Sartorialee X Condé Nast Johansens: A journey through Sri Lanka
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Having endured a checkered past, Sri Lanka has been reborn as a destination that’s hard to beat when it comes to diversity, luxury and natural beauty. For an island roughly the same size as Ireland, it plays host to a surprising variety of activities and sites: from adventure-filled safaris and white water-rafting to the more serene pleasures of spas and reclining hammocks. No matter your taste, colonial or cutting edge, a warm welcome awaits on this paradisiac island where smiles abound. Start planning your trip now so you’re up to speed after lockdown, writes Lee Osborne
Experiences in Sri Lanka
To do the island justice, and to enjoy all it has to offer, visitors should plan to stay at least two weeks beginning their journey in the island’s pulsating capital of Colombo. A recent benefactor of huge investment from China that has given rise to the city’s sparkling new landmark, the Lotus Tower, Colombo also plays host to the newly created Port City. Plus a plethora of high end hotels – spanning 269 hectares of reclaimed land from the Indian Ocean.
Western Province (Colombo, Kalutara)
If it’s colonial grandeur you seek, taking high tea at Galle Face Hotel* is a must. Stay until dusk, and with a sundowner in hand listen to the bagpipes while the flag-lowering procession takes place and the Indian Ocean laps against the property’s rocky shore. This daily ritual is in keeping with with the property’s rich history and legendary traditions. Indulge in a spot of retail therapy at Independence Square and Dutch Hospital Shopping District: deck out your home like a boutique hotel in wares from chic interior’s emporium Paradise Road; stock up on technicoloured fabrics at Barefoot; then dine on seafood from the award-winning Ministry of Crab, owned by two former Sri Lankan test cricketers Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara. Want to mix with Colombo’s in-crowd? Do as the locals do and meet for cocktails in one of the city’s five-star hotel bars before heading to Café Français in the CBD to dance the night away. Go shopping for original art at Nelum Pokuna art (affectionately known as ‘art street’) and enjoy some pampering at Spa Ceylon thanks to Sri Lanka’s leading skincare brand. To experience the true hustle and bustle of this metropolis, take a trip to colourful and fragrant Pettah, where vendors pedal their wares amid a frenzy of tuk-tuks and barrow carts.
From here you can head in whichever trajectory takes your fancy – north, east, south or west – with a few suggestions below to help you find your feet. It is advisable to book a private driver for the entire duration of your stay, as the country’s infrastructure can be patchy in places. Doing so will also take the stress out of travel, allowing you to relax and take in the magnificent scenery. Be prepared for some long journey times however. Travelling between the main cities can take upwards of four hours a time, often on single-track, super vertiginous roads. But the long journeys are well worth taking.
Central Province (Kandy, Nuwara Eliya)
Kandy is the last capital of the ancient Kings of Sri Lanka and its number one attraction, the Temple of the Tooth, on the shores of Kandy’s serene lake, is among the country’s most visited religious sites. Base yourself at The Hermitage, part of the Edwards Collection of luxury boutique hotels and villas that are hidden beneath a lush natural forest on the shores of Victoria Reservoir. Although the property is not air-conditioned, fear not, its expansive floor-to-ceiling windows are designed in such a way as to allow the cooling hill breezes of the Hunnasgiriya Range to run freely throughout the property. A haven of muslin-fringed four-poster beds and exquisite interiors, the food here is exceptional – a real Sri Lankan feast of the senses await the discerning foodie.
The Hill Country town of Nuwara Eliya, often referred to as ‘Little England’, with its chocolate-box assortment of colonial-era houses and Tudor-style hotels from the time of the British rule, is the tea growing equivalent of Champagne. Sri Lanka was known as Ceylon until 1972 and still retains the name in connection with its tea production. Most Ceylon tea is of the black variety and comes in a range of flavours, most of which bare Ceylon tea’s signature golden colour. My personal preferences are the wondrous Broken Orange Pekoe Fannings variety from Ruhuna in the low-grown plantations of the south, and Dimbula, grown at an altitude of 5,000 feet in central Sri Lanka. Exceptional teas that are even more breathtaking when sampled in sight of the tea plantation where the tea leaves were harvested.
The English charm may have faded a little over the years but the old colonial hill station still maintains its original Post Office complete with red and white pillar boxes. It is the highest town in Sri Lanka, at 1,868m above sea level, surrounded by iridescent green hills often enveloped in low lying clouds that wrap themselves around the hills like a blanket. Its cooler climate sees locals clamouring for fleeces, beanie hats, ear muffs and scarves to team with their traditional sarongs and flip flops. It’s quite a spectacle considering the climate still ranges from a moderate 11-20 degrees Celsius year-round.
The town is home to another Edwards Collection property, the exquisite four-bedroomed cottage Hill Rise which celebrates the towns’ horse racing heritage in true style. Its interiors are accessorised by trophies and equine paraphernalia from winning thoroughbreds which have resided in stables nearby. For the keen golfer, the 18-hole Nuwara Eliya Golf Club, complete with British-style clubhouse and Old English script insignia, is just down the road.
Uva Province (Koslanda, Ella, Haputale)
From here it’s a scenic drive to Bandarawela, peppered with gravity defying figure of eight turns to the restorative charms of Living Heritage Koslanda*, a sanctuary for the senses. This a place to kick back in an ebony and rattan grandfather chair and leave all your troubles at the door. Trek to Koslanda’s very own waterfall or swim to the end of its iconic infinity pool and peer over the edge at the unforgettable vista below – etching memories that will stay with you long after you’ve bid farewell. You might not want to venture out once Koslanda has you in its cocoon-like grasp, but if you do, head to nearby Ella and delight at its old school train station where you can catch perhaps one of the most scenic railway journeys in the world, to Kandy. Take a stroll to the Nine Arch Bridge, one of the country’s most Instagrammable sights. Wander around its backpacker-populated town or climb Little Adams Peak for sublime sunsets and encounters with cheeky monkeys. A personal highlight was scaling the heights of Haputale to the fabled Lipton’s Seat. The long and winding road narrows to such an extent that you need a tuk-tuk to ascent the summit. Use the opportunity to visit the Dambatenne Tea Factory that amazingly still relies on colonial era machinery to process its tea. When you finally make it to the top, it’s easy to understand why Sir Thomas Lipton spent so long up here surveying his land. On a clear day you can see five of Sri Lanka’s nine provinces from this bird’s eye vantage point.
Southern Province (Bentota, Balapitiya, Ahangama, Koggala, Weligama)
The Southern Province, arguably the most picture-postcard vision of the island, with its iconic sandy beaches and swaying palms, was seriously affected by the tsunami in 2004. Stretching from Bentota in the west, right the way through to the Yala National Park, it’s slowly piecing itself back together with big name hotel chains as well as more intimate boutique properties popping up along the entirety of its Indian Ocean facing coastline.
On the western fringe of the province lies Taru Villas – Rock Villa – a colonial gem of a property in Bentota that is unequivocally Sri Lankan. Everything revolves around its glistening pool flanked by a restaurant at one end and R&R-inducing armchairs, sunbeds and hammocks on the other. The beach is just a few steps through a shady mangrove plantation where the magic of the island’s coastline is revealed in all its intimate splendour. The sunsets and the food here are exceptional – together with unpretentious, attentive staff that make for seamlessly pleasant sojourns.
The Edwards Collection boasts several fine properties in Sri Lanka’s Southern Province too. Villa Mayurana is no exception – a heavenly property nestled in exotically-manicured gardens atop a cinnamon plantation.
With five bedrooms set out across two floors, The Sandals, on a boulder-fringed sandy swathe in Balapitiya on Sri Lanka’s western coast, is a haven of soothing white-washed interiors tinged with shades of grey. Offset against a backdrop of vivid-coloured accessories it would not look out of place in a high-end interiors magazine. You’re spoilt for choice: a pool that runs the entire length of the property or a dip in the Indian Ocean beneath the manicured lawns below.
Just along the coast from where Sri Lanka’s iconic stilted fishermen ply their trade, and boasting three delightful restaurants, the imposing The Fortress Resort & Spa is a true haven for the discerning foodie. Serving everything from international and Sri Lankan cuisine to wood-fired pizzas, and the very finest seafood and steaks, it’s a fine-dining experience par excellence.
Views of the south coast and its majestic rolling white horse waves don’t come much better than those at Relais & Châteaux’s Cape Weligama*. Part of the Resplendent Ceylon group who also count Ceylon Tea Trails* and Wild Coast Tented Lodge* under their auspices, it’s well-versed in catering to the needs of the well-heeled traveller. The resort features multiple restaurants that set the bar for fine dining in Sri Lanka. Many a magazine cover shoot has taken advantage of the imperious view across its infinity pool, and it’s not hard to see why. Take a leaf yourself and dine on exquisite fare at the aptly-named Ocean Terrace to appreciate all that lies in front of you. Weligama itself is a great place to perfect your surfing skills as well as offering whale-watching trips in season (December-March offer the best spotting opportunities) from nearby Mirissa.
The neighbouring isle of Taprobane, camouflaged under a cover of luxuriant trees, Sri Lanka’s only privately-owned island, can be reached by wading across the sea at low tide, or by elephant for those wishing to arrive in style. Another must-visit tranquil spot near Yala National Park can be found at the five-star Flameback Eco Lodge, truly raising the bar of glamping, with air-conditioned tented accommodation set among dramatic scenery. Enjoy fishing boat trips, bird-watching and exceptional food rounded off with an extra-ordinarily good night’s sleep under the canvas.
It’s quite difficult to put your finger on but there’s something about Sri Lanka that gets under your skin. It’s a dinner or cocktail party conversation I’ve had with many people who have been as entranced as I have by its plentiful charms. It’s as though it casts a spell on you to return time and time again. Chances are it’ll cast its spell on you too.
*Properties not currently featured in the Condé Nast Johansens collection.
Lee Osborne spent 10 years working on luxury travel and lifestyle magazine Condé Nast Traveller where he was Creative Director before establishing his own luxury content studio, Osborne Creative. A frequent traveller, he is founding editor of men’s style blog Sartorialee: dressing the globe-trotting man
Lee Osborne flew to Colombo courtesy of Emirates, via Dubai www.emirates.com
Boutiques in Sri Lanka offer a wide selection of boutique properties to suit varying tastes and budgets; from no fuss modest establishments to luxury Condé Nast Johansens approved hotels. Contact Druvi Gunasekara, Managing Director for more information:
Private drivers for part/whole duration of your stay:
Bernard Tours, based in Colombo, offer excellent English-speaking drivers
86-2/1, Chatham Street 00100 Colombo, Sri Lanka
Tel: +94 114 714 605; http://www.bernardtours.com
What to Wear in Sri Lanka:
The key to dressing in Ceylon is the lighter the better. Think linen shirt and khaki shorts with Menorca sandals by day, with tropical print camp collared shirts and high-waisted ghurkha trousers teamed with Belgian loafers by night.
– Onia camp-collar printed cotton shirt, £95, mrporter.com
– Beige cotton Ghurka trousers, €119, amfeast-international.myshopify.com
– Anderson & Sheppard grosgrain-trimmed sisal hat, £165, mrporter.com
– Berluti + Oliver Peoples rue de Sevres d-frame acetate mirrored sunglasses, £290, mrporter.com
– Officine Generale cotton-poplin shorts, £170, mrporter.com
– Ses Àguiles Avarcas menorquinas, €45, avarcas.com
– Thom Sweeney slim-fit grandad-collar linen shirt £235, mrporter.com
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Will3 years ago
Really enjoyed reading this Lee. Nice one 👍🏼
sartorialee3 years ago