Sri Lanka resorts and hill retreats
Show off your handlebar moustache at a colonial tea-planter retreat or dance along a deserted beach. It’s all here in our fun guide to the best of Sri Lanka’s beds from boutique to big.
updated by Kate Springer
Helga's Folly: pure whimsy/ photo: hotel
AFTER YEARS of scraping the bottom of the budget-holiday barrel, Sri Lanka resorts are sprinting ahead with top-end traveller deals and a touch of razzmatazz. Say goodbye to terrorism, and the 2004 tsunami that still excites online chatter. Schemes are planned for new tourism areas in the northeast while the deep south is to have an international airport to complement its deep water harbour.
While old mass-market Sri Lanka beach resorts have been tarted up, it is the fresher off-the-beach-and-beaten-track retreats that have caught our eye. This will delight those who recall the gracious Ceylon of yore, as the newer Sri Lankan resorts emphasise individuality and a movement back to simplicity, charm and local pride.
Following the end of the decades-long civil war, the country has reclaimed its allure as one of Asia’s top destinations. A string of Sri Lanka boutique resorts and hotels with personalised service and impressive local food are finally taking advantage of the naturally elegant surrounds.
However, the government has set five-star resort rates too high for demand and, as a result, many upscale properties are struggling with low occupancy rates and little wiggle room for promotions. Guests can no longer bargain for last-minute bookings unless they head to the informal sector, populated by guest houses and plantation bungalows that have escaped government registration.
Ancient ruins, Buddhist culture, adventure tourism, game park safaris, colonial remnants, local shopping and not-so-local casinos are some of the big charms from this small island. Now is the time to discover Sri Lanka before prices hike up any more.
Sri Lanka beach
Buffet breakfast, lunch and dinner accompanied by the local calypso band wearing silly straw hats, are long forgotten stereotypes. Signature restaurants and wellness spas have become benchmarks of a new level of sophistication for the new level of guest. You won’t find any concrete Hilton’s in this review; Sri Lanka is awash with boutique and independents experimenting with local talent and a variegated history. Stay in a tea planter’s bungalow or a villager’s mud hut, a jungle tree house or a designer villa. It’s not just the diversity that’s attractive about holidaying in Sri Lanka, but the ease of organisation. While companies can tailor-make tours, independent travellers can easily make arrangements upon arrival.
Advance reservations at Sri Lanka luxury resorts and even smaller hideaways are not necessary except at peak times such as December/January on the west and south coasts, April in Nuwara Eliya, and during the “Perahera” (festival of the tooth) season in Kandy, which falls in July/August and the seasonal peak of July/August at east coast resorts.
Minivans with an English-speaking driver can be hired for about US$60 a day. However, if doing this, be firm and know where you want to go. Good drivers can be informative about local traditions, others may be reluctant to follow your itinerary and steer you towards gem shops or hotels where they’ll get a commission. Most inland hotels provide the driver with free food and a free bed in dedicated drivers’ quarters when they bring guests. (An exception is Helga’s Folly in Kandy, which is why drivers try to deter visitors from staying there; Helga directs drivers to a local guesthouse instead.)
Travellers can also explore new routes through the countryside via train. Luxury carriages cost an extra US$10 to US$15, and most tourists will be thankful for the upgrade – the premium ensures clean bathrooms and bearable seats. Buses require a strong constitution and to rent a car on your own, you’d have to be insane. As they say… “Mad dogs and Englishmen…”
Fun at Helga's Folly/ photo: hotel
Kandy low-cost resorts, villas
Kandy is the ancient hill capital and has retained much of its original charm. Two hour’s drive from the capital, it is compact with bustling but friendly crowds, a lake and the world-famous Temple of the Tooth. At the annual Perahera the casket bearing Buddha's tooth is paraded around town in a spectacular pageant with acrobatic dancers, drummers and Kandyan chieftains in attendance. More than 100 caparisoned elephants, whip crackers and jugglers take part in the 10 nights of celebration, climaxing on the night of the Esela full moon. There is a daylight Perahera the day afterwards.
Kandy figures on most visitors’ “must see” list and as a result has a range of low-cost resorts. An eccentric choice is Helga’s Folly, whimsically termed an “anti hotel”, a sprawling red, Bauhaus-style building clutching the hillside, with enough fantastic décor to satisfy your inner child. “If this is a folly,” wrote a guest in one of the voluminous guest books, “it’s foolish to be wise”.
Helga, who presides over her erstwhile home with the grace of a duchess, has created a fantasy-land with outrageous colour schemes and candle-lit parlours full of antiques and whimsy. “It’s tongue-in-cheek,” she says to startled guests. “Staying here should be fun.” It’s an attitude that has made the place popular with cosmopolitan trendsetters. There are 30 rooms in operation, most are air-conditioned.
All rooms have private balconies accessed through French windows and overlook magnificent mountain scenery, with glimpses of the lake and golden-roofed temple. Helga claims the swimming pool, surrounded by jungle, is guarded by fairies. The food is as memorable as the over-the-top décor, with such dishes as fish poached in tea. This retreat sets the benchmark for barmy-boutique.
Olde Empire, good service/ photo: hotel
The Olde Empire Hotel, by contrast, is down-to-earth, with 14 rooms and boasts a balcony, overlooking the temple square – a meeting place for young backpackers. While this is a budget hotel, the rate increases to big-spender levels during the Perahera season because of its proximity to the parading elephants. Rooms, apart from two, have shared bathrooms and the hotel enjoys the unusual intimacy of a travellers’ club.
At the other end of town, and price bracket, with impressive service and large rooms with splendid river views, the Mahaweli Reach has expanded over three decades from a family guesthouse to a 112-room, four-suite five-star resort. Mahaweli’s renovated rooms retain a homey character, while suites offer panoramic views of the Mahaweli River and surrounding mountains, Jacuzzi, safe, minibar, LCD TV, IDD phone and private balconies. It has a new business centre and dynamic-looking gym.
Less than a 45-minute drive from Kandy, Ellerton began its current existence when a bungalow and mini tea factory were bought by a British couple for their retirement. So many people wanted to stay, they replaced the disused factory with extra accommodation and equipped the bungalow for paying guests. The bungalow – at 2,400 feet above sea level – is set atop a 12-acre tea plantation. The whole valley below features organic vegetation so there is an amazing abundance of birdlife.
Guests stay in the Main House with its two double and one single guest rooms, or in the Valley House also with two doubles and one single. All bedrooms have en suite bathrooms with hot water. There is a swimming pool with a view for 20 miles down the forested valley; meals are served in a dining pavilion overlooking the forest. The retreat has several secluded corners so guests who don’t know each other can keep to themselves, or join in the polite house party atmosphere.
Aditya resort/ photo: hotel
The Australian owners of Colombo’s popular Cricket Club Café converted a century-old plantation bungalow off the Kandy to Nuwara Eliya road at Pussellawa. The Lavender House is set in seven acres of tea, woods and terraced lawns with mountain views, providing a place of unadulterated calm.
The five sumptuously furnished suites have French windows opening onto a private garden, and a gloriously retro bathroom with Victorian chain-flush toilet. The portrait of Sir Winston Churchill glowering above silk-covered wing-chairs in the lounge, clay tennis court and granite-sided swimming pool, guarantee a perfect retreat into the past for a cosy two or house party of 10. Mark this Sri Lanka colonial resort gem in your diary.
On the same road from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya, a former tea planter’s bungalow has been converted with panache in a chintzy colonial style next to the renowned, visitor-friendly Labookellie Tea Factory. Taprospa Labookellie Villa has three bungalows, each with a Jacuzzi overlooking the garden and valley, , and an in-house qualified masseuse on call to soothe limbs aching from hiking in the hills. It’s billed as being “boutique luxury in harmony with nature.”
Inland parkland retreats
Farther inland in the heart of tea country, await four bungalows from Ceylon Tea Trails. Spread out across the countryside, each house comes with its own character. Whether you opt for a colonial experience or something more modern, you’ll appreciate the landscape and atmosphere at more than 4,000ft above sea level. Tranquil surrounds come with butler, chef, and house attendants in tow, and you can book an entire cottage or just one of the rooms.
Vil Uyana: wetland fantasy/ photo: hotel
Around 160km from Colombo airport, Amaya Lake (formerly Culture Club) offers a back-to-nature experience. The Village Experience offers an intimate 11 traditional thatched-roof huts, while the four lodges and 92 chalets offer luxury and local artistry. Don’t miss the Ayurvedic Spa with their heaven-scented treatments. Children and sports enthusiasts are catered for, as is the constant-businessman, with full WiFi access. We still think you’ll want to leave the laptop at home.
With views of the vast hunchback Sigiriya Rock, wetland retreat Vil Uyana offers 25 luxurious thatched cabanas (many with their own swimming pool), amongst tall grass, paddy fields, and basking crocodiles. Large sunken bathtubs and rain showers are features of spacious bathrooms in 115sq m rooms. While rubbing shoulders with nature, expect such modern wonders as air-conditioning, IDD telephone, minibar, satellite TV, coffee and tea-making facilities, DVD/CD, safe, and even your own sarong, reed slippers and umbrella. With an extravagantly stocked wine cellar, exquisite cuisine, and rooms that transform a childhood dream of tree-houses into five-star reality, it is the small touches that impress at Vil Uyana.
The four master-suites at the 137-unit Cinnamon Lodge Habarana in the Cultural Triangle seem designed for permanent residence, spread over two floors with a sarong-clad butler on call and monkeys gambolling by the lake in its vast parkland setting. Beds are piled high with silk cushions and spread with crisp, Egyptian cotton in rooms wrapped around by balconies or verandahs. If you can tear yourself away, a plethora of local activities are on offer, such as elephant rides, a visit to the ancient ruined city of Polonnaruwa or golden temple at Dambulla. Any day out is complemented by hearty buffet fare.
Another mainstay in the Cultural Triangle is Wild Grass Nature Resort, near Sigiriya, which lies within 30 acres of jungle and mountains. The eco destination has left the wilderness untouched, and encourages travellers to follow suit. Chance encounters could include peacocks, elephants, wild boars and more than 40 types of birds. Other than the wildlife, you’re virtually alone, with just five villas spaced out across the property at a minimum distance of 50ft. Seamlessly blending with the surrounds, the two-level villas have open-air lounges and outdoor bathrooms. Decor sticks with the theme, featuring neutral colours and natural elements, such as wood and stone.
Brook boutique/ photo: hotel
Another nature hub is the Brook Boutique Hotel & Spa, also in the Cultural Triangle near Melsiripura. Surrounded by 80 acres of coconut, banana, cashew and mango groves, this stylish property offers country and mountain views. Each of the contemporary rooms and chalets comes with large plasma screen TVs, Jacuzzis, and terraces. Guests staying in one of the chalets wake up to private gardens, plunge pools and even a personal trainer, if you so desire. Take a walk up to the top of the hill and take a dip in the pool, where you can enjoy stratospheric views – mountains above and estate below – from the water’s edge.
Standing starkly in 200 acres of scrubland, amongst “nature-scaped” gardens is the The Elephant Corridor Hotel – so-called because of its location at the crossroads for wandering wild animals. It boasts one of Sri Lanka’s most expensive rooms; the Presidential Suite at US$779 (sleeps eight). There are 20 other air-conditioned suites, each with its own private terrace or garden and plunge pool. Each suite, decorated with granite blocks and striking colours, is built on a plateau for protection from animals. Elephant Corridor, in a huge reversal of buffet culture, tailors meals and mealtimes to your whim, even offering gastro experiences “under the trees”. Visit the Om wellness spa for pampering or the on-site ayurvedic doctor for those nagging ills. It is within easy motoring distance of the Sigiriya Rock and the ruins of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa.
The Deer Park Hotel, set well within the jungle, mixes urban décor to create 77 homely, well-appointed cottages. Located near the lake at Giritale, it is handy for viewing the ruins of Polonnaruwa as well as for indulging in environmental bliss. A patchy mobile signal seems to point to enforced relaxation but, for necessary communication, rooms have free WiFi access. Best to lay back and enjoy the spa, surrounded by flora and fauna. Along with the restaurant and bar, there is also the choice of private dining with a personal butler in ethereal seclusion on the banks of the reservoir – your transport, an elephant or buggy. Deer Park has a rural charm spiced with urbanity and ingenuity that pitches it among the best Sri Lanka resorts. It is also a child-friendly Sri Lanka resort option.
Eastern Sri Lanka escapes
Deer Park: eco friendly/ photo: hotel
The east coast just north of the huge natural harbour of Trincomalee, is experiencing a resurgence in popularity, even outside its peak season of May to October, following the transformation of the forlorn Club Oceanic into the trendy Chaaya Blu Trincomalee. The transformation is more than the addition of mosaic mirror walls and glittering disco balls in the lobby; it’s like a brand new hotel with a deliberate retro touch. Leading from the lobby is a boardwalk heading past the huge swimming pool to the beach, with rooms (confusingly called chalets) in blocks of four on one side, and beach rooms on the other.
With walls and furniture of white with orange cushions galore and a denim half-counterpane on the bed, each room is as bright and as cheerful as the hotel’s sunny setting. And the food, whether in the main open-sided restaurant or in the beachside crab speciality restaurant, is delicious.
A few minutes walk along the beach from Chaaya Blu, but a lot farther than that in comfort and trendiness, at about a tenth of the price too, is Club Dive Paradise, French Garden. With its doors, walls and shutters painted bright reggae colours, this particular paradise is reminiscent of the hippy era of the 1970s. There are only six small guestrooms, basic in amenities with metal frame beds and a single, thin pillow, and attached shower and toilet cubicle.
The atmosphere is so laid back, the staff of amiable youngsters either relax in the hammocks spun between palm trees, jog along the beach, or jig around to music. Food, freshly caught or straight from the Trincomalee market, is prepared whenever guests are hungry. Staying there is to discover what cheap and cheerful simple holidays by the beach in Sri Lanka used to be like.
Heritance Tea Factory/ photo: hotel
Off limits for years, the eastern shore is finally seeing signs of life. The first high-end hotel to open after the civil conflict ended was 40-room Maalu Maalu Resort & Spa in 2010. On the shores of manicured Pasikudah beach, this contemporary resort features a mix of chalets, deluxe rooms, and suites. The rooms mix stark contrasts – dark woods, white linens and lime green, and fish-themed bed runners – with pleasing results. Equally as striking are the spacious bathrooms, which have an industrial feel thanks to the blend of charcoal concrete and white ceramic. Families can book the Deluxe Room with Attic, which is loft-style with two twin beds upstairs. Come for the sea views and stay for the in-room Jacuzzis, rain showers and tidy beaches.
Mountain lodges, country homes, and tea
Styled as an English country house, Hotel Glendower, in the hill country retreat of Nuwara Eliya, offers a warm welcome with log fires in the public rooms. A reproduction bungalow, it has 10 rooms and suites with teak floors, handcrafted polished mahogany furniture, and beds that guarantee a good night’s rest. Even the quilts are filled with silk. Close to the town centre and adjoining golf course, its King Prawn Chinese restaurant provides a relief from the bland boarding-house fare of grander neighbouring hotels.
One of the most unusual hotels is a few miles from Nuwara Eliya, at Kandapola, 6,500 feet above sea level, in the middle of acres of rolling hillsides carpeted with tea and often bathed in mist. Heritance Tea Factory resembles a gigantic, phantasmagorical construction produced by a zealous boy scout overdosing on Meccano. The exterior has preserved the original tea factory’s corrugated iron walls, painted silver, and hundreds of tall, wooden casement windows. Inside its reception hall atrium (once the tea drying room) latticed with steel, two giant wooden roof-fans turn slowly.
Cinnamon room/ photo: hotel
The Tea Factory’s “Green Philosophy” represents comprehensive energy-saving policies, sustainable community projects and delicious indigenous food. Eco-warriors and gourmets will approve. All 54 cosy bedrooms are equipped with heater, bathtub and lashings of hot water, and a kettle for making tea from the estate’s own brand. It’s a snug kind of place, ideal for lazy lingering in isolation for a few days or hiking in hills, forests and village hamlets.
A traditional, unreconstructed Sri Lankan colonial hotel that has escaped the popularity of those in Nuwara Eliya, is the Bandarawela Hotel (opened in 1893), in the neighbouring tea town of Bandarawela. Despite an occasional lick of paint or modification, it remains reassuringly locked in a time warp somewhere between 1930 and 1950. At 4,000 feet above sea level, on a bluff overlooking the town, it was originally favoured as a sanatorium by the then Ceylon’s British residents. The 33 colonial rooms, all with bathrooms, TV and IDD phones, are also wheelchair accessible. Its beds with brass knobs and the hushed, measured tread of the sarong-clad staff convey a sense of restful calm. Tea on the lawn or in the long verandah lounge is a ritual, and the restaurant caters for those with a tea planter’s healthy appetite.
For a real taste of the old-fashioned lifestyle, try Saffron Hill House, converted from his grandparents’ sprawling bungalow overlooking Bandarawela town by a SriLankan Airlines cabin steward. This magnificent discovery has four bedrooms, some of which are furnished with original art deco pieces, and all of which can house up to 12 adults and five children. The décor combines 1930s flamboyance with solid modern touches and the ambience is discreet and unique. This Sri Lanka bungalow escape is worth a note in your travel diary.
Kelbourne Rose Cottage/ photo: hotel
A 10-minute drive from there leads to a modern purpose-built holiday home, the MF Estate Holiday Bungalow, ideal for families or friends who want modern fittings as well as olde world charm. Each room has a double and a single bed and an attached bathroom with shower and lots of hot water. There are three lounges and a large dining room with valley views. Cook and staff are on hand to prepare meals from guests’ supplies.
There is another bungalow resort near Ella, to the east of Bandarawela. Called without pretension, simply Planter’s Bungalow, it’s a treat for those who want to retreat to nature with every comfort, good food and fine conversation (if the British host is in residence). There are three double bedrooms, including one with an enormous sitting room, and a separate tiny cottage with outside bathroom and kitchen and rooftop dining deck. This is an elegant bungalow home with superb food (the owners once ran a Michelin-star inn in Britain), in a picturesque setting at a bargain price.
The nearby hill country town of Haputale has been a favourite of backpackers since the days of hippies when places like Highcliffe by the railway track offered dormitory accommodation. Highcliffe is still cheap and easy going but its main attraction is a building with a secret entrance – you sidle inside an opening in the wall to find stairs leading up to a raucous bar in the old-fashioned plantation style. Great fun. Good accommodation is now available at the gleaming Olympus Plaza Hotel that will surely make Haputale more popular. The 30 simply furnished rooms cling to the hillside on four floors below the reception lobby, and there is a panoramic rooftop bar with stunning views.
The Fortress rooms, Koggala/ photo: hotel
What about those wonderful Sri Lanka bungalow resorts? While there are now several tea plantation bungalows that take guests, the pioneer is the Kelbourne Mountain View Holiday, at Haputale. With gob-smacking views across forested canyons right down to the south coast, there are three cottages set in the hillside around a central garden that has a dining pavilion and kitchen. Meals from the resident chef’s menu can be served in each bungalow’s dining room and a butler is always on call. Aerie Cottage has two parlours, two bedrooms (each with attached bathroom), and there are another two bungalows that sleep six each. Tea grows up to the window ledges.
The planter’s lifestyle (butler and cook on hand with meals from a plantation menu) can also be enjoyed at several other hill country plantations and bungalows, including Sherwood and Thotalagala near Haputale, Rosita in Kotagla and St Andrew’s in Talawakelle. Overlooking deep valleys of tea and drenched in colonial charm, these villa-like establishments each sleep 10 in chintzy comfort.
On Haputale Road, near Halpe, is Green Valley Cottage. The 35 rooms offer a mix of auburn wood, stone and clay that lends a rustic feel without forsaking modern amenities. For better views of the surrounding jungle and pine trees, ask for one of the 10 rooms in the newer section or a room perched higher on the mountainside. All accommodations come with attached bathrooms and balconies. If you’re down for a dip, choose from two pools, including a natural fresh-water rock spring.
About 160km from Colombo in Belihuloya, Mount Field Cottage is an extraordinary creation of cottages carved out of rock and created with timber and granite. Each cottage is uniquely (if eccentrically) furnished and a delight to stay in, with secret cupboards, split levels and balconies with breathtaking views.
Ceylon tea, arguably the best
Staff run up and down narrow stone steps serving meals in the rooms or at the poolside restaurant where traditional Sri Lankan food is served. Breakfast is serious with sensational curries and home-baked breads. Guests easily shed any extra weight by climbing up and down to the cottages. A memorable and low cost experience.
An enchanting eco villa on the fringe of Kalawana is 10-suite Boulder Garden, a Sri Lanka boutique hotel that was built by village residents on the shoulder of a stark black mountain. The rain forest setting, where it’s common to spot a monkey or eagle, combined with the stone architecture provides a mystical, medieval feel. Winding stone stairs will take you past clinging trees and pools formed amid the rocks. Suites are tiered up the side of the boulders, and adorned with thick timber beams and private terraces. Grab a drink at the bar, built inside of a cave, or head out for a more intrepid afternoon of spelunking and trekking.
Far to the north, Jaffna is set to develop in coming years but is still cleaning up after years of ethnic conflict. No longer cut off from travellers, this northern city is slowly reinventing itself. If you head in this direction, check out the Tilko Jaffna City Hotel. Located near the city centre, this bright white building serves up old-world ambience at reasonable prices. WiFi is free, so splurge on the penthouse with 42-inch flat screen, Jacuzzi, and seaside views.
Sri Lanka beach resorts
If you make a detour to the relatively uninhabited Kalpitya peninsula, you’ll come across Alankuda, a group of independent, neighbouring properties that share facilities. This concept seems to be working well, with the four unique villas gaining attention.
Informal Turtle Bay/ photo: resort
The trendy Khomba House offers romantic white-washed walls and two-bedroom villas with sea views; Bar Reef Resort is a collection of eight thatched-roof villas and cabanas, with pale yellow walls and rustic furniture; Palagama Beach is perhaps the most vibrant, with neon-painted doors, dark-wood furniture and bright accents; and Udekki is the most eclectic, where outdoor courtyard bathtubs mesh with more modern accommodations. If you find yourself at one of these properties, don’t miss the dolphin and whale watching excursions available from November to April.
Meanwhile, Sri Lanka’s south coast offers a variety of places to stay, both on the beach and inland. Tucked between Rekawa’s bird and wildlife sanctuary and an isolated beach, Buckingham Place is home to 12 boutique rooms, inspired by nature. Each room in this relatively young property has a balcony overlooking the Rekawa Lagoon, which is accessible in the hotel's canoe. Venture to one of three nearby national parks or laze on the beach, it’s up to you. And when you’re done, come home to airy spaces, WiFi, rainshowers and giant tubs. This is one for the shortlist.
Close to the Kalametiya Bird Sanctuary, off the Tangalle/Hambantota highway, seek out Turtle Bay hotel. Guests can gaze from the hotel’s swimming pool on a bluff over the long sweep of deserted beach with nary a building in sight among the coconut palms.
Unlike Sri Lanka’s other boutique hotels this one has an agreeable lack of formality, being owned and run by young Sri Lankans who delight in giving guests what they want, whether it’s breakfast at 4pm or giant prawns for brunch. There are five spacious (40sq m) suites on the upper floor, each with an oversized bed (no mosquito nets as there are no mosquitoes) big bathroom, wooden floors and tea/coffee maker; TV only on request. Two ground floor rooms open onto the pool. A relaxed resort proving very popular with British guests so advance reservation is essential.
Alankuda pool/ photo: hotel
A masterpiece designed by Geoffrey Bawa, The Last House in Tangalle has a beach-chic, laid-back vibe. The airy spaces melt into the natural surrounds, while the antiques indoors sing of days gone by. The six rooms include free WiFi, iPod docks and access to a leafy courtyard and jungle-lined pool. Beachside barbecues as well as private meals are popular, but you’ll have to BYOB if you want to get tipsy. Leave your heels at home – you won’t need much more than a sarong and sandals. Book the full house or by room.
Continuing westwards along the south coast just outside Tangalle is the stunning Amanwella resort, 77km from Galle. Amanwella is resolutely modernist in contrast to its sister hotel, Amangalla in Galle Fort. The first glimpse new arrivals have is a forest of tall, black square concrete columns complementing the palm trees of its coconut grove location.
Accommodation at this hideaway, among the best Sri Lanka luxury resorts, is in 30 villas strung out in three tiers along a hillside curving around a golden beach. The villas have glass-sided walls and no curtains, and partial privacy comes from the closing of lattice screens. With roofs of old clay tiles, the villas blend beautifully into the environment and inside all the furniture and fittings are locally made from dark-grained palm wood.
The latest technology powers the lights and air-conditioning, which means some guests need instruction on how to operate them. Each villa has a private swimming pool and there is a huge one in the main complex, where there is also a library, a restaurant with an excellent menu, and a bar so demurely lit at night, one wonders if it’s there.
Amanwella: modern touche/ photo: hotel
“Organic Sri Lankan cuisine prepared over cinnamon wood fires by the family cook,” proclaims the resort describing the attractions of the Robin Hill Suites. It is a town bungalow, a mini-mansion in a village a short drive from the main Yala to Galle south coast highway, at Weligama. It has been carefully restored by its Sri Lankan owner with a welter of wooden furniture and tall columns contrasting with contemporary touches like busts sprouting plants.
Running the length of the bungalow’s courtyard is a suite of two bedrooms with an attached (but outdoor) shower/toilet. At the other side is a two-floored suite with a long private lounge furnished with antiques and dining room with its original stone floor. This is a simple, gracious place to stay for guests who want to enjoy traditional, home cooked Sri Lankan food in unpretentious surroundings. With accommodation for just six adults (with extra beds for children as long as they are more than 12 years old) Robin Hill is popular for renting in its entirety.
Farther along the south coastal westwards road to Galle, there is The Fortress Resort and Spa, which opened on the beach at Koggala in 2007. It has announced the world’s most expensive dessert, a chocolate and gold leaf confection with an 80-carat aquamarine for US$14,500, as part of its ambitions to position itself as an exclusive resort for high net-worth visitors. Its 53 rooms are defiantly modern in design and gadgets (an iPod in every one), set in a huge reproduction fortress stretching along the beach with one of the longest swimming pools in the country and, for the hedonist, a wine cellar dining parlour with glass cutlery, crystal glasses and a floor of crushed Dolomite stones.
A few miles west, the welcoming Apa Villa Thalpe faces the ocean. Among the three villas, find Asian touches and simple whites, woods and greys. If it’s not sand you’re after, there’s an inviting pool and sociable seafood restaurant. Even better, find countryside living in style at sister property Illuketia, a few kilometres inland from the southern coastal road near Galle. The property consists of two villas, one with its own pond and open-air bathrooms, another with cloistered rooms around an interior swimming pool. The furniture is bold colonial, with Chinese touches, and the atmosphere grand.
Illuketia: colonial charms/ photo: hotel
Featured with awe in glossy magazines worldwide Kahanda Kanda, off a country lane heading inland nine kilometres east of Galle, was originally built as the owner’s private, fantasy residence following his purchase of an abandoned 12-acre tea plantation in 2000. He has since created a retreat of eight with a stunning swimming pool, ponds, and two recreational pavilions. Each room has been individually styled by in-vogue Sri Lankan designers. Furniture is made locally to the owner’s design. Luxurious extras like the double shower and attentive service make you feel at home.
On the outskirts of Galle, Closenberg Hotel is a genuinely traditional (and perhaps slightly eccentric) place, governed by the family motto (not a copywriter’s spin): “service to others comes first.” Built by a British P&O captain, Francis Bayley, as his home in 1860, it has been owned by the same Sri Lankan family since 1889. They converted it into a four-roomed hotel in 1965 adding a block of 16 bijou rooms overlooking the sea in 1983.
Guests enter through verandahs that sweep around the house, below rafters carved with the rising sun motif of the P&O line. There are gardens and terraces and nooks and crannies galore, and a rock pool at the water’s edge below. The Fernery Restaurant, distinguished by a permanent rock garden of ferns, serves good southern rice and curry as well as innovative modern cuisine on demand. The staff match the hotel’s colonial image, with discreet courtesy and individuality: a touch of the Ceylon of yore.
About seven kilometres outside Galle along the coast, Ambalama is home to four elegantly designed rooms, all with complimentary WiFi, stainless steel kitchens and iPod docks. Modern touches balance historic artefacts, pillowcases embroidered with Asian motifs, and louvered French doors. Outside, green stones, sea views and palm trees bedeck the infinity pool.
Kahanda Kanda retreat/ photo: hotel
One of the more popular beach hotels in Sri Lanka, Aditya Resort sets a standard. An ultra-modern boutique concept designed by Bernard Gomez, the property features 11 spacious suites, with private plunge pools, country or sea views, exotic artwork and Balinese furniture. Expect shining concrete floors, warm woods, airy rooms, white linens and outdoor bathrooms in this dreamy retreat.
Managed by Swiss expats, Villa Ranmenika is also worth a look. Located near Hikkaduwa and Bentota beaches in Ahungalla, it’s a peaceful, no-frills spot offering 14 rooms, Ayurveda spa therapies, and island tours.
Following the coastline north, you’ll find yourself creeping closer to the touristy beach scene of Bentota. Here are a few spots away from the crowds. Another gem from premier Sri Lankan architect, Geoffrey Bawa, is Club Villa. Located on the southern end of Bentota, this 17-room, distinctly Ceylonese property showcases intricate mosaics, hand woven batiks, hand-picked colonial-Dutch furniture, high ceilings and a picturesque garden path to the beach. It’s popular among expats thanks to its notable seafood and exclusive location away from the tourist bustle. A drawback for some is a train that runs through the grounds several times a day.
A tranquil spot near the coast is The Waterside Bentota. Located on the lake, this low-key retreat is home to six bedrooms with king-sized beds and modern amenities. Find Sri Lankan flavour at the rooftop bar and in the furniture – all handmade by local craftsmen.
An artistic face in Bentota, Bawa House 87 is surrounded by 17 acres of grottos and gardens. Melodic bird songs, moss and running water set the scene, followed by two suites and two rooms spread across three buildings. Expect free WiFi, iPod dock, handmade soaps and a 23m lap pool. Marvel at assorted artefacts while sipping a glass of wine at the Artist’s Bar, or explore the chapel and 1960s pavilion – designed by Geoffrey Bawa.
Colonial homes and luxury beds
The Beach House/ photo: hotel
The Sun House was created as a fine Sri Lanka boutique hotel in a colonial mansion overlooking the Galle harbour. The approach, up a road lined with suburban houses to a door set in a wall, gives no inkling of the idle splendour within. It now has seven double bedrooms with the addition of a more modern suite with balcony and large bathroom complete with huge terrazzo bath. The large Cinnamon suite has a bath on the balcony for languishing in private under the stars. Dick's Bar looks out onto the courtyard. Dining is on the loggia by a garden with terraces and a sunken swimming pool. High walls keep out the world. This is among the better Sri Lanka resorts in this review.
Across the road, The Dutch House known as Doornberg was built in 1712 – the outside wall and entrance verandah look appropriately “period” with peeling umber paint. Its four huge, immaculately kept bedrooms come with antique colonial furniture including Edwardian-style bathtubs. Columned cloisters enclose a sun-drenched lawn, with frangipani blossoms floating in clay pots and a path that leads to a lower-level infinity swimming pool. Room rates at both properties include breakfast and afternoon tea.
The Sun and Dutch houses are part of the Taprobane Collection (www.taprobaneisland.com) of exclusive properties named after Taprobane Island, the only privately owned island off the shores of Sri Lanka, at Weligama, near Galle. With five en suite bedrooms in its neo-Palladian mansion, the island of 2.5 acres of garden, complete with infinity pool, can only be reached by wading through the sea. Perfect for privacy. It is available for renting in its entirety, as is its sister property, The Beach House, with five bedrooms and resident staff, set on the beach near Tangalle. On with our Sri Lanka resorts review.
New-look Galle Fort Hotel/ photo: hotel
The only hotel in Sri Lanka to achieve the distinction of a UNESCO Heritage Award for Cultural Heritage Conversion is located in the very heart of Galle. The conservation and conversion of a 17th century Dutch mansion into the Galle Fort Hotel was done with passion and love by Malaysian, former investment banker, Chris Ong, and his Australian, former film producer partner, Karl Steinberg. Guests enter through the verandah, adapted to a café serving eclectic food conceived by Ong, and a dining hall furnished with exquisite Chinese porcelain, to a courtyard with swimming pool and tall columns. Food is a central theme and four-course Asian fusion dinners are served in the frangipani garden.
Three garden rooms lead off the cloisters and there are nine elaborately furnished suites including the largest (2,500sq f) in Sri Lanka. All this pomp and grandeur is made more fun by the serving lads who, instead of the traditional tunics and sarongs, wear beach shorts and t-shirts. The place has become an iconic Galle Fort experience and several international magazines have done fashion shoots there. The hotel also has a superb gallery selling a small but exquisite collection of art and antiques.
In the same road and league as a Sri Lanka luxury hotel, is Amangalla (formerly the New Oriental). Parts of the building hark back to its days as a barracks during the 17th century Dutch construction of the fort. Visitors who pop in for drink on the broad, art deco tiled verandah, as they did many years previously, are astonished by the successful transformation of the property from seedy to sophisticated.
The dated essence of its predecessor has been lovingly enhanced with spit and polish. The shining wooden floorboards of the Grand Hall are original, as are the metre-thick walls and the corridors of suites and chambers.
Amangalla: remodelled chic/ photo: hotel
While four-poster beds and some of the chunky period furniture remain, more comfortable, slimmer pieces have been added creating a confident elegance. Hidden in the cloistered garden is a huge, sleekly modern swimming pool and The Baths – a spa. Amangalla is among the top Sri Lankan luxury resorts.
Before beginning the drive up the west coast to Colombo, there is a secret retreat outside Galle known as Jetwing Kurulubedda. This offers two timber chalets with upper deck of bedroom and sun platform, and lower floor given over to a cement tub plunge pool, set in a vegetable garden by a river. Reached by boat, arranged through the nearby mainstream Jetwing Lighthouse in Galle, this is a miniature bird sanctuary and nature haven, with its own teak-decked restaurant for just four guests, with a personal chef and stewards on hand.
Farther north in Hikkaduwa, the 150-room Chaaya Tranz takes cues from trance music, aiming to bring the travellers to an “alternate state of consciousness”. For better or worse, rooms don’t come with anything more potent than colourful mosaics, rattan furniture and private balconies overlooking the southern coast. If you have some down time, get PADI certified in the hotel’s dive centre or head up to the rooftop spa.
At Kosgoda on the coast there is no clue to the architectural masterpiece accessed by a simple door set in a white painted wall at the end of a lane past village houses, beside a vacant lot where kids play cricket and villagers stroll to the beach. This is a specially designed beach holiday house, the Saffron & Blue; a wondrous embracement of space where every vista is open to the sea, but where every corner intrigues. Entrance is to a cobbled courtyard with a simple pond, and a concrete slab that serves as a bar counter segueing into the open kitchen. The courtyard leads to the grand terrace beside a swimming pool with beach view, with a ceiling that soars three storeys.
Saffron and Blue/ photo: hotel
There are four nifty bedrooms, each with en suite bathroom and its own colour scheme; a television room; a dining room with square table for 12; and oodles of plump cushions and sofas everywhere. The décor is both simple and alluring, brightened with a collection of exotic art. Staff is around if requested to prepare a decent curry.
Among the first of Sri Lanka’s boutique hotels was Saman Villas. Built in 1995, some rooms have swimming pools. All have spectacular views over the ocean and golden, unspoilt beaches that extend from both sides of the rocky outcrop it perches on. With only 27 suites, decoratively and practically furnished (no modern gadgetry here), this hotel has matured into a reliable, popular place for sun and sea worshippers.
Shanth Fernando, the genius behind Colombo’s Paradise Road brand of tropical neo-colonial home accessories, has turned his many talents to creating Paradise Road The Villa Bentota close to the National Tourist Resort of Bentota. With its 15 rooms and suites all impressively furnished, this villa hotel is both over-the-top and laid back. The décor enhances the wow factor and does much to make up for an awkward location with a railway line separating the hotel from the beach. There are also two delightful swimming pools and a rarefied atmosphere, supported by gourmet-inclined Asian fusion cuisine.
There is a haven of undisturbed peace (no waves pounding the beach, no mobile phone or Internet contact) a short drive inland from the west coast metropolis of Kalutara, just 100 minutes from Colombo. No in-room telephone either, just a hand bell to summon a steward. This anachronism in Sri Lanka’s relentless rush to modernity offers two cottages and central dining and lounging pavilion at Halketha, a 10-acre working rubber estate.
Saman Villas pool/ photo: hotel
A thatched awning and an ancient wooden door frame with low transom requires visitors to crouch low, as though entering a wardrobe, to step into its orderly garden of rubber trees, tea bushes and neat crannies of flowers. Halketha is run as a hotel, with either of its two cottages available by advance reservation, no minimum stay. They are both simply equipped, with modern accoutrements (even television if you insist) but with oil lamps lighting up the garden at night. The perfect escape for a few days lazing in solitude.
Not far away the Pantiya Estate Holiday Bungalow is just 68km from Colombo at only 900m above sea level, but with all the attributes of a traditional hill country plantation home. Built in 1907, this former home of a planter has been converted with the addition of three guest rooms and a mini-villa alongside a sparkling swimming pool. It is let only to one group at a time to ensure complete privacy. Guests can cater for themselves or have meals prepared by the cook, whose father and grandfather both cooked for the owner.
Fascinating antiques are to be seen there, including an elaborate chest made in Germany in 1711 and an intriguing chandelier of antlers, also from Germany that was made for Herman Goering. The bungalow seems to house a lot of secrets, not least in its location, making it impossible to find by chance. The perfect place for serene seclusion.
Although it's a town one would normally drive through (it's an hour by car from Colombo on the road to Galle), Wadduwa now has two of the most impressive places in the whole country in which to stay. The Reef Villa and Spa bills itself as "the ultimate tropical beach villa" but is really much more. For a start, forget the beach – it’s a murky strip of fenced-off sand and the sea's not for swimming.
Last House, airy spaces/ photo: hotel
However, from the moment guests arrive they are transported into a wonderland. A narrow path wanders through a tropical garden to rival Kew's, leading gently away from the cacophony of the Galle Road to other secret lanes of flowers, ponds and stepping stones to elegant rooms of immense proportions designed with breathtaking extravagance on Indo-colonial lines.
Punkah fans, marble floors, bathtubs hewn from a single block of granite, antique Calcutta four-poster beds, teak furniture, clay tile roofs, are all complemented with the latest mod cons (TVs, safe and minibar are hidden in ancient almirahs).
Seven guest suites, pavilions for private dining on gourmet cuisine, a sea view lawn, swimming pool and amenable staff combine to make this a relaxing – and not awkwardly modern – retreat.
Through a time portal to the north awaits the gleaming, white colonial Mount Lavinia Hotel. A throwback to old-world romance – literally, the place is all about the secret love story involving the British Governor General of Ceylon and Lovina, an alluring mestizo dancer – the heritage hotel offers modern fixings and antique surrounds. Predictably, this period piece attracts couples and intimate gatherings, but there are plenty of kid-friendly attractions as well, including themed dinners and elephant rides on the beach.
A jaunt to the northeast will take you to Kandy’s best offerings. Effortlessly chic, The Kandy House occupies a 200-year-old palazzo. Repurposed for modern times, the contemporary design feels both modern and romantic. Each of the eight rooms is named after a type of butterfly, and includes a chaise longue, verandah, vivid bed linens and four-poster bed.
Kandy House/ photo: hotel
The infinity pool may as well disappear into the canopy, while the Butterfly Bar is perfect for a lingering drink and a handful of cashews. If you work up an appetite, dig into The Kandy House restaurant’s signature, twice-weekly 10-course curry buffet.
To the northeast in Rajawella, the golfing greens and Dutch digs at Clingendael tend to be crowd pleasers. In the shadow of the Knuckles mountain range, this hillside retreat is a favourite among putters and holiday makers. Outside, find an infinity pool with mountain views and a heated Jacuzzi – a perfect treat after the 18th hole – while indoors, five grooms showcase Dutch antiques and offer free WiFi. The dining room is a group affair, but couples can find a quiet corner at the fully stocked bar or on the verandah.
And that’s our guide to the best Sri Lanka resorts from budget to bungalow.
FAST FACTS / Hotel Contact List
All visitors, except Maldivian or Singaporean passport holders and children under 12 years old, must apply for a visa in advance through the internet (http://www.eta.gov.lk). A 30-day permit costs between US$10 and US$20, depending on your nationality. If you forget to apply online, expect to pay an additional US$5 upon entry.
Feel free to stock up on booze but the importation of duty-free cigarettes is not allowed. There is no customs declaration required of foreign currency being brought in, unless it is in excess of US$10,000. See the tourist information office at the airport, and taxi counter before you leave the airport.
The Sri Lankan currency is the rupee and US$1 = 130 Sri Lankan rupees (SLRs). Keep exchange receipts to facilitate changing rupees back to a foreign currency. There are banks after clearing customs at the airport. Hotels calculate bills in US dollars but accept rupees (and all major credit cards) for payment.
Hiring of chauffeur-driven cars or minivans for an independent tour can be arranged through a hotel travel desk or at the airport. Self-drive cars can be hired but are often more expensive (and more stressful) than hiring a knowledgeable chauffeur.
Among recommended travel agents for local arrangements are the retreat specialists Red Dot Tours (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org and www.reddottours.com), the mainstream Aitken Spence Travels (e-mail: email@example.com and www.aitkenspencetravels.com), and Walkers Tours (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org and www.walkerstours.com). Also check out holiday planner and lux bungalow provider Ceylon Tea Trails (e-mail: email@example.com and www.teatrails.com) and Eco Tourism (www.srilankaecotourism.com) for a guilt-free vacation.
The Sri Lanka Tourist Board is at www.srilankatourism.org. Our contributor, Royston Ellis (www.roystonellis.com), is the author of Guide to Sri Lanka available through www.bradtguides.com and the insight guide: Sri Lanka Step By Step.
Not all the retreats mentioned here are licensed to serve alcohol but guests can bring their own by arrangement. Rates increase at Kandy hotels during the July or August Perahera Season. Special deals at lower rates are usually available for walk-in guests.
Rates below (published and Internet) are per night for double occupancy often with breakfast or full board. Service charge (10 percent) and statutory levy (about 15 percent) need to be added to quoted room rates unless indicated otherwise.
Sri Lanka resorts guide
Aditya Resort. 719/1, Galle Road, Galle. Tel: [94-91] 226-7708, 226-7709. (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or www.aditya-resort.com).
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