Most people head to Sri Lanka for its fabled beaches but, as Jini Reddy discovers, if you are prepared to venture into the island’s lush, unspoilt interior, then a wonderfully authentic, eco-friendly experience awaits......
I eye up the thick green liquid suspiciously. What, I wonder, are the white bits floating in it? “It’s rice,” beams my host.
The drink, which is also packed with herbs is, he tells me, excellent for the digestion. Having endured a 10-hour flight the day before and feeling sluggish, I gamely take a few sips. Not bad but before I can finish it a tall glass of tamarind juice appears.
Then breakfast: kiribath (rice cakes cooked in milk) and sambal (a chutney made with onions and chillies). There’s enough for four people, or two very hungry honeymooners. I fall into neither category, being one slightly dazed and delighted Londoner.
I’m not in a smart beach resort nor a trendy boutique hotel but a gem of a rural retreat known as The Mudhouse. It’s in Sri Lanka’s little-known Puttalam district and the closest town is Anamaduwa, a difficult-to-find dot on the map.
Sri Lanka inspires a kind of devotion in visitors. Put it down to the tropical weather and lush scenery, refreshing sweetness of the inhabitants or the cricket but Britons adore the country.
“There’s a kind of magic here,” said the woman who’d sat next to me on the plane. She’d been here six times yet never strayed far from the sandy perimeter. I wasn’t going to make that mistake.
The three-hour drive to The Mudhouse from Colombo airport begins on decent roads and ends with a bumpy drive down a dirt track in the middle of a forest.
Just when you begin to think “uh-oh”, you arrive in a clearing and out pops Kumar, owner and manager, sporting a wide smile and bearing a cool glass of lime juice.
The Mudhouse is just that – the sturdy walls and floor are made from mud and the roof from coconut leaves. There is a flushing loo, a reading room, a verandah, jungle shower and no electricity. At night, lanterns turn it into a magical, deeply romantic setting.
After breakfast, Kumar gives me a tour of his organic garden. It’s brimming with chillies, turmeric, watermelon, aubergine, beetroot, carrots and vegetables and herbs I’ve never heard of but all of which end up on my plate.
Afterwards, we take a stroll to one of the nearby lakes. The area is a haven for birds and within minutes Kumar, with his keen eye, has pointed out kingfishers, egrets, stunning green bee-eaters and scores more.
“This is nature’s toothbrush,” he says, pulling off a twig from an Indian beech tree and showing me how to chew it soft and rub it over my teeth. Going by the dazzlingly white teeth of the villagers, I would say it’s far more potent than our squeezy tubes.
After a cooling dip in the lake, we amble over to a temple (about 70 per cent of the country is Buddhist). Inside there are statues of the Buddha and outside a Bodhi tree, symbolic of that under which the Buddha found enlightenment.
We chat to the monk who lives here and he gives me a blessing, chanting a mantra and wrapping a white thread around my wrist. “Good fortune will come to you,” translates Kumar. I suspect it already has.
On the way back, a family invites us into their hut for a cooling coconut juice. The mother, all gentle smiles, shows me a cutting from the local paper – it’s a supplement for schoolchildren and on it is a map of Britain with photos of the Queen and Gordon Brown.
Rural the villagers may be but out of touch they certainly aren’t (the literacy rate in Sri Lanka is 93 per cent).
Dragging myself away the next morning isn’t easy (sadly there is no time for a drink at the Toddy Tavern) but for a different sort of eco-tourism experience, it is worth visiting Sigiriya, about 90 minutes to the east.
The village is home to the dramatic Sigiriya Rock, a Unesco World Heritage site. At the top lie the ruins of a 5th-century royal palace. King Kasyapa, fearing assassination by his half-brother, spent nine years building an impregnable eyrie here. There are manicured water gardens at the base and crumbling ruins at the top.
It’s worth climbing the 650ft Sigiriya. Though you huff and puff (there are 1,200 steps), there are lovely frescoes halfway up (they depict naked maidens, which caused a bottleneck when I was there) and the views at the top are fantastic.
The less energetic can admire the rock from a more relaxing vantage point: the swimming pool at Hotel Sigiriya, which overlooks it.
The hotel is unusual for a mid-range one in that it has a dedicated green policy, even publishing a booklet outlining its energy-saving, waste management and recycling measures. There’s a nature centre here too and an Ayurvedic area.
There’s more to Sigiriya than the rock, though. The hotel organises activities, including village walks, bird-watching excursions and visits to Minneriya National Park.
This is about a 40-minute drive from Sigiriya and one of the best spots for elephant viewing in Sri Lanka.
Alas, the ones I saw had an annoying, if understandable, habit of turning their backs whenever we approached.
“They’re mooning us,” said the guide, gleefully. Nature in all its glory, eh?
GETTING THERE: Sri Lankan Airlines (020 8538 2001/www.srilankan.aero) offers return flights from Heathrow to Colombo from £749.Experience Sri Lanka (0845 638 1415/www.experiencesrilanka.com) offers a range of packages to the island. A seven-night package costs from £1,259pp (two sharing), including four nights’ full board at The Mudhouse, three nights’ half board at Hotel Sigiriya, entrance to Sigiriya Rock, a Minneriya Safari, return flights from Heathrow, four days’ car hire and airport transfers.For more information contact the Sri Lanka Tourist Board: 08458806333/www.srilankatourism.org.