21 November 2016
Lying between the well trodden paths of India and South East Asia, Sri Lanka remains largely undiscovered. Yet this little gem has a myriad of wonders to offer. Within just two weeks exploring the island I visited ancient cities and elaborate temples, came across lush green rolling hills scattered with tea plantations, explored the wildlife rich national parks and wandered along the golden sand beaches that enclose the island. Sri Lanka is one of the most spectacular countries I have visited and paired with its wealth of diversity, it remains affordable, is full of charming people and is dotted with some of the most amazing boutique properties Asia has to offer.
My favourite place had to be the utterly unique Chena Huts. This is a luxury boutique hotel that sits in the buffer zone of Yala National Park, Sri Lanka’s oldest and second-largest natural reserve. For those who love wildlife and a sense of adventure, but don’t want to let go of their creature comforts, Chena Huts offers the perfect stay. The property is nestled within several acres of ocean-facing jungle, it is minutes from the entrance of the national park and has been beautifully designed to offer its guests the upmost comfort.
As soon as we drove around the outskirts of the park towards Chena Huts it was as if the safari experience had already begun. We had water buffalo lumber across the road, peacocks danced with their iridescent tails on display, a cobra slithered its away in front of us and an array of birds, including bee-eaters and eagles fluttered above. On entering the property, a male Asian elephant crossed the road and waved us in. It was the perfect set up for what I was to experience in the next few days to come.
The hotel blends effortlessly into its surroundings where each of the 14 palm-thatched residences are dotted throughout the property and hidden within the wild vegetation to add a touch of privacy. Raised on stilts above the ground and attached by walking pathways, they have avoided destroying the nature surrounding them. Being in the thick of the wilderness it is necessary for a member of staff to walk you to and from your room, a variety of animals’ roam in the area (including salt-water crocodiles and leopards). The rooms themselves are exquisitely designed and furnished to emphasise the safari theme with log furnishings, African style rugs and lit by lanterns. Outside leads to a private decking area with seating and a private plunge pool which is the ideal spot to relax after a morning’s game-drive.
Once I was settled into my room and not really wanting to leave, I was tempted to the sunken bar which sits adjacent to the restaurant and overlooks the beach that fringes the property. With little poufs to sit on, lit by lanterns and with the echo of the crashing waves of the Indian Ocean in the background, it made a very relaxed and romantic setting. The bar-man was more than happy to whip up a cocktail of your choice, and guests sat around together and enthusiastically spoke about the adventures they had encountered that day. From seven leopard sightings, to a sloth bear, elephants and an array of bird species, it was clear the Yala National Park was teeming with wildlife.
Initially used as a hunting ground for the elite under the British rule, Yala is now a protected area and one of the largest in Sri Lanka covering an area of 90 sq km. It is home to over 44 species of mammal, over 200 species of colourful birds and is famously known to have the highest population of leopards in the world. With so much to offer its only drawback is that in recent years it has become one of the most visited national parks in the country. And so, to avoid any crowds the Chena Hut rangers wake to get the permits at 3.00am every morning and gently wake guests at 4.45am to leave for the park. It does means a little wait at the gate but assures you will be the first one in at 6am and allows time to find your own slice of the park to explore.
Like a child at Christmas, it was hard for me to sleep and I was up and eager to get going when our ranger Steuart picked me up (with a large Sri Lanka ornamental spider waiting for me on my doorstep – I was glad to have him there). Joined by two other guests, we excitedly hopped into the jeep and left in the darkness for the park. Made up of tangled forests, grassy plains, murky lagoons and dry woodland, the terrain of the park is incredibly picturesque and just admiring the landscape alone was enjoyable. Within the few hours of roaming the park we were fortunate enough to see spotted deer, water buffalo, crocodiles and a plethora of bird species. Steuart, born in Sri Lanka has been visiting the park since he was a young boy and so his knowledge about the area was extensive. He knew everything there was to know about the flora and fauna, he was good company and shared a wealth of bizarre facts about the animals within the reserve. Driving around we came across two Asian elephants chomping away at trees, had two very quick glimpses of leopard hidden in the vegetation and when it was time to leave the park we were greeted by a shaggy sloth bear bundling across the open grassy planes and coming right up to the vehicle to inspect us. Having only a quick glimpse of the leopards beforehand we were amazed to be able to see such an elusive creature like the sloth bear, where our ranger exclaimed ‘seeing a sloth bear is like seeing 7 leopards’. It was, to say the least, an exciting way to wrap up a morning game drive.
Back at the hotel and with a few hours to spare before the afternoon’s game drive, I opted for a walk along the rugged beach with Steuart. Wild and untouched, sea-turtles come to lay eggs by moonlight and one particular bull elephant often wanders down to the ocean shores right in front of the hotel. The area is incredibly beautiful, secluded and feels disconnected from the rest of the world. Back at the hotel, guests can indulge in the luxury spa, go for a dip in the main pool with its waterfall edge or simply relax in the rooms and the private plunge pool.
After a day exploring Yala Park and the beach, I relaxed in my very own plunge pool. My evening was rounded off with an alfresco dinner under the stars at the Basses Restaurant. With a daily evolving menu, the food was freshly prepared featuring lots of seafood and local produce. I opted for a typical Sri Lankan fish curry that came with several smaller dishes offering an array of flavour combinations typical of Sri Lanka. It was easily one of the most delicious meals I had during my time in Sri Lanka.
A stay at Chena Huts really did offer the whole package, combining luxury and adventure in a stunning setting. The food was fantastic, the general manager Roshan and his team offered a seamless service, the ambience was relaxed and the Sri Lanka safari experience within Yala was second to none. I hope one day to return.