Richard Vines/Bloomberg
Luxury Travel

An Inexpensive Jungle Retreat Perfect for the Instagram Era

Inside an inexpensive, eccentric jungle retreat that's not just for celebrities and rock stars.

Helga de Silva Blow Perera looks across the terrace of her guest house, a 15-minute taxi ride high above the ancient Sri Lankan city of Kandy. 

The air is warm, thick and filled with exotic scents and the soundtrack of the forest. An old red-brick wall is all that separates guest house Helga's Folly - the villa where she was born 72 years ago - from dense jungle and its wildlife. 

"We've got leopards on the other side," she says, pointing to a steep slope above the swimming pool. "They come and drink from the pool in the hot weather. We open the gate. And the monkeys - they just come over the wall for a swim."

If you wince at sharing a hotel pool with simians and carnivorous cats, Helga's Folly may not be for you.

But if you have a taste for the exotic, for design that travels beyond good taste into a netherworld where Halloween meets Bollywood and harmony emerges from a cacophony of artistic ideas, a visit here might alone be worth the trip to Sri Lanka.

A photo posted by Calamity Jo (@joana_jonana) on

Rooms in this rambling old house are filled with mysterious paintings; wax from candles drips in stalactites to the floor; model skeletons rest on colorful silk-draped couches; glitter balls hang from a ceiling painted with the signs of the zodiac; the baubles on a Christmas tree - topped with a straw hat - are red chilis. Every inch of wall is covered in paintings or photographs, and swing music spills from a gramophone.

Celebrities who have visited include Vivien Leigh, Laurence Olivier, Peter Finch, David Lean, William Holden and Gregory Peck, as well as politicians such as Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. That's according to Helga, whose late daughter-in-law Isabella Blow - the fashion maven who discovered the designer Alexander McQueen - was a regular. Britpop stars The Stereophonics celebrated the place in their song "Madame Helga," which reached No. 4 in the U.K. charts.

"This is not a boutique or a starred emporium," says Helga, dressed in a floor-length magenta robe, with large designer sunglasses. "It's a Sri Lankan home. I think of it in a way as a nursery for grownups. A lot of guests coming here going through sadnesses and melancholia."

Guests are invited to paint on the walls. Many of the images are disturbing, but they also offer hope. "Thank you Helga's Folly giving back my life," is daubed beside one bedroom.

Helga comes from noble Sri Lankan stock. Her grandfather was a prominent fighter for independence, while her grandmother Agnes Nell fought for women's rights. Her father was ambassador to Paris, and her mother was a painter, who originally designed the house.

Although it overlooks Kandy, Helga's Folly feels like another world. There is a kitchen serving Southeast Asian dishes (many vegetarian and organic) and a drinks list that includes Champagne. The pace is slow and the guest rooms bare-floored and unluxurious, starting around $100 a night.

At the center of it all sits Helga. She walks with a cane whose handle features a ruby glass ball, and she holds a black silk fan. She talks slowly in a richly textured voice, with an old-fashioned posh English accent that she may have picked up at school - Upper Chine, on the Isle of Wight - where she studied before briefly becoming a model.

"I was a bit of a rebel in those days," she says. "What I did get was once you go through one of those institutions you are ready for life. You are able to cope with a lot. I am blessed and very, very lucky to be able to live in my old childhood home."

Richard Vines is the chief food critic at Bloomberg. Follow him on Twitter @richardvines and on Instagram @richard.vines

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