Kalundewa Retreat had humble beginnings, starting life as a 25-acre agricultural project; these days, it’s a sleek timber-and-glass design den. An excellent chef captains the open-air restaurant (which sources 85 per cent of its produce from the gardens) and even the swimming pool honours nature – it’s an ulpatha (natural spring).
Double rooms from $140.98, excluding tax at 31.4 per cent.
Rates usually include breakfast (full English or Sri Lankan) and WiFi. Guests can borrow the hotel’s bicycles, paddle boats and canoes without charge.
Yoga devotees can enlist the guidance of a local yogi and perfect their poses on a special platform amid the rice fields, in sight of a small waterfall. Love the food in the restaurant? Have a cookery class with the chef, who will take you into the gardens to pick your produce. (Ask nicely and you might even be able to cook in the paddy fields.)
At the hotel
100-acre grounds, swimming pool. In rooms: desk, minibar, Sri Lankan bath products.
Our favourite rooms
Sleeping quarters are spread across three buildings: the first sits in the paddocks, housing three entry-level rooms; the second and third buildings are overwater, set in the wetlands and shrouded by a canopy of trees. One building holds two bedrooms, the other holds just one – the Kumbuk Chalet, which is the most private option and has its own overwater plunge pool.
We’re seasoned swimmers, but this pool took our breath away: set away from the main buildings (a short walk or buggy ride), it occupies a small depression, next to a creek and bordered on one side by a canopy of palm trees and a sea of rice paddies on the other. It’s an ‘ulpatha’: a natural spring that wells up from underground (watch the water bubbling up while you swim). Light-blue tiles contrast with the green and timber surrounding the organic-shaped oasis; next to the pool is a roofed terrace designed for sun bathing and al fresco meals.
A shawl or shirt for temple visits; green fingers for the gardens.
The hotel’s brilliant design earned it a place in Tatler’s 101 Best Hotels in 2012.
Little Smiths are welcome, but there's no babysitting or on-loan cots (the hotel reckons it’s best suited to children aged six and above).
Ask staff to set up your own private dining experience: out in the middle of the plantations, at a pagoda near the pool or by one of the little bridges over the creeks. Alternatively, dine on the deck of your chalet, or in one of the outside pavilions.
Nature rules: cotton, linen, leather and wooden jewellery.
Overlooking the fields and wetlands, the open-air Rice Field Restaurant is a relaxed setup with timber and stone styling. An impressive 85 per cent of the produce is grown onsite – including rice, sweet potato, citrus, tapioca, ginger, beetroot, bananas, mangos and many others. The hotel also makes its own honey. Try the delicious Sri Lankan curries (fish was our favourite, accompanied by flavoursome vegetarian options and perfect rice). If you want further proof that food is taken seriously here, the chef is also the manager.
Located next to the restaurant, the bar is in an ideal position for a pre-dinner arrack punch or an after-supper Singapore sling. Their drinks menu changes every couple of months, so you'll just have to keep coming back to sample their latest concoctions.
Dinner service finishes relatively early, at 9pm; breakfast is 7am–10am. The bar will be open 10am to midnight, but alcoholic drinks will stopped being served at 10pm.
On offer between 6am and 10pm, the hotel's room service menu spans sandwiches and snacks, alongside Sri Lankan and Western mains.
Kalundewa Retreat is set just outside Kalundewa village, in 100-acre farmland. The area is rural and remote: a tapestry of orchards, lakes and mountains.
Colombo’s Bandaranaike International Airport is around 140km away (a four-hour drive), served by Sri Lankan Airlines. Call our Smith24 Team on 03300 376 891 to arrange flights and transfers.
Dambulla is the closest town, a 20-minute drive away.
Worth getting out of bed for
Once you’ve splashed around the ulpatha, had a cookery class and relaxed in your room, ask staff to take you exploring. In the dry months (August–October), the Kaudulla National Park attracts more than 300 elephants, which gather on the banks of its reservoir (built by King Mahasen about 15 centuries ago). The park is an hour and a half away from the hotel by car.
The Sigiraya (Lion’s Rock) fortress dates back to the fifth century, and was built by King Kashyapa. Marvel at the ancient palace complex and keep your eyes peeled for the remains of four indoor swimming pools, where the king’s 500 concubines bathed. Complex water arteries in the walls provided natural air conditioning in the hotter months. From the summit – accessed by metal walkways and ladders – you can spy the remains of gardens, ponds and palace walls. Mirror walls are decorated with frescoes depicting the king’s concubines, who hailed from all over the world. Open from 7.30am until 3.30pm, the fortress is a 45-minute drive from Kalundewa.
The Dambulla Cave Monastery, the best preserved ancient edifice in Sri Lanka, has religious images emblazoned across its rock contours. The temple complex spans five caves under a vast overhanging rock, and dates back to the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC. Historians should pay a trip to Anuradhapura, the cradle of Buddhist civilization in Sri Lanka. Highlights include Sri MahaBodhiya (the 2,300-year-old sacred bo tree) and the largest stupas of the ancient world – the Ruwanweliseya, the Jethawanaramaya and the Abhayagiriya. The Jethawanaramaya was the third tallest building in the ancient world, after the two largest pyramids of Egypt. The city is an hour and 45 minutes away from the hotel by car.
The first sign that Kalundewa Retreat does things differently is the dancing peacock that ambushes me in the shower. Gyrating, twitching, neck-craning, it hops to and fro: a flutter of gold and blue feathers and plumage. While I’m covered in soaps and suds in the glass-walled, rainforest-style washroom, it stands above me staring through the transparent roof. In Africa, if you’re lucky, you may gaze out on a giraffe from under the canvas of a platformed tent, or see a scarlet macaw from a treetop eco-lodge in Central America. Rare is the day you have a dancing, exotic bird try to court you while you’re in the shower. I’d been hoping for that from Mrs Smith.
In Sri Lanka, they say this courtship dance is a harbinger of the approaching monsoon. At Kalundewa Retreat, as Sushil our chalet butler tells us after check-in, it has become an early morning ritual for guests. 'The peacocks come', he says with an approving head-wobble, 'because they like to see their reflection in the morning sun, before it gets too hot.'
With hindsight, the peacock’s appearance – followed by a surprise honk after I flash my towel – is perfectly fitting. So much of life at Kalundewa is outdoors, it feels like a hotel without walls, even borders. Earlier, arriving by tuk-tuk along a russet-red, dirt path that strays far from the Dambulla–Kandy road, we had no clue as to what lay ahead. The telling contours of dusty green hills of the beautiful nearby ancient cities of Sigiriya and Polonnaruwa – hills that would have inspired Kipling or Hemingway – had vanished. We were greeted by 100 acres of jungle wilderness. There was little, if any, sign of a luxury hotel.
But that is Kalundewa’s ultimate trick and its triumph. The reception and restaurant structure of glass, concrete, steel, and exposed brick is so well-camouflaged – a minimalist, open-air frame built around two gigantic old-age Kumbuk trees – that it could be trying to sneak up on you and shout: 'Boo!' It is sleek, with arrow-straight lines and floor-to-ceiling windows that let in a remarkable sense of light from the terraces of garden vegetables and a freshwater lagoon that help screen it on approach. It feels effortless, but it is anything but. The soft scurry and papery flight of brown fish owls, squirrels, lizards, peregrines, mongooses, Indian flycatchers, hornbills and – yes – those coquettish peacocks add to the wholly natural welcome.
We plump for the sheltered Kumbuk Chalet, a stilted, floating lagoon villa shielded by feathery trees and vines with great stalking roots. There’s a secluded terrace for bathing by the plunge pool, a private terrace for dining by candlelight, and a wooden boardwalk, our only access to the outside world – the perfect escape for a sexed-up, pretend mini-honeymoon. (Mrs Smith is still waiting for the real thing.) At night, the sun filters over the lagoon, through the pomelo, willow, and jackfruit trees, glowing mauve and violet. It is comfort of Sri Lanka’s highest order.
The story goes that the country’s most influential architect, Geoffrey Bawa, had originally wanted it. He had flown overhead by helicopter, paid for by a rival luxury hotel operator, remarking that it was the best spot in all Sri Lanka on which to build. What he didn’t know was that he had been beaten to the task. He just couldn’t see it.
The beauty of Kalundewa – its real unfiltered, untarnished beauty – is in the subtle details. Drop your gaze from Mount Kalundewa, the knuckle-shaped peak that towers over the surrounding rice paddies, and you’ll see all Sri Lankan life before you. A chef in a crisply-pressed white uniform cycles through fields of sweet onions and yams on a rickety bike; sun-ripened old men and veiled women in pink, orange and gold saris pick fruit; there is a makeshift, scorched-earth cricket pitch with wooden stumps and wickets; Buddhist dagobas and caves dot the pastoral landscape; cicadas and fruit bats buzz at dusk. It is all the delicious glory of South Asia within a mango’s throw.
It’s so sybaritic, in fact, that Mrs Smith and I struggle to do much during our stay. We gorge on jumbo lagoon prawns the size of small rocket-ships, devour heart-pumping curries zingy enough to bring tears to my eyes (I blame the romance of the occasion), and wallow at breakfast over traditional egg hoppers: pancake-thin slivers of spicey goodness.
There are canoes and bikes for exploration (we only pedal out to breakfast); forest hikes with the resident naturalist (nope); an excursion to the local village (in this heat?); cooking classes with executive chef Lal Priyantha (maybe next time); forest yoga (seriously?). Instead, Mrs Smith takes to the sun lounger like an oven-hot buffalo and I watch blue-eared kingfishers dive bomb the lagoon from the plunge pool. We also beeline to the ulpatha, a natural spring converted into a jungle pool, to float like overfed lizards post-lunch each afternoon. And we are the only ones to share it – the rarest luxury of them all.
As we leave Kalundewa the next morning, I take one last look around. The mongooses have sulked off, so too the fruit bats, squirrels, kingfishers and eagles. The peacock sees me, right enough, but it doesn’t so much as flinch. It fans its tail, a sign that it really couldn’t care less, and continues dancing unapologetically.
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