Bouncing along the narrow road, bones rattling every time we hit a pothole, I managed to smile as our driver slowed down and veered towards a dirt track. ‘Are we here already?’ I asked, surprised but oh-so-eager to arrive at the Udawalawe National Park.
The driver glanced at me in his rear-view mirror. ‘Shortcut,’ he said, and I sat upright, excited. I’d only ever seen an elephant years ago in a city zoo, and couldn’t wait to see the mothers and calves in their natural habitat in the south of Sri Lanka. But as we set forth again, I tensed. The shortcut was a tiny track – only just wider than the shiny new SUV we were in – cutting through emerald paddy fields, with a sheer drop down the right side into a river below.
‘Do you know where you’re going?’ I exclaimed to the driver, trying not to look out of the window as tuk-tuks and motorbikes with what looked like entire families perched on them – including the odd chicken – inched past, pushing us even closer to the edge. My throat was suddenly dry. The SUV rocked as we navigated the dried-out track, plunging into ruts, wheels spinning and whining as the driver accelerated to haul us back out.
I squeezed my eyes shut, waiting for the bucking vehicle to steady, and then I heard the driver laugh. We were out the other side and cruising towards the main road where, in the distance, I could see the sign for the wildlife park. ‘See, shortcut,’ the driver said. ‘No problem. It was fun, no?’
Adventure was the reason I’d come to Sri Lanka. I’d wanted to get back to nature and see plenty of wildlife on the lush, green island in the Indian Ocean as a break from the concrete jungle of city life. It’s just that I’d expected the roads to be a little smoother. And wider.
But we were at the wildlife park now, and I’d been promised elephants. So I jumped out and clambered up into the high jeep – it was so tall it looked like a double decker – and set off.
It wasn’t long before we came across a lake and there, on the other side, were three Asian elephants. I hadn’t realised just how huge they were in the wild. I was mesmerised. Then we headed down narrow tracks, emerging into terrain that immediately made us feel as though we were in Africa. My guide pointed out eagles, buffalo, crocodiles, reptiles and all manner of monkeys – and what he claimed in the distance was a leopard – but all I cared about were the elephants.
‘Listen,’ the guide said suddenly, as we slowed. ‘Can you hear that?’ I strained to work out what it was. Then I heard a rustle of leaves, and out of the dense foliage ambled a mother elephant with her baby. They were just a metre away, and if I had stretched out my hand I’m sure I could have touched the mother. But I didn’t want to scare her, so I sat, enthralled, as she guided her calf across the track, and vanished into the undergrowth.
We saw plenty of elephants after that – groups huddled together eating, a few bathing in the lake, and a couple of mothers with their calves. They were majestic and elegant despite their size. The babies followed their mothers obediently, happy being herded along, seemingly oblivious to us humans capturing them on camera to turn into Instagram stories.
We were there for three hours, but time sped by so quick, and I was reluctant to go. But our driver was having none of it. ‘I want to leave before it gets dark,’ he said. ‘I don’t want to encounter any buffalo on the road.’ They’re the main cause of road accidents, he told me. I hurried to get back into the SUV. ‘Let’s go,’ I said. ‘But don’t take the shortcut.’
Just over an hour later, with no buffalo or drama encountered, we arrived back at our home away from home, the Anantara Peace Haven Tangalle Resort.
The resort is new and stylishly discreet, set among a 17-hectare coconut plantation. I’d arrived the day before and had been treated to a traditional welcome by a trio of women beating drums and a parade of smiling staff saying ‘ayubowan’ – long life. It’s the nicest greeting! After a swift check-in I’d been whisked to my two-bed villa – just a five-minute stroll away, but I was taken by buggy – where I was greeted by a woman with hot bowl of water before her, to wash and massage my feet.
‘Bliss,’ I’d sighed as my therapist set to work. It was a real energy booster, and while our butler unpacked for me, I explored the villa. It was stunning, a mixture of colonial chic with designer decor in jade, brown and cream. My bedroom had a giant bed, a ceiling fan, and floor-to-ceiling windows – so it really felt like I was part of the landscape.
The villa also had a roll-top tub and rainwater shower, along with a walk-in dressing area, and another double bedroom downstairs with en-suite bathroom and dressing area – plus kitchen, cloakroom, and terrace overlooking the private pool. After an hour of relaxing, I’d been more than ready to explore the resort.
Set on a rocky outcrop along the coast, just five minutes from the large town of Tangalle, this area was completely destroyed by the Boxing Day 2004 tsunami that killed 35,000, and left even more homeless. But it’s been completely transformed into a stylish resort, complete with giant pool, spa, kids’ and teens’ clubs, and six restaurants.
On my first night I’d tried out the all-day Journeys restaurant overlooking the main pool, which puts out a buffet breakfast with live stations – including a chef who makes Sri Lankan string hoppers to order with or without egg – and offers an à la carte menu at night. I’d feasted on a fish curry with just the right amount of heat. I’d gone to bed full, and happy.
Now, after a fantastic day on the elephant safari, I decided to walk to my villa.
I leisurely strolled past a cart being pulled by a bull. A man in charge was piling it full of branches and foliage that had fallen off the trees. ‘That’s one way of keeping the place tidy,’ he smiled.
Back at our villa, one of 32 dotted around the furthermost parts of the ground, and secluded by trees, I went for a dip in my private plunge pool. Amazingly, I couldn’t hear anything except for the distant sound of the sea crashing to shore, and amused myself watching peacocks strutting the grounds, and a family of monkeys looking for treats guests may have dropped – or left – outside on their terraces.
There were mothers, babies; I counted at least 30 of them. ‘They’re our neighbours,’ I said, fascinated. ‘That means we could be in for a wild time.’
I lazed around before getting ready for dinner, this time at the clifftop Italian restaurant Il Mare. Luca, the charismatic Italian maître d’, gave me a candlelit table overlooking the ocean, and recommendations to try some of the finest food we’d ever tasted – delicious al dente seafood pasta, steak that melted in my mouth and gelato that was so creamy I could feel the calories going straight to my stomach.
The next day we were tempted by Anantara’s Experience Gurus to head into Galle, a Unesco World Heritage Site nearby, or to go blue-whale-watching at Mirissa. But they’re both early starts (4.30am!) – and so I decided to lounge by the private pool instead.
Cue more monkey business (I had to force myself not to feed them as they looked so cute) and a visit to the beach to choose my own lunch from the fisherman who arrived in a small boat.
I picked red snapper, then headed to the kitchen dining room for a Spice Spoons cookery class with one of the resort’s chefs. ‘I can’t cook,’ I told the chef, but he soon had me smelling, picking and cooking, creating the best bean curry and grilled fish I’d ever tasted. It meant I was too full to do much but pick at a salad at Journeys later, and so we had an early night.
The next day I could have gone to the Anantara Spa, a latticework sanctuary offering Ayurvedic treatments along with regular ones, or to Yala National Park, a three-hour drive away, to see elephants and the world’s highest concentration of leopards.
Instead I took the resort’s tuk-tuk out to Tangalle and browsed the market and shops. The journey there was the best bit though – feeling the breeze tangle my hair and the toot of the tuk-tuk’s horn as my driver overtook and whizzed around the bends in the road. I was ravenous by dinner time – a beachside Dining by Design affair.
Candles lit the way to our shoreline table, and a bespoke menu made it a splendid, romantic evening. Every morsel was divine, but the scenery, the service and the sheer luxury of it made it the standout memory of the trip. My toes squished into the sand as I ate, and the waves crashed on top of the rocks, making a relaxing song to dine to.
It was the perfect sign-off to an incredible stay in Sri Lanka – exciting and wild, up close and personal with some gorgeous animals and the rugged, beautiful scenery. But the name of my resort said it all – I’d had a wild time but found peace too. I’ll be coming back for more.