Helen Anderson finds heritage restoration and a tropical indoor-outdoor vibe in the island's boutique hotels.
It's raining gently and though Janaka the butler knows there will be a few leeches out, he pulls on rubber boots and is waiting to take me walking through a postcard landscape of rice terraces and buffalo paddocks.
We talk about life in Sri Lanka since the end of the civil war two years ago, about recovery, about his family in a village not far from the five-suite boutique hotel Mas Villa, where he works and I'm staying. "If not for this hotel, I'd have to go to the city or overseas again to work, and rarely see my family," he says.
And that's the thing about travelling in Sri Lanka in its postwar phase; much of the tourism infrastructure is being developed by small private investors in rural areas with long-term sustainability in mind, and most staff are highly skilled Sri Lankans, often trained in the Middle East and happy to be home. "You can stay in rural areas in Sri Lanka in luxurious surroundings with very careful service," the villa manager, Ken Hetti, says, "which is an experience that's impossible in big hotels."
When we return from our walk, Janaka removes two leeches from my ankles, dabs the spots with something herbal and pours a juice. A little later I find my muddy shoes cleaned and outside my door. Like magic.
Here is a selection of the splendid boutique accommodation available on this lovely teardrop island.
The Wallawwa, Katunayake
The Sinhala word refers to aristocracy and the place where a leading family lived. This wallawwa is a restored 18th-century manor with 14 stylish contemporary rooms and suites, a garden pool (kids love it), a library and lovely terrace for meals. Such is the tranquillity, it hardly seems possible the Wallawwa is only 20 minutes' drive from Colombo's international airport, which makes it perfect for stopovers before and after late-night flights (of which there are many) and a serene change of pace from bustling Colombo, about an hour's drive away.
The Wallawwa is my first stop in Sri Lanka and it comes to exemplify the ambience of the boutique lodgings I discover: sincere, highly skilled staff; breezy indoor-outdoor spaces; cool polished concrete floors; carefully restored historic buildings; superb food. I particularly like the tea menu with tasting notes as detailed as any wine list and the Z Spa's ayurvedic dosha quiz.
Rooms from $US234 ($237, low season); see thewallawwa.com.
Amangalla, Galle Fort
The World Heritage-listed fort of Galle is one of the highlights of a visit to Sri Lanka and, within its quiet ramparts, Amangalla is as much a destination as a hotel. Formerly the New Oriental Hotel, it is beautifully restored, full of character and the epitome of Sri Lankan languor with Aman service standards. The corner Suite 14 has views of the old harbour, the Indian Ocean and Galle cricket stadium.
Accompany your butler on a walking tour of the fort's fascinating historic sites, submit to ayurvedic treatments in the Baths and a feast of seven Sri Lankan curries and rice in the Zaal (Great Hall).
One of the great pleasures of staying here is a leisurely breakfast on the street-front terrace: tropical fruits; kitul palm syrup and thick buffalo curd; egg hoppers; lowlands tea.
Rooms from $US631; see amanresorts.com.
Mas Villa, Kothmale
Mas Villa, in the tranquil Kothmale Valley between Kandy and Nuwara Eliya and about four hours' drive from Colombo, is a restored 200-year-old wallawwa, with five rooms around a lovely courtyard. Staff and meals are superb.
Rooms from $US150; see masvilla.com.
The Kandy House, Kandy
It's hot and late when I arrive, and Kandy House appears like a tropical dream: candles, mirrors, the scent of clove, high ceilings, an antique day bed, a lemon-scented chilled towel and passionfruit juice on arrival (see cover photo).
Kandy House is a beautifully restored Dutch-era villa with eight rooms full of rare antiques, four-poster beds, claw-footed tubs and wide teak floorboards. Downstairs, fine Sri Lankan fusion meals are served in an open-air dining room, from where a path leads to an infinity pool surrounded by barely tamed jungle.
Rooms from $US267; see thekandyhouse.com.
Paradise Road The Villa Bentota
This villa was bought in the 1970s by the renowned Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa and transformed into the island's first boutique hotel.
The Sri Lankan designer and entrepreneur Shanth Fernando added the property to his Paradise Road portfolio (including his covetable interiors shops and another boutique hotel, Tintagel Colombo). Villa Bentota reopened two years ago after restoration, and its 15 rooms and suites, all different, and impressively styled public spaces remain strikingly contemporary and recognisably Bawa. Sip a chilli tamarind martini by the pool, then adjourn to the restaurant for crab curry. Walk across the Galle-Colombo railway line and you're on Bentota beach.
Rooms from $US224 (low season); see paradiseroadhotels.com.
Ceylon Tea Trails, Bogawantalawa Valley
Another destination in itself, the Dilmah-owned Ceylon Tea Trails comprises four elegant tea-planters' bungalows on working tea estates at 1220 metres in the central highlands. The day begins with a gentle knock on the door and the delivery of "bed tea", the first of several perfectly brewed cups of the finest BOP (broken orange pekoe) of the day. Outside, across the croquet lawn at Norwood bungalow where I stay, are emerald terraces of camellia sinensis being plucked by women "two leaves and a bud" at a time. The trails' resident tea-planter, Andrew Taylor, takes guests on an entertaining tour of the tea factory on the estate, and high tea with him later in the day is a highlight of my time in Sri Lanka.
There is a focus on fine food - all meals are made to order, with an emphasis on local produce - and each bungalow has five-star service, with a butler, chef and staff. Walking trails links the bungalows - a good excuse for exercise before a very proper high tea - and a popular excursion is climbing nearby Adam's Peak.
Double rooms with full board from €381 ($519, low season); see teatrails.com.
Wild Grass Nature Resort, Sigiriya
Off a bumpy road in the middle of nowhere, it's a surprise to find five new two-storey villas tucked away on a 13-hectare property teeming with wildlife. The villas are private glass cubes surrounded by forest, with a sitting room, terrace and open-air bathroom.
The resort has a pool and a central pavilion with a rooftop dining room, from where I watch wild peacocks and tuck into a generous spread of nine curries and rice. Though secluded, Wild Grass is about 30 minutes' drive from the spectacular ruins of Sigiriya, and ideally located to explore the Cultural Triangle.
Villas from $US230; see wildgrass.lk.
Park Street Hotel, Colombo
This restored 250-year-old townhouse has 12 well-appointed contemporary rooms and suites centrally located in the capital. It's a few steps from the studio warehouses of Park Street Mews and a short walk to the National Museum and Viharamahadevi Park.
Rooms from $US273; see parkstreethotel-colombo.com.
The Last House, Tangalle
On Seenimodera beach on the southern coast, a fence of thick cinnamon sticks with a turquoise-coloured gate opens to the Last House, the final private residence designed by Bawa before his death in 2003.
Suites with teak ceilings, whitewashed walls and titanium cement floors are stamped with the architect's signature style; whether in the sitting room, bedroom or bathroom, inside could be outside.
Named after Bawa's favourite trees, the Moonamal suite has a private courtyard garden, and Na overlooks the wetland home of peacocks, cranes and kingfishers.
I have the run of the Cinnamon Hill suite on the first floor, with an antique jackwood bed, claw-foot bath and wraparound balcony. The brass-bolt concertina doors are open from dawn to dusk to catch the ocean breeze and from rattan chairs and soft day beds I watch frangipani drop into the pool and at night, lightning at sea.
Suites from $US194; see mrandmrssmith.com/luxury-hotels/the-last-house.
- Jane Reddy
There is a stark, chic Sri Lankan style at this Aman property of manicured lawns and vertiginous walls of a colour that's matched to the sand on the crescent-shaped beach it surrounds.
Wide terrazzo paths lead to separate structures: the library for fine reference books about the island or a frivolous holiday read; a sunken bar and restaurant that overlooks an infinity pool just shy of 50 metres.
There is room to roam with just 30 suites on the 15-hectare coconut grove, each with six-by-four metre plunge pool, king bed and terrace with room for a double sun lounge and table, laid with linen and candles when room service is delivered in wicker baskets.
One walkway takes me to a secluded patch of sand where a lifeguard moves my deckchair from a spot threatened by a ripe coconut overhead, before he heads to the surf to shadow a guest wading into the shore dumpers.
Each suite has a designated assistant. Dial 1 to organise yoga on the beachside platform, a trip to a turtle hatchery or a nearby surf break.
Suites from $US575; see mrandmrssmith.com/luxury-hotels/amanwella; amanresorts.com.
- Jane Reddy
Helen Anderson travelled courtesy of Singapore Airlines and Banyan Lanka Tours. Jane Reddy stayed courtesy of Mr & Mrs Smith. Most hotels include breakfast in their tariff.
Singapore Airlines has a fare to Colombo from Sydney and Melbourne for about $1195 low-season return, including tax. Fly to Singapore (about 8hr), then to Colombo (3hr 25min); see singaporeair.com. Australians obtain a visa on arrival for a stay of up to 30 days.
Banyan Lanka Tours arranges customised itineraries focusing on travellers' interests and luxury lodgings. A 10-day private tour of Colombo, the Cultural Triangle, Kandy, the tea highlands, Galle and Bentota costs from $2531 a person, twin share, including an English-speaking driver-guide, transport and accommodation.
Boutique hotel specialists Mr & Mrs Smith list 13 properties in Sri Lanka. Membership is not required to book, though benefits for Goldsmith members (the highest tier) include automatic room upgrades if available. See mrandmrssmith.com.