We are sitting in a private walled patio of Colombo’s Lake Lodge hotel, surrounded by elegant statues, sophisticated artworks and huge exotic plants I wish I knew the names of.
It’s 3pm, we have just arrived in Sri Lanka, and although we ate on the plane (Sri Lankan airlines which has the distinct advantage of flying here direct) it’s time for a small top-up.
Cue our first foray into the local cuisine – and it’s far from small. High tea in Sri Lanka is a serious business; a valued tradition with the native Ceylon tea celebrated for its remarkable taste and quality.
It is delivered (with the kind of silver service you’d find in Fortnum’s) to our secluded suntrap, where a tiny Sri Lankan squirrel is now keeping busy in the bougainvillea.
‘I’m going to write my copy as a diary,’ I say between mouthfuls of wagyu beef sliders laced with mushroom jam.
‘What – a food diary?’ says my husband, Patrick.
‘Nooo’, I respond, though he could be forgiven for the assumption. ‘It’s just that we’re visiting so many different places and doing so much, it seems the best way to cover all the highlights.’
So, it’s now Day 1, and our first two nights will be spent in the Lake Lodge hotel in the heart of Colombo, part of the Taru Villas chain. Stylish and contemporary, it’s hard to believe this peaceful hideaway is only walking distance from the busy city centre, now a fascinating mix of ancient temples and an evolving, 21st century skyline.
I can’t resist a quick visit to Paradise Road, a mecca for Sri Lankan gifts and homewares, where I am sorely tempted by the intriguingly named Ministry of Crab, the culinary highlight of the Old Dutch Hospital shopping precinct.
However the ‘Table by Taru’ cuisine at Lake Lodge is renowned – together with the exceptional service in both the rooms and its alfresco restaurant – so that wins out.
With local Sri Lankan specialities offered alongside Western options, it’s also open to non-residents (though as it’s tucked away down a quiet street I have a feeling this isn’t widely known). It’s like being in an international 5-star hotel but without the crowds.
Our trip is the brainchild of an expert in small scale, luxury hotels. Informative and insightful, Druvi Gunasekara is founder and MD of Boutiques in Sri Lanka who publish the country’s Luxury Accommodation Guide, full of hidden hotel gems.
And if this one is anything to go by, we‘re in for some treats…
Days two and three
I could become a convert to fruit at breakfast, especially when it’s inventively sliced and served with a mixture of cinnamon, chilli, sugar and salt (a surprisingly successful combo of flavours that shocks your taste buds into action).
A further eye-opener is the Siddhalepa Ayurvedic Spa and Clinic, another secluded secret in the city.
A pioneer of Ayurvedic treatments, the spa is concealed behind an inconspicuous wall just a ten-minute tuk tuk ride from the hotel. They stock their own range of products, ranging from hair and body lotions to rejuvenating teas, elixirs and Ayurvedic food supplements. The array of wellness treatments also includes fragrant, deep tissue massages which prove very soothing post-flight.
And then we are off on our travels: a comprehensive tour to explore the diversity of this stunning country, nicknamed the Pearl of the Indian Ocean, and to experience a variety of luxe, boutique hotels, each with its own distinctive character.
The traffic is chaotic so most visitors wisely opt for a driver – in our case Nanda, who transports us in comfort and safety, never losing his cool in the craziness.
Our second destination couldn’t be more different to Colombo – in fact I’m learning fast that every hundred kilometres travelled in Sri Lanka there is a different climate, a different culture, different foods and different activities; one of the many reasons it is unique.
The Kalundewa Retreat is located near Dambulla in central Sri Lanka.
Part of the Cultural Triangle, this region is awash with UNESCO World Heritage attractions: Dambulla’s magnificent cave temples dating back to the 1st Century BC, the ancient cities of Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura and the mighty, awe-inspiring Sigirya Rock Fortress.
Climbing the 200-metre Rock is a guaranteed way to work off some curry calories (it’s all steps so it’s tiring rather than dangerous, but be warned – there are hundreds of them). It’s also best attempted at sunrise or sunset, to beat the heat.
Alternatively, budget permitting, I’m told that seeing Sigirya at dawn from a hot air balloon is an unparalleled, never-to-be-forgotten experience…
At Kalundewa we swap our plush people-carrier for individual golf buggies, which transport us around this enormous eco resort cushioned within a hundred acres of ponds, lakes, lush green mountains and paddy fields. I have never, ever felt so immersed in nature – and I’m talking about inside, as well as outdoors. Our many-windowed villa with its wraparound views even has a tree growing through it, and is one of only nine suites in total.
Garnering numerous awards for its innovative, harmonious blending of architecture and nature, Kalundewa seems to bring out everyone’s inner David Attenborough.
A bike ride through mango and pomegranate trees reveals monkeys, bluebirds, storks, bats the size of dinner plates, otters, iguanas, giant butterflies and water monitors (tiny crocodiles to you and me).
With no noise of urban life whatsoever, just the low-level hum of cicadas and the occasional mating call of a randy peacock. And a huge chorus of outspoken frogs at dusk.
Days four and five
When I was a teenager I remember hearing about the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, and I made myself a promise that one day I would visit it. Today is that day.
The most sacred of the country’s Buddhist temples and another UNESCO World Heritage Site, we make a visit on our journey from Dambulla to our next hotel in Pussellawa, high in the stunning hills of central Sri Lanka.
Unfortunately, it’s not possible to see the tooth of the Buddha itself; the legendary relic is hidden within the smallest of seven golden caskets (think Russian nesting dolls) in a heavily guarded shrine.
But as a practising Buddhist I’m so happy to just finally enjoy the calm, reverent beauty of the temple complex, along with its excellent Buddhist museum. And should you wish, Srilanka-bespoke.com (who specialise in offering unique and exclusive experiences) can even arrange a private blessing from the Chief Buddhist Monk.
Blessed is definitely how we feel when we arrive a couple of hours later at the Lavender House in Pussellawa; a tranquil haven half-way between Kandy and Nuwara Eliya.
The resort manager, Mahen, can’t do enough for us and his warmth and hospitality set the tone for the hotel’s ethos of relaxation and rejuvenation.
Formerly owned by a British tea planter, this spacious, spotless home has recently been refurbished and filled with stylish period furniture for a colonial, English country house feel. The five luxurious bedrooms are elegant and comfortable and the climate here is slightly cooler, with a vast pool overlooking a sweeping panorama of emerald tea plantations.
One of the experiences the hotel provides for guests is a scenic tour around the undulating hills of their tea-producing estate (still very much operational) and a visit to a local tea factory, followed by an award-winning high tea ceremony back at Lavender House.
But the outstanding food moment for me is held on our second night, when we have the surprise opportunity to cook our own dinner (prawns, tuna, squid and chicken) on a hot lava stone.
Kitted out in chef’s hats with Billy Joel blasting away in the background (who knew he had so many hits?) it’s fun from start to finish.
Our sixth day sees us heading to Weligama for lunch at Eraeliya Villas and Gardens, an idyllic beachfront property in the south of the island.
A surfing hotspot, there are also dolphins, sea turtles and whales to be discovered. (It turns out Sri Lanka is one of the best places in the world for whale watching, with a chance of even spotting the blue whale, the largest animal on earth.)
Eraeliya is breathtaking with six villas, four ocean-view suites and a Loft house all individually designed and resplendant with antiques, paintings and handcrafted items, carefully chosen by its visionary owner Nyuri.
The focus here is very much on winding down and wellbeing, with locally sourced ‘soul foods’ that are all organic and superfresh.
I discover the charms of a chilled thambili – a king coconut cocktail – and we dine on a spread of the healthiest seafood, with lobster, plump prawns, seabass and meltingly soft tuna straight from the sea.
A couple of miles away inland is Malabar Hill, our home for the next two nights and newly teamed with Eraeliya to offer a twin stay in both hotels.
Called ‘The Two Faces of Weligama’, visitors can enjoy the power of the sea and surf combined with the serenity and seclusion of the hills and tea plantations.
Malabar Hill is managed by the gracious and charismatic Sanjeeva, who inspires exemplary service from his welcoming staff.
Surrounded by a forest of fragrant cinnamon trees and lush rice paddies with a glimpse of the ocean in the distance, its fourteen villas (with 11 more on the way) are nestled within the jungle and feature floor to ceiling glass doors opening onto decks with private plunge pools.
The sense of peace and of merging the indoors with the outdoors is paramount, with nature as the centrepiece.
Home to several hundred species of trees, plants, animals and birds, we marvel at a purple faced leaf monkey swinging through high branches close by and relish a stroll with the hotel’s resident wildlife guide, along one of the nature trails within this captivating 33-acre property.
During our stay in the treetops we are given another opportunity to witness the island’s extraordinary bio-diversity and to get up close and personal with more exotic wildlife (well, maybe not too close).
Leopard Trails is a celebrated safari camp in the deep south, with a cast of giant tusker elephants, crocodiles, birds of prey, water buffalo and plenty of sleek, sinewy leopards.
Famed for his unrivalled knowledge of animal behaviour, Ranger Dhanula is a witty and engaging guide, and if you fall in love with the camp (as most visitors seem to) you can stay overnight in their upmarket glamping tents, kitted out with modern-day amenities but still evoking a bygone era filled with excitement and romance.
We head back to Malabar Hill (after negotiating our route with a particularly large elephant who tries his best to join us) for a swim in the main infinity pool, a 35-foot saltwater expanse flanking a row of inviting white four-poster outdoor beds.
The hotel’s architecture is stunning – an intriguing mix of Asia, Indonesia, the Mediterranean and the Middle East, with the cuisine reflecting the overall style.
My favourite meal is the floating breakfast I enjoy in our private plunge pool. It’s not easy juggling a tray containing a glass of bubbly, several curries and string hoppers (steamed rice noodles) as it bobs gently in the water, but it’s such a novelty I can’t resist.
I can’t quite believe I’m eating curry nearly every breakfast either, but it’s the norm in Sri Lanka, and only my waistline is complaining.
This morning we head for the World Heritage Site of Galle Fort for some shopping – and to see Weligama’s acclaimed stilt fishermen en route. Uniquely Sinhalese, their circus-worthy balancing acts as they fish on stilts completely dwarf my tray balancing.
We meander round the narrow cobbled streets of Galle’s 17th-century old town, filled with trendy cafés and tiny shops and then take to the Fort walls. Safe to walk on, they command great views as well as having lots of info on the Dutch, Portuguese and British history of this ancient fortress.
Lunch today is at Amangalla, an imposing property in the distinguished Aman hotel group, boasting six-star luxury and several restaurants.
We escape the midday heat in the elegant Veranda restaurant with Michelin-worthy food and service, and then it’s back in the car to travel to Sundara by Mosvold, a colonial-style property on a beautiful golden beach in Balapitiya.
We are nearing the end of our Sri Lankan adventure and our last day is spent in two very special locations. Staying on the south coast, we first visit The Lantern Boutique by Reveal, a stone’s throw (literally) from the beach at Mirissa.
Set in a gorgeous, unspoiled bay, the sea is perfect for swimming and snorkelling, the pool runs parallel to the palm-fringed beach and there are generous double sunbeds to relax on.
We watch our lunch being prepared in the large open kitchen of the 71 Bistro and Bar – catering for non-residents as well as hotel guests, which is great news as the food is superlative.
Tempura fried gotukola (a leaf, and member of the parsley family used for its healing superpowers) is teamed with tamarind seared tuna and both are so good I don’t want to leave.
We began our travels in Colombo’s Lake Lodge hotel and we end them in Bentota at Rock Villa, also part of the chic and hospitable Taru Villas chain.
This is the group’s flagship property, with comfy hammocks dotted around the extensive, 2.5-acre tropical garden, a substantial pool, eight well-designed rooms, a suite with its own private pool and a main building that dates from around 1850, and is the traditional family manor house (known as a walauwa) which belonged to Taru’s founder.
We follow a winding, fairytale path through a mangrove forest, which opens out onto a wide, pristine beach, the sea flecked with brightly coloured fishing boats.
The sunsets are phenomenal here, but as soon as the sky is no longer on fire we head back for our final Sri Lankan curry – or selection of curries as there are always several – including tasty jackfruit and kiwi fruit specialities.
I’m now a firm believer in gotukola (which seems to help everything from joint pain to insomnia) so I choose a delicate pale green gotukola soup too, topped with poached tiger prawns.
We long to return to Sri Lanka: for more gotukola, for its beauty, culture, heritage and the warmth and hospitality of its people. For the morning song sheet of the birds, for the many festivals and good luck blessings and the impromptu invitations to joyful village weddings.
I also want to visit Karpaha Sands in Kalkudeah, a paradisical resort on the east coast of the island, with luxury tented accommodation on a limitless beach. They didn’t have room for us on this visit, but we will return.
Tragically though, it might be a while before this beautiful, seductive country can welcome visitors freely again.
The current political crisis resulting in food, fuel and power shortages has devastated the economy, but rest assured this is a safe and special island and the Singhalese are a resilient, optimistic and dignified nation which warmly welcomes visitors.
Sri Lanka needs tourism to raise its head again. Please visit when you can – it will help so much.
With thanks to…
- The Sri Lanka Tourist Board for organizing complimentary air tickets
- Ground Agent Bernard Tours and in particular Janaka Heenkenda, who was responsible for arranging transport and other practicalities.
- Althea Bunce for her help and invaluable advice.
- Druvi Gunasekara who initiated, organised and masterminded our trip. Druvi organizes the only Luxury Trade Travel Fair in Sri Lanka, ‘b2b Luxury-Reconnect’, which brings the entire small luxury accommodation sector together. The next Fair scheduled for March 21, 2023.
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