s not to say it isn’t a delightful place to hang out, however. The evenings are particularly atmospheric, when guests gather around the fire pit for drinks, trading stories about the day’s sightings. With no TVs or technological trappings, the lodge is also the perfect place to step back from the pace of digital life, tuning into the sound and rhythm of the jungle.
Worlds away from frenetic Kathmandu, Bardiya National Park is a swathe of unspoiled jungle home to some of Nepal’s most impressive wildlife, including Asian elephants, rhinos, leopards and crocodiles. The undisputed king of the jungle, however, is the mighty Bengal tiger, a bucket-list sighting for any safari goer. Adding to the experience is the fact that the lodge uses vintage, open-top Land Rover Defenders for its safaris, which look particularly fetching when caught on black-and-white film. Nepal is one of the only places in Asia that allows walking safaris in its national parks, making this a rare opportunity to experience face-to-face encounters (in the presence of a seasoned naturalist, of course). Alternatively, take to the water on a river safari, cruising along in a hand-carved boat. Gharial and mugger crocodiles are the lords of Karnali River, and can usually be spotted basking on sunny banks. The guides can also take you on bird-watching trips (Nepal is home to more than 800 species) and visits to local villages, where you’ll experience the Tharu way of life and see some of Tiger Tops’ initiatives in action.
Your meals are included in your rate and you’re unlikely to find anything nearby that rivals the hotel’s food.
Every hotel featured is visited personally by members of our team, given the Smith seal of approval, and then anonymously reviewed. As soon as our reviewers have returned from this eco-lodge in Nepal and unpacked their khakis, a full account of their safari break will be with you. In the meantime, to whet your wanderlust, here's a quick peek inside Tiger Tops Karnali Lodge in Bardiya National Park…
A born adventurer and pioneering naturalist, Jim Edwards was a man with vision. When the Tiger Tops founder bought his first lodge in the Seventies, it was a remote outpost for big-game hunters – a pursuit that was still popular in the days before Nepal’s national parks. Jim, however, had seen the future. All hunting activities were soon brought to a close, conservation programs took root and the lodge was turned over to travellers who wanted to experience the unspoiled jungles of western Nepal.
Established in 1988, Karnali Lodge follows in the footsteps of the first Tiger Tops outpost in Chitwan. On the outskirts of Bardiya National Park, Karnali is in one of the lesser-visited regions of the country, making for authentic and peaceful safaris. Rustic and simple, the lodge borrows heavily from the local Tharu architecture, sporting earthen walls and wooden furnishings that sit comfortably with the wild surroundings. Green thinking can be seen everywhere, from the solar panels to the organic farm, where the chef picks his greens for dinner. The atmosphere is warm and welcoming, tending towards just the right level of familiarity. Whether you choose to dine at the communal table or go it alone, you’ll almost certainly start the evening around the fire, sharing tales with fellow guests as the sun creeps behind the canopy.