Sri Lanka’s Best Boutique Hotels: All you need to know
By Monica Pitrelli
8 November 2011
When the New York Times scoured the globe for the must-see spots of 2010, one of Singapore’s outermost neighbours – Sri Lanka – took home the coveted Number One slot.
Like most quiet and mysterious neighbours, Sri Lanka has weathered quite a past. In the past few centuries, it has endured foreign invasions from the Portuguese, Dutch and British and withstood a stream of natural disasters, including the 2004 tsunami which devastated parts of the southern and eastern coastlines. In 1983, a bitter civil war erupted between the Sinhalese-dominated government and the Tamil Tigers, officially ending in the spring of 2009.
Discouraged by the unrest of the past few decades, large hotel developers stayed away. To accommodate the growing tourism trade, a unique portfolio of boutique properties emerged across the island. With this eclectic group of adventurous hoteliers came an infusion of Western cuisine, contemporary cocktails and impeccable service standards.
So, despite its troubled political past – or perhaps because of it – Sri Lanka today is a rare gem, untarnished by large corporate chains and tourism booms. Instead of souvenir-laden markets and trumped-up cultural villages, you’ll find a rustic land of white sandy beaches, waterfalls and wildlife, Unesco World Heritage sites and a populace more likely to offer an enthusiastic wave than an outstretched hand.
Now that the secret is officially out, it’s time to explore the sheer beauty of Sri Lanka’s small properties. Go now before the rest of the world gets there too.
Know Before You Go: Sri Lanka
Where to go:
Tourists love the ancient ruins of the Cultural Triangle, the white beaches surrounding Galle, the cultural capital of Kandy, the breathtaking beauty of the Hill Country and the elephant safaris in Yala National Park.
How to get there:
Book a personal driver. Roads are often narrow, winding and fraught with perils from motorbikes and large trucks to cows and children.
What to eat:
The boutique hotels in these pages offer the finest in European and Asian cuisine, but to eat like the locals, at least one meal a day should be a spicy Sri Lankan curry – a main curry served alongside a vegetable curry, dahl curry, pickles, chutney, sambol and a starch.
How to pull it all together:
Planning a trip to Sri Lanka on your own istricky. TripAdvisor’s utility can be limited, and distances deceiving. (The 116-kilometre trek from Colombo to Kandy takes between three and four hours.) We highly recommend checking out Red Dot Tours, a one-stop shop for everything Sri Lankan.
Red Dot provides hotel descriptions, photos, customer ratings, prices and special offers. Their unique iTrip travel planner even estimates the price of your trip. Red Dot’s team of trusty drivers are familiar with Sri Lanka’s back roads and best roadside eateries, and the agency will pre-book all driver accommodation, priced around US$10 per night. www.reddottours.com.
Location: The outskirts of Colombo
Best for: Decompression spa weekends and an ideal starting point for longer travels
Rates: From US$160
The Property: The palatial former home of a Galle chieftain, Wallawwa’s main parlour, office, library, gift shop, and verandah were constructed around 200 years ago. The guest quarters and spa are new. Of the 14 guestrooms, ten are Garden Suites with striking dark wood interiors, flat screen TVs, daybed nooks, outdoor terraces and spacious bathrooms with skylights and built-in Terrazzosinks.
The Vibe: Surrounded by sprawling natural gardens, Wallawwu is the embodiment of service, style and functional luxury. Decorative oil lamps and chaise longues dot the grounds, beckoning the peaceful afternoon napper. Decadent meals are served on the front veranda in the cool breeze of a showering frangipani tree. Extra touches, such as a choice of pillows (one fluffy, one firm) and music from modern mood to 70s Motown, make all the difference.
Enjoy: Succumb to an Ayurvedic massage in the tranquil spa or peruse The History of Buddhist Thought in the library, where a treasure trove of books on politics, religion and philosophy are available.
Conserve: All water is sourced and treated from on-site wells, rainwater is harvested for use in the gardens and solar panels heat the water for your bath or shower.
Taste: The head chef’s training at Joël Robuchonin Las Vegas is reflected in the restaurant’s stellar menu and service standards.
Location: Gunupana, just outside Kandy
Best for: A quiet and restful home holiday haven and a great base for Hill Country day trips
Rates: From US$215
The Property: Positioned on a four-acre stretch of lush greenery, the Kandy House is a large, historical home with breathtaking views of the surrounding hills. A wide verandah encircles the house and connects to the eight guest bedrooms, each with a four-poster bed, claw-footed tub and sitting area. The interior is beautifully adorned with Sri Lankan antiques, art and tapestries, some of which were owned by the politically aristocratic Ratwatte family, who built the house in 1804.
The Vibe: Kandy House feels more like a home than a hotel. There are no door numbers, phones, alarm clocks or reception area. Instead of computerised cards, you’ll find old-fashioned tasselled keys; instead of plastic bottles, a water pitcher. Old wooden floors creak beneath your feet and gentle breezes waft through the house bringing hints of the evening menu. At the back, rocky steps descend to a large infinity edge pool that overflows into emerald terraced paddies below. Order a lemongrass-infused cocktail in the Butterfly Bar at sundown and cross your fingers that Kandy House’s fascinating owner, Tim Jacobson, is having dinner on the terrace.
Savour: Once a week, a 10-course curry banquet is served. Don’t miss it.
Pamper: The heart of every home is a good mom. Before a hunger pang or lone mosquito can strike, the matriarchal staff is bringing afternoon tea and citronella oil, keeping a watchful yet unobtrusive eye on your every need.
Rest: Schedule a day to stay in, for this is a place that you appreciate more fully with time.
Location: The tea estates of Bogawantalawa Valley
Best for: A holiday of pure, unabashed decadence
Rates: From $200 per person (inclusive of meals, wine, spirits and a tea factory tour)
The Property: High in the rolling Hill Country is a collection of four restored English bungalows – Norwood, Tientsin, Castlereigh and Summerville. The setting is straight from a Thomas Kinkade painting – trellised arches and lakeside gazebos overlook English rose gardens and immaculate lawns; roaring fireplaces take the edge off the evening chill; and a diverse backdrop of soaring bamboo, pines and palms are outlined against mountain and sky.
The Vibe: Service, service and more service. Each cottage has its own butler, staff and personal chef. Start your day with “bed tea” and a butler-drawn bath and hot breakfast, followed by a three-course lunch, afternoon tea, evening cocktails, a four-course dinner and a nightcap. Relying heavily upon the bungalows’ garden-grown herbs and veggies, the cuisine is divine, as are the huge bedrooms with their tribal rugs, call bells and luxury linen.
Chill: At an elevation of 4,000 feet, the days are warm while the mornings and evenings are delightfully crisp.
Explore: A network of winding footpaths connects the bungalows. Request a packed picnic lunch and set out to bike or hike between them.
Stargaze: Past guests include everyone from the legendary Paul Simon to a more modern Mika.
Location: 15 kilometres east of Galle
Best for: Refined travellers with a wild streak
Rates: From US$345
The Property: Part tea estate and part jungle, the estate of George Cooper (a sarong-wearing English interior designer) offers five remarkably spacious villas and two open-air pavilions where guests can wine, dine and lounge the days away. With mossy lily ponds and Kandian stone statues, this hostelry is a unique mixture of creature comforts (pool, spa, gym and yoga pavilion) and Sri Lankan flair (tea plucking demonstrations, and Sunday serenades from neighbouring monks, resident peacocks and mongooses).
The Vibe: A sign – “Keep Calm & Make Tea” – sets the tone. Designed by George, the décor is an excellently executed mix of upscale England and tropical Sri Lanka, with a dash of earthy geometrics and animal accents. Daybeds lining the tea estate perimeter invite candlelight cocktails with a view of the Koggala Lake. Family photos exude a homey feel, while books such as How to Worry Friends and Inconvenience People add a dollop of attitude.
Location: Talpe, just east of Galle
Best for: Beach babies and ocean worshippers who enjoy the calming cadence of crashing waves
Rates: From US$160
The Property: This contemporary eight-room beachside estate virtually walks on water – water ponds, a 23-metre saltwater swimming pool and the great Indian Ocean are just steps from each guestroom.
The Vibe: White columns and African art complement cathedral ceilings, floors and furniture made from dark indigenous wood. Guest rooms feature French doors that open directly to the sea and stately beds with three-metre tall posts dramatically draped with ochre muslin. Bathroom skylights brighten polished concrete sinks and textured granite floors. Beyond the upscale bar and restaurant, past lazy palms and encroaching mangroves, sits the aptly-named Turtle Beach – where Sri Lanka’s famous stick fishermen are the only man-made structures as far as the eye can see.
Galle Fort Hotel
Best for: Travellers seeking history, heritage and the “it” spot in town
Rates: From US$160
The Property: Deep within of Galle Fort, a Unesco World Heritage site, stands the historic Galle Fort Hotel. With a private gallery, bar and established restaurant, the hotel has developed a solid reputation among international travellers and local expats alike. Of the nine suites, try the Library Suite (vaulted ceilings, sunken bathroom and an array of books on Sri Lankan cooking, history and architecture) or the two Grand Apartments (colossal suites with colourful histories, which can be rented separately or as one unit).
The Vibe: In much of the fort, appearances are deceiving. Unattractive façades mask grandiose homes and awe-inspiring interiors. But this is not the case with GFH, whose grand entrance heralds a hotel that is remarkably decadent for its size. Guestrooms open to a shimmering pool and manicured lawn. With one of the most beautiful collections of Dutch colonial antiques and 19th-century Ching period blue-and-white china ever assembled, the hotel décor is exquisite, yet not overly indulgent.
Location: Bentota, between Galle and Colombo
Best for: Surfside solitude with an edgy, artistic ambience
Rates: From US$94
The Property: The four distinct structures of this 1880s colonial villa are set on a huge expanse of seaside land. The estate has 15 rooms (half of which are suites), swaying palms and a 75-foot lap pool. Ask for the Mohotti Suite, a whimsical four-room affair with teak walls and a charming old spiral staircase.
The Vibe: Bold stripes and modern art evoke a fresh, cool quality. Where tropical flowers bloom in other hotels, here dried fruits abound. Well-decorated pavilions located around the grounds grant instant privacy and comfort. Afternoon tea at the back of the property allows for a passing wave to southbound passengers on the adjacent rail line, but dinner is best enjoyed in the hotel’s elegant restaurant, where service, food and romance are outstanding. Poolside service is just a bell-ring away, and the ocean a mere two-minute walk over a soft, sandy beach.
Location: The heart of Colombo
Best for: Ritzy elbow-rubbing with the Sri Lankan elite
Rates: From US$249
The Property: Owned by the iconic Bandaranaike family, this majestic mansion is the former home of two prime ministers and one president. Secluded by a sea of vines and mossy topiaries, each of the hotel’s ten suites has its own colour scheme and imaginative décor. The Northwest Suite, with separate living and dressing rooms, a plunge pool and a private deck, is one of the best; but the Southeast Suite, with attached porte-cochere balcony, is where visiting politicians prefer to lay their heads to rest. This place checks all the boxes – pool, gym, spa – but one of the grandest spots to relax is among the 500 leather-bound classics in the library.
The Vibe: Grecian urns, marble flooring and gilded baroque candelabras impart a regal air. Daring colours and striped carpeting are reminiscent of an eccentric’s lavish mansion. The outdoor courtyard is popular with local ministers, businessmen and ambassadors, and the chef declares the hotel’s osso bucco to be the city’s best.
Notes on Sri Lanka:
• Surface area – approximately the size of Ireland
• Population – around 1 million (three quarters Sinhalese and less than one-fifth Tamil)
• Former Name – Ceylon; renamed Sri Lanka in 1972, meaning Resplendent or Holy Land
• When a coffee blight decimated the industry in the late 1800s, plantation owners turned to tea. Today, Sri Lanka is the second-largest tea exporter in the world; Kenya is the largest.
Enjoy this? Get stuck into more Travel
Travelling on a tight budget? Get stuck into our round-up of wallet-friendly hotels and villas around Asia
Shamus Sillar checks into three of the most recent arrivals to see what they have to offer
Singapore-based Kiwi adventurer Grant "Axe" Rawlinson tackles the tallest mountains in UK and France
Jess Smit discovers that Western Australia's wine country is unusually child-friendly
Amy Greenburg checks out of reality and into Baros Maldives for the ultimate beach getaway
The new buzz in Phuket is more six packs than beer bellies. EL's Amy checks out the Thai island's fitness scene
Reader Cathy Ward discovered that the Buddhist monks care for over 124 abandoned tigers
Planning a short break with the young'uns in tow? Check out our favourite kid-friendly villas for an easy vacation
Road trip to Malacca: Hiring a car, plus where to stay, shop and eat in the pretty Malaysian heritage townEL's Rachael cruised over the Malaysian border for a busy weekend in the unique heritage town
Planning your first trip with a baby? We asked EL's panel of mums to nominate their favourite easy getaways