Kingdom of Secrets

Issue 6 - 2017
By Rachael Pells · Images Tuul & Bruno Morandi, Alamy, John Alexander, Jerry Redfern and Joe Beynon

The exotic, teardrop-shaped island of Sri Lanka is full of hidden gems. Now, with the hippest boutique hotels adding to its allure, it has come into its own

Issue 6 - 2017
By Rachael Pells · Images Tuul & Bruno Morandi, Alamy, John Alexander, Jerry Redfern and Joe Beynon

The exotic, teardrop-shaped island of Sri Lanka is full of hidden gems. Now, with the hippest boutique hotels adding to its allure, it has come into its own

Feeling lightheaded as I watched a family of elephants tiptoe oh so gracefully past my safari truck, I realised I’d forgotten to breathe. So silent were these beasts – a breed unique to Sri Lanka, different in the face to their African and Indian cousins – that I didn’t want to disturb their peace or end this special moment.

The teardrop island of Sri Lanka has risen to the top of Instagram feeds, but don’t be fooled into thinking this long-haul destination du jour is just another tropical beach to tick off the bucket list. What makes Sri Lanka stand out as a must-visit destination is something far less easy to pin down, or capture in a smoothly filtered photograph.

It’s partly the fact that such disparate experiences – beach, jungle, plantations, culture and the chicest of boutique hotels – are available within a country no bigger than Ireland. Classic European-influenced style mixes with ancient Indian culture in a way that’s hard to find in Sri Lanka’s neighbours. Nearly eight years on since the end of the 26-year civil war, sophisticated properties are launching across the kingdom, and new areas are being developed all the time. You’ll see few high-rise blocks, since building above the height of the coconut trees was against the law until recently.

My first stop after arriving in bustling Colombo was the Kandy House, an ornate, 200-year-old ancestral home built for the last chief minister of the Kandyan Kingdom. A tranquil oasis nestled on the outskirts of Sri Lanka’s second city, this nine-bedroom boutique hotel has the comfort of a warm, family home – but with all the privacy and luxury aspects of an adult retreat.

Rooms are individually decorated with suitably delicate antique furniture, and my sleeping quarters boasted an impressive four-poster bed. As night fell, crickets sang as we sipped Ceylon Arrack cocktails mixed to perfection by the hotel’s Butterfly Bar.

guests are served 10 traditional sri lankan curries: a feast for the eyes in 100 different colours

This is where my education in local cuisine began. The kitchen describes itself as a “fresh fusion” of traditional dishes and modern ingredients, but twice a week Kandy House serves its guests 10 traditional Sri Lankan curries – a feast for the eyes in a hundred different colours, and perfect for new arrivals unsure of how to tackle the local fare. A tasting menu, but on a vast scale.

After a dip in the hotel infinity pool the next morning, I was ready to explore. Kandy is a honeypot for art, culture, history and nature. A popular route from here is to cut through the heart of the island, Sri Lanka’s “cultural triangle”, and to the southwest coast for its rewarding white sandy beaches.

But first, a couple of miles from Kandy House sits the Botanical Peradeniya Garden: the area’s answer to London’s Kew Gardens, but with hundreds of enormous fruit bats. The scale of the trees and gardens is impressive, and there is a spectacular collection of orchids – a botanist’s dream.

Just north of Kandy Lake is the city’s most famous attraction – the Temple of the Tooth – a World Heritage Site central to Buddhism and an essential port of call for tens of thousands of visitors every year. The temple is housed within the royal palace complex of the former Kandyan Kingdom and is said to hold the relic of the tooth of the Buddha. Since ancient times, the relic has played an important role in the country’s politics as it is believed that whoever is in possession of it holds the governance of the land.

Traditional stilt fishermen

Egg hoppers – a typical Sri Lankan breakfast

Sri Lankan fishing boats are painted in an array of colours

Driving a couple of hours south from Kandy, we arrived at tea country, home to plantation factories still producing Sri Lanka’s most important export. In these cooler climes, women pick tea leaves the way they have done for 150 years and you can sample world-class Ceylon tea straight from the source.

We took the scenic train up to Haputale, to stay at Living Heritage Koslanda. Designed by Manik Sandrasagra, a Sri Lankan film director and cultural visionary, this is a boutique hotel of castle proportions. Suites are furnished with antique touches while the effect is simple, respectful and unassuming. Don’t miss out on a walk to Koslanda’s very own waterfall, cutting into a natural plunge pool in the estate’s 80-acre forest.

For the last stage of my Sri Lankan odyssey, I headed south and hit the coast: here still was the colonial charm, but a younger crowd was at play, with the new wave of luxury traveller mixing with surfers, artists and the odd backpacker. In the trendy beach town Tangalle, I visited Kandy House’s sister hotel, The Last House. Similarly rustic-chic in style, this private beach villa is among the last standing works of Sri Lanka’s architectural hero Geoffrey Bawa, known as the master of “tropical modernism”. Awash with bright, soulful colour, the Last House fights back against the larger hotel chains surfacing in the area and is a shining example of how Sri Lanka does boutique hospitality best. There is an idyllic garden, a private beach and a small fishing boat for hire. But it’s enough being able to stand on the beach looking towards the Indian Ocean, while locals remind visitors that nothing stands in that way of the view until Antarctica.

Further south still sits Kahanda Kanda, whose uber-modern style and service takes Sri Lankan luxe to a different level. The UNESCO World Heritage Site Galle Fort is just a short tuk-tuk ride away.

looking out towards the indian ocean, nothing stands in the way of the view until antarctica

My final stop was Galle itself. A fort built by the Portuguese in 1588 and later taken by the Dutch, its ancient walls are made from coral, granite and lime and are a testament to Sri Lanka’s fortitude against waves of occupation and natural disasters over the centuries. Walking through cobbled streets, I found it hard to believe I had been swimming in waterfalls a few days before. And here, in the heart of the town, you’ll find another achingly hip hotel – Fort Bazaar, an 18-room converted townhouse addition to the Teardrop brand. As I sat that evening, Galle began to buzz with chatter and jollity. Exotic but understated, this place has a laid-back charm all of its own.

Western tourism may be hungry for Sri Lanka and the country just as welcoming of it, but the land is very unspoilt and many secrets are left to explore. I went to Sri Lanka hoping to find sunshine and beautiful scenery, but came away with something much richer: a sense of serenity, a wealth of lessons learned and a restored peace of mind.

Call Scott Dunn on 020 8682 5075 to arrange your trip to Sri Lanka.

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