The hidden jewels of Sri Lanka

Ambassador House, Galle
Elegant villas dot Sri Lanka's jungle and coast.

Petite and chic, the true gem of Sri Lanka is its rising wave of beautiful boutique hotels and villas peppered throughout its wild, lush interior and sublime coastal strips. The tiny island has performed a staggering comeback - just three years after its 26-year civil war ended in 2009, more than a million tourists came to soak up its sun, sip its tea and savour its culture.

Sri Lanka and Bali are emerging rivals, sharing similar climates, a guaranteed warm welcome and an innate sense of style and design.

Many of Sri Lanka's top villas are reinvented walauwas, the 18th and 19th-century manor houses of the ruling elite, with grand verandahs and great halls.

You might see a Dutch colonial column, an English colonial balcony, Portuguese whitewash and an Arabic inward-facing courtyard all in the one building, as the country morphed from Serendip to Ceylon to Sri Lanka.

This is also the birthplace of tropical modernism, al fresco living invented by Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa and imitated across the tropics, from Capricorn to Cancer. Book just one room or take the whole villa: courteous Sri Lankans will tell you to make it your home - you'll just wish it was, permanently.

JUNGLE GLAM:CASA HELICONIA

Halfway between Sri Lanka's current capital, Colombo and the ancient capital, historic Kandy, Casa Heliconia is, like all the country's best villas, well hidden. The property comprises two king bedrooms in separate pavilions, the Temple Angkor and Pagoda Gold. The new villa's pedigree is impeccable: its stablemates include The Kandy House and one of the country's bastions of design, Bawa's The Last House.
THE LOOK The villas are hidden among acres of lush jungle with a little path leading down to a plunge pool and sun loungers. The look is rustic timber doors and planter lounges, yet there's also Wi-Fi, a home theatre and aircon.
DON'T MISS For a special Sri Lankan touch, you share the jungle with Casa Heliconia's household pet, a (reportedly) extremely placid, but extremely large white Brahman bull.
Rooms at Casa Heliconia start from $115 a night for the Pagoda Gold pavilion, including breakfast and dinner. See casa-heliconia.com.

AMID THE PADDIES: MAYA VILLA

Five is a special number in Sri Lankan villas: there are five bedrooms in Maya Villa, and you can book just one or the lot.
Ten minutes' drive from Tangalle, on the south coast, and about an hour from happening Galle, the villa is designed by architect Pradeep Kodikara and Hong Kong-based interior designer Niki Fairchild.
The rooms are in two pavilions set around an L-shaped pool and open-air dining pavilion and lounge, perfect for sunset drinks.
THE LOOK In a former life, Maya was a walauwa, a 100-year-old manor house built in the traditional local style, with ornate woodwork in the main pavilion, which houses two rooms.
The new wing has three bedrooms designed in contemporary Sri Lankan style using cool, polished cement for the walls and floors and massive doors that open onto a private courtyard.
DON'T MISS The villa is surrounded by picturesque rice paddies and hammocks on the lawn - surely there is no more serene match?
Rooms start from $265 a night for a room, $1140 a night, full villa, low season, including breakfast, mayatangallesrilanka.com. See mayatangallesrilanka.com.

COLONIAL SPLENDOUR: 20 MIDDLE STREET, GALLE

Embracing Galle's Dutch colonial history, this villa was originally a Dutch merchant's house built in 1750, with English additions in the 1800s.
Recently renovated by top Sri Lankan starchitect Channa Daswatte and interior design by George Cooper, the four-bedroom villa maintains its teak windows and perfumed gardens.
THE LOOK The modern luxuries of plunge pools, snooker tables and home theatres are worked into a colonial design with sweeping staircases, a zaal (great hall) and open-air loggia with views over the historic, red-roofed seaside town. The villa is in the centre of the UNESCO-listed town of Galle and comes fully staffed.
DON'T MISS The villa's neighbour, Amangalla, is the spot for high tea with champagne or drinks on the terrace.
Full villa usage stars from $955 a night, including breakfast. See villasingalle.com.

OLD WORLD, NEW WORLD: AMBASSADOR VILLA, GALLE

One of Galle's oldest buildings, the villa is located on one of old town's main streets. This is the place to stay when you want to be in the thick of the old town's great cafes, bars and restaurants, but able to slip home and slip into the pool when the temps start to soar.
The house is built for entertaining, with a vast dining table and reception.
THE LOOK Step out of the sun, through the pillars of the verandah into the cool salon lined with deep sofas. The whitewashed villa sleeps 12 in five bedrooms on two levels: three bedrooms open directly onto the pool. The rooftop terrace is a suntrap that soaks up the Sri Lankan rays.
DON'T MISS Make like a local and walk the Dutch ramparts to Galle's lighthouse in the late afternoon. It's a promenade, so take it slowly. Nearby Fortaleza is a great lunch stop (9 Church Cross Street, fortaleza.lk).
Costs from $560 a night, full villa, including breakfast. See ambassadorshouse.com.

COUNTRY STYLE: KALUNDEWA RETREAT, DAMBULLA

This spectacular country chalet, four hours' drive from Colombo, is built around the natural beauty that surrounds it: the retreat is on 36 hectares of sustainably farmed orchards and paddies.
It sleeps four in two beautiful open bedrooms, with another new chalet opening in early November.
THE LOOK The hero is an open-air lounge filled with snowy sofas placed for lounging and contemplation. Split over two stories, this chalet's two bedrooms are set among the kumbuk trees and a private lake.
DON'T MISS Kalundewa is a twitcher's paradise, with hornbills, kingfishers, kites, coots and storks on the visitor's list. Peacocks are de rigueur (this is Sri Lanka). Take time to watch the butterflies and natural springs, or take a nature walk with the on-site expert. Two of the country's top sites, Dambulla Cave Temple and Sigiriya Rock Fortress, are nearby.
Costs from $445 a night for the two-bedroom chalet, including breakfast. See kalundewaretreat.com.

SURF SIDE: HABARADUWA HOUSE, HABARADUWA

Languishing right on the beach on Galle's south coast, this glamorous beach house sleeps eight in four bedrooms with en suites. Outdoor showers allow you to revel in the warm sea breezes.
THE LOOK The beachhouse has been renovated recently, so expect four-poster beds and a polished finish. French windows open out to the 20-metre infinity pool and the Indian Ocean. Don't expect First-World pool gates - children aren't encouraged at this fully staffed villa: the fully kitted games room has grown-up kids in mind.
DON'T MISS Order a massage, a yoga teacher or a guide on a morning bike ride. Staff can also arrange visits to local markets and boat trips. Nearby Unawatuna beach frequently rates in the world's top 10 strips of sand.
Costs from $955 a night, full villa, including breakfast. See villasingalle.com.

SAFFRON & BLUE: KOSGODA

Think big at this contemporary villa, halfway between Colombo and Galle, which sits 12 for lunch and sleeps eight in four bedrooms.
Relax on the terrace by the 12-metre swimming pool, set among palm and frangipani trees, overlooking the beach.
THE LOOK The three-story villa is designed by one of Sri Lanka's most renowned architects, Channa Daswatte. Guests can take over the kitchen or barbie, or leave it in the hands of the staff and hit one of the two outdoor jacuzzis. The den is kitted out as a games room.
DON'T MISS Just 15 minutes away are the gardens of Lunuganga. The villa is next door to Kosgoda's marine turtle conservation project.
Costs from $245 a night for a room or $745 a night, full villa, until December 23, including breakfast. See jetwinghotels.com.

The writer was a guest of Banyan Lanka and Mr & Mrs Smith. See banyantours.com; mrandmrssmith.com.

This feature by Belinda Jackson was published in Sydney's Sun-Herald newspaper.

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