Boutique chic on the Sri Lankan shores

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By Primrose Skelton

For many years Sri Lanka has been in the news for all the wrong reasons – war between the country’s military and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was ongoing for 26 years and then in 2004, the Boxing Day tsunami devastated much of the south coast.

But with a ceasefire and the effects of the tsunami barely visible, this beautiful country is looking to bring back tourists and find a new place in the heart of those who visit.

The teardrop-shaped island in the Indian Ocean has amazing diversity for a place so compact. From the bustling capital Colombo on the west coast – just a five hour direct flight from Dubai – to the gently arcing golden-sand beaches of the south, to the magnificent Hill Country where misty clouds hang over mountains, waterfalls and verdant tea plantations – this small country has a lot to offer to every type of traveller. For me it had to be about luxury and there is an array of excellent boutique hotels catering to the most discerning holidaymaker.

As my husband and I wanted to see as much of the island as possible, while still being able to relax (it was our honeymoon after all), we were recommended an itinerary organised by Red Dot Tours, a British and Sri Lanka run company based in Colombo, specialising in luxury tailor-made packages. During our 12-night stay we explored the The Hill Country, two different sections of the south coast and the historic town of Galle where its colonial past (the British and Dutch have both ruled the country) is reminiscent in the architecture and expatriate way of life.

On route to our first hotel, we stopped at the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage, where visitors can see the magnificent mammals in their natural habitat. Started in 1972, the retreat houses adult and baby elephants who have lost parents or been relocated from the north because of war. At 10am and 2pm, about 60 elephants make their way across the water to be fed. Visitors’ can get pretty close and watch as feeding time takes place – it’s a truly great experience.

Our first three nights were spent in the idyllic surroundings of The Lavender House, a stunning five-bedroom tea planter’s bungalow set amid the Hellboda Tea plantation in Pussellawa, between Kandy and Nuwara Eliya.

With its friendly staff – who at the time were catering to only the two of us – to the home cooked cuisine and personal touches this guest house looking over the misty mountains feels more like staying in someone’s home.

While the accommodation is located in the middle of nowhere, it is the perfect place to sightsee. Kandy, just over an hour’s drive away, houses the Temple of the Tooth, where a sacred tooth relic of the Lord Buddha is enshrined and the beautiful Kandy lake – a lovely centrepiece for the town created in 1807. On the outskirts are the Peradeniya Botanical Gardens, which has a wonderful orchid collection. Both sites can easily be seen in a day.

On the journey back, be sure to stop at a roadside cafe where you can try traditional Sri Lankan rice and hoppers (bowl-shaped pancakes), or pull over at a fruit stall selling bananas (there are 18 varieties) and rambutan.

Although Sri Lanka is rarely cold, May to September is low season with temperatures at around 28 degrees and a chance of rain. But for many Dubai residents this is likely to be a draw.

If seclusion and picture perfect beaches are what you are after then head to Amanwella, situated on the south coast. The drive from Kandy can take up to eight hours, but each kilometre is worth it as you pull up to the stylish and contemporary hotel.

Amanwella fronts a crescent shaped beach near the small port of Tangalle offering privileged seclusion and a respite from the modern world. All 30 suites feature their own plunge pools, and terraces with views of the ocean and coconut groves.

Enjoy five star treatment, whether relaxing in the 47-metre pool or indulging in the authentic cuisine, over-looking the waves lapping onto the shore. After a hard day sleeping on a hammock or walking along the beach, why not retire to the trendy sunken bar area with it’s white leather sofas and range of cocktails? Remember to wear your finest – this is no place for traveller attire.

Irrespective of their cultural background, Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim locals welcome visitors with immense pride. Pride in their food, pride in their land and – especially – pride in their national cricket team. And there is no better place to see them play than on home turf at the Galle International Stadium.

The magnificent 17th century Dutch fort, which surrounds the old town of Galle, is a Unesco World Heritage Site and a popular attraction in which spectators can watch play for free.

The small streets and alleyways within the 300-year-old fort have a colonial atmosphere and its many historical buildings have not been invaded by skyscrapers. Take in daily life while spending your rupees in one of the many independent shops. Head to Sithuvili for painted traditional boxes, Buddhist panels and masks, Olanda Antiques for china, brass and furniture, Laksana for gems and Barefoot for hand-woven fabrics before taking a pit stop at Pedlers Inn for a drink and light lunch.

High-end luxury accommodation is easy to find in Galle with a range of great places to stay. The Dutch House is one of two colonial guesthouses situated on a steep, leafy street just outside Galle town. This 19th century mansion has been beautifully restored into an exquisite property offering the look and feel of the old with all the luxury of the modern.

Four spacious suites, nicely arranged in a horseshoe, are equipped with antique four-poster beds, fans, en suite bathrooms and a rich array of carefully chosen local furniture and fabrics. Take afternoon tea on the veranda (ask for the banana cake) or relax on the day bed overlooking the croquet lawn and pool. Dinner is served in the The Sun House opposite, but before eating have a drink in Dicks Bar and learn about the annual Galle Literary Festival.

On returning home, make a stop at The Wallawwa, a new hotel just a 15 minute drive from the airport. Rest in the beautiful gardens, indulge in a spa treatment and fill up on delicious pineapple curry, before heading home.

Faced with funding a war and weathering a global financial crisis, Sri Lanka’s proud population has had it tough for a few years. But equipped with a stellar combination of scenery, culture and history, Sri Lanka is firmly back on the radar for curious travellers and those looking for a unique experience.

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