At one with nature … the Heritance Kandalama

While searching for Sri Lanka’s lost kingdoms, Margaret Turton finds five-star digs hidden among the treetops.

As soon as our vehicle turns onto the rough gravel entrance road, I know we are up for something unusual. This totally unexpected encounter with grit comes at the end of a day spent exploring central Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle – lost kingdoms, cave temples and now, lush jungle and a sense of entering unknown territory. Our five-star base will be no ordinary abode.

When the hotel’s entrance lobby finally swings into view, it appears as a cavernous space beside great granite boulders. Rock emerges from the floor like a primal lava flow. Smooth-plastered corridors feature boulder walls and walkways create the impression of traversing the jungle canopy.
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Rather than dominating, the Heritance Kandalama hotel displays sensitivity to context. From certain viewpoints it is barely visible at all as it presses against a rocky outcrop on one side and succumbs to the consuming embrace of thick jungle vines and tropical forest on the other.

I fall for these natural charms immediately. It helps, of course, that we’ve just come from the calmness of the cave temples of Dambulla.

These lie 12 kilometres away and mark the central point of the Cultural Triangle, a region of UNESCO-listed sites that include old-kingdom locations Anuradhapura, Sigiriya and Polonnaruwa. Dambulla’s fame stems from the deeds of an exiled 1st-century king from Anuradhapura. After regaining his kingdom, he established a Buddhist shrine beneath Dambulla’s great granite ledge. Subsequent kings added shrines and the site remains a pilgrimage spot to this day.

We’ve reached Heritance Kandalama in time to see the sun slip from Dambulla rock and, on a far horizon, Sigiriya, the magma plug of an extinct volcano, upon which a paranoid king built a fortress-palace long ago. Beneath them, the sunset streams across Kandalama Tank, a vast reservoir built by yet another ancient king.

Later irrigation networks sent these waters rolling to the edge of the tropical forest at our doorstep, creating one enormous lake.

When the hotel’s architect, Geoffrey Bawa, saw this landscape from the air, he elected to run with the topography, famously stating that you shouldn’t push nature out of a building.

Less than two decades later, thick jungle runs right up to the hotel’s windows, bringing giant squirrels and monkeys with it. Such natural disorder outdoors creates a suspension of time and an impression of absolute seclusion.

Only a visit to the buffet illustrates that Heritance Kandalama is a sizeable hotel, and full. It’s February, peak season. Post-monsoon, the weather is warm-temperate.

Post-civil war, visitors are flocking to Sri Lanka. Tonight, the buffet, known for its excellent quality (at US$31 a head), resembles the crush of mealtime at a boarding school.

These are several in-house options: dinner in a natural cave ($US400 [$414] a double); dining with the chef ($US350 a double); the Bawa degustation dinner ($US600 a double) — prices at wild variance with those in the airy Cafe Kachchan or, for that matter, the Kalu Diya a la carte restaurant, which proves an excellent choice, with attentive service, great ambience and fine fusion food (for about $US50 a person, three courses).

As for the guest rooms, I love them. They are spacious, use natural products and are clutter-free. Should you prefer chintz over texture, they might seem austere.

There is also the issue of the wildlife. Giant squirrels eat jungle fruits but monkeys eat everything, so we stare at them through closed windows while the air conditioner or ceiling fans go into overdrive.

Hopefully, the hotel’s recycling centre — they recycle everything, apparently — offsets some of this wasted energy.

In any case, Heritance Kandalama consistently wins awards, receiving EarthCheck silver certification for environmental practices in 2010.

The hotel also boasts a Six Senses spa. Anyone familiar with Six Senses philosophy knows it pays more than just lip service to environmental matters. But it’s a visit to Sigiriya and Polonnaruwa that completely wins me over to the Bawa philosophy.

Heritance Kandalama’s natural features evoke Sigiriya’s boulder garden and ancient polished-plaster mirror wall.

And of the hotel’s three swimming pools, two recall the ancient sites. Kachchan, Bawa’s signature infinity pool, creates the impression of merging with the Kandalama Tank.

Kaludiya, a natural rock pool, evokes the water garden and the rock-cut storage pool at Sigiriya. The same goes for the so-called Sea of Parakrama, a vast water reservoir at ancient Polonnaruwa.

In short, the hotel forms part of the larger Cultural Triangle picture. That’s its great strength, really.

And, like any aesthetic concept, you either get it or you don’t.

For those who do, this experience can be profound.

The writer was a guest of Travel Indochina.

Sunset at Kandalama Hotel, Dambulla

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