Sprawling luxury amidst the fields

By Smriti Daniel, Pix by J. Weerasekera

The night begins with cocktails in the middle of the paddy fields. Torches light the way, and bonfires crackle as the company partakes of cocktails and hors d’oeuvres. The sky is crammed full of stars, but outside this circle of light the land is dark.

Come morning, the paddy fields, brown and cleared of the harvest will be clearly visible. At the Ulagalla Walauwa Resort , these fields make for a kind of working decoration – their produce finds its way into the kitchens and out onto the market, but their value is also a matter of aesthetics - and a reminder that this is a hotel serious about ‘going green’.

Chalets with a view: Eco-concepts built in for peaceful relaxation

With 25 chalets built around a gorgeously renovated walawwa, the resort sprawls over a spacious 58 acres. Intended as a luxurious escape, guests here are so indulged that they want for nothing. But the hotel undertakes a careful balancing act to keep itself eco-friendly.

The air conditioners and hot showers that make the rooms so comfortable are powered for most part by a massive array of solar panels – the roof of the stables supports Sri Lanka’s largest solar panel farm. (Divided into 12 sections, the panels are especially designed and sealed so that they can also channel rain water for harvesting.)

A water purification plant helps purify waste water and rain water. The rooms are fitted with LED bulbs that cut the carbon footprint of the hotel by 80% while the air-conditioner is reported to employ an environmentally friendly gas. Even the walls of the building contribute to the cause – essentially made of straw, these Durra panels are said to be 100% recyclable, 10 times stronger than dry wall and fireproof to boot.

In one corner of the property, a windmill spins lazily, while in the other an organic garden thrives. This is where you’re most likely to find Nimal Dharmasiri. The young gardener hails from the area and says he decides what to sow in consultation with the chef. He protects the rich produce of his garden with an arsenal of organic pesticides. Nourished by compost made on the premises, many of these vegetables will soon be ready for the table. Nimal says that the next batch is already blooming in a nursery nearby. The young man is among the 40% of staff drawn from the surrounding villages and towns. The resort also draws its supplies from other local producers – having supplied them with plants, they now purchase the harvest.

“Much of the eco-concept is about passing down benefits to the community,” says Ranjaka De Mel, General Manager, Marketing, describing CSR projects which have included donations of computers to local communities. Even the cattle that plough the paddy fields have benefited from their policies – rescued from the slaughterhouse, they now call the resort home. That you can watch them plodding along from your private plunge pool is something that inspires mixed feelings, but the intention is to offer guests an opportunity to witness the traditions of paddy cultivation in Sri Lanka first hand.

The Ulagalla Walauwa transformed.

A mere month too late to witness the fruits of their efforts, we are still quite pleased with the prospect Ulagalla presents. Along its borders are two large tanks – one of them, the Ulagalla reservoir, gives the hotel its name. The area is rich in wildlife, particularly of the avian variety, and birdwatchers can spend many pleasurable hours lurking by the water.

The resident naturalist will tell you where to look. There are several ways to explore the surrounds, and indeed the hotel itself. The most obvious, of course, is on foot. Kayaks speed you over water and electric buggies over land. Cycles parked outside each chalet encourage visitors to pedal down for meals, but it is the two magnificent occupants of the horse stables that generate the most excitement. Shyam and Scotch will soon be joined by two others, but for now they are enough to inspire the children to paroxysms of delight. A helipad, placed next to the observation deck, awaits the truly glamorous traveller.

Once at Ulagalla, there is plenty to do. The resort is based in the hamlet of Tirappane, some 40km from Dambulla. The cultural centre of Anuradhapura is half that distance away, and visits can be arranged. But there’s plenty to do without ever having to stray that far. Aside from kayaking and horse riding, families are also encouraged to attempt archery and to trek through the surrounding jungles. Parts of the property have been allowed to stay wild, and make for a charming landscape to walk through. (Look to the horizon and you may be able to see the Ritigala mountains off in the distance.) A sleek swimming pool invites a cool dip, while a gym is open for those who would rather get their exercise indoors. All in all, it’s enough to build up an appetite. The kitchens use fresh produce to create fusion recipes – your appetizers might be Japanese, your main course Italian – but the result is appealing.

Meals are most often served on the top floor of the mansion. Though painstakingly restored, the mansion’s original structure is very much intact. In the lobby, you’ll find framed portraits of its previous owners – families whose ancestors were chieftains of the regions. Though the large pankahs making gentle motions above the table are powered by motors instead of servants, they help resurrect the image of aristocratic splendour.

To complete this exercise in decadence is a beautifully designed spa. It should be easy to forget you’re in a dry zone when your massage table is surrounded by curtains of water, and colourful fish swim in the pond before you. For those who can’t leave work behind, a fully equipped business centre is on hand. In search of the fax machine? Just ask your personal butler. Over the course of our night there, my questions for him (I couldn’t find a bottle opener) were far more mundane. Looking around, it seems fortunate that the management has ensured one’s stay in the lap of luxury can also be a guilt free one. With every modern amenity on hand, Ulagalla is still about living in harmony with nature.

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