Getting (far) away from it all

The 5-Star Resort in the Middle of the Jungle

Sri Lanka's Heritance Kandalama resort was the world's first LEED-certified hotel, and still one of its most unique.

By Michael Hardy July 10, 2014

When I checked into my room at Heritance Kandalama, a five-star resort hotel deep in the Sri Lankan jungle, the first thing my porter told me was to keep the sliding glass door to my private balcony locked. Thieves? I asked. No, the porter replied: monkeys. Incredibly, the hundreds of monkeys who climb the hotel’s vine-covered trellises have learned how to force the doors open by throwing themselves repeatedly at the latch.

The porter also told me not to feed the monkeys, but as soon as he left I grabbed a pack of potato chips from the minibar, went out on the balcony, and placed a single chip on the railing. In under a minute, a reddish-brown toque macoque monkey climbed into view and grabbed the chip. After eating it, the monkey jumped onto the balcony and began swatting at me with its paw. Nonplussed, I shooed the monkey away and resolved to keep the rest of the minibar’s contents to myself. 

The 152-room Kandalama takes its name from the peaceful lake on which it was built in the heart of Sri Lanka’s so-called cultural triangle—five UNESCO World Heritage Sites are within a few hours’ drive. But except for the distant view of Sigiriya, a 5th-century palace built into a massive 200-meter-high rock formation—the area seems almost uninhabited except for the monkeys and occasional mongoose. It’s ultimate glamping.

Kandalama features green roofs planted with native vegetation

When first proposed in the early 1990s by famed Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa, environmentalists argued the hotel would destroy the area’s pristine natural environment. But few architects have ever been more sensitive to environment than Bawa, and Kandalama ended up becoming the world’s first LEED-certified hotel. The entire complex is built on a raised platform resting on columns, which allows rainwater to flow freely under the hotel and into the Kandalama lake. The hotel recycles all its waste water using an elaborate purification system; it has green roofs planted with native vegetation; and the hotel planted a 200-acre forest nearby to make up for the trees cut down during its construction. Dense vines cover the walls, giving the monkeys free range as they roam the building in packs of 10 or 12, babies clinging to their mothers’ bellies.

Open-air reception desk

From a distance, the hotel looks like an ancient palace nearly swallowed by the jungle. You approach the entrance by a winding road that deposits you at what looks like the mouth of a cave. From the open-air reception desk you’re guided through a narrow passage that seems to have been carved directly into the rock to an outdoor patio, where you’re served fresh-squeezed papaya juice to drink while your luggage is carried to your room. Inside, the hotel is as luxuriant as the outside foliage, with massive open-air lounges, three pools, including an infinity pool overlooking the lake, and a world-class restaurant that serves lavish buffets for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

The hotel is built directly into the rock, preserving the natural formations.

The rooms are famous for their all-glass showers (pictured below), which allow you to watch the monkeys climbing by outside as you lather, rinse, and repeat. (Not to worry: the building is designed so that no other guests can see into the shower—just the wildlife.) Thanks to a recent refurbishment, the spacious rooms feature Sri Lankan art on the walls, colonial-style wicker furniture, and tasteful décor. The balcony is the perfect place to watch the sunset with an arrack—a local liquor made from fermented coconut—or a Lion Lager from the minibar. The hotel’s amenities include a gym, spa, and library, and you can go on trips for bird- or elephant-watching or to one of the many nearby historic sites. 

Each room comes with a glass shower overlooking the Kandalama grounds

Kandalama is not easy to get to. If you fly into Bandaranaike International Airport in Katunayake, about an hour north of Colombo, you must hire a driver for the approximately five-hour drive to the mid-sized central Sri Lankan town of Dambulla, where you turn off onto a narrow dirt road and drive another thirty minutes to reach the remote hotel. (Do not attempt to drive a car yourself in Sri Lanka; it’s scary enough being driven by someone else.) Or, like us, you can take a cramped, un-air-conditioned public bus from Colombo, which will only cost a few dollars but will certainly test your fortitude and endurance. Either way, it’s worth the effort to stay at one of the world’s greatest and most unique hotels.  

But trust me: take the car. 

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