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The charm of Sri Lanka's villa hotels

Tired of glass-box, city hotels with arctic air-conditioning? Hoteliers in Sri Lanka are focusing on smaller, boutique hotels that feel like a home away from home

One feels as if one were staying in someone’s home despite rooms that are independent units and feel like mini bungalows.
One feels as if one were staying in someone’s home despite rooms that are independent units and feel like mini bungalows. (Courtesy: Ellerton Bungalow)

Few countries have as many charming villa hotels as Sri Lanka does. For those of us tired of glass-box, city hotels with arctic air-conditioning, Sri Lanka is a paradise. On a recent trip a friend suggested Ellerton Bungalow, a former tea plantation manager’s home amid the hills above Kandy. Owned by an Italian-Sri Lankan couple, it has an easy cosmopolitanism and delicious food of the two cuisines. Ellerton has nine rooms set amid a beautiful garden; oversized heliconia stand like a guard of honour as you approach the dining area. The décor is sumptuous. Contrasting colours from handloom mecca Barefoot in Colombo sit side by side with antique candle holders from a small dealer in Kandy. The morning views of the mist rising from the hills take one’s breath away.

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I arrived after having foolishly elected to take the train to Kandy from Colombo Fort station. What I overlooked when booking the ticket was that a) it would be pitch dark when the train reached the scenic stretch before Kandy b) riding Sri Lankan trains is akin to being transported by ill-tempered horses. Along that 2.5-hour journey, I wondered whether train carriages suffered epileptic fits. A steady drizzle complicated the drive from the station in Peradeniya as my auto rickshaw made its way up the hairpin bends.

After I arrived at Ellerton Bungalow ( at 9.30 p.m., however, my tiredness melted away with a shower, a glass of wine and the first forkful of a prawn risotto. Luca Poloni, who had taken the trouble to wait for dinner, dismissed suggestions that Ellerton is a boutique hotel. The former travel industry executive described it as a guesthouse. One feels as if one were staying in someone’s home—as one does in the enchanting smaller haveli hotels in Rajasthan—despite rooms that are independent units and feel like mini bungalows. The owners, Luca and Iromi Poloni, are almost always around. Midway through the delicious dinner, while the conversation traversed from a hilarious week-long camel safari the couple undertook from Bikaner to Jaisalmer, Luca asked if the risotto was oversalted. It was a little, but more crucially, the arborio rice was done just right, as were the prawns. A chicken paillard with one of the best ratatouilles I have eaten followed, the eggplant and tomatoes from the garden superb. Dessert was a light panna cotta with rhubarb.

The term guesthouse applied at many levels—from the intimate well-chosen meals that alternated between Italian and Sri Lankan food to the dinner conversations that ranged to the distressing brain drain from Sri Lanka. Migration of the middle class was brought up by the International Labour Organisation researcher sitting next to me on the train from Colombo and is the subject of a wrenching BBC podcast, Leaving Sri Lanka. Luca recounted hosting two staff of the UK’s National Health Service recently who had been recruiting nurses from Sri Lanka, even as the UK’s travel advisory last December dissuaded tourists from travelling there with wildly exaggerated warnings of fuel shortages.

What many people would characterise as a wasted day on holiday because I did not leave the property seemed scripted to reinforce how special it is. A torrential afternoon downpour was spent reading on its beautiful veranda, decked out in greens and fuchsia pink set off against red oxide floors. In the living room, pride of place on the coffee table was given to a book on the Parsis by a friend of the Polonis, director Sooni Taraporevala. In addition to well-chosen books instead of the usual beach pulp fiction, Luca’s collection of CDs and vinyl, ranging from opera recordings of Mirella Freni and Cecilia Bartoli to the jazz of Cuban pianist Ruben Gonzalez to Joni Mitchell and Steely Dan, is reason enough to stay. The four-foot-high B&W speakers and the German amplifier pack a punch. As a visitor from a large European luxury travel company had just arrived, I worried I was playing the music too loud. Luca shrugged nonchalantly; they were staying at the other end of the garden. Staying just 36 hours, I became used to nudging the temperamental CD player tray and having Sam, the resident Labrador with some Doberman parentage, as an anarchic fitness trainer when I exercised by the pool.

Early the second morning, Poloni and I set off for a walk in the paddy fields nearby. We started at a temple dedicated to Murugan that seemed influenced also by Buddhist stupas. We stopped for tea and banana bread with chocolate chips, briefly chatting with the farmer whose field it was. When I returned to Ellerton, I swam in the mystical infinity pool set amid the clouds. With every short lap, I felt more certain I had discovered a kind of paradise.

Rahul Jacob is a former Hong Kong bureau chief for the Financial Times, a former travel, food and drink editor of FT Weekend, and the author of Right Of Passage, a collection of travel essays.

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