Elephants may come to drink from the stream in front of your tent,” warns Noel Rodrigo, Sri Lanka’s preeminent wildlife tracker, in lieu of saying goodnight to me. “Don’t run or scream.” As I zip myself into one of the comfortable, South African-made canvas accommodations at Rodrigo’s Leopard Safaris camp, located just outside Wilpattu National Park on the Indian Ocean island’s northwest coast, what I feel is not fear, but relief. Thirsty pachyderms frighten me far less than Tamil Tigers did. Like many people who lived here during the 26-year civil war between the mostly Hindu separatists, officially known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), and the largely Buddhist Sinhalese government, I foresaw no end to the fighting, before the killing of LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran allowed for President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s decisive victory on May 19 2009. Al Jazeera estimates between 80,000 and 100,000 people perished across the coconut palm-dappled land that ancient Arabs named Serendib, and Marco Polo declared “the finest island in the world”.
After gaining independence from Great Britain in 1948, Ceylon (so called until the 1972 republic) appeared the model Commonwealth country, until newly elected prime minister Solomon Bandaranaike instituted the Official Language Act No 33 of 1956. Replacing English with Sinhalese disenfranchised the country’s Tamils, Muslims and mixed-race Burghers before further legislation enshrined Buddhism as Sri Lanka’s first national religion. As Hindus, the country’s considerable Tamil minority felt especially dispossessed. Ethnic tensions exploded into full-scale civil war in late July 1983. During the next quarter century, violence touched the life of everyone here and many beyond (the LTTE can legitimately claim credit for inventing the suicide vest, popular with terrorist groups worldwide). Mine was a relatively minor scrape: in the war’s final year, my Cathay Pacific flight from Hong Kong touched down at Bandaranaike International Airport amid an aerial bombing raid on Colombo by the Tamil Tigers; I bribed a machine gun-toting soldier to help me secure the first available outbound air ticket, then spent the next 14 hours attempting to sleep on a rusted windowsill.
Six years on I have come back to Wilpattu – “place of lakes” in Tamil – because of a curious phenomenon Rodrigo has named the “post-war silver lining”: the possibility for intimate proximity with undisturbed wildlife, including mugger crocodiles, sloth bears and at least 194 bird species throughout the park’s 1,317sq km, which was closed during most of the war.
Leopard Safaris’ Toyota Land Cruiser heads alone into the park at 5.31am, as a bee-eater with electric-blue and neon-orange feathers criss-crosses the beryl-hued sky. An hour or so into the steamy equatorial morning, our first leopard, a juvenile male, sashays out from sculpturally twisting jungle, catwalks for a solid quarter-hour along the red-dirt path directly behind us, then disappears back into the dense thicket. More mesmerising performances follow in this landscape, the very same one across which played out the notorious 1985 killing spree by Tamil guerrillas – a brutal epilogue to the Anuradhapura Massacre of more than 100 people at the nearby Unesco World Heritage Site, which includes the sacred Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi “tree of enlightenment”, dating to the third century BC.
Hence Rodrigo’s silver lining: the horrors of civil war effectively spared the wildlife at Wilpattu. But this park is only one of several pristine spots at the four cardinal points of Sri Lanka that are accessible again since the restoration of peace. In just five years, serious public and strategic private investment by the most visionary first-movers, Rodrigo among them, is beginning to manifest as some of the country’s most exciting luxury properties yet.
“Nothing but praise,” comes the response before I have even finished asking the Colombo-born, London-based architect Cecil Balmond his impressions of returning to work here, 45 years after emigrating and following a career that includes working on high-profile projects, from the Sydney Opera House to Koolhaas’s CCTV headquarters in Beijing, before setting up his own practice in 2010. “In Colombo alone, the Urban Development Authority is showing unbelievable forethought with the Dutch Hospital, the Racecourse and Independence Arcade. When I think of municipalities elsewhere…” Present trade, economic and commerce opportunities, along with overseas fundraising – which has already brought in an estimated $4bn from Chinese government sources, and a $213m loan from the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development to metropolitan Colombo – pleases Balmond. “Sri Lanka today is a happy place to work. Everyone is seizing their chance.”
As the war was coming to a close, the architect, who has also collaborated with artist Anish Kapoor on the ArcelorMittal Orbit for the 2012 London Olympics, started to work here with his son John. They combined a modern vernacular with indigenous building materials like illuk (dried paddy reeds) and cajan (woven palm) in the designs for Palagama Beach, a 12-villa, zero-carbon-footprint resort in Kalpitiya, a windswept promontory southeast of Wilpattu. Though I prefer a bit of air-conditioning with my balmy tropical breezes, everything about the quietly stylish bolthole fits contextually into its Indian Ocean setting, a haven for kite-surfing, dolphin-spotting and watching sperm whales.
Last year, the younger Balmond set off eastward to develop an eco-camp with Timothy Edwards, son of the founder of Tiger Tops, Nepal’s groundbreaking duo of upscale jungle lodges, and former Amanresorts manager Sangjay Choegyal. For a first look at Gal Oya Lodge, their project, I drive eight hours across the island. Though largely untouched by war, the area’s main attraction, Gal Oya National Park, fell victim to its ill-fated location within the battle-scarred, tsunami-ravaged topography between Batticaloa and Arugam Bay. Inside one of the lodge’s eight geometric, wood-panelled bungalows, I cope with Balmond’s natural-cooling strategies by taking a chilled shower while watching the pigment fade from the skin of grass-hued geckos perched on the stone walls of my open-air bathroom.
Elephants have been sighted swimming across Senanayake Samudraya, Sri Lanka’s largest reservoir, which is just inside the park; so I readily forgo my space at the lounge bar’s polished Mana-tree-slab lunch tables in favour of a couple of hours spent in untouched Sri Lankan nature. We arrive too late to catch the aquatic antics, but Choegyal, who grew up tracking tigers in Nepal and plays on Asia’s elephant-polo circuit, placates me by spotting fresh prints headed away from the gravelly shoreline. Over the next hour, a few families and three rather commanding solo males emerge on the Jurassic horizon.
When I report back to the father of his son’s architectural success, also praising some of the best meals I’ve eaten in Sri Lanka (including an especially exquisite beetroot and buffalo-curd soup), Balmond the elder beams with paternal pride. Gal Oya Lodge has attracted admiration elsewhere across the island: Jetwing Hotels, a local family business with even deeper roots in Sri Lankan tourism, clocked Balmond’s environmentally sensitive work and hired him to design Jetwing Arugam Bay, the first luxury-chalets resort on one of the most popular surf beaches. Scheduled to open next year, Balmond’s project for Jetwing follows the brand’s most recent post-war opening, Jetwing Yala, a sleek 80-room, 10-tent villa resort nestled behind sand dunes outside Yala National Park.
Though an early champion of legendary late Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa, Jetwing has, I admit, failed to impress me in the past with its hotels. At Jetwing Yala, however, I’m quite taken with Bawa protégé Murad Ismail’s minimalist structures (which recall his work on the Four Seasons resort at Landaa Giraavaru in the Maldives). On my first evening, after showering in my polished concrete bathroom under a 3m-high skylight, I start to hear some raucous grunts, just the other side of my Indian Ocean-facing veranda, of the sort not normally heard amid such comforts.
“Yes, we have some wild boar,” Jetwing chairman Hiran Cooray tells me over the low rush of crashing waves the next morning. Cooray plans to double Jetwing’s current rooms inventory over the next few years, with projects underway in Kandy, Jaffna and Colombo; for the last he has employed the Singaporean architectural firm Eco ID. Cooray praises government support for post-war community development through infrastructure, citing the $209m Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport, opened in March 2013, an hour’s drive southwest of Yala and the four-lane, 100kmh Southern Expressway, which winds from Colombo through Sri Lanka’s fabled cinnamon and rubber plantations to its best beaches in under three hours, cutting travel time by more than half – and opening up this whole swath of the island to travellers and industries.
Peace, together with these presidential projects, has also ushered in a deluge of holiday-home-seekers – and along with them, some frankly inexperienced boutique-hotel builders; their mostly concrete-and-glass, Bawa-derivative boxes increasingly crowd the southern coastline. But two independently owned properties do claim my attention: 10m above the shoreline close to Dickwella, near the island’s southernmost tip, the Paris-based architect Reda Amalou, of The Nam Hai in Vietnam, is putting the finishing touches on Ani Villas Sri Lanka. I wander among the sinewy trunks of soaring palm trees that ring these polished wood and stone pavilions, whose open-air living spaces sprawl under double-height pitched roofs (though I will have to wait until the first quarter of 2015 to choose among the 15 bedrooms, all conferring unobstructed blue views). A bit inland, yet at least as compelling, will be the eight-suite, two-room Tri Lanka, sustainably designed under landscaped roof gardens on a breathtaking site overlooking Koggalla Lake. It underpins my long-held belief that this country’s truest beauty lies not on its coast, but in its emerald-hued interior. When Tri opens next summer I plan to wake up in one of two suites atop the resort’s cinnamon stick-clad water tower.
For the moment, however, I forge on to what promises to be a game-changer for Sri Lanka’s luxury tourism. A 30-minute drive from the island’s southern social hub, within the massive granite ramparts of the 400-year-old Dutch colonial Galle Fort. The just-opened Cape Weligama brings together one of Asia’s preeminent architects, Lek Bunnag, and the owners of Dilmah tea, this country’s most globally recognised brand, on some of Sri Lanka’s most idyllic beachfront.
I settle into one of 40 private retreats, which Bunnag has cleverly scattered to exploit Cape Weligama’s 36m elevation, and await my spa therapist’s arrival. Delivered in-villa, Cape Weligama’s treatments (like my clove, nutmeg, sweet-orange and sandalwood scrub) conclude with a soak in the gargantuan stone bathtub conveniently set steps from my villa’s sea-facing plumped bed. Well past sunrise and following a breakfast of sliced mango laced with buffalo-curd, served by my butler on my frangipani fringed veranda, I head down to relax by the ultra-photogenic Moon Pool, which curves 60m around the cliff’s edge, capturing panoramic views of the Indian Ocean, which here is dotted with the area’s iconic stilted fishermen. Malik Fernando, son of Dilmah founder Merrill Fernando, greets me there with a cup of Ran Watte single-origin tea. “If not for the war ending, we’d still be marooned at Tea Trails,” he says, referring to his family’s Relais & Château property, which opened in 2006 among the fertile tea-fields of Sri Lanka’s south-central Bogawantalawa Valley. Post-war, he tells me, occupancy has more than doubled among its 21 antique-appointed suites.
White-tipped waves unravel along the calm azure bay beneath us. While keen to show me the dive centre, surf shack and cliff-top teppanyaki bar, Fernando literally bounces with invigorated ardour when the conversation turns to Resplendent Ceylon’s upcoming projects. They include a futuristic, low-impact tented camp at Yala called Wild Coast Lodge; and Red Rocks, a beachfront adventure resort near two wildlife sanctuaries on the northeast coast that were long off limits. “It would have been suicidal to go there during the war,” Fernando says of the land that was formerly in LTTE hands, “but now there is so much potential.” Given everyone’s forward-focused enthusiasm, his pronouncement could apply to the whole of this sun-kissed island.