Boutique Sri Lanka
With 26 years of civil strife finally over, Sri Lanka stands ready to open its doors to tourist in greater numbers. Since the war ended in spring, 2009, arrivals are said to have risen about 35%. Its recent placement on the New York Times list of 31 places to visit in 2010 will surely raise that percentage further.
In the Asia-Pacific region, Sri Lanka hasn't been a hot-spot for package tourism, with relatively few big tour operators or large-scale hotels outside the capitol city. But thanks to a handful of visionaries who invested privately during the war the years, the country does boast a unique collection of bespoke services, exclusive villa rentals and small luxury hotels offering a customized, boutique experience for independent travelers.
"Sri Lanka effects people emotionally," says Charlie Austin cofounder of Red Dot Tours, a company specializing in customized itineraries for very small (1-4 people) groups. "There's something really special here, and those who invested over the last decades did so because of a deep connection with the country," he explains.
I recently spent a month touring Sri Lanka with a friend and I can say unequivocally that it "effected me emotionally". Thanks to the predominance of these smaller operators, we easily customized our visit to suit our interests, with ample opportunities for personal encounters and off-the-beaten-path explorations along the way.
While it is possible to travel Sri Lanka via public transport, even backpacker guidebooks recommend hiring a driver if possible, due to poor roads, a loose interpretation of ‘road rules' by the population, and the aggressive overtaking speed of the many local busses that ply to roads.
It's no surprise then that the qualifications to become a Red Dot Tour chauffeur/guide are demanding. In addition to having the driving skills of a master, "they must be gentlemen," says Austin. They must also speak excellent English, possess the patience and personal flexibility of a saint, and have an encyclopedic knowledge of the country's rich culture, history, diverse wildlife and multiple heritage sites.
The highly personal relationship you can make with your chauffeur/guide can easily become a lifetime friendship. Ours certainly has! Ervin Alphonso is a lively, engaging 61 year old. He is considered by his colleagues to be Red Dot's #1 driver and for good reason. With his exhaustive knowledge of Sri Lanka, his clear affection and respect for his charges, his easy laugh and slow-to-anger demeanor, I could hardly have asked for a better guide.
In retrospect, I'm certain that we couldn't have seen so much of the country in so personal a fashion without Ervin at the helm. In total, we covered some 2400 kilometers (1491 miles), visiting five of the country's seven UNESCO World Heritage sites, some off-the-beaten-path locales and several dreamy beaches.
But before we went anywhere, we ‘landed' at the Wallawwa. Just 15 minutes from Bandaranaike International Airport, hotel management humbly call it an ‘airport hotel', but there is nothing about this gracious, centuries-old manor home which suggests a faceless place of transit. With only 10 guest suites, our stay was highly personalized. The staff greeted us by name, heartily welcoming us in our bedraggled and jet-lagged state. Throughout our stay they seemed to always know where we were and when we might want a meal or a drink. The Wallawwa's extensive gardens were cultivated for decades by a passionate horticulturist, adding to the personal feel of the place and making it an ideal sanctuary for travelers before or after long-haul flights.
We enjoyed another personalized stay at Horathapola Estate. This family home-turned Heritage Home Stay is abundant with life - orchards, spices, animals, birds and one stately, 300+ year old Frangipani that is simply jaw-dropping. Horathapola is owned and run by Javana Fernando, an open and amiable man with a passion for nature. He converted the family home about nine years ago, creating a peaceful auberge ideal for small groups, couples or families. The manor house has three expansive suites, while an additional family bungalow includes two large bedrooms. Both manor and bungalow are individually decorated with gracious antiques, four-poster beds, luxurious bathrooms and wide verandas.
A unique feature of the property are the bullock cart rides round the estate. The hour's guided journey took us through fruit and spice orchards, past paddy fields and into a coconut palm grove. Here, the cart driver climbed barefoot to the top, plucked a couple of nuts and offered us a drink.
This was fun, but the best part of the stay was the freshly prepared, curry dinner, totally customized to our tastes - including what we'd like to eat, when we'd like to eat, and where we'd like to eat it (on the veranda, pool-side, in one of the gardens, under the grand frangipani or in the main dining room). We were both wowed when sat down a few hours later to a candle-lit table sprinkled with flower blossoms. Shortly, Javana greeted us as the staff arrived with plate after plate of curries. He carefully explained each of the dishes (all of which were delicious!) before recommending wines to suit the flavors and our palates.
Sri Lanka's cultural triangle region has a number of small hotels and guest houses, but Jetwing Vil Uyana's really stands out. With an high staff-to-guest ration (95 to maximum 50, respectively), and the hotel's membership with Small Luxury Hotels of the World, standards here are very high and this was immediately evident when we arrived. The resort's natural setting, gorgeous avasa (private bungalow) dwellings, and attentive service are are all impressive, but it is the relationship between the Jetwing Group and the land which makes the place special.
Vil Uyana was developed on abandoned agricultural land after an extensive reclamation program. The resort's "luxury without opulence" moniker is spot-on, the latter giving way to the environment in this 25 acre enclave. Today this private nature reserve is a model of a healthy wetlands environment, alive with birds, butterflies, dragonflies, lizards and even an occasionally visiting croc. For nature lovers, this is an ideal setting with many comfy hideaways for watching wildlife or simply relaxing in nature's embrace. It is also the perfect base for visits to some of the area's sites, including the Sigiriya Rock Fortress, Dambulla Caves, and the ancient cities of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruva.
On a pristine stretch of Sri Lanka's southern coast we chilled out for a few days at ERA Beach. This relaxed and inviting seaside resort is small, but includes all the important ingredients that make a place great: beach-front location, superb fusion cuisine, a 23 meter, salt-water pool, gorgeous rooms and a friendly, well-spoken staff.
According to Dawn Ratcliff, the hotel's owner and designer, ERA Beach represents a turning point in Sri Lanka's luxury accommodations. "We're setting a new standard as the area's first boutique hotel," she explains, adding that the property was created with a variety of needs in mind: from weekend getaways to private functions, garden parties, Jazz nights, weddings, or even a place to dine at sunset. Both the food and service here impressed us, and thanks to Dawn's background in design, the over-sized suites offer a fetching mix of elegant Sri Lankan and contemporary style.
The country's south coast is scattered with private villas available for holiday rental. These unique (and usually luxurious) places generally include a chef, house keepers and amenities such as swimming pool, free wifi and individually decorated rooms. One of the newest of the lot is Indisch, directly on the shores of a private section of Ahangama Beach. This Dutch colonial home is massive in a 'grand historic mansion' kind of way. It is also exceptionally well-crafted - from foundation to door hinges and everything in between. The owners have decorated the property with their impressive collection of art and antique furnishings, including Dutch colonial pieces from Indonesia, iconic sculptures from Sri Lanka, and contemporary works of art from the region. They've managed to create something exceptional here - in a context of exceptional properties.
Staying at a private villa - when it is run well - can be the high point of any holiday experience. During our stay at Indisch, things ran very well indeed. The staff of 11 (including Chef Ajit, who made the most luscious chocolate souffle I'm sure I've ever had) were always discretely at-the-ready to tend to our needs. With an enormous en-suite room, private balcony overlooking the sea, and 15 meter swimming pool just steps from our private beach, my needs, as it turns out, were minimal. Nonetheless, there was something particularly grand and at the same time, comforting about the place, and though there are quite a few villas we could have chosen along the coast, I'd be hard-pressed to imagine much better than this.
There are rumors that large hotel chains are eyeing Sri Lanka's East Coast shores. With the war over and tourists dollars flowing in, this would surprise no one. The possibility - nay, probability - raises some important questions, however. Would mass tourism destroy the countenance of this delightful country with its elegant customs, genuine people and clean beaches? Will the historic sites now visited by the devoted and small groups of tourists become overrun with glaze-eyed hoards? Will the country's 100+ nature reserves and parks become checkered by over-development, slowly drowning in plastic, tourist flotsam?
For my part, having toured in this ‘boutique' manner, the notion of cement high-rises along pristine coasts, and crowds of tourists rushing from one ‘site' to the next seems contrary to Sri Lanka itself. The personalized way we experienced the country, met the people and saw the sites seems more enriching and certainly more fun than anything a generic group package could possibly have offered.
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Red Dot Tours
30/84 Perera Gardens, Pelawatte, Colombo, Sri Lanka
Tel: +94 (0)117 895810
Kotugoda, near Bandaranaike Airport, Sri Lanka
T: +94 (0)11-228-1050
Jetwing Vil Uyana
Sigiriya, Sri Lanka
Tel: +94 (0)66-492-3583-6
Talpe, Sri Lanka
Tel: +94 (0)72-222-6100
246 Ahangamakanda, Ahangama, Sri Lanka
Tel: +94 (0)91-228-3541
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Published on 8/4/10