Oct 16 (SPEARS) Oblivious to the pandemic that was on the way, I had only a darting mongoose, a parading peacock and an Olympic-sized pool for company. In such surroundings, surrender to an off-grid tropical afternoon is inevitable.
In such surroundings, surrender to an off-grid tropical afternoon is inevitable.
Eschewing Sri Lanka’s famous sinews of sand, I’d headed straight for the hills. The mongoose and peacock were waiting inside Ulagalla, an ethereally beautiful property near Anuradhapura, the former 4th-century BC capital in the north of the island.
Time, if not standing still, was definitely dragging its feet. Ulagalla is one of several exceptional properties buried in the verdant, undulating folds of Sri Lanka’s interior. Conceived around a tastefully restored 150-year-old village chieftain’s mansion, 58 acres of luxury are interwoven into rurality with 25 secluded villas scattered around working rice paddies: back to nature without getting back to basics. In the middle of the paddies, a hut is converted into a rustic restaurant, presided over by women from local villages.
They have no English, but behind non-stop smiles they do have extraordinary culinary skills, which translate into a blissfully bucolic dining experience.
The principal restaurant, whose open sides invite open warfare with the monkeys, gazes out towards the lake and lost afternoons kayaking through the lily pads of its lost world landscape.
There are horses and bikes to explore surrounding villages, and tours curated to the many cultural landmarks, from the incredible Sigiriya fortress to Unesco-listed Anuradhapura which, after a thousand years as capital, disappeared into creeper clad obscurity for another millennium. National parks occupy 12 per cent of Sri Lanka’s surface area.
The busiest, Yala in the south, where Ulagalla has an equally stylish sister property, Chena Huts, boasts the highest density of leopards in the world. It might also have the highest density of safari jeeps, all seemingly driven by Lewis Hamilton wannabes.
Leopards, though, can be spotted in less frenetic parks such as Minneriya, accessible to Ulagalla, where we also marvelled at ‘the gathering’, the largest congregation of Asian elephants on the continent. As we emerged on to a huge expanse of wetland, suddenly there they all were. Hundreds of them, totally unperturbed by our presence. A magnificent spectacle. Sri Lanka’s abundance of riches, from secret surf spots to tranquil tea estates, the colonial streetscapes of Galle Fort and a plethora of palm-fringed beaches, is intoxicating.
One way of absorbing as much or as little as you choose is by car and driver: enter Terence, who, once conditioned to avoid jewellery showrooms, disports an encyclopaedic knowledge of his island. Setting out from the Dambulla Caves and their stunning centuries-old Buddhist imagery, we’re soon ruminating on the differences between Sri Lanka and its lugubrious neighbour, India, which he’s learned all about from Discovery Channel, rather than making the trip across the Palk Strait.
As we launched back into the kaleidoscope of colour and noise, with women in saris, diesel-choked highways, pungent spices wafting through a relentlessly tropical landscape, we could be in South India. But the illogical, endearing chaos that often defines the Indian experience is absent.
Scratch that multi-coloured Sri Lankan surface and an image of ordered calm emerges: it might look like India, but it feels more like Thailand. With Terence explaining how ordinary Buddhists don’t become monks, as in Thailand (again, he credits his own teacher, the Discovery Channel), we glide sedately into the drive of Nine Skies, a stunningly situated 1920s tea planter’s bungalow.
After a recent makeover rendering it more PG Wodehouse than PG Tips, Nine Skies is close by the colonial town of Ella, currently recolonised by backpackers. They pour off the little train built to transport tea to the coast, Instagramming away, as it chugs through timeless misty hidden hills of improbable perfection.