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|Deer Park ||Elephant Corridor ||Hantane Bungalow ||Havelock dining ||Helga's alfresco |
AFTER years of scraping the bottom of the budget-holiday barrel, Sri Lankan resorts are striving for a new image - and a new kind of visitor: the discerning traveller who wants a good deal, with a difference. The tsunami notwithstanding, the tourism infrastructure remains substantially intact with inland resorts totally unaffected. Popular beach areas like Bentota remain open. There are now scores of special offers (like one free night for every night stayed, after the first five) at re-opened beach resorts. Since tourism helps not just those employed in the industry, but many others - such as fishermen, craftsmen and guides - to survive, there is an extra 'feel good' factor to a holiday in Sri Lanka.
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|Miles and miles of beach |
Many mass-market beach resorts close in May for an off-season revamp, while new off-the-beach-and-beaten-track resorts have recently begun welcoming guests. This will delight those who like to think of strife-riven Sri Lanka as the more gracious Ceylon, since these new or revived resorts of character emphasise individuality laced with lots of TLC.
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Changes have resulted from the increase in tourism since the cessation of open hostilities in 2002 between the warring LTTE (based in the north and east of the country) and government forces. Although holiday resorts were never the prime targets of terrorism, the long civil war and the current uneasy truce has damaged the island’s economy as well as the hospitality industry.
The domino effect of low (and low-spending) arrivals caused the collapse of hotel standards, both in state of repair and caring service, leaving a product that lacked lustre. The year 2003 brought some relief, and record visitors. Now, during the slow period in the aftermath of the Asian tsunami, resorts have found the impetus - and time - to upgrade and improve their image again.
|Illuketia: colonial charms |
Sri Lanka’s appeal lies in its diversity, and resorts are opening that focus on the independent visitor with a special yen. Ancient ruins, Buddhist culture, adventure tourism like white water rafting and mountain biking, game park safaris, colonial lifestyle, and Colombo shopping and casinos are a small part of the island’s lure.
Conventional beach hotels that offered as a diversion only buffet dinners and a local calypso band wearing silly straw hats, are adding value. Some have opened “wellness” spas, others – like the Bentota Beach Hotel – have opted for novelty restaurants. This 35-year old property has opened a cellar fine dining restaurant with show kitchen as well as upgraded buffets and set menus, so even the full board guest has a memorable gourmet experience.
Other resorts are bolder in their themes. It’s possible to stay in a tea planter’s bungalow or a peasant’s mud hut, in a jungle tree house or a designer-statement villa. It’s not just the diversity that’s attractive about holidaying in Sri Lanka, there’s also the ease with which it can be done. While there are companies that will organise individual tours, independent visitors can easily make their own arrangements on arrival.
There is a tourist information office at the airport, and a counter where taxis can be hired. Also at the airport, after immigration, there are duty-free shops for arriving passengers to stock up on booze. Visitors are given a 30-day permit on arrival. There is no customs declaration required of foreign currency being brought in, unless it is in excess of US$10,000. Visitors with nothing to declare can use the customs Green Channel, although there are occasional spot checks.
|Up to the tea country by train |
Minivans with an English-speaking driver can be hired from Rs4,000 (about US$41) a day. However, if doing this, be firm and know where you want to go. Good drivers can be informative about local traditions, others may be reluctant to follow your itinerary and try to steer you to gem shops or hotels where they’ll get a commission. Actually, most hotels provide the driver with free food and a free bed in dedicated drivers’ quarters when they bring guests. (An exception is Helga’s Folly in Kandy, which is why drivers try to deter visitors staying there; Helga directs drivers to a local guesthouse instead.)
Advance reservations at resorts are not necessary except at peak times such as December/January on the west and south coasts, April in Nuwara Eliya, and during the “Perahera” season in Kandy, which falls in late July.
Kandy is the ancient hill capital and has retained a charm that Colombo has lost. It is compact with bustling – but friendly – crowds, a lake and the world-famous Temple of the Tooth. At the annual Perahera the tooth casket is paraded around town in a spectacular pageant with acrobatic dancers and drummers and Kandyan chieftains in attendance. Over 100 caparisoned elephants, whip crackers and jugglers take part in the over 10 nights of celebration, climaxing on the night of the Esela full moon. There is a daylight Perahera the day afterwards.
Kandy, perhaps because it has always been on most visitors “must see” list, has an eclectic range of amazing resorts. The most amazing is the aforementioned Helga’s Folly, a chalet style building where every room has a view of the lake, and enough fantastic décor to satisfy the inner child. “If this is a folly,” wrote a recent guest in one of the voluminous guest books, “it’s foolish to be wise.”
|Helga's folly: eclectic |
Helga, who presides over her erstwhile home with the grace of a princess, has created a fantasy with outrageous colour schemes and candle-lit parlours of antiques and whimsy. “It’s tongue-in-cheek,” she says to startled guests. “Staying here should be fun.” It’s an attitude that has made the place popular with cosmopolitan trendsetters. There are 25 rooms in operation, some of which are air-conditioned, and the food is as memorable as the over-the-top décor, with such dishes as fish poached in tea.
The Olde Empire hotel is a down-to-earth contrast boasting a balcony, overlooking the temple square, that is a meeting place for young backpackers. The regular room rate increases from budget to big-spender during the Perahera season because of its proximity to the parading elephants. Rooms, apart from one, have shared bathrooms and the hotel enjoys the unusual intimacy of a travellers club and local tavern. At the other end of town, and price bracket, with impressive service and large rooms with splendid river views, the Mahaweli Reach has expanded over three decades from a family guesthouse to a homely five-star resort of character. It has a sparkling new business centre and a new dynamic-looking gym
In the island’s interior near the cultural sights, the lakeside Culture Club offers a ‘back-to-nature’ experience in peasant-style mud huts with thatched roofs, alongside regular accommodation designed like temple chambers. For a real backwoodsman encounter with nature, guests can stay in one of four tree houses at Rafter’s Retreat with the river rushing below. In one cabin the bathroom is down a ladder made of branches hidden under a trap door set in the planks of the floor. Daylong white-water river rafting expeditions, with lunch of village cooking, take off from the retreat, at US$27 per person.
|Sigiriya Rock: Better than Ayers |
Standing starkly in 200 acres of scrubland, in “nature-scaped” gardens is the new Elephant Corridor, so-called because of its location at the crossroads for wandering animals of the wild. It boasts one of Sri Lanka’s most expensive rooms, the Presidential Suite at US$1,250 a night (but that can sleep eight). There are 21 suites in huts of granite blocks of striking hue. Within easy motoring distance of the Sigiriya Rock and the ruins of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, this hotel provides a jungle base of heightened ostentation for the jaded jet setter.
The Deer Park is more homely in character with 74 comfortably-furnished cottages and a rambling presidential villa with its own swimming pool. Located near the lake at Giritale, it is handy for viewing the ruins of Polonnaruwa as well as for indulging in environmental bliss. Recently adopted as one of the international Colours of Angsana brand of resorts, it has a rural charm spiced with urbanity that pitches it among Sri Lanka’s best hotels.
For colonial style comfort in the manner of an English country house, Glendower in the hill country retreat of Nuwara Eliya, is warmly welcoming (there are log fires in the public rooms). Although it is a reproduction bungalow, it has nine rooms and suites with teak floors, handcrafted polished mahogany furniture, and beds that guarantee a good night’s rest. Even the quilts are filled with silk. Its King Prawn Chinese restaurant provides a relief from the bland boarding house fare of its grander neighbouring hotels.
One of the most unusual hotels is a few miles away, at 6,700 feet above sea level, in the middle of acres of rolling hillsides carpeted with tea and often bathed in mist. The Tea Factory resembles a gigantic and thrilling construction made by a zealous boy out of a Meccano set. The exterior has preserved the original tea factory’s corrugated iron walls, painted silver, and hundreds of tall, wooden casement windows. Inside its reception hall atrium (once the tea drying room) latticed with steel, two giant wooden fans turn slowly in the roof. The generating engine remains connected to a Heath Robinson contraption of pulleys and chains that powered t