Wednesday, 23 October 2013

The Jetwing Warwick Gardens Hotel, Nuwara Eliya

Scotland? Nope, Sri Lanka. Exotic tropical flowers rub shoulders with fuschia 
and pink roses in the rich gardens of Nuwara Eliya's Warwick Gardens Hotel.

Jetwing, often for some reason called Jetwings, is a major Sri Lankan conglomerate with interests in the travel and tourism industry and ownership of a large number of hotels across the country. The company's hulking luxury buses ply the tourist routes, the Eddie Stobart of Sri Lankan tourism. I had past experience of one of those hotels, Galle's achingly beautiful Lighthouse Hotel, a building designed by much-celebrated Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa.

Bawa's extraordinary architectural vision places the Lighthouse Hotel in every coffee table book of 'funkiest hotels in the world' and it's always to be found in collections of 'lovely hotels' - the camera loves its clean lines mixed with visionary statuary and yet the truth is, when you get up close to it, the hotel is at best unkempt and at worst shabby. It is also home to the mind-numbingly beautiful Cinnamon Room - the restaurant at which, readers will by now be weary of being reminded, I had The Worst Meal Of My Life.

We had also endured a week of public school-like misery at the hands of a 'boutique small hotel' in Sri Lanka, the dubious, woeful and rat-piss spattered charms of Galle's Sun House Hotel.

So booking the Jetwing Warwick Gardens Hotel - a boutique small hotel - as our overnight stay in the lush, cool highlands of Nuwara Eliya was something of a leap of faith. Or lunacy. You tell me.

On paper it looked stunning - C19th planter's house restored check, different out of the way experience check, uniquely stylish way to spend a Nuwara Eliya night check. But still there was a niggle. What if it were, you know, just not very good after all that? What if the TripAdvisor reviews were all so starry-eyed at the splendour of the place they missed the things that make somewhere truly special, not just decoratively exceptional?

We approached the hotel from the Ambewela Dairy Farm side, a dumb move that we only had ourselves to blame for. We're hooning around in a charcoal Lexus minibus and the increasingly precipitous road through the mountains starts to become no laughing matter as the daylight begins to fade. There are yawning chasms inches away to our right as we negotiate the narrowing single track mountain road which becomes barely road and mostly track. Still it wends up through the misty hills and we've stopped talking. Everyone's nervous as Duminda skillfully wrestles with the wheel and guides us past those awful drops and crumbling margins.

The silence bears down on us, the engine becomes something to focus on as its note rises and falls.

Finally we come across a sign. It's a right turn off the track. We take it and meet an even narrower track. There's no tarmac, this is compressed mud and pothole. We bounce and judder down into a valley only to see another track leading upwards, two concrete runners have been laid down, but they're smashed and cracked. White-painted rocks mark the route of the narrow, precipitous track upwards. The Lexus strains as Duminda tries to slow for the potholes and yet maintain enough momentum to take us up the rain-slicked incline. The edge seems very near indeed and then we hit a tight hairpin. It's too much, we have to reverse and re-take it. Bouncing and creeping, we negotiate the iniquitous track and finally draw up outside the old plantation house that is the Warwick Gardens.

It's glorious.

As far as I understood the story told me by the house's factotum as we stood on the lawn looking out over the mountains the next morning (there is a guest-facing staff of three, said factotum, a housekeeper and a chef), a Scottish planter by the unlikely name of Lemon (we tried looking up Lennon, but both come up blank) built his home from home here up in the temperate hills of Nuwara Eliya in the 1880s. He thrived here, with a massive plantation estate of some 10,000 acres.

The family stayed until 1940, selling up to a Sri Lankan chap by the name of Fernandes and he ran the estate until the nationalisations of 1971-2. This was a black period in Sri Lankan history, when the government took to its own any and all plantations over 50 acres, particularly focusing on foreign-owned estates but, it seems, even Sri Lankans weren't safe. His proud mountain kingdom reduced to 50 acres, Fernandes had a heart attack and died of grief.

Thirty years later, the house - a ruined shell in the hills - was discovered by Jetwing chairman, Hiran Cooray and he, his wife and architect Channa Daswatte took to restoring the house to its original glory. Every bit of woodwork is new, the furnishings, fixtures and fittings all selected tastefully to recreate the glory of that 'Grand highlands house in a foreign land' the original owner had set out to create in the middle of his lush plantation.

The result is a very special small hotel indeed.

The living room gives into the formal dining room. Can't stand eating with other guests? 
Find a hotel for the socially inadequate, then...

Two dining rooms (the formal dining room with a ten-seat table and the pantry with a smaller table) and a drawing room and study form the 'front of house' downstairs (there's also a pantry and kitchen).

Informal dining in the Pantry...

There's a ceiling-high tapestry on the dogleg of the stairs and then a landing leading to the other rooms. Behind the tapestry is a secret staircase to the glorious 'White Room' - originally called the Netherleigh Room. This is where we stayed - a minimalistically stylish room with an equally stylish bathroom attached to it, complete with walk-in shower and claw-footed bath. If you ever go to this hotel, book this room. Just do it. The views out over the stepped country-house lawn and peaks beyond alone are worth it.

Dinner consists of no menu. What sort of thing do you like? Sri Lankan? European? Chicken? Fish? What floats your boat? We plumped for Sri Lankan and settled down for drinks in the living room. Our host pours a serious G&T.

A long while later we wandered over to the dining table and enjoyed a meal of rare finesse, a chicken curry, vegetable curry, breadfruit curry, dal and string hoppers together with a spiced coconut sambal were subtle, spicy and served piping hot. A dessert of set yoghurt and a traditional Sri Lankan set pudding followed by coffee (from the estate's own plantation) and a battering, flashing thunderstorm whipped up almost to order, with rainwater cascading off the house. There's magic in the air.

The post-storm night is noisy. All sorts of things bump, croak witter and caw through the dark hours. And it's majestic. The morning sunlight floods the white room as we pull open the heavy curtains.

Walking in the Warwick Gardens' gardens is a morning delight...

Breakfast ("What would you like for breakfast?") was an omelette for Sarah and, for my part, bacon, sausages and eggs. With toast, home made preserves (including jam from the strawberries grown on some of the 30 acres of land remaining to the house) and more of that excellent coffee. Then a walk around the grounds, fresh from the night's rain, the channeled streams muddy with the night's run-off.

The staff are knowledgeable, charming and couldn't do more to help. The water in the bathroom is hit and miss - really not consistent with the rest of the experience on offer. There's nothing quite like standing, freezing and covered in suds waiting for the other room to turn off the tap to make you count quite how much you're paying for your boutique small hotel experience room. That's my only complaint - apart from the mad track to the house.

But, by golly, this is a special place made more special by its staff. I have no hesitation recommending it heartily to anyone who wants to do something outstanding and memorable at least once in their lives. I'd rank it alongside Ballymaloe, The Clarence and Auchterarder House as one of my favourite hotel experiences ever.
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Michelle K said...

Love your writing! Just left Lighthouse last week, loved it and thankfully did not try the cinnamon room!

Michelle K said...

Love your writing! Just left Lighthouse last week, loved it and thankfully did not try the cinnamon room!

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