Marco Polo called it “the best island of its size in the world.” And while we like to think of ourselves as well-traveled, we defer to the Venetian explorer on this one. Anyway, he’s right. There’s a lot to love about Sri Lanka, and the most remarkable thing about it might just be the immense variety to be found in this compact teardrop of an island — you’d normally have to travel a thousand miles, across several countries, to experience everything Sri Lanka has to offer.
From the beautiful beaches to the tea-growing highlands to the central mountains, this is a country of gorgeous contrasts. As for weather, Sri Lanka’s position just off the Indian subcontinent exposes it to a variety of seasonal conditions — for the most part they’re only of interest to meteorologists, but for surfers, there’s one big upside: for any given season there’s at least one part of the coastline where the surfing is excellent.
A paragraph is scarcely enough to deal with thousands of years — suffice it to say that Sri Lanka’s civilization is a venerable one, and the island is liberally dotted with UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Take Sigiriya, for example — according to legend, King Kasyapa built his palace atop this rock column at a height of nearly 200 meters. More recently, the country was embroiled in a decades-long civil war, which, among other things, tempered the enthusiasm of foreign visitors. Now that the fighting is definitively over, the global travel business is giving Sri Lanka the attention it always deserved (which is why there’s no time like the present for a visit).
We’ve touched on the landscape, the climate, the ruins and the surf — but there’s plenty else to get excited about. The food is extraordinary, the tea plantations are particularly beautiful (as the hotels attest, below), and it’s a fine place for a safari as well, counting leopards among its animal attractions. For a more sedate, spiritual diversion there’s Adam’s Peak, where either Adam, Shiva, or the Buddha reputedly walked, depending on your denomination. In the end, it’s the homegrown hospitality tradition that makes Sri Lanka special; and it doesn’t hurt that English, the lingua franca of the international travel industry, is widely spoken as well.
Chances are, you’ll arrive via Bandaranaike International Airport, near Colombo. Given the general state of the roads and the decidedly tropical approach to traffic laws, it’s not a bad idea to arrange a transfer directly with your hotel. Driving yourself around Sri Lanka is perhaps a touch more exciting than we can comfortably recommend. View a map of Sri Lanka.
We thought you’d never ask. Believe it or not, Sri Lankan hotel design has engendered a Renaissance of sorts across the spectrum of tropical resorts:
Just outside of Tangalle near the island’s south coast is Maya Villa, a beautifully secluded boutique hotel in a hybrid colonial-contemporary style. With just five suites, it’s a tiny speck of a place, though each of the five is impressively luxurious, and opens onto the 20-meter L-shaped pool. Diversions tend toward the sedate and genteel — think croquet, cricket, Tai Chi — and the setting is nothing if not restful.
Sri Lanka’s got its own brand of tropical modernism, founded in large part by the legendary Geoffrey Bawa (of whom more later) and continued by architects like Channa Daswatte, whose Frangipani Tree serves as a fine introduction. Smooth (and cool) concrete meets traditional methods, and interior and exterior are effortlessly blended. Galle Fort and the waters of Thalpe Bay are close at hand.
And now a word from the master himself. Geoffrey Bawa’s influence on generations of Asian resorts is easy to miss, in the same way that it’s possible to take the Beatles for granted after decades of influence. Bawa selected the site, in inland Dambulla, for maximum drama, perched as it is over Kandalama Lake, close by to Dambulla’s cave temple complex. Unusually, it’s a fairly large resort, which means the facilities and offerings are expansive. You’ll lack for nothing here.
With just four bungalows scattered across the valley, it’s stretching the definition of a hotel — but Ceylon Tea Trails is all about the landscape. Tours of the tea fields and factories can be arranged, as can all manner of outdoor expeditions, from kayaking to mountain climbing to tours of the tea plantations. If you don’t fall in love with the Central Highlands then you might need professional help.
Another working tea plantation, and another pocket-sized boutique hotel, the five-suite Kahanda Kanda is on the more accessible south coast, midway between Galle and Weligama. Stylish interiors, an adults-only policy, and an infinity pool overlooking Koggala Lake combine to make it one of Tablet’s best-loved Sri Lankan hotels.
In a departure from the classic Sri Lankan style, Cape Weligama finds its identity by looking to the past. Here the Thai architect Lek Bunnag took inspiration from Sri Lanka’s long history as an explorers’ waystation, incorporating countless elements from the island’s pre-modernist history in this classic-contemporary resort. The setting is extraordinary, the resort facilities are comprehensive, and as sister hotel to Ceylon Tea Trails, Cape Weligama offers seaplane service between the two — an unbeatable double feature.