Oil is slowly dripped onto my forehead as I lie on my back, feeling strangely relaxed. This is shirodhara, an ancient Ayurvedic treatment and part of my detox programme at Sen Wellness Sanctuary. Outside, the sound of monkeys chattering and waves crashing in the far distance add to the sense of tranquility.
Our home for the next few days is a beautiful, thatched cabana: one of eight, simply but luxuriously designed. A favourite element is the shower with roof open to the stars.
Set up three years ago by London-based osteopath Sam Kankanamg, the retreat is nestled between pristine beach and lagoon and surrounded by mangroves on the island’s southern coast, close to Tangalle.
After the Easter attacks, Sen saw 90 per cent cancellations, but says its bookings have almost returned to those of the previous year.
Ayurvedic food and spa treatments have seen a recent surge in popularity amongst health-conscious UK urbanites. Sri Lanka, where Ayurveda is thought to date back 5,000 years, is building a name for itself as a high-end wellness destination.
Our fellow guests at Sen are mostly over-worked execs and creatives, with solo women travellers clearly feeling at home. We are drawn in by the friendly, community feel and compare notes on our treatments and ability to function with limited wifi and no alcohol or caffeine. Surprisingly well is the consensus.
For the more adventurous, there’s the option of all-out cleansing and fasting. I opt for a more gentle programme with massages and a herbal flower bath.
Highlights are the early morning yoga class, looking out onto treetops as monkeys take running jumps off the roof, and the sunset beach meditation, with the thrill of seeing turtles nesting as night falls.
Our next stop is further along the coast at Yala National park. Chena Huts is a five-star boutique lodge with fourteen exclusive, safari-inspired cabins spaced over seven acres.
Our thatched, dome-ceilinged dwelling is the height of luxury: spacious, surrounded by jungle wilderness, with its own outdoor deck and private plunge pool.
We drink in views that stretch down to the rugged Indian Ocean coastline, welcoming the sense of serenity and wellbeing. Tempted as we are to wander, leaving the deck is off-limits as wild animals roam freely here.
On our first game drive, we’re spoilt by the abundance of wildlife. We marvel at elephants up close, as well as water buffalo, wild boar, deer and crocodiles. Suddenly our driver gets word that a leopard has been spotted.
This is the moment we realise we are not so alone, as several jeeps screech to a halt beside us. Undeterred, a breathtakingly beautiful leopard slinks out of the bush and saunters nonchalantly past us.
I wind down with a massage at the resort’s world-class spa. Afterwards, I’m served a fresh coconut drink as I lie by the lagoon-like pool, watching a pair of dragonflies skim the surface.
We head for sunset drinks at the open-air bar nestled in the sand dunes and sit watching the waves crash below, non-detox gin and tonic in hand.
We move on to Jetwing Kadruketha, an upmarket eco-resort at the foot of the spectacular Namunukula mountain range.
Inspired by the design of a traditional Sri Lankan village, the elegant bungalows have stunning vistas across lush countryside and paddy fields. Cows wander past and peacocks preen and call: the first time I’ve seen them in their natural habitat.
Staff are from the local villages and welcome us with the island’s legendary hospitality. Our delightful personal butler is attentive to our every need, organising trips to a local waterfall and a bike tour of the village.
Unlike many other hotels forced to sack staff in the aftermath of the bombings, the family-run Jetwings company committed to keeping on all employees at its more than 30 hotels.
The food, with its focus on authentic Sri Lankan cuisine and different mouth-watering curries each day, is the best we have tasted on our travels.
A highlight is a private vegan cookery class with the head chef, previously at the Hilton in Colombo, where we cook up an array of delicious dishes in the outdoors shade.
Our final stop is Plantation Villa, a boutique Ayurveda and yoga resort, deep in the tropical rainforest about an hour and a half’s drive from Colombo. Surrounded by fragrant coconut, black pepper and cinnamon plantations, a family of monkeys strolls across the lawn as we arrive.
The colonial-style villa once belonged to the village chief and is the ancestral home of founder Ishara de Silva. After a successful career as a London banker, she quit the City to establish this wellness retreat.
We’re welcomed with the utmost warmth and kindness by staff and affectionately treated as part of the family throughout our stay. Both eco-friendly and non-profit, Plantation Villa employs local villagers, whilst supporting community projects.
With minimal marketing, word has spread quickly about the wellbeing effect here. Many of the guests tell me they are repeat visitors or have come on a recommendation. The remoteness of the resort from larger towns meant few cancellations after the Easter attacks.
We spend our time lazing by the pool and enjoying twice daily yoga classes in the shaded, tropical gardens. The atmosphere is utterly relaxing; city stresses a distant memory in this little corner of nature’s paradise.
Optional talks on Buddhism and meditation techniques provide food for the mind and soul, while Ayurvedic cooking classes nourish the stomach. We pick up tips on how to weave in new, positive habits when back home.
Guests choose from a range of packages including mind-body detox, yoga and meditation, and weight-loss. Those with chronic diseases are welcomed although staff make it clear they promise no cures, simply a holistic space to be in nature and improve diet and lifestyle.
A team of in-house Ayurvedic doctors (also trained in western medicine), fitness trainers and chefs are on hand to create a personalised programme. The Ayurvedic spa treatments are made with locally grown herbs, spices and oils. My favourite was a particularly blissful warm, herbal oil massage that dissolved all knots and left me feeling as though I was floating.
For those wishing for a taste of Sri Lankan wellbeing closer to home, Plantation Villa is opening a retreat centre in the UK this spring.
We leave feeling truly relaxed, rejuvenated and brimming with good health.
For more info on Sen Wellness Sanctuary visit senwellnesssanctuary.com
For more info on Chena Huts by Uga Escapes visit ugaescapes.com/chenahuts
For more info on Jetwing Kaduruketha visit jetwinghotels.com/jetwingkaduruketha
For more info on Plantation Villa visit srimalplantation.com