Ulagalla: Though guests only tend to spend two or three nights at Ulagalla by Uga Escapes, using the hotel as a base for exploring the Cultural Triangle (Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Sigiriya), it’s worthy of a week-long stay in its own right. A stay here feels like a total retreat. Set in 58 acres of lush green fields, it’s home to rice plantations, an archery range, a helipad site (where guests can touch down if flying via private plane!), an organic kitchen garden, an enormous infinity pool and not to forget monkeys and peacocks. Guests are taken around the hotel by one of the hotel’s electrics tuk-tuks. This is emblematic of the hotel’s eco-friendly credentials – an onsite solar farm even generates half of its energy.
Guests are welcomed to the 150-year old main mansion with a ceremony wishing them a long and healthy life (ayubowan), as well as freshly pressed coconut water and a small snack. After checking-in, you’re tuk-tukked away to a luxurious, spacious cabin, complete with a private plunge pool and a suite-style separate bedroom and sitting room. I had to check whether we’d been upgraded but this is offered to all guests! The interiors are top-notch colonial-style elegance: think timber wood, four-poster beds and high-beamed ceilings. All very luxe in a timeless sense. Each cabin also has his ‘n’ hers bicycles so you can wheel around the hotel’s abundant lands.
The hotel is a sanctuary on all fronts, especially its food. Even turn-down features the very best of Sri Lankan sweet treats, including watalappam, a coconut-based sweet bite made with coconut milk, cashew nuts, jaggery and spiced with cardamom. An absolute delight.
Onto the restaurants proper, chefs Sesha Fernando and Bevan Muller and team offer the very best of authentic Sri Lankan fare from two restaurants: Liya Wella and Kamatha (as well as private dining options). The first occupies the open-walled top floor of the main building, with a stunning view overlooking the gardens and the pool. Classical Sri Lankan music is sometimes played live. The menu features European options, but more importantly all the Sri Lankan classics: think rotis, hoppers, pittu (steamed rice flour cakes) and red rice, served with curry, coconut daal and every sambar you could imagine. Great care is taken over its preparation and service: if you opt for the Sri Lankan foods, the various bowls making up the thali are presented on a tray and stool and explained by the chef who takes the time to come round to speak to every table, offering a complementary amuse bouche and catering any requests.
Not to miss at Ulagalla is the “Kamatha” experience. Set in their working paddy fields, the term refers to a sacred, uncultivated area in a rice field where farmers extract the harvest from the ripe paddy. True to its name, the restaurant recreates this authentic experience in every sense: from the food and its preparation, through to the service and the setting. An evening here totally transports you into the wilderness of Sri Lanka. The chef leads a team of local women from the nearby village, who slow-cook the foods using hand-made clay pots and stone pestle and mortars, in a traditional kitchen hut. The menu changes daily, depending on the ingredients available and the diners’ preferences – the chef is happy to discuss options when making your booking and will accommodate those whilst showcasing the very best of centuries-old spices, seasonings and cooking techniques.
On arrival, after being shown around the kitchen, you’re greeted with an aperitif cocktail and crunchy bite: I was treated to an authentically seasoned Ceylon-style spiced margherita made with arrack, tamarind, lime, sugar and salt, accompanied by yam chips (made from three varieties of the root vegetable) with an intensely rich green Sri Lankan “pesto” to dip.
Onto the meal proper, the myriad of plates arrive in individual pots and are thoughtfully explained by the chef, which is absolutely essential given the multiplicity of dishes! The curries we enjoyed included aloe vera curry, pumpkin kalu pol, polos curry (young jackfruit), mung dhal curry, as well as manioc (similar to cassava) cooked in coconut milk, krihodi and thith battu mallum (Sri Lankan kale). The varieties of rice to accompany are phenomenal: red, white, string hoppers, pittu, and not to forget mini corn rottis and red spiced coconut sambals. It’s an absolute culinary journey, with each dish packed full of flavour.
For desert, you might luck out with the classic Sri Lankan classic of buffalo curd and sticky kithul palm treacle, served alongside sweet sesame balls and kurakkan-style steamed pancakes made with rice flour, coconut and jaggery, and cooked in banana leaves (helapa). Utterly authentic, truly original and deliciously moreish: Sri Lankan foods at its finest.
Leaving Ulagalla is difficult: you feel totally at home and welcomed by the staff, settled into the surroundings and craving more of their food! It’s definitely the kind of hotel to return to.