Explore breathtaking culture and community with Ulagalla by Uga Escapes
This community-conscious resort in the heart of Sri Lanka is a home from home for its VIP guests
In recent years Sri Lanka has become the destination du jour for trendy travellers thanks to its miles of sandy beaches, dramatic surf and scenic train routes but, high in the central hills, the ancient cities offer a glimpse into a very different world, where luxury resorts meet community projects driven by sustainable practises.
Leading the charge is Ulagalla by Uga Escapes, a remarkable 58-acre resort in the grounds of a 19th-century noble estate, located just 17 miles from the scared ancient city of Anuradhapura and close to monuments such as Sigiriya Lion Rock and Pidurangala, and the ruins of Polonnaruwa. While this is a sophisticated five-star escape, Ulagalla is also dedicated to its surrounding local villages and environment, inviting us to share in its history and culture the moment we arrive with a traditional bell ceremony before an effortless check in at the central Walawwa.
The Walawwa building at the heart of the estate combines decadent lounge areas, a bar, and a colonial-style restaurant, while outside the main pool and gymnasium offer views of green fields as far as the eye can see, accessible by foot or the bicycles provided by the hotel. Before being too tempted to start exploring, we are whisked away to our villa via golf buggy. Our driver, affectionally known as 'Uncle' by hotel staff and guests alike, points out the verdant rice paddies, horse stables, archery centre and more on the quick journey to what he insists is now "our home".
And it does feel like being welcomed home – if home were one of the resort's 20 exquisite freestanding private villas. Each chalet is ecologically-built using local, biodegradable materials, and designed to blend seamlessly with the surrounding environment – forests or paddies. Every one features a private plunge pool or infinity pool, beautifully furnished living rooms, and plenty of space to entertain. Butler services and private dining are also available. >>
In keeping with the resort's ecological pledge, Ulagalla gains most of its energy from its own private solar farm. The grounds include working rice paddies and organic gardens and farms, which provide produce for the restaurant, while the more rugged areas of vegetation are home to native wildlife including 100 species of bird, playful langur monkeys, peacocks and more. But while the natural surroundings are enough to transport guests to another world, it is the stand out service that will make you want to extend your stay.
Ulagalla's restaurant, Liyawela, is fine dining at its best. Simple, cosy furnishings and lovely views across the estate, this first floor restaurant serves a range of traditional Sri Lankan dishes and western fare throughout the day, and is helmed by a wildly talented head chef. For dinner, I opt for a calamari starter which is out of this world – one of my favourite dishes, Liyawala serves up the best version of this classic that I've ever had – followed by a traditional Sri Lankan pittu dish. The trick here, I discover, is to blend all the curries together to produce rich and complimentary flavours.
The restaurant's five-course breakfast offers a generous spread of fresh watermelon juice, coffees, pastries and egg dishes but if, like me, you prefer a lighter start to the day, the chef is more than happy to whip up whatever you're in the mood for – like a simple but delicious eggs and avocado, made a little more exciting with a sprinkling of fresh green chillis. >>
The rest of the resort's staff are equally talented and generous with their expertise, with Ulagalla's Responsible Tourism initiative ensuring that 40% of staff members are recruited from local villages. Led by a frankly inspirational general manager, Mrs Gitanjali Haaland, it's no wonder the quality of service is so on point.
Since joining the company almost two years ago, Haaland's attention to detail, philanthropic spirit and loyalty to her staff has seen Ulagalla expand its outreach programmes to create medical camps for vulnerable parts of the community, provide donations and building projects for local schools (including much needed sanitation), and purchase produce from local farmers.
With Ulagalla offering guests opportunities to join in local traditions and ceremonies – such as the biannual rice harvest, cookery lessons, kite making, cycling trips to UNESCO World Heritage Site Anuradhapura – or simply wile the time away with a relaxing massage, there is a wealth of activities on offer whether you're seeking royal pampering or exciting excursions. >>
Sadly, every escape must end. But if, like me, you wish to maintain a little of that Uga experience in Sri Lanka's bustling capital city of Colombo before heading to the airport, a night or two at the Residence by Uga Escapes is a must. While this hip boutique is a noticeably more corporate, city-slick affair than its sister hotel, the 19th-century building maintains Uga's zen-like atmosphere thanks to its stunning central courtyard and beautiful decor.
Once a haven for British governors, Indian maharajas and European nobility, the 11 guest suites are luxuriously equipped and the elegant on-site restaurant, Rare at Residence, offers international cuisine with Sri Lankan ingredients – the breakfast milkshakes are a wonderful antidote to the city's humidity. It's also in walking (or tuk tuk) distance of many of the city's tourist attractions, so you can continue to indulge the adventurous spirit Uga Escapes inspires in its guests.