We have braved a four-hour drive from Colombo on tortuous roads. It's pitch dark as we approach our destination. There's mystery and suspense in the air. Far away I see some dim lights twinkling like ghostly sentinels. A nondescript dirt track framed by scrub and foliage, leads to the top of a ridge and we arrive at the dramatic cave-like entrance of the Heritance Hotel Kandalama, Dambulla (Sri Lanka). “Ayubowan,” says a young girl in a sarong as she welcomes me, handing over a lotus. What catch my eye are the stark and rough boulders that have been assimilated into the building. Apparently the design kept to the natural topography of the rock face. No rocks were injured during the building of the hotel; instead rooms and corridors were built around them! As we walk to our room, bats, insects and lizards weave and whirl their way in the open corridors giving us a true, eerie “jungle feel”.
I wake up the next morning to one of the most spectacular scenes of my life; the floor-to-ceiling glass windows of my room frame the cobalt blue waters of the ancient Kandalama reservoir (tank) surrounded by primordial forests. Far in the distance I can see the flat-topped ancient fortress of Sigiriya, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Kandalama Hotel is one of the world's first eco-friendly hotels built much before “going green” was fashionable. It is the brainchild of genius architect and design guru the late Geoffrey Bawa, whose integration of geography and culture is marvellous. Looking at the hotel, we wonder if any human effort was responsible or it simply grew out of the forest! Though it's seven storeys high, it's almost invisible from a distance as it has been sensitively fitted to its surroundings and covered with ficus, grass and jungle creepers. Geoffrey Bawa had told the hotel staff long ago that one day the hotel would peep out of the lush foliage like a lost temple and today it really does!
The construction of the hotel in the 1990s was fraught with controversy and local opposition and fears of disturbing the fragile eco-systems. Today the Hotel Kandalama is a beacon for sustainable development. It has won many awards and was the first hotel in Asia to receive the prestigious Green Globe 21 certification. We are told that the hotel is built in the configuration of the outstretched wings of a bird and between two rocks. Tall pillars line the open corridors and natural light floods the interiors and the difference between “indoors” and “outdoors” blurs. The highly polished stone floors reflect the sky and water outside.
In this hotel only the rooms, restaurants and the conference halls are air-conditioned. Bawa has used overhanging eaves, cross-ventilation and open corridors to cool the building, saving on electricity. The hotel has 162 rooms in elegant minimalist design over seven floors snaking over a wide area of 1.8 km but the lowest floor has been left empty with only tall columns. This was in keeping with Bawa's philosophy of allowing free flow of water and animals. The hotel staff tells us that in the rainy season, one can see wild elephants and even boars walk near the corridors! The bedrooms are simply furnished with mahogany and padauk wood shaped by local craftsmen (Bawa was an early champion of indigenous materials). The rooms seem to be a natural extension of the verdant forest around as Hanuman langurs shriek and chatter, peering into our rooms from a ledge. The bathroom has a jacuzzi facing a glass window with spectacular scenery outside and we vote it the best “bathroom with a view”. The hotel has a swimming pool cut into the rock of the mountainside and another infinity pool merging seamlessly with the 11th century Kandalama reservoir.
A short stroll away is the hotel's eco-park, which has a state-of-the-art waste water recycling plant, an elephant dung paper making facility, an herbal garden and even an animal rehabilitation centre. The hotel grows organic vegetables, fruits and herbs and works with local villages and communities in sustainable development. We visit the famed Six Senses Spa at one end, which offers a smorgasbord of Thai, Ayurvedic and Swedish massage as well as steam, sauna, reflexology, pedicures, manicures and facials. We have a relaxing Asian massage with sweet smelling oils and turn soporific under skilled hands. The three restaurants with magnificent views serve international food and we are told that Kandalama has won the SAGA good food award for 10 consecutive years. At dusk, a traditional flautist from a nearby village sits on a rock near the coffee shop and entertains the guests with his haunting music. We take a boat ride on the ancient Kandalama reservoir and are astounded by the boatmen's rich knowledge of bird life on the lake; Brahminy kites fly in the thermals, fish eagles swoop down on their daily catch, egrets and cormorants sit in the rushes, bee-eaters and colourful orioles flit by and the magnificent flight of the hawks is mesmerising in the burnished gold of the setting sun.
Our days at the hotel are busy. The hotel has the unique distinction of being within the cultural triangle of Sri Lanka and is surrounded by UNESCO World Heritage sites.
We visit the Dambulla Rock caves filled with frescoes and Buddha statues one day and trek up to Sigiriya, the ancient pleasure palace of King Kashyapa, the next. We visit the ruins and shrines of the ancient capitals of Anuradhapura and Polonoruwa evocative of the rich past. I think that I can spend a lifetime sitting in my room here, watching the serene lake, listening to birdsong and the chattering of the monkeys. At Heritance Kandalama, the dictum “do not build in the view but with a view” is thoroughly adhered to.
Published in The Hindu Sunday Magazine, 2011