Return to paradise: why Sri Lanka remains the most transformative tropical getaway: Tatler
Sri Lanka is the paradise island I have been looking for. A landscape of palm-flanked beaches, cross-hatched paddies and tea-trails, Adam’s Peak and its Buddhist pilgrimages, the skin-plumping damp and heat, the smell of hibiscus and ginger, the food – papaya and mangosteen, the sweet, sticky rice and crab curries. Altogether, it’s very seductive. It’s difficult not to lie beneath the curtains of billowing gauze in the Amangalla resort bedroom, the whirr of the rattan fan, as the evening rain patters on the frangipani, unable to sleep and think, lazily, ‘Why can’t jetlag always feel this good?
There is no better way to acclimatise to the first days of island life than at Amangalla, a glamorous landmark in the historic town of Galle. Soothed with morning yoga and a pre-breakfast swim in the green-slate pool, with a fresh ginger tea waiting for you afterwards – the whole place exudes a sincere and elegant sense of wellbeing. Just wait until the longtime spa therapist Raju imparts his deep-tissue massage on you, and you emerge so relaxed as to feel boneless.’
Crossing the island over a week, a large amount of time is spent with my driver, Nalin; an integral part of my trip and gentleness personified, not to mention the most fabulous guide. He whisks us off to see waterfalls, seeking out the best spots to buy crystals along the way (the island is renowned for its rose quartz and amethyst, alongside some serious sapphires).
At the lesser-known temples Nalin shows me along the way, he educated me on his Buddhist beliefs, showed me how to pray and took me to receive a blessing from the priests (an orange thread bracelet that still hasn’t fallen off many months later).
We check out elegantly handmade rattan and bamboo furniture from a tiny road-side shop in the lagoon village near Bentota (and even manage to package up some tables and send them back to London), and Nalin displays honourable patience as I stop at some of the various Wes Anderson-esque railway stations that are scattered across the country. An unexpected bonus is the great wi-fi in the car, even when we head further inland and up, almost into the clouds, as we hit the Central Highlands. Sitting serenely in the Demodara estate near Ella, high above the most adorable one of those storybook train stations, it offers mesmerising views of tea-plant-covered hillsides which are best taken in from the infinity pool.
Or you can fully immerse yourself in the tea trails – so endlessly green it’s like augmented reality – trekking along vertiginous hills. For those who feel frazzled or just want to experience exquisite naturalness, this surely must be it. The menu choices are limited to delicious farm-to-table realities – that means whatever is fresh and local, cooked simply, and in abundance. There’s also a faint timewarp charm to the place. It’s all about days gone by, dreamed away in four-poster beds, playing on a croquet lawn or just savouring the world’s best Earl Grey. The bliss is complete in the evening, when hot water bottles are tucked into your bed at turndown.
But even more exhilarating remoteness and a properly spiritual escape awaits at Camellia Hills, close to Adam’s Peak. Sometime in your life you should hike this sacred mountain: all its cool 7,359 feet of altitude, an antique wonder of the world. It’s hard to fully grasp its spiritual weight, for at the summit is said to be a footprint indent made by the Buddha himself on his final of three visits to the island. Legend also has it that this is where Adam was sent after being exiled from the Garden of Eden. Whatever you believe, this is a place that compels the imagination. Every full moon, you can make a pilgrimage up the mountain, a fantastic landscape of rock with pagodas clinging to its side, right to the temple at its summit: the whole route romantically illuminated by tea candles.
As I set off just after midnight to climb the 5,500 steps, I am slightly overwhelmed by the scale and drama of it all. There are drums and chanting; a heady mix of incense; and a stream of pilgrims dressed in white. I eventually find my stride, coaxed on by an encouraging guide arranged by Camellia Hills, who performs palm readings for me when my legs cannot take more stairs. After three hours of hiking up the mountain, energy slightly wavering, I am cajoled up the last part, climbing the remaining steps to the temple barefoot, as is the custom. The stairs get smaller and smaller, the air thin and sparkling, the drop-dead views of Sri Lanka rolled out below, cloaked in clouds is sublime (although perhaps not for those with vertigo), and I am rewarded with pure elation at reaching the summit for sunrise – it truly feels like I have reached Shangri-La.
I laze on the veranda and lunch on a divine cashew curry, dal and a particularly good green bean curry, along with various other vegetarian dishes. Below the tea plantation stretches to the Castlereagh Reservoir, an extraordinary horizon that emits a deep sense of peace, further induced with more massage and reflexology treatments. The only real disturbance is the possibility of leopards running around the property after dark.
Onwards to Lunuganga, where the only leopards you will find are the stone statue variety that are dotted around the gardens of this 1930s bungalow, romantically set in the former cinnamon-plantation estate of renowned architect Geoffrey Bawa. Overlooking an iridescent lake and set in one of the most spectacular gardens in all Sri Lanka, you instantly feel a peculiar magic; you can genuinely feel what TS Eliot called ‘the still point of the turning world’. It is as if time has stopped. As if you’ve stepped into a tropical version of Call Me By Your Name: a wild and fantastical space, filled with shady arbours and secret follies; Italianate in style, with Roman busts and statues, choked in vines.
Beneath a frangipani tree, pruned into a picture of grace, I practise yoga with Eva, an exceptional teacher who runs the Sri Yoga Shala nearby and can come to the hotel for private classes. Absorbed in the haunting beauty of the place, holding various sun salutations and gentle asanas, something just clicks. If you’re looking to feel grounded and really switch off, this is one of the most immersive yoga practices to engage all your senses, in her calm way Eva reminds you of what being ‘aligned’ truly feels like when you’re grounded and properly in harmony.
Saving perhaps the best to last, the most enchanting spot for a restorative escape is Ulpotha, the renowned eco-hideaway. After 25 years, its greatness still lies in two factors: its capacity to heal the heartsore or those suffering from burnout (enabled by its extensive ayurvedic programmes, headed by Dr Srilal Mudunkothge and his team, not to mention a roster of intuitive practitioners, healers and serious yoga masters); and the preservation and protection of the magical wilderness in which it is cradled. From the start, the core principle of owners Viren Perera and Giles Scott – who found Ulpotha as an abandoned village in the jungle heartlands – was to create a self-reliant, Buddhist, agricultural community. And they succeeded. With no electricity or mobile phones, it’s a proper utopia, its houses made from traditional wattle and daub, and hand-painted twice a year using natural coloured clays. What’s more, the food is of a different order: plated up in the ambalama (central pavilion), menus of seriously fresh vegan produce (here they don’t believe in fridges, so everything is picked and cooked that day) – all grown on-site on their farm – include a memorable papaya curry with lotus-seed rice.
Aside from the natural loveliness of the place – an Edenic lake, a ridge of blue hills, surrounding paddy fields as far as the eye can see – days are spent doing as much or as little as you please. You can have yoga classes every morning and early-evening; and there are fortnightly retreats taken by such visiting practitioners as Mika de Brito, an exceptional teacher who has his own particular dynamic Vinyasa style. You can also visit Pi Jem, who gives the world’s best Thai massage, completely ironing out your spine; or Sophie, who does a mix of lymphatic drainage and a more relaxing take on Swedish kneading. And then there is Eva’s ethereal Ka Huna massage – in which you are slathered and swept in coconut oil. It might not feel like much has happened here but, after a few days of the above – something suddenly clicks.
You are drawn to Sri Lanka for a life change, and when you arrive, it just seems to happen effortlessly. Perhaps it’s the instant hit of sensational scenery; or the inexplicable therapeutic energy this deeply spiritual land radiates. Or the food – I still dream about those crab curries and coconut ice cream – not to mention meeting the kindest people, who restore your faith in humanity. Forget traipsing around Italy, India and Bali to find ‘happiness’ like Elizabeth Gilbert prescribed in Eat, Pray, Love: Sri Lanka has it all in one.
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