You’re unlikely to have bedded down in a Sri Lankan national park before; change that with a trip to Gal Oya Lodge, whose boutique bungalows occupy a 20-acre private forest, home to expert rangers, white-bellied sea eagles and the occasional bathing elephant. The lodge has a mezzanine restaurant serving sambols, curries and western favourites; if the spices and heat have you feeling a little hot and steamy, cool down in the dazzling pool, set in the long grasses and backdropped by the mountains. Once you’ve soaked up the Lodge’s atmosphere, jungle rides, boat safaris and excursions with the Vedda tribe await.
Get this when you book through us:
A guided discovery walk with the chief of the indigenous Vedda tribe, who will show you ancient hunting grounds and medicinal herb gardens
Noon, but flexible, subject to availability (no charge applies). Earliest check-in, 2pm. Guests arriving early or departing late can use the luggage storage area, the restaurant and all the communal areas.
Double rooms from £193.75 ($265), including tax at 17 per cent. Please note the hotel charges an additional service charge of 10% per booking on check-out.
Rates usually include à la carte breakfast (Sri Lankan and Western options such as fresh fruit, Sri Lankan hoppers, a breakfast BLT, chilli baked eggs, and home-made granola with fresh buffalo curd). Full board includes nature walks. Safaris are extra.
Don’t forget to call the hotel from the nearby town of Bibile (or anytime on the day of your arrival). Gal Oya Lodge doesn’t have any road signage and there’s no phone signal or Internet within half an hour of the lodge; if staff don’t know you’re coming, they won’t be able to dispatch someone to the main road to collect you for the last leg of the journey. You can contact the lodge on 0768424612 or 0555656670; alternatively, give staff your guide or driver’s phone number, so that they can liaise with them directly.
At the hotel
Private forest; expert rangers; guest lounge. In rooms: free bottled water, Island Spice bath products.
Our favourite rooms
There’s just one room type, and we think it’s rather lovely: a thatched wooden bungalow set in the forest, with floor-to-ceiling windows, a little living area and a four-poster bed shaded by a mosquito net. The outside bathroom is a highlight, thanks to its open-air layout, bamboo shower (with an elephant-shaped faucet), plus home-made soap and shampoo. The bungalows are connected by dusty sand pathways, which glow at night thanks to flickering lights set on tree stumps. Each one also has an outdoor terrace area with mountain-spying seats.
Join the ruby-red dragonflies that shimmer above the striking outdoor swimming pool, nestled in the tall grasses and trees, with rugged mountains as its dramatic backdrop. It’s unheated, making it the perfect watering hole to cool down in.
You’ll be very grateful for a safari hat. Organised types might want to bring binoculars – that way, you won’t have to keep borrowing the ranger’s.
Gadget-addicts, it’s time to switch off: Gal Oya doesn’t have WiFi or telephone signal. The eco-conscious rooms don’t have air-conditioning; fans are used instead. (You can also cool off in the unheated pool.)
Little Smiths are very welcome – if they’re under 12, they can stay for half the usual rate. Cots are free; extra beds for 12-year olds and under can be added to the bungalows for US$32 (B&B rate), or US$54 (full-board rate).
Gal Oya Lodge doesn’t have lots of family-friendly frills, so it’s better for Smiths aged six and above. Outdoorsy tweens and teens will love it.
There’s just one room category; extra beds can be added on request.
Little(ish) ones can join their parents on the guided safaris, birdwatching trips, animal-monitoring sessions and other outdoorsy excursions.
The pool is family-friendly but there are no lifeguards, so keep a keen eye on your waterbabies.
No need to pack
The hotel can provide full-size cots/crib or wooden cot/crib beds, bottle-sterilising facilities, board books, books, puzzles, outdoor toys, bicycles and bike helmets.
All produce is sourced from local farmers; fish comes from local fishermen; the hotel grows its own herbs; eggs come from its flock of free-range chickens. As much as possible is grown on site. Eco-kind cleaning products and light bulbs are used; water is heated using solar power. All paper is recycled, food waste is given to local farms for their use, waste water is used as grey water in the gardens and glass bottles are returned to the bottler. The hotel supports the Jim Edwards Wildlife Research Centre, which runs numerous ongoing projects in collaboration with local and international conservation trusts and universities. Speak to one of Gal Oya’s rangers or lodge hosts if you want to learn more or get involved. Natural materials were used for the bungalows.
The restaurant has a communal feel, so you might easily make friends with other guests, but the tables are individual rather than shared. They’re all very similar; sit wherever you like.
Go easy on the khaki shorts, unless you want to be mistaken for staff (who also wear natty green polo shirts).
The restaurant, perched on the lodge’s mezzanine level, serves simple and delicious food: a mix of flavoursome local curries, sambol, roti and international dishes. Breakfasts are exciting: try buffalo curd and home-made granola, or Sri Lankan hoppers: rice-flour pancakes packed with spicy fillings. The restaurant’s teak and mara wood tables and chairs were handmade by the local village craftsmen, using traditional skills passed down from generation to generation.
There's no formal bar as such, but staff will rustle you up a drink or cocktail – an arrack sour, perhaps? – which you can enjoy in the sociable, open-air Lodge.
Gal Oya is set within the incredible national park of the same name, in the southeast of Sri Lanka and to the west of Ampara. Despite its jaw-drop scenery, this remote park, which is rich in wildlife, doesn’t see many visitors.
Colombo’s Bandaranaike International Airport (www.airport.lk), is seven hours away by car; some carriers fly direct from Sydney and selected European destinations. The closest domestic hub is Ampara Airport, a 40-minute drive from the lodge. Hotel transfers can be arranged for US$100 one way (in a car that fits four bottoms).
Ella Railway Station is 100 kilometres away, a three-hour drive, with services connecting to Colombo, Kandy and Badulla (www.railway.gov.lk).
Bibile is the nearest town, a 25-minute drive away.
Worth getting out of bed for
Gal Oya National Park is the only place where you can go on a boat safari in Sri Lanka and hope to spy the Asian elephant swimming in its natural habitat. Watching these magnificent creatures swim from island to island, forage and socialise at the water’s edge is a pretty special sight. You can also sign up for a Jeep safari, bike ride or bird walk. Stroll to the river, 15 minutes away, to admire the kingfishers in the early morning. Spend some time with the rangers, absorbing their local knowledge; did you know that there are 104 types of snake in Sri Lanka, only four of which are poisonous? Visit the local lake where birds perch on the silvery tree-trunks then dive for their fishy catch; look out for kingfishers, parakeets and wild peacocks: the national bird of Sri Lanka, which look like a cross between a rooster and a pheasant. Admire the weaver bird’s nests that hang from the trees like woven baskets. Staff can also arrange jungle drives, bicycle tours, riverside picnics, bird walks, naturalist treks and park hikes. Meeting the indigenous Vedda Tribe – one of the last remaining communities of the forest-dwelling, indigenous people of Sri Lanka – is an unforgettable experience.
None – you’re on the edge of a national park, after all. You won’t go hungry, thanks to the food on offer at Gal Oya’s restaurant.
A little outdoor living is good for the soul (just ask the intrepid crew behind every David Attenborough series), but I thought the management team at Gal Oya Lodge was kidding when they said our trekking guide would hike up Monkey Mountain in bare feet. (Side note: they also referred to him as a naturalist, which Mr Smith momentarily confused with a naturist.) Surely that was taking the whole ‘connecting with nature’ thing a little far? But when we turned up in the grand, open-air reception area at 5:45 the next morning, there he was, ready to take us up the mountain wearing rubber flip flops, which he ditched not 10 minutes into our journey.
To be fair, it was the first instance of taking things to the extreme that we’d seen so far in Sri Lanka. Yes, there was the journey from Colombo to Kandy, which our driver, Nishshanka, extremely underestimated. (He‘d said it would take approximately three hours. Actual journey time? More than five.) Other than that, everything on the trip so far had been rather un-extreme.
Sri Lanka is, after all, a nation that many refer to as ‘India-lite’: similar spicy food, minus the Delhi belly; similar culture, minus the culture shock. Gal Oya Lodge in particular feels about as far as you can imagine from the frenetic pace and heaving density of modern-day India.
Set in Gal Oya National Park – quieter than Yala and Uda Walawe – the lodge is small and luxurious, though in a sensible way that doesn’t feel wasteful (or make you feel Western guilt) in the way that some high-end resorts do. Meals are prepared to order, which means that less food is wasted and by late afternoon each day, we knew precisely what delicious dish we had to look forward to at dinner as we had ordered it shortly after lunch. The chili baked eggs, homemade pasta, egg hoppers, traditional Sri Lankan curries, and steamed tilapia were particularly memorable.
Everything at Gal Oya Lodge is tastefully designed with nature in mind. The grounds are beautiful, with an impressive, open-air lodge, an elevated dining area and a lovely pool acting as the centerpiece. During the day, families and guests congregate here to read, sunbathe and learn about nature from the knowledgeable staff; at night, the board games and cards come out. The lodge and the 10 bungalows and villas feature natural materials, with nary a single-use plastic in sight. Electricity wiring is covered in jute, and the faucets in our open-air bathroom (larger than our living room back in London) are bamboo, with carved wooden elephants serving as taps.
It’s all very Instagrammable – but, shock horror, there’s no internet, wifi, or mobile signal to post any pictures in real time. Mr Smith and I couldn’t recall the last time we were forced off technology, and though it’s disconcerting at first (no Google, no maps, no texting our catsitter or catching up on gossip back home), we remembered how to have an actual, live conversation.
The rest of our time at Gal Oya was filled with activities and excursions. There was the morning hike up Monkey Mountain, so named because you can descend swiftly through the muddy, humid forest by grasping the perfectly hand-sized tree trunks. Halfway up, I nearly fainted trying to keep up with our barefoot guide – but we still managed to beat the average time of an hour and a half (hooray).
The staff can also organise birdwatching tours, cooking courses, jeep rides, and can arrange for you to meet a local chief of the Veddas, the indigenous people of Sri Lanka. Intrigued, Mr Smith and I decided to do the latter. The chief, a diminutive man, showed us a cave where his family lived until he was 14. Through an interpreter, he explained some of the hunter-gatherer practices of his people: how they used tree bark to make walls for their huts and used hollowed-out gourds to fetch honey from the treetops. It was a privilege to meet him, and, to our relief, not at all a commercialised experience, though we were disheartened to realise that the Vedda culture is clearly in decline due to the loss of their land and, of course, modern technology.
We also went on a boat safari, using our binoculars to spy on a pair of jackals, a group of buffalo and three enormous crocodiles (including one who slyly slinked into the water as we watched, giving us an even better view of his size and sheer scariness). We docked the boat to crack open a few beers and observe a herd of elephants as they fed and bathed in the water, the matriarchs throwing their trunks into the air to sniff us out.
Final proof that nature and fresh air are good for the soul? On our way back to the lodge from the pier, we passed through an area with 3G – and suddenly, the jeep was filled with the tinny beeps and chimes of messages and alerts traveling through the airwaves. It had only been two days without service or signal, and the once-familiar sounds of technology already sounded foreign. We all wryly shook our heads as we realised the spell had broken – after all, who needs Facebook, Instagram and Whatsapp to see and share amazing things when you can experience the real deal?