Truth be told, after being caught up in the earthquake in Nepal in April I was a little apprehensive about coming back to Asia. But I’ve been drawn to the region for the past ten years, and so it was only a matter of time before I jumped on a plane back East. Coming to Sri Lanka was the best decision I ever could have made. Not only have I fallen in love with the place, I’ve been completely blown away by the friendliness of its people. The scenery is simply breathtaking – none more so than looking down over the forest canopies from the summit of Sigiriya. Yet while this famous rock may be the main draw of the Sigiriya area, there should be another place of equal importance on your list to visit, and it may surprise you that it’s a hotel. I do, however, use this term in its loosest possible form, for it’s much more than that. It’s an eco retreat, a nature reserve and a luxury resort all rolled into one.
Situated on what used to be 24 acres of abandoned land, the nature pioneers at the Jetwing Group embarked on a far-reaching venture to transform the disused area into an important wetland ecosystem. Once they set up the natural habitat by hand themselves, they waited… and waited… and the animals came by themselves to live. As a result, eight years in the making, Jetwing Vil Uyana is now home to 20 species of mammals; 112 species of birds; 35 species of amphibians and reptiles; and 36 species of butterflies. In addition, the property is also home to the elusive loris, with an area of three acres designated as a Loris Conservation Site – the first in the country. It may sound nerdy to rhyme off numbers and stats, but walking about the retreat it’s almost inconceivable to imagine this was all built by hand, and even just as amazing as to how Jetwing have managed to pull off ‘living with nature’ in perfect harmony.
Unlike most hotels which rely on a single building, Jetwing Vil Uyana has 30 individual dwellings set over distinct habitats such as Water, Forest, Paddy, Marsh and Garden. You don’t just get a room here, you get a self-contained little house all to yourself. My home for the night was situated in a rice paddy which had just been freshly harvested. (Yes, they grow their own rice here to eat in the restaurant.) For me, rice fields are the embodiment of Asia. While living in Japan I remember having to walk past a huge rice field every Thursday on the way to one of my schools. It was amazing to see how the landscape changed throughout the season, with the rice being planted, grown and then harvested. So having my own little rice paddy brought back a lot of happy memories, and I was actually even able to brush up on my Japanese when I met a couple in the restaurant from Yokohama. Sitting on the balcony among swaying reeds I was completely relaxed (but my complimentary neck and shoulder treatment at the spa may have had something to do with this.)
Having not stayed in the other habitats, I can can only comment on the rice paddy – but it was out of this world, made from sustainable bamboo panel. With its thatched roof, it blended seamlessly with its surroundings. Inside, all the amenities you would expect from a leading five-star hotel: Bose sound system, plunge coffee maker and a skylight above the rain shower to give the impression you are showering outside. I don’t want to just babble on about the inside of the room though as I feel Jetwing Vil Uyana is much more than just a hotel room. Just take my word for it that if you are used to five-star luxury you will not be disappointed.
Food needs to get a special mention at this place. Its humble menu completely undersells the complexity of the food hiding behind it. For lunch I ordered what I thought would be a simple curry only to be bombarded with 10 different dishes, all beautifully presented and tasting amazing. Breakfast is served via menu, not buffet style, which is a nice change and adds to the class of the place. While five-star buffets can sometimes be extraordinary, it’s still hard to ignore the ‘school dinners’ mentality of queuing up for your food. As well as an array of tropical fruits, I tried Sri Lankan herbal porridge (Kola Kanda) for the first time. If you stay here, please try this! I love porridge but this is so different: Sri Lankan herbal juice (gotu kola) mixed with warm coconut milk and some light rice resting at the bottom. It’s served with a big lump of palm sugar (jaggery) which you nibble on as you are eating it. Immense! The food at Jetwing Uyana is faultless, it really is. And it’s very good value, unlike some other resorts which lure you in with their promise of seclusion only to trap you with exorbitant food prices.
Prior to my stay here the only other hotel I had stayed in that was totally surrounded by nature was in the Sabah region of Borneo at the Danum Valley Conservation Area. Hotels such as these should be applauded for their conservation efforts, which are on par with their desire to provide a luxury tourism experience. Walking around the perimeter of Jetwing Vil Uyana you are reminded just how big a project this is – and the natural boundary of fields rolling off into the distance only adds to this sense of scale. All the animals here are, of course, wild. You are temporarily living in their habitat. Lizards, monitors, squirrels, peacocks are all common sightings walking about. Look closer are you’ll spot monkeys who, unlike tame city ones in SE Asia, aren’t used to human contact. Make eye contact and they’ll scuttle off. There are even crocodiles somewhere in the grounds, as well as some snakes and other critters – but this is pure wild territory so should be expected. Don’t worry, it’s perfectly safe!
At night I had the awesome opportunity of taking a walk through the dense tress with Chaminda Jayasekara, the Resident Naturalist at Jetwing Vil Uyana. It turns out that Chaminda is quite the celebrity in Loris academic circles, having published a book on the species and also being featured on the BBC and National Geographic. Using head torches with a special red light to reflect the loris’ eyes, we ended up finding about ten of the creatures which was an amazing experience. Measuring only eight inches, they are the smallest primate in Sri Lanka and indeed one of the smallest in the world. Retiring to my room after my Loris encounters, I found that the staff had made up my bed and spelled out the word ‘Goodnight’ using leaves from the garden. This is what I’m talking about with regards to service at this place.
It’s funny where life takes you, and I’ll certainly not forget my time at Jetwing Vil Uyana in a hurry. I guess the only downside to my stay was that I was on my todd, as this is a place that should certainly be shared. I wrote in an earlier post how a gym instructor in Kandy berated me for travelling solo and not with a wife! After spending some time at Jetwing Vil Uyana, he might be right. Maybe. I’ve already decided that if and when I do finally decide to settle down, I’m coming here for my honeymoon.
Check out a short video I made of my time at Jetwing Vil Uyana. Music is by Cass. From his wonderful Magical Magical album on Tokyo’s Home Normal imprint. (Used with permission.)