Sri Lanka is a paradisal island filled with ancient culture, pristine sandy beaches, incredible wildlife and the kindest, most hospitable people, it is no wonder that it attracts over 2 million tourists each year. Sadly, their world was shattered with senseless acts of violence and terror on Easter Sunday earlier this year. We arrived the day after several places of worship and hotels were targeted and 259 people lost their lives; to enter a country whilst in mourning was solemn to say the least. Despite this, for the next ten days, we went on to experience one of the best adventures of our lives.
During our time in Colombo, the city was under curfew and so we had no choice but to enjoy the confines of our beautiful Residence. Tucked away from the usual hustle and bustle of the city, Residence by Uga Escapes offers a calm oasis in between the ever modish Park Street filled with exclusive boutiques and restaurants illuminated by fairy lights and the tranquil lakeside Buddhist temple of Gangarama.
Behind the private gates, stood a beautiful Victorian mansion built by a wealthy barrister, Sheikh Salehboy Moosajee and was the hotspot of the upper echelon for Ceylon’s colonial society, hosting governors, maharajahs and nobility. As we stepped out of the car, I took a moment and looked up towards the impressive portico that stood proudly under the white streaked blue sky and perfectly manicured tropical plants on both sides of the foyer, before concierge immediately welcomed us into the cool interior of the grand lobby, bestrewn with vintage photos, an ode to their history and offering a cold towel and beverage.
We stayed in one of Residence’s ten suites, each as spacious and comfortable as the next, complete with a lounge separating the bedroom with a mahogany partition and leading to a lilliputian courtyard with a table and chairs and the privacy of high walls canopied by trees. We spent our time lounging by and dipping into the 15-metre swimming pool in the courtyard, located centrally within the hotel. It was the perfect antidote to the tiredness and jet lag that had taken over our bodies.
The pride and joy of the Residence was undoubtedly Rare at Residence, the hotel’s restaurant. A contemporary setting with maroon walls, egg shaped vintage lightbulbs cascading down in between the timber slats across the ceiling. The floor-to-ceiling windows and sliding doors offered views of the courtyard and pool, the trees lit up with twinkling fairy lights in the evenings.
For whiskey connoisseurs, Rare offers the largest whiskey collection in Colombo. For myself, I was delighted with a fresh watermelon juice. Moments later, a basket of fresh bread was brought over to our table, filled with focaccia – so soft, fluffy and full of flavour and garlic breadsticks that were accompanied by three types of freshly made butter: salted, lemongrass and paprika.
To begin, we recommend the show-stopping Lemongrass crab with creamy potatoes, served in a Kilner jar on a black slate. When opened, steam billowed out revealing the best crab I’ve ever had. Enjoy it like a tequila shot, dip it in rock sea salt with a sprinkling of lime juice – delightful. The Seafood Risotto is not to be missed, crispy fish tempura served on a bed of creamy parmesan risotto. For dessert, the lemongrass crème brûlée is smooth and creamy, the lemongrass giving this classic a tropical twist.
Anuradhapura – Ulagalla
We headed north towards Anuradhapura, one of the ancient capitals of Sri Lanka, dating back to the 5th century BC. Due to the forlorn circumstances, we were advised by our guide, Chrishanta from Sri Lanka In Style not to visit high risk areas such as the Sacred City, Sigiriya and Ruwanwelisaya which was disappointing. However, when we pulled into the spectacular Ulagalla estate, we realised that it wouldn’t matter.
We were immediately greeted by a member of staff and offered a cold towel and welcome drink within the colonnade leading to the 150-year-old village chieftains mansion, before taking part in their traditional welcome ceremony including two rituals. The first, was lighting the traditional Sri Lankan oil lamp, a silhouette of the national bird of the country crafted into the gilt of the lamp, and is believed to bring happiness and prosperity. The second, pulling the cord to ring the bells – the big bell was originally located at the main gate in 1916, inscribed with the letters KBP, the initials of the founder of the Walauwa, Kiri Banda Panabokke, the bell was pulled three times by villagers wanting to meet Mr Panabokke.
As Sumanaratne loaded the golf cart with our luggage, I looked up to see a pair of cheeky monkeys sat on the railing of the open-air pavilion, before being whisked away on the golf buggy, a great way to explore the 58 acres of land with 25 1850 sq ft villas dotted around rice paddy fields, expect to see peacocks and cows roaming the fields.
We arrived at our thatched-roofed, Ulagalla Pool Villa, elevated on stilts, with two bicycles parked neatly underneath. As we climbed the steps, we were greeted by several peacocks lounging by the beautiful plunge pool cocooned by the tropical flora, our very own personal oasis. We laughed as they immediately fled back into the wilderness. Inside, the villa was cavernous with a huge lounge and dining room, bedroom complete with a kingsized four poster bed, floor-to-ceiling windows with beautiful mahogany wood throughout the property and an immense marble bathroom looking out onto a little pond and the chosen spot for a white cow we named Daisy.
At sunrise, we met Sumit who took us on a guided nature walk around the estate and along the banks of Wannemaduwa Tanks. A perfect way to spend a morning roaming through the abundant green jungle with the lake filled with lily pads reflecting the pastel blue sky and fluffy white clouds on one side. Catch a glimpse of some of the wildlife including the hundreds of birds that inhabit the neighbourhood and discover some of the tropical flowers, with over 2,000 species including the mimosa plant that closes up at a single touch.
Cycling through the local village was also a wonderful way to spend the morning. We waved hello to the happy locals as we passed them and got a glimpse of the beautiful Sri Lankan culture. Once we reached the temple, we paid our respects to the monk who said a prayer and blessed us. We made friends with the stray dogs who accompanied us to the peak. As we were leaving, a troop of monkeys came out and sat calmly in front of me. Sumit went to fetch bananas whilst the monkeys waited patiently before gently taking the small bits of banana out of my hand.
For lunch, he had a lesson learning to cook authentic Sri Lankan cuisine with a chef at Ulagalla. He gave us a tour of the organic garden on site, collecting herbs along the way before stepping into a a little mud hut filled with wooden fires underneath clay pots – a traditional kitchen in Sri Lanka. We cooked several different curries including fish, chicken and okra using lemongrass, garlic, mustard seeds and curry powder, served with rice and roti.
In the evening, we went for a convivial horse ride. I was paired with Rolex, a beautiful white and brown steed, it was love at first sight. We galloped around the estate and tank bund, with me relishing in the moment and taking in the stunningly verdant landscape, whilst Rolex enjoyed ignoring my soft instructions to snack on the delightful foliage every so often.
Trincomalee – Jungle Beach
After three excellent days at Ulagalla, we started the drive towards the east coast of Tincomalee. We stopped along the way at Mihintale, an excursion deemed safe by Sri Lanka In Style and the sacred land where Buddhism began in Sri Lanka. We walked through the ruins of the hospital and the refectory that had been there since 247 BC. We climbed the steps, scattered with delicate Frangipani, and towards the crest of the Aradhana Gala, our guide Rangana revealing a secret nook that offered unparalleled views of the surrounding mountainous landscape and big Buddha statue.
We arrived at Jungle Beach in the afternoon and were received with a refreshing welcome drink made up of mint and green mango. The reception and restaurant areas were open air and resembled a treehouse and made entirely out of wood and concrete. We were amazed to discover that the resort was built around the landscape, with only one tree cut down in the process.
We stayed in one of the Beach Cabins, that featured a cosy kingsize bed with a sofa at the foot. Our cabin opened out onto a small decked patio with arched hedges, enticing you to follow the secret path that would lead to the spectacular black sandy beach – be careful you don’t go through the wrong tunnel and end up at a different cabin!
We spent the rest of the day lounging on the beach with a good book and dipping in and out of the warm glistening turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean. Sadly, our visit to Pigeon Island was cancelled due to the high tide. All the more reason to return.
Batticaloa – Uga Bay
We headed further along the east coast to Batticaloa, arriving at Uga Bay, located along the stunning coast of Pasikuda. We pulled up outside the acropolis red-bricked ringed fortress and waited for the wooden gates to open and revealed a stunning architectural marvel. A concrete alcove that opened up to a tunnel leading to the reception of the resort. We were greeted by the friendly staff and handed a refreshing welcome drink.
We stayed in one of the Ocean Studios on the first floor featuring a comfortable four-poster bed, sofa and coffee table with a delectable plate of fresh tropical fruit awaiting us. The balcony offered views of the resort with palm trees and Frangipani trees leading to the pristine sandy beach.
Despite the rain, we decided to take a walk along one of Sri Lanka’s most celebrated beaches. A couple of stray dogs chaperoned us as we walked along the white sandy beach, from one end of the bay to the other. The sun eventually eventually shone over Uga Bay, highlighting the magnificent resort in its true glory. We took a refreshing dip in the main pool, located in the centre of the resort before lazing on the wicker sun loungers by the pool, shaded by the perfectly pruned shrubbery around the pool overlooking the beach.
Yala – Chenna Huts
We made our way to the south coast and our final stop, Chena Huts, an exquisite safari adventure that blends the best the best that Sri Lanka has to offer, their immaculate tropical beaches and exotic wildlife. We were welcomed with a delectable raw mango and honey drink before planting a flag on their welcome wall to highlight where current guests were from.
Our 1130 sq ft luxury cabin featured an open plan living space with a lounge area and kingsize bed in the centre of the room, the exquisite headboard made out of different sized logs doubled up as a divider, with double basins and a freestanding bathtub on the other side. The shaded outdoor terrace included an outdoor shower and plunge pool, shaded by trees and aromatic cinnamon fences.
We woke up at the crack of dawn, excited for our first game drive of the day. Praneeth, our ranger pointed out the diverse landscape throughout Yala. The earth was dry and red but contained several watering holes, where we saw communes of wildlife from water buffalos, crocodiles, monkeys and birds. We were lucky to spot the black necked stork – the rarest bird in Sri Lanka. At one point, there was a herd of deer, a troop of monkeys and an elephant in the background, all living peacefully amongst each other.
After chasing leopard tracks for an hour, the biggest thrill was spotting a pair of leopards dozing up high in a distant tree, bellies full from their recent kill. What made the day even more memorable, was spotting the same leopard in the evening waking up from its daytime slumber and sauntering gracefully down to a watering hole, a peacock parading not too far from it, unbeknown to the potential danger that awaited it.
After returning from a successful game drive, we joined the other guests for sundowners, enjoying conversations with Chaya and Dulaj, the loveliest members of staff, before walking up the candle-lit path to the restaurant and enjoyed a delectable, three-course meal.
It is Chenna Huts’ attention to detail and wonderfully dedicated staff that made our stay so incredibly special and the perfect end to an incredible adventure in Sri Lanka that I have no doubt will be returning to one day.