Postcards from Sri Lanka - Fiona's memories of the island and some of its stunning boutique hotels
“I have great memories of my recent tour of Sri Lanka. It’s still a magical country with the most hospitable of people and so much for all ages to see and do. I really got around and immersed myself in the island’s varied moods, vibrant colours and sounds.
Since the civil war ended in 2009, Sri Lanka has been hard at work repairing and rebuilding and today it can certainly boast some wonderful boutique hotels. They are a treat, from 300 year old Governors’ residences to former private villas and gems of merchants’ town houses to tea estate bungalows from a bygone era. I hope my experiences will inspire you to see this relaxing and rewarding idyll for yourself!”
Memories: A personalised stroll through Colombo’s Old City, including Colombo Fort, The Dutch Hospital and the bustling Pettah market ending with a G&T in the Harbour Room of the Grand Oriental overlooking the busy port. In the old days one had to apply to the hotel for a room listing one’s credentials!
Stay: Maniumpathy, an elegantly upgraded heritage home which dates back to 1906, characterised by sepia family photos, four poster beds, slipper bathtubs and powerful showers.
Top suggestions: Shopping, Colombo’s impressive art galleries, spa or yoga centre indulgence, watching local life playing out on the Galle Face Green at sunset then dining at out at one of the city’s many restaurants.
BALAPITIYA, SOUTH WEST COAST
Memories: Booming surf frothing onto crescent sandy beaches overhung with picture-perfect coconut palms, home to turtles. The indigo sea mesmerises you for hours.
Stay: Kumu Beach, a contemporary boutique hotel on Balapitiya beach with fabulous Indian Ocean panoramas, a grassy garden, glorious infinity pool and long timber sun deck.
Top suggestions: Have a go at crafting your own mask at Ambalangoda’s mask museum, voyage up the Madu Ganga estuary with its 64 islands, tour historic Galle Fort and see the hilltop Buddhist temple that houses Asia’s longest Buddha statue.
Memories: Myriad narrow streets, teak shutters, colonial frontage, colourful shop fronts, gem shops and block print workshops, coconut stalls and lace-makers, all encircled by the solid ramparts of Galle Fort, a 17th Century UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Stay: Fort Bazaar, a chic boutique hotel with a Middle Eastern feel on historic Church Street overlooking the red tiled rooftops of Galle Fort. Buzzy restaurant and bar, cinema, spa and, in the future, a 15 metre swimming pool.
Top suggestions: Afternoon tea at the Amangalle, a few minutes’ walk from your hotel, is to die for! Make for one of Galle’s many picturesque beaches, tour a lowland tea factory and take a tasting session, make a seasonal coastal cruise to see whales and dolphins and watch cricket at Galle's iconic test ground.
MIHIRIPENNA, INLAND FROM GALLE
Memories: Rippling rice paddies ribboned with rutted tracks, peacocks, buffalo and the blue flash of a kingfisher as I took to a bicycle for a 12km looping ride through the rural south.
Stay: The Why House, an eight-roomed home-from-home country hotel in colonial style set in tranquil rice fields but still close to picture-postcard beaches. Sumptuous and refined, yet also homely and relaxed.
Top suggestions: A Sri Lankan cookery class, swimming in the jade green pool or revelling in some beach time. Lose yourself in the streets of history-laden Galle Fort then relax afterwards with a massage or beauty treatment in the villa.
KOGGALA LAKE, NEAR GALLE
Memories: The high-pitched call of a wandering peacock echoed across the lawns and carried into the night sky as I luxuriated in my open air shower.
Stay: Kahanda Kanda, an award-winning hilltop hotel set in 12 acres of lush, mature tea estate, 20 minutes from Galle. The striking 360-degree views stretch across velvet lawns, tropical gardens and lotus-sprinkled koi carp ponds towards jungle and distant Koggala Lake.
Top suggestions: A ‘KK special’ (dark rum and passion fruit on crushed ice) to kick start the evening! Learn how to cook Sri Lankan dishes with the hotel’s chefs, explore the aquatic reserve of the Hiyare Rainforest, take a boat trip on Koggala Lake visiting temples and spice islands or head to Tri, a stunning hotel on the lake to take a Quantum Yoga class and enjoy their unique cuisine.
KOSLANDA, HILL COUNTRY
Memories: An extraordinary 24 hour stay deep in virgin forest, home to wild elephant, monkeys and numerous birds. I was the first to sleep out on their brand new forest platform – made of beautiful polished wood with only walls of calico and a floating mosquito net between me and nature. I slept to the sounds of the jungle and awoke to the calling of the birds and a giant squirrel foraging in the tree canopy right by my verandah.
Stay: Koslanda Living Heritage, a magical hideaway in the southern hill country set in 80 verdant acres of tropical gardens and ancient forest. Wraparound panoramas of steeply wooded valleys and distant mountains. Four timber and stone suites with eye-catching antiques, outdoor jacuzzis, en-suite bathrooms and open-to-the-sky showers. Tranquil, and mesmerizingly relaxing.
Top suggestions: An early morning walk among jungle creepers, vines and stranglers with leaping langurs scurrying through leaf litter to scamper up the nearest tree, ending with a cooling swim in a rock pool at the foot of a tumbling waterfall. Tour a rubber plantation, visit Buduruwagala’s Buddhist rock reliefs and the sacred town of Kataragamas and safari for elephant in Udawalawe National Park.
CASTLEREAGH RESERVOIR, NEAR HATTON, TEA COUNTRY
Memories: Winding our way to 1,800m through cool pine forests and rolling hills covered with orderly ranks of tea bushes and waking to a crisp blue English day, mist rising off the reservoir in the valley. High on the track above me, the excited laughs and shouts of a gaggle of children, pristine in ties and white uniform, making their way down to school in the town below.
Stay: Camellia Hills promises jaw-dropping panoramic views over Castlereigh reservoir, valley and tea estates. The climate is fresher than coastal areas, and conducive to exploring outdoors.
Top suggestions: Swim in the cool infinity pool after visiting a tea factory, colonial-era Warleigh Church and a local Hindu kovil; learn about Sri Lanka’s hill-dwelling leopards at a local research station, visit the island’s highest town, Nuwara Eliya, climb Adam’s Peak, or hike through the Peak Wilderness Sanctuary.
TEA COUNTRY, SOUTH OF KANDY
Memories: My uncle was a tea planter in Assam, so a visit to a still-working tea factory built in 1825 was high on my agenda. The factory manager showed me round. Passionate about the industry, I swear that tea, not blood, courses through his veins! Very special and not touristy.
Stay: Taylor’s Hill, a five bedroom hotel in a 150 year old granite mansion perched in upcountry terrain near Kandy, close to Loolecondera Estate, the birthplace of Ceylon tea. This stylish hotel takes its name from James Taylor, the pioneer of commercial tea production in Ceylon. It has rambling gardens, a hillside swimming pool and alfresco afternoon tea spots as well as a snooker room, croquet lawn and tennis and badminton courts. Kandy is within easy reach.
Top suggestions: Kandy’s Temple of the Tooth, Trinity College Chapel, the British Garrison Cemetery and the Royal Botanical Gardens. Visit the tea factory at the gates of Taylor’s Hill and ask to go to the tea auction when back in Colombo (every Wednesday at 9am). Walk or bike the trails, play games and enjoy high tea on the lawn, followed by snooker after dinner. Play a round of golf at the Victoria Golf & Country Resort, a 90-minute drive away.
KANDY, THE CULTURAL CENTRE
Memories: An early morning dip on my last morning. Dawn was breaking, frogs croaked in harmonious unison, giant squirrels in the palm trees above dislodged the occasional leaf, and the sounds of the awakening jungle mingled with the distant call to prayer. I thought about the fire eaters and peacock dancers I’d seen last night, bells jangling, eyes fixed, heads moving left to right and whirling red of the plate spinners’ costumes.
Stay: The Kandy House, a former aristocratic Sri Lankan family home in Kandy’s tranquil outskirts with an idyllic jungle swimming pool and exotic gardens. Chic interiors with one-off antiques, elegant arches and pillared verandas. Great Asian fusion cuisine and Sri Lankan curries as well as Ayurvedic massages and private yoga sessions.
Top suggestions: Meet a local artist in their studio, walk to Degaldoruwa Cave Temple with its vivid 18th century murals, visit the handful of sacred devales that scatter the city, watch an early evening cultural show and trek the Knuckles Range, a dedicated conservation area rich in wildlife
My overall impression? Sri Lanka has everything to play for now and from what I’ve seen they have got it right so far.