Between the Forest and the Deep: Chena Huts by Uga Escapes
In Sri Lanka’s deep south, the teeming animal, bird and plant life of Yala are protected by a belt of managed forest running down to the sea. Here, a glimpse of thatched roofs amid the trees reveals the location of Chena Huts, the newest addition to Uga’s renowned portfolio of luxury boutique hotels. Edging a beach where sea-turtles come to lay eggs by moonlight and elephants wander down from the nearby forest to play in the surf, Chena Huts is fringed on one landward side by tropical forest and on the other by a saline lake where ibises, painted storks and flamingos wade in the shallows. Offshore, a winking lighthouse marks the location of the Basses, a shoal of reefs littered with historic wrecks, fringing a submarine canyon that attracts blue and humpback whales in large numbers.
Beneath the thatched roofs are hidden luxurious detached, private cabins of Chena Huts, fully air-conditioned and offering fine views of the surrounding wilderness and seascape. There are only fourteen 780sqf guest pavilions on this spacious 7-acre property, their design inspired by the local architecture and harmonizing perfectly with the jungle environment. Each comprises a living room, bedroom and en suite bathroom with free-standing bathtubs and twin vanity consoles. Every Cabin also boasts a shaded outdoor deck with built-in 5m plunge pool.
Other amenities include a helipad for rapid airport transfers and a 200m2 swimming pool with poolside bar (concealed behind a waterfall).
At the Basses fine dining restaurant, a scale model of the reefs offshore, complete with wrecks as charted, makes a grand conversation piece. The Engelbrecht Bar – named after a former South African prisoner-of-war who became renowned as a protector of pilgrims passing through these forests en route to the jungle shrine at Kataragama – evokes the rich history and folklore of Yala.
Following in the footsteps of Warden Engelbrecht is Chena Huts’ South African General Manager, Bradley Simpson, who was brought up there. Brad is a specialist lodge manager whose training in game ranging included a period of apprenticeship with the head guide of the renowned Mala Mala game reserve in that country. Despite his years of experience in the international hospitality, he is as excited by the beauty and biodiversity of Sri Lanka as he is by his new job.
Ruhuna National Park, familiarly known as Yala, stuns visitors with its variety of environments – monsoon, semi-deciduous and thorn forests, grasslands, wetlands and sandy beaches marked only by the footprints of foraging birds and animals. Of Sri Lanka’s national parks and sanctuaries, it is by far the richest in biodiversity, boasting 44 different resident mammal species and one of the highest leopard population densities in the world. There are also dozens of reptile species including turtles, crocodiles, pythons, flying snakes and elegant fan-throated lizards. As for birds, Yala has no less than 215 resident and migrant species, of which the flamboyant peacock is one of the most common.
Apart from Yala and its numerous satellite reserves, other nearby attractions include the Great and Little Basses reefs (best reached via Mirissa); Kataragama, an ancient forest shrine sacred to a local deity often identified with the Hindu god Murugan, where devotees walk over beds of burning coals or skewer their tongues and cheeks in penance; and Bundala, whose jungles and wetlands attract as many bird species as Yala does, and where the remains of Homo erectus communities half a million years old can be found among the coastal dunes.
Chena Huts by Uga Escapes makes an ideal base for visitors wanting to explore the rich natural and cultural attractions of the region. Guests can enjoy daily private sunrise and sunset tours of Yala in custom-designed luxury four-wheel-drive vehicles, which are by accredited local guides with years of experience. Expeditions to other locations of interest, including whale-watching expeditions from Mirissa, are easily arranged at your clients’ convenience.
Christmas in a Tropical City
Though only a tiny minority of Colombo residents are Christians, nearly everyone in the city enjoys Christmas. Only for Vesak, the Buddhist festival in May, does Sri Lanka’s capital deck itself out as colourfully and extravagantly. Christmas in Colombo is for everybody.
As in other countries, preparations and advertisements for Christmas sales and events begin months in advance, but it’s really in the three weeks preceding the festival that a real Christmas spirit begins to the air. It has a distinctly European scent, for Sri Lanka has been an imperial possession of, successively, the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British: the Yuletide customs of all three nations have been superimposed upon one another and modified to suit tropical conditions. Thus a typical Sri Lankan Christmas feast will feature Portuguese-derived bolofiado, Dutch breudher with Edam cheese and a very English roast, which in some homes will be eaten with the fingers, Sri Lankan style. The British, as the most recent colonizers, contribute the most recognizable elements: a red-suited Santa Claus, Christmas cards, carol-singing parties and much more. However, a dwindling Dutch ‘Burgher’ community still keeps its own customs, presenting Saint Nikolaas (St. Nicholas) on his feast-day, December 5, as an solemn mediaeval bishop rather than a tipsy red-suited elf. The annual Christmas sale held at the Dutch Burgher Union early in the month is a great place to experience the unique food and culture of Dutch Sri Lanka.
Festive events take place daily in the city from around the first week of December. Most city hotels and restaurants offer special menus and promotions, which may include a traditional Victorian-style Christmas lunch or dinner complete with turkey, Christmas pudding and all the trimmings. Discriminating gourmets, however, will pass up the pudding in favour of a helping of Christmas cake, a delicacy in the true multi-ethnic Sri Lankan style, which takes months to prepare and boasts a daunting list of ingredients.
Hotels, malls and big stores are decorated in grand style, and churches in the city conduct Christmas Day services in the liturgies of their respective denominations. At St. Thomas’s College in Mount Lavinia, a festival of nine lessons and carols is delivered in full High Church Anglican style, rich with pageantry and tradition. Roman Catholic and some Anglican churches also celebrate midnight mass on the night of Christmas Eve.
Sri Lankans also celebrate Christmas with evening carol-singing parties and night time fireworks. But the biggest bangs are reserved for New Year’s Eve, when huge crowds gather on Galle Face Green amidst a riot of firecrackers while rockets go off overhead in explosions of colour. All the big hotels hold New Year dinner-dances, while thousands of private parties, banquets and raves also celebrate the incoming year.
Access All Areas
As Sri Lanka’s tourism industry prepares for a crowded winter season, tour operators are excited about renewed access to local sights and destinations long off-limits to visitors. ‘This is the first time in years that tourists can travel anywhere in the country without special permission or restrictions,’ says Uga Escapes’ CEO, Ramli Ghaffoor. ‘Finally the industry is starting to reap the ‘peace benefit’ people have been talking about so long.’
The end of Sri Lanka’s debilitating 26-year civil war in June 2009 was an early step in a very long process. Residual security concerns kept restrictive emergency laws in place for years after the war ended. Certain parts of the country remained no-go zones, even to locals. Foreign nationals were prohibited from visiting ‘sensitive’ regions, while hotels and other businesses in the former war zones stayed closed for years due to lack of custom. Road and rail links severed by the fighting further limited access.
All this has changed beyond recognition in the recent past. Huge government infrastructure programmes have resulted in fine new roads connecting major population and commercial centres, particularly in the north of the country; for the first time in history, it is possible (with a few detours around coastal nature reserves) to drive the full length of Sri Lanka’s eastern seaboard. New expressways have reduced transit time between Colombo and Katunayake Airport to about twenty minutes, while Galle, the ancient seaport that is also the metropolis of Sri Lanka’s southern beach-resort zone, is slightly more than an hour away. While work on a new Northern Expressway proceeds, travellers to Vavuniya, Kilinocchi and Jaffna continue to use the much-improved A9 highway, or take the recently-revived Yal Devi express train from Fort Railway Station in Colombo. The removal of the last military checkpoint – at Omanthai along the A9 – a few days prior to press time was an important symbol of the new openness.
In formerly neglected areas, tourism is recovering fast. Attractions long isolated –the reputedly miraculous Catholic shrine to St. Jude at Madhu, the picturesque island of Mannar, the nearby wildlife hotspot of Giant’s Tank and of course the scenic and cultural feast that is Jaffna– are reappearing once again on operators’ itineraries.
‘Our properties are ideally located to serve as a base for exploring these places,’ points out Marcelline Paul, General Manager Sales of Uga Escapes. ‘Ulagalla is perfect for Madhu, Mannar, Wilpattu Sanctuary, the northern plains and Jaffna, while Jungle Beach is within arm’s reach of the ancient Buddhist monuments at Tiriyaya and the east coast lagoons and beaches with their amazing wildlife.