Hilton Yala hotel review: inside Sri Lanka’s newest eco-minded retreat

There are no fences separating wildlife from guests at Hilton Yala (Hilton)
There are no fences separating wildlife from guests at Hilton Yala (Hilton)

As calm as India is frenetic and as green as its neighbour is dusty, Sri Lanka has always been a major travel destination for those with hopeless wanderlust.

The teardrop-shaped country offers something for every type of traveller; from backpackers and families to couples and groups of friends. Flights may set you back, but it's plain sailing on arrival with the pound sterling exceptionally strong against the Sri Lankan rupee.

Tourism in the country is finding its feet once more, grappling not only with the after-effects of the pandemic but bouts of civil unrest and natural disasters that came before.

Now is the perfect time to head to the beautiful south, especially as its greenest, south-eastern pocket has opened a new Hilton outpost with an eco-luxe focus.

Hilton Yala was built around crucial elephant corridors (Hilton)
Hilton Yala was built around crucial elephant corridors (Hilton)


Set in the lush greenery of Yala (pronounced Yah-ley) National Park, the Hilton is one of a handful of hotels permitted in the sanctuary.

It’s a five-hour drive from Colombo International Airport so do stop at other Sri Lankan hot-spot towns if you can. If you’ve got the cash, a chopper or seaplane can whisk you here in around an hour. The nearest town is a very bumpy half an hour drive away, so if it’s peace and quiet you’re after — welcome to paradise.

Newly opened in August 2023, humidity levels soar in April while September is the driest month. Both are times to expect a sub-optimal visit.

The best time to visit? February to July, marking spring and early summer as the prime period for families and couples to book a stay.


There are no fences separating wildlife from guests at Hilton Yala (Hilton)
There are no fences separating wildlife from guests at Hilton Yala (Hilton)

Set beside the Indian Ocean in dense jungle with no fences to separate residents from wandering wildlife, the Hilton turns the tables by making guests feel like the exhibits. We didn’t see elephants wandering by on our visit, but a group of monkeys occupied a poolside table one evening, presumably for sundowner drinks.

The reception is an elevated, airy space with cathedral-high ceilings, with the bar and restaurant divided by a staircase leading down to a buggy park. This is where you’ll be driven to your room (walking the paths alone is forbidden from 6pm to 6am in case of surprise animal encounters; you’ll have to sign a document agreeing to this at check-in). Nothing like signing your life away to kick off R&R.

Food & Drink

Breakfast is a buffet affair at Indian Ocean-facing Dhira restaurant, the modest spread of fruit, pastries and local cakes supplemented by cooked-to-order plates of hoppers, omelettes and other hot breakfast fare. Glass doors lead to a balcony for those who fancy eating in the open air (and can tolerate the cloying temperatures). Lunch and dinner are served in the same space, with a menu of Asian-inspired and grilled dishes to whet the appetite.

Bespoke dinners on the beach can be organised by the Hilton’s team (Hilton)
Bespoke dinners on the beach can be organised by the Hilton’s team (Hilton)

Don't miss the bespoke Lanthaaruma dining experience, which changes location depending on nocturnal animal activity. We enjoyed ours on the beach lit by the glow of lanterns and a bonfire, but it can also be set up beside the pool. A tailored menu is cooked in an open kitchen, with everything from vegetable risotto to Sri Lankan-style surf and turf (gigantic prawns and juicy lamb chops) to feast on while rangers keep watch for gatecrashing elephants.

Hospitality is second to none, with smiling staff, many recruited from the area, falling over themselves to accommodate any whim or need.


Aside from the outdoor pool, there’s also a gym and spa to unwind time in. You’ll find plenty of massage options in the serene space to drain muscles of tension, from 30min sessions to tranquilising hour-and-a-half pampering treatments.


This Hilton’s biggest USP is, without question, its location.

Guests come here first and foremost for a Sri Lankan safari. Yala is 130,000 hectares of wild protected land, home to a cornucopia of creatures, from Asian elephants and spotted deer, to herds of water buffalo and freshwater crocodiles. Leopards are the king of this jungle — it’s the best place in Sri Lanka to spot one — but the apex predators are notoriously shy so coming across the big cat is pure luck.

Safaris, led by Hilton’s delightful rangers, set off in the early morning to beat the queues and the worst of the heat. We passed at least 20 jeeps queuing to get into zone one (there are six zones), but the hotel organises park entry ahead of time so you can trundle straight into the action.

Elephant sightings are common in the park (Hilton)
Elephant sightings are common in the park (Hilton)

While you’re unlikely to spot anything to make your BPM race on the main road, jeeps soon peel off onto smaller paths to raise the chances of scrambling for your camera. We saw everything but a leopard on our four-hour safari, including elephants at play, rebuffed peacock flirting (he shook every feather, she remained aloof) and a croc crouched by a lake, its jaws pulled back into a devilish Cheshire cat grin. Until our ranger Praneeth explained the behaviour was to cool the brain in climbing temperatures, one might assume he was simply pleased to see us.

The hotel also arranges guided bush walks around the resort so you can take things in at eye level. Archaeological and Buddhist temple trips are on the itinerary list too. Similarly set first thing in the morning, Hilton will pack jeeps with cold drinks and bento-style breakfasts to keep you fed and watered.

A sunrise breakfast inside Yala National Park, Sri Lanka (Hilton)
A sunrise breakfast inside Yala National Park, Sri Lanka (Hilton)

Aside from the wildlife, Hilton Yala’s biggest asset is its rangers. The select team helped design the resort to safeguard crucial elephant corridors, keeping them active for the wandering giants. They’re full of insider knowledge, from how climate change affects the park’s residents to bush-harvested solutions for everyday ills.

Head ranger Sajith Withanage swears by elephant dung as a hangover cure, disclosed as we skirted around sun-hardened pats of the stuff. Simply break off a chunk, burn it like charcoal and breathe in the emanating white smoke, he told us, eyes twinkling. It’s good for stopping nosebleeds too, apparently. One wonders the circumstances in which this remedy was first revealed.

Which room?

Let the light in: nature stays in the spotlight at Hilton Yala (Hilton)
Let the light in: nature stays in the spotlight at Hilton Yala (Hilton)

Arranged on ground and first-floor levels around a tree-lined pool, suites are wrapped in grey slatted wood, the look purposely designed to mimic zoo cages. But oh! What cages to find yourself in. Plush and fully air-conditioned, the spacious rooms are fitted with swanky Japanese loos, sigh-triggering beds, smart lighting and floor-to-ceiling windows to keep the outdoors firmly in the spotlight.

Top-floor rooms come with jacuzzis on the deck, while the ground-floor options boast private pools that make a welcome retreat from scorching midday temperatures.

Best for...?

Spotting Sri Lanka’s creatures, great and small.


Rooms at Hilton Yala start from approx. £442 per night, including breakfast. hilton.com