Savour the slow pace of life
Vil Uyana has been featured in Time Magazine, is ranked as one of the top eco-resorts in the world and is visited by celebrities who are household names. Yet, how many of you have taken advantage of the favourable rates currently available to Sri Lankan residents and spent some time at this magical place located on our very doorstep? I did, and I can't wait to go back, because a weekend at Vil Uyana is a very different experience to the usual weekend away at a hotel, spent over-indulging at the buffets and dodging the volleyball in the hotel pool. To use currently fashionable jargon, Vil Uyana is a lifestyle experience or put more simply, an enchanting interlude for anyone who enjoys being close to nature but would like to do so in luxury.
To begin with, as soon as you turn off onto the Habarana Road just past Dambulla, slow down to get yourself into the mood for the experience ahead. When you turn off again onto the road to Sigiriya, slow down some more, and look out for the sign to Vil Uyana with its elegant logo of a dragonfly perched on a reed. Driving along the sun-baked gravel road to the hotel, you may catch a glimpse of Sigiriya through the trees and a quick view of the thatched roofs of the Vil Uyana avasas or dwellings, above a bund on your left. But, by now, you have arrived at the entrance to the property. One of the lions at the entrance is half asleep in the dry zone heat, a symbol of the leisurely pace of life you will encounter at Vil Uyana. The other lion has its watchful eye open for visitors, and the man at the gate has greeted you in the traditional manner, taken charge of your bags, sent your car away to be parked and almost before you have finished stretching after your long drive, an electric buggy has arrived to take you to the reception - an embodiment of the level of service that Vil Uyana offers.
As the buggy glides off quietly along the bund, it feels as if you have stepped into another world, far away from urban pressures and stresses. A scarecrow watches from paddy fields that are still cultivated by the hotel around the Vel Mandapa or Paddy Field Dwellings. All around is a sense of tranquillity, of timelessness, of peace. To truly appreciate this place, it is important to let yourself relax and merge with the environment.
The lake at Vil Uyana is man-made (or should I say, woman-designed). It was created by the architect Sunela Jayewardene, keeping in mind the tank-building tradition of the ancient kings of the dry zone who collected precious rainwater for irrigation, agriculture, bathing and recreation. Its construction has given rise to new habitats described in the names of the guest lodges themselves: the Water Mandapa, the Marsh Dwellings and the Forest Avasas. Into these habitats have come a host of appreciative new inhabitants - egrets who stalk the grounds, kingfishers that swoop over the water, painted storks who stand amidst the reed beds, even a crocodile and its partner that have discovered the lake and established themselves as colonists.For those who appreciate nature, this is paradise.
Don’t, however, expect dramatic meetings with elephants, although these magnificent beasts do venture onto the grounds at night on occasion. The encounters with wildlife are gentler, more of a chance to observe unobtrusively the small moments of their daily lives and routines.
If you take an early morning walk along the bunds, you may see a family of Grey Mongooses cross the path ahead. During their mating season, you hear the mewing call of the peacocks and may perhaps spy some of these still in their night-time roosting places in the branches of the Kumbuk trees along the riverine boundary of the grounds. A water hen scoots across the road in front of you. A bright orange kekiri fruit ripening on a vine catches your eye. Big, fat, bumble bees buzz round the waxy purple wara flowers once the sun is up.
The plants of Vil Uyana are of the region. Some root-balled trees have been transplanted and painstakingly nurtured to provide shelter for the wildlife and shade for the visitors, but the grass on the verges is unmown and thick with wild flowers that have been left to seed and flourish, providing beauty not only in themselves but in the swarms of butterflies that hover over them to drink their nectar. Pale pink convolvulus flowers lie scattered on the grass like miniature Japanese umbrellas. A thalagoya slithers lazily amongst them flicking its tongue and tasting the air. Liquid trills of birdsong provide the only music here.
Between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., it is really too hot to brave the outdoors. This is the time to enjoy your avasa or the spa, noticing how the architect has blended the best of our ancient traditions with the comforts provided by modern technology, so that the hotel simultaneously celebrates our heritage while drawing on the best that modern times have to offer. Appreciate the features that provide luxury while minimising the undesirable impacts of humans on their environs. (I have only touched on some of the delights of Vil Uyana, so as to leave you the thrill of discovery). The spacious bathroom without doors may stop you in your tracks, but if you accept the less hurried, more in- touch- with- nature lifestyle that Vil Uyana represents and judge it not from pre-conceived norms, the avasas can provide a truly sensuous experience that is yours to direct and revel in as you choose.
The rectangular plunge pools in front of all but the Water Dwellings, were my particular delight. The pale green water of the pool, with the wind blowing ripples across its surface, beckons invitingly during the hot hours of the day. Using, as a diya redde, one of the sarongs, thoughtfully provided in each room, I was very quickly floating on my back in the pool, gazing up at the clouds drifting across a sunlit sky.
What a way to unwind!
When the sun begins to go down, saunter round the property, preferably in the company of the very knowledgeable resident naturalist, Nadeera. He will help you distinguish one bird from another and point out the environmentally-friendly measures taken at the hotel. You will see the Kamatha where the paddy is threshed after harvest, a ceremony in which hotel guests are invited to participate. The Kamatha also doubles as a small amphitheatre for local troupes to perform folk dances - a perfect setting for the purpose.
Further on, venture into the Island Spa that has been based on the ancient Veda Gedara or Ayurvedha treatment house. As you proceed you may meet the peacock that strolls round the property each evening - after all it is his environment as much as it is yours. Afterwards, sit in the library with a drink in hand and watch the evening sky change colours across the lake as the sun goes down. The sunsets can be quite magnificent here. I once watched the sky turning from shades of mauve and lilac through various shades of pink and yellow, until finally, the whole horizon was a liquid gold with the sun flaming into an orange- red ball before it sank behind a screen of trees beyond the water.
Dinner is served in the beautiful dining room upstairs by friendly, locally- recruited staff, who though professionally- trained, still noticeably retain the native hospitality inherent in our village folk. When Jetwing started to develop the Vil Uyana property, a programme was started simultaneously to train local young people and teach them English. Half the Vil Uyana staff has been recruited from this pool of trainees.
A group of oriental musicians provides non-intrusive music for dining and dinner is a long and leisurely affair. An elaborate mural re-telling a jataka tale and painted by a local artist using natural dyes, forms a stunning backdrop in the dining area. You can dither, as we did, over a choice of mushroom puree or an asparagus soup and finish with a lemon cheese cake on shortbread with a strawberry and root ginger sauce on the side, complemented by a cup of good strong coffee.
As you walk back to your dwelling, under a star-lit sky, a scent of jasmine wafts across from bushes strategically planted besides the avasas. This kind of attention to small details that enhance your sybaritic experience but is in keeping with eco-friendly principles at all times, is Vil Uyana’s trademark.
If this is the kind of place you think you will appreciate, and you would like to support an initiative to exhibit the beauty and heritage of our country without destroying it in the process, visit Vil Uyana. It is truly an experience to savour and a place to return to from time to time, for each season brings forth its particular delights.