Jetwing Vil Uyana: Sigirya’s slice of heaven

As I wash away the sweat from climbing Sigirya Rock Fortress and its 1200 narrow steps, the elephant’s traces on my bruised legs, the dusty red soil from the Polunnarawa ancient city, and the oils from the Ayurveda massage, I hear the houseboy knocking on my door. He came to chase the lizard away.

One hour later, someone else knocks.

“Ayubowan!” (May you live long!) Two houseboys, traditionally dressed in their finest, but barefoot, come in to make my veiled bed.

They bow and present me with a good night gift: a box of sweets. After which they sweep and meticulously place flowers and leaves on my bed. It reads “Good night.” They pull the veil and off they go.


I am left looking at my fanciful bed, listening to the rain in a reverie, perplexed at Sri Lanka’s customary gallantry of doing things. 

If you could only visit one place in Sri Lanka, Jetwing’s Vil Uyana would be it. A mere three miles from what many consider the 8th “Wonder of the World,” Sigirya – a brilliant fortress built on a peculiarly shaped rock rising in the middle of the surrounding jungle – Vil Uyana embodies the islands’ natural beauty and dedication to the environment. Located within the cultural triangle of Sri Lanka, famous for its rich history and long withstanding heritage, Vil Uyana is a lifestyle hotel, eco retreat and natural reservoir all in one.

Winner of the Environment Award at the 2014 Tourism for Tomorrow Awards, Vil Uyana is not just a heavenly oasis, but the quintessence of responsible tourism.

Open since October 2006, this is Jetwing Hotels’ most groundbreaking project yet.


The hotel is the first of its kind in Sri Lanka to construct a wetland system with lakes and reed beds, from abandoned agricultural land and forest in what is known as the dry zone. In meeting this extraordinary challenge, the brilliant architect Sunela Jayawardene went by the tank-building tradition of the ancient kings of the dry zone, who collected rainwater for irrigation, bathing and recreation. The result was the formation of this private nature reserve with 27 dwellings (in four different types of habitats) spanning over 24 acres.

From the moment I arrived at Vil Uyana, the care for the environment was more than evident. No gas run vehicles are allowed on the premise, specifically on the gravel roads and boardwalks inter-connecting the dwellings. Instead, electric buggies with silent engines provide transport for guests from their villa to the reception.


I could clearly see why. On my second buggy ride, the driver has to occasionally stop for traffic. By traffic, I mean three mesmerizing peacocks crossing the road.

At a first sight, the glamping style eco resort is brimming with lovely-dovey honeymooners. But not long after check-in, I saw plenty of solo travelers such as myself, as well as families and groups of friends. It made perfect sense; it’s the perfect spot in Sri Lanka from where to plan hiking trips, visit the island’s most renowned cultural sites and go elephant riding.


I spent my first day at Vil Uyana inside a paddy dwelling built on stilts, in what felt like a house of its own, with my very own plunge pool and garden terrace.


I showered with three (tiny) frogs and a myriad of lizards staring at me through the window. It somewhat felt ok. For in that unflustered, natural habitat, the sounds and look of the incredible wildlife were all too soothing and invigorating.

All throughout the night, I heard birds, monkeys, perhaps loris. I was as remote as could be, but as serene as ever.


Over breakfast the next day, I learn about the birth of baby loris from Chaminda, the hotel’s trained naturalist, a seemingly prestigious job in Sri Lanka.  His passion for the wild and the environment is contagious.

“I love my job,” Chaminda says, “because the habitat at Jetwing Vil Uyana is a haven for wildlife, with over 112 species of birds, 20 species of mammals, 36 species of butterflies and 21 species of reptiles and amphibians.” There is plenty to see during the day, but by night he leads tours to spot Sri Lanka’s elusive primates, the Grey slender loris – which explains the torches readily available in each hotel room.

My second day at Vil Uyana, I was moved to a garden dwelling, a closer look and feel to a hotel suite but no less jaw-dropping. Apart from the disappearance of the plunge pool, most other features were very similar. What was radically different was that I had to call in for a buggy to take me everywhere; the positioning of my villa was so far from reception, I could easily get lost otherwise.

This was in fact a blessing. The remoteness and feeling of not being in a hotel, rather in a wild forest with birds, lakes, and scenic foliage was all that I could have wished for.

This was a Sri Lankan fairytale of sorts; the difference being that this fairytale was very much real.

Getting off the tourist track: Why glamping is trending now

If you came across a gorgeous tipi camp perched by the seaside, would you broadcast your vacation find to the masses? Unlikely. Same goes for a collection of geodesic domes outfitted with crackling fires and Eames furniture. When accommodation is that awe-inspiring, we’re reluctant to share (until we want our friends to join us and the word gets out).

Glamping has been around awhile. I’d like to think cavewomen started the trend when they outfitted their plots with comfortable pelts and artifacts. Yet, ten years ago, glamping was still an indie getaway. In fact, it wasn’t even called glamping. Early adopters simply said they were “going on a chic camping excursion.” Nobody asked questions because “chic” and “camping” were rarely used in the same sentence.


Fast forward to 2014 and you’d be hard-pressed to find an in-the-know traveler who a) doesn’t know about glamping, or b) hasn’t tasted the upscale tent-life themselves.

Ever since posh pioneers and word-of-mouth built the bones of the business, I trace glamping’s indie-to-mainstream move to A-list influencers. Take Matthew McConaughey and Camila Alves. When they tied the knot in an epic three-day celebration in 2012, their wedding guests were treated to one of 47 air-conditioned, Hollywood-worthy tents erected at their Austin, Texas estate. And let’s not forget when now-divorced Scarlett Johansson and Ryan Reynolds got hitched at Clayoquot Wilderness Resort, a woodsy hideaway in British Columbia’s coastal rainforest. Located so far off the beaten path, the paparazzi didn’t even get wind of the star-studded glamping affair until after it happened.


Social media and our constant need for connectivity is another glamping influencer. With no escape from nonstop notifications, travelers are heading back to basecamp-style basics in search of a simpler time and some R and R. Think of it like a smartphone sabbatical. Ironically, glamping has grown in popularity due to the internet. Now the uber-connected are retreating into its out-of-the-way clutches to actually get away from it all.

For celebrated travel writer, glamper and safari enthusiast Mark Sissons, “glamping is all about enjoying the best of both worlds—a pristine wilderness experience coupled with all of the comforts of home, and then some. It’s getting back to nature without roughing it in the bush.” Think of it this way: Time-pressed, urbanites still yearn for the great wide open without the hassle of towing a U-Haul stacked with gear. With haute couture tenting, it’s all there.


Finally, like a pair of worn Levi’s, glamping is cool. But don’t take our word for it, ask Oscar-winner and glamping guy Matthew McConaughey. Or, check out why Mashable, one of the internet’s most popular news outfits, just waxed on about “11 essentials for the glampground.”

Glamping: Trend of travel mainstay? You decide.

Sindabezi Island: Above and Beyond Victoria Falls

To soak up the world’s largest waterfall, the rush of the Zambezi river, and southern Zambia’s wild environs, we knew Sindabezi Island was the place to hang our bucket hat. This private river isle was gently developed by Tongabezi, the oldest and most prestigious eco-lodge above the falls, to further immerse its guests in the beauty of the Zambezi. Named by Fodor’s as one of the top ten eco-lodges on the African continent, Sindabezi is adventure at its most luxurious.

There are only five villas on the island so each one feels completely secluded in nature. The existing landscape was their inspiration to their construction rather than an impediment. Their use of natural thatch roofs and mangrove walls barely scratch the surface of how they incorporate nature into their designs, but my favorite example is the pathways. A massive fallen tree laid right in the middle of walkway to our room but instead of chopping it up, they built a set of stairs up and over the trunk. Respect.


As you can see, the entire front of our villa is open to the wilds of the Zambezi. From our bed we could watch the monkeys play in the trees, see the birds flutter from limb to limb, and hear the hippos honking nearby


Each night at sunset the island’s ten guests gather by the fire for drinks and hors d’oeuvres. Chatting over wine in the comfort of our cushy sofas and chairs, before and after dinner, we were all great friends by the end of the night.


The next day the Sindabezi team had planned a river and wildlife extravaganza for us. First up, a sunrise sail on the river. Watching kingfishers swooping through the air, baboons playing on the sandy banks, and hippos returning from their night of foraging, we sipped our coffee before heading back to the lodge for a hearty breakfast. Then before we knew it, we were back out on the river for a kayak and fishing trip where we caught a fierce tiger fish!

6 Picnic Sindabezi

Finishing our full morning on the river, we docked at one of the river islets for lunch. We would have been happy if our guide prepared a picnic blanket and sandwiches but to our amazement Sindabezi had sent a chef and waiter ahead to surprise us with a proper sit-down meal! A beautifully set table was prepared with multiple courses and wine pairings for an unforgettable dining experience.

7 Tub-Sindabezi-HoneyTrek

We returned to our villa and were excited for some time in our tub. Set under the shade and seclusion of the trees, the porcelain claw-foot tub was the most relaxing place to soak in the sounds of the river.

After our bubble bath, we went to the lounge to relax with a cocktail before dinner. This central space is used to share bountiful meals or to curl up on the sofa with a book or a board game. The collection of antiques and thoughtful accents makes every space on the island a treat.


The next day the main event was upon us: Victoria Falls. At 354-feet high with a single stream of water running 5, 604-feet wide, Victoria Falls is considered to be the largest waterfall in the world. Our Sindabezi guide gave us a very informative tour on the geology and history of the magnificent falls and then he handed us two rubber rain coats. The path opposite the falls turned out to be the world’s greatest natural water park! We giggled and squealed like school kids as we got more and more drenched catching glimpses of the cascades and rainbows.

10Livingstone Island-HoneyTrek

An extra perk of staying at Tongabezi and Sindabezi is that they have exclusive access to the legendary Livingstone Island, which literally sits on the edge of the falls with jaw- and stomach-dropping views. There only a handful of boat trips to the island each day but we absolutely recommend taking the last ride and high-tea session to catch the falls at sunset.


What a stay! On our final morning, eating our breakfast of coconut-stuffed french toast and watching for hippos in the pools below, we thought to ourselves… “It doesn’t get more wild and luxurious than this.”