FOR AN exclusive escape that won’t break the bank, boutique travel experts Mr and Mrs Smith tip Sri Lanka, a romantic Indian ocean isle that’s home to a swath of chic and cheerful hotels.
Surely the quickest way to make a destination a must-visit is to utter the word “undiscovered” the mere whisper of off-the-radar has travellers racing for the latest hot spot. We’ve lapped up Laos, pored over Cambodia and now we want the next big thing.
Enter Sri Lanka, a laid-back island nation lolling off the southern tip of India, which, for now at least, remains blissfully untapped.
The civil war and 2004 tsunami conspired to keep tourists away for years, but the advent of peace combined with a wealth of affordable boutique hotels and cultural riches has piqued the interest of style-seekers around the world.
Once known as Serendib, this sultry getaway more than lives up to its original name, delivering a host of unexpected delights. On our week-long trip from country to coast, lush tea fields, soothing temples and surf-lapped beaches unfurl before our eyes.
Though perhaps not worthy of a photo op, the first sight that greets us at capital Colombo’s Bandaranaike International Airport is memorable. Instead of the haul of whisky and cigarettes you find in most duty-free stores, here it’s all about white goods, with stacks of microwaves, fridges and washing machines lining the path to customs. So far, so intriguing.
Casa Colombo, our bijou base for the night in the southern suburbs, offers another head-snapping moment. A stately pile from the outside, this 200-year-old, 12-suite Moorish mansion surprises within, with a blend of colonial-chic rattan, gold leaf-flecked walls and daring neon accents from owner Lalin Jinasena.
After a seamless check-in, our domo (butler) shows us to our suite, a massive two-room abode with a gadget-filled lounge, bigger-than-king-size bed and a sumptuous copper bathtub.
Breakfast the next day is similarly large-scale, kicking off with fruit, croissants and coffee, before a platter of string hoppers (noodle cakes), fish curry, chutney and sambal is laid out before us.
If we’d lingered longer, we might have swum a few laps in the bubblegum-pink pool, had a massage or strolled along Galle Face Green. Instead, we make for the Kelani River and board a seaplane bound for Kandy in the inland Hill Country.
Touching down in the former royal capital 30 minutes later, we discover a temple-dotted, mountain-ringed retreat with a serene lake at its heart. After biryani at a hillside eatery that bills itself as “Probably the best restaurant in Kandy” (probably not, we reckon), we head to our budget boutique stay on the outskirts of town.
An ancestral manor, the Kandy House, sits among gardens of palms and fig trees slung with hammocks and fairy lights. Owners Tim and Sarah Jacobsen have filled the eight bedrooms with antique furniture and sari-bright fabrics.
Deep balconies and an infinity pool encourage lazy afternoons and a shaded central courtyard becomes the setting for many an arrack sour (the house cocktail made with local palm-toddy brew).
A three-course dinner of grilled prawns, wild boar curry and passionfruit crème caramel is served at the communal table, before the draw of the four-poster proves too strong.
The next day we jump in a tuk-tuk and hightail it into town to join the throngs paying homage at Sri Lanka’s revered Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic.
Amid much gong sounding, we line up with locals for the chance to glimpse an urn holding one of Buddha’s teeth. Then, after playing spot-the-macaque in the grounds, it’s time for our next seaplane jaunt.
Skipping along under the clouds, the plane offers a breath-snatching view of the country’s rugged interior. Peaks, tea factories and villages pop into view, often accompanied by the striking sight of a Buddhist temple, Hindu shrine and Islamic mosque sitting cheek by jowl.
Our next jumping-off point is coastal Tangalle, home to surf breaks that’d rival those in Australia, and the Kandy House’s sister property, the Last House.
Just metres from the sea, this breezy beach pad was the final project for legendary Sri Lankan architect Geoffery Bawa, and his trademark blurring of indoor and out is evident in the alfresco living spaces and giant windows that act as frames for idyllic ocean vistas.
With six bedrooms, a pool, sprawling lawns and a fully staffed kitchen, the laid-back vibe of the Last House soon has us planning significant birthdays and other group getaways.
We could happily hole ourselves up here for weeks, dining on delicious seafood spaghetti and chilled white wine but before we have time to set down roots, we head for rustic-luxe retreat Maya hotel, 30 minutes inland.
Overlooking rippling paddy fields, this colonial manor house has five sleek suites spread across Old and New Wings, with a sapphire-blue pool between the two.
In the open-sided dining space, we feast on zesty crab salad, fragrant curries and silky buffalo milk kulfi (ice cream) drizzled with jaggery (palm-sugar syrup).
Here, the morning wake-up call comes courtesy of chants from the neighbouring Buddhist monastery, a soul-stirring start to the day.
Shaking off last night’s deep, food-induced torpor, we’re soon climbing into a van (what, no seaplane?) and heading north towards Bentota. En route, we stop off at UNESCO-listed Galle Fort, a 400-year-old seaside enclave whose cobbled lanes are lined with gem stores, clothing boutiques and charming heritage buildings.
Passing stilts in the sea that are sadly free of fishermen today, we continue on to coastal Bentota and Paradise Road The Villa Bentota, a boutique hotel from Sri Lankan design heavyweight Shanth Fernando.
First built by Bawa in the 1970s, this 15-room resort boasts elegant interiors, a palm-shaded pool and lawns that lead down to the sea. Bawa’s own residence, Lunuganga, and his Bawa House 97 commission for an arty pal now a hotel are within easy reach, both fascinating places filled with antiques and contemporary artworks, and surrounded by verdant gardens.
Our last trip takes us back to Colombo, 90km north, and the Wallawwa hotel in leafy Negombo. With flights into and out of Sri Lanka notoriously ill-timed (between midnight and 2am is the norm), it makes sense to bookend your holiday with a post and pre-flight stay at this peaceful retreat. Once home to the village chief, the 200-year-old manor house now offers 14 modern rooms, with four-poster beds, sleek bathrooms and uplifting splashes of fuchsia and orange.
A relaxing massage in the Z Spa, a dip in the pretty pool and a fabulous pan-Asian dinner of curries and grilled seafood has us feeling fresh and fortified.
Then it’s back to the airport and its curious duty-free stores, sans white-goods this time, before bundling ourselves on to a red-eye flight that will leave us wondering if this whirlwind week was all just a dream.