Sri Lanka: Going eco

I’M NEARING the end of my second day at Vil Uyana – one of Sri Lanka’s premier new eco-lodges and close to the famous Sigiriya ‘Lion Rock’ in the heart of the country – when it finally clicks.

Thatched wooden houses on stilts, set among tropical lagoons – where does it remind me of? It has to be Barnes, in West London, which lies under the Heathrow flightpath. Indeed, explains manager Tissa Wickramasvriya, that was where inspiration was found.

Of course, if you have never been to London’s Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust Centre, you might not make the connection. For me, it’s one of my favourite places in the capital.

What the builders of both places obviously share is a love of the environment, turning a place of water and wildlife into a place we humans can go to enjoy nature without disturbing it unduly.

Not that Vil Uyana lacks any luxuries. I could imagine no better place for a honeymooning couple, for example, than one of its isolated villas, reached by walkways over the lagoons.

Lit by romantic lanterns at night, the paths bring you back to the main building for open-air meals, featuring fine cuisine and chilled wine from a subterranean store.

At nearby Minneriya National Park, there are 160 species of birds and herds of wild elephants which, chased around the park by us tourists in battered old 4x4s, still manage to retain their dignity.

Some trivia for you: Sri Lanka was the first country in the world to have a nature reserve. And in Colombo, I see how history repeats itself when Ravinatha Aryasinha, director general of public communications at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, says: ‘The tsunami – while obviously tragic – gave us a clean slate.

‘It is a chance to reposition Sri Lanka as an ecodestination rather than just a beach holiday. We are already beginning to see the benefits and I am very excited for the future.’

Equally excited is BM Faris, the manager at Warwick Gardens, a former tea estate that is reinventing itself as another eco retreat in the heart of Sri Lanka, near Nuwara Eliya – a tea country resort town favoured by colonial Brits.

Reached by a vertiginous road, clinging to the side of a mountain, the estate house is now a luxury guesthouse with five double rooms.

At dawn, the mist and fine rain on the surrounding hills make them an idyllic sight and I can understand the homesickness that turned this foreign landscape into a vision of Warwickshire.

Faris holds a bewildering array of qualifications, from architecture to botany, and he takes me on an walk to explore the area.

Plants, trees, fauna, local languages and customs are only a few of the subjects he talks knowledgeably about. His plans for the estate are ambitious but show every sign of coming into fruition.

At dinner, we sit down to a meal prepared by a chef with 17 years of experience, the ingredients coming from the house’s garden.

No real surprise to discover that Faris – who else? – planted the garden himself and runs it on organic principles. The next day, I’m due to leave at 9am. I eventually, reluctantly, get away at 2pm.

The peace and beauty of the Warwick estate makes it a place that captures your heart. After just one night, I already felt like one of those old tea planters, retired to England, who will pine to the end of his days for his time in ‘Ceylon’.

I flew with Sri Lankan Airlines: www.srilankan.aero

I stayed at Jetwing Vil Uyana in Sigirya and Warwick Gardens in Nuwara Eliya (both www.jetwinghotels.com), Mahaweli Reach (www.mahaweli.com) in Kandy and Casa Colombo (www.casacolombo.com) in Colombo.

www.srilankatourism.org.uk

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