It’s ironic that we spent all of yesterday zooming around Nuwara Eliya’s tea plantations, stopping the car every five seconds to get the perfect picture of the iconic tea pickers. Because this morning, we opened the front door of our new home to find a whole gaggle of them about four metres away in the front garden, great heaving bags of leaves balanced on their heads and strung over their backs. These skeletal women may look frail but they could take us all out in a flash.
Welcome to the Octagon Retreat, an elegant, eight-sided house forty-five minutes away from the throb and bustle of Kandy. With its architecture based on the classic Sri Lankan temple, it's a haven of peace, good food and a hell of a lot of tea. We heard about it by chance, on our last day in Kathmandu, when a couple in the Himalayan Java coffee house took pity on our lack of Sri Lankan research and insisted that we should visit. The story was amazing and we didn't take much convincing. Three weeks later, we were there.
The Octagon was built by the renowned Irish poet Richard Murphy, who spent his childhood in what was then Ceylon, where his father acted as the last British Mayor of Colombo. After many years and a very different life in Ireland, he returned to the land of coconuts and spice and decided to stay put. Richard is what can only be described as a formidable man, descending the stairs on that first night's dinner with the mischievous opening gambit of "So, what do you think about Brexit then?", just to see if he liked us. He may be elderly now but he still has that fire in his eyes, that craving for a good conversation, that spark that tells you this is going to be a special few days.
Richard rents out the Octagon, but lives in the main house with Desmond and his family. Desmond met Richard when he was a kid and has been looking after both Richard and his home for decades. They also look after any guests of the Octagon now, so you can choose to eat out, sure, but you'd be pretty stupid to do so. For 1200 Sri Lankan rupees (under £6), you can have lunch and dinner, either around the table with the family or brought up for you to enjoy in private. Desmond's wife Naomi is a fantastic cook who, despite having a five year old and a newborn to deal with, somehow manages to rustle up imaginative, unexpected Sri Lankan food to write home about. She lets us into the kitchen on the last day and we spend a morning happily surrounded by steam and spice and fish heads, scribbling down recipes as Richard regales us with tales of execution elephants and Sri Lankan caste systems.
An average day in the Octagon is peaceful in the extreme. The building itself is minimal but luxurious in its own distinctive way. This isn't about the thread count on the sheets or fancy mini toiletries in the bathroom. For a start, the place is ours. No neighbours, bar the tea pickers and the odd gecko. No noise, though a drum is provided should you want some. Just one huge room with a four poster bed complete with the necessary mosquito nets, a large writing desk, an armchair, the world's most comfortable beanbag and a smattering of books. The floor space is vast and blissfully clean, which is especially good news when you have a crawling, shuffling eight month old baby who occasionally licks the nearest surface. Outside, a veranda wraps its way around the entire place, complete with hammock, breakfast table and two friendly stone elephants keeping guard. And in front of it all is our own personal tea plantation, the bed of electric green leaves setting the stage for sunsets, rainbows and whatever other spectaculars nature has up its sleeve.
Breakfast is the only meal we have on our veranda, and it is perfect. Great platters of ripe papaya, pineapple, watermelon and banana kick things off. Then plates piled high with toast, butter and the Sri Lankan omelette that we'll be dreaming about for the foreseeable future, generously laced with turmeric, onion, chilli and tomato. Our stomachs fill up as the views stretch out.
A stay at the Octagon is a flexible experience. You can choose to stay completely private, holed up on your own in a state of pure peace, but why would you want to do a thing like that? After all, this place is blessed with just enough to do, while still being incredibly relaxing. There are walkable paths to jungle villages and hidden temples, and we venture out to the local drum-making community, an excursion short enough for a four year old to manage but long enough to make us feel like we've done something constructive. We learn that curry is much less intimidating to make than we thought. We spend time with the family. We extend our stay.
The Octagon was originally aimed at people doing yoga, which makes perfect sense but is about as far removed from us as possible. We had read rave reviews about the tranquility of the place and its intellectual dinner conversation, and worried that we might be the nightmare guests for them. But as it turns out, our rabble is more than welcome. Richard falls in love with River, the oldest and the youngest somehow clicking. Desmond and Naomi have newborn Adam, who doesn't do much as newborns don't, but they also have the greatest luxury of all: a kid to play with our kid. Amanda is five years old, charming, eloquent and in possession of the kind of batshit crazy energy only a child that age can muster. Ten seconds after introducing her to Olivia, the two are inseparable, holding hands, swapping toys, bickering and 'cleaning' the tea plantation. Olivia runs around with her newfound friend, weaving in and out of the tea trees and popping from their house to ours, without us having to bark warnings at her every two seconds. She is free and the happiness shows.
It's not often that you come away from your holiday accommodation feeling genuinely sad. Amanda sheds tears as Olivia leaves, and we could have done the same. Because for those four days, we felt part of the clan, and to have spent time with them in this incredible place was nothing but an absolute privilege.
The Octagon Retreat is available to rent through Airbnb.
Prices start at £31 per night with a minimum two night stay.