From safari lodging to cloud-breaking vistas, GQ took a country-wide road trip around South East Asia’s all-in island, Sri Lanka
At 8.45am on 21 April the first bomb ripped through the quiet of a sunny Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka. More bombs followed in a devastating terrorist attack that left more than 250 dead and the country (and then the rest of the world) reeling in shock. GQ was there when the violent atrocities happened and in the months following it has, at times, been hard to see a country so welcoming and so full of rich promise in turmoil, its doors seemingly locked to the rest of the world. Come early summer 2019, however, some good news: the UK government, followed by the wider international community, advised that it was safe for travellers to head back to the lush, banana-tree-filled jungles and panoramic cityscapes of ancient Sri Lanka and for this country to once again build on its new-found peace – a peace that began when their civil war came to an end over a decade ago.
So where to start? Well, the best way to travel around a destination such as Sri Lanka, full of local nooks and hidden gems over varied terrain, is with those who can plan and provide properly. GQ picked luxury travel agent Black Tomato and gave its experts a challenge: to set up a multipoint tour of this wonderful country that offered a morsel of just about every cultural note – a coconut-infused smorgasbord of adventure and indulgence. We wanted to sip local organic micro-batch gin under the swaying palms on the world-renowned beaches, take walking tours of the historic tea estates in the central mountainous regions, go on safari with birds and macaques, wash orphaned elephants in the rivers, see the odd leopard in the wild and then, after a hard day’s surfing or snorkelling, feel the deep knead of some seriously luxe spa offerings. Oh, and all this with two children under ten clinging on to our trouser hems. Difficult? Hardly. Black Tomato came back with some top-notch travel flex, setting up a local driver for a ten-day road tour of Sri Lanka that took in the country’s culture and wildlife while also allowing for relaxation for children and parents alike.
Of course, there’s so much more to see, but do a similar route and you too will begin to understand why this place is set to reclaim its crown as a favourite travel destination come 2020.
Let’s state the obvious: your head is on a different planet while vacationing. On business, it feels right that you should get to the hotel room as promptly as possible. But, ideally, with a little more time (and some decent planning), on holiday you prefer to travel a bit further to get to a secluded spot. Can you have both? Welcome to the Wallawwa, the perfect place for workhorses used to a business pace, yet in need of some transformative brain space. Located a mere 15 minutes from Colombo airport this hotel is close to arrivals, yet slap bang in the middle of the jungle. The beautifully upcycled colonial manor house is an ideal place to exchange crumpled travel linen for Sunspel swim shorts and Moscot “Lemtosh” shades. The only gear you need to be stuck in here is neutral, allowing for 24 hours of tranquillity and decompression before venturing on to anything more exciting. The Tea Suites are best for couples, while families looking to get cleaned up before an early dinner should choose the Garden Suites (No6 is the quietest), which have clean, modernist living spaces, high, slanted ceilings and vast bathrooms. The Z Spa is on standby for kneading away flight knots, while in the garden, under a canopy of swaying trees, you’ll find a stone-paved 16-foot pool. Set brain (and bod) for deep, jungle chill.
Need to know:
Although often used as a decompression/recompression chamber immediately before arriving/departing Colombo, the Wallawwa raises the bar in terms of local authenticity, not least with the food and drink. Best taken on the terrace are the grilled Negombo prawns (pictured) and ever-present traditional Sri Lankan curry and rice.
2. Rosyth Estate
It’s unusual enough that, after checking in, guests are walked through a hotel’s reception, taken to a tranquil spot, handed a freshly pressed mango juice and – get this, Mr Tarantino – offered a foot massage, but for the owners themselves to be on hand to offer guidance regarding your stay? Well, that’s fairly unprecedented, even in the most welcoming of countries. Around two-and-a-half hours’ drive from Wallawwa, this 1926 colonial planter’s bungalow nestles on a 62-acre private tea and rubber estate in the hilly Kegalle region. It is rural Sri Lanka at its most authentic and unspoilt. Although, quite rightly, there’s all the luxe-holiday trappings and ’Grammable pool-spa-yoga spots, the Rosyth Estate truly comes into its own with a little more customer engagement. All meals, for example, are taken in the stunning “floating” dining room, a first-floor wood-beamed construction that, without walls, is fully open to the swaying palm, banana and mango trees: cloud nine for unhurried epicureans. After a light breakfast – the egg hoppers are a must – take the option of going on a walking tour; the resident superintendent Subramaniam, who has more than 40 years of deep local knowledge, will show you the working rubber farm, the hotel’s incredible sacred Bodhi Tree, the cliff-view rooms and more chirruping toque macaques than you can shake a coconut husk at. For lunch, why not make your own? Take one of the Rosyth Estate’s stress-free cooking courses. Held in the restaurant’s kitchen, it’s a must for any guest looking to learn the delicate art of making Sri Lankan kottu – extra chilli added at the customer’s own risk.
There is something quintessentially modern British about this quietly luxurious hotel; the colonial bungalow feels more like a John Pawson-inspired countryside hotel than a Sri Lankan retreat. This is an exceptional venue, located high in Hill Country, its four – yes, just four – guest rooms look out over mile upon mountainous mile of ready-to-pick emerald tea. Sit on the wide terrace and enjoy endless gallons of the local brew, before sliding into the chilled infinity pool. A note: for those with small, somewhat unruly children, beware. Although under-tens are more than welcome – when GQ visited, the wonderful staff lit a bacon-sized fire pit for them to enjoy with cookies – this hotel lends itself to peace and tranquilly, rather than Nerf-gun wars with bombastic siblings and loud iPads in the restaurant. Due to the altitude, nights can be cooler than other areas, perfect for that Loro Piana shawl-collared cardigan you’ve been desperate to rock.
4. Wild Coast Tented Lodge
Take a light aircraft from central Sri Lanka down to Yala National Park and the country’s bountiful wildlife zoom into view. Wild Coast Tented Lodge sits on the edge of the reserve and safaris leave early in the morning and around 3pm. Raised, open jeeps (think Jurassic Park SUVs on stilts) take us into the bumpy bush to spot water buffalo, fresh-water crocs, wild boar, bears and, if you persevere, Yala’s top grail cat, the leopard. If this sounds a bit hot’n’dusty, perhaps instead float about the lodge’s main infinity pool. Suites are individual domed “tent” structures – although this is a long way from glamping at Glasto. Once darkness falls, guests are walked around by torch-bearing staff; such is the proximity of the wildlife that you never know when a family of elephants is heading your way.
Need to know:
Wild Coast’s cocoon-like main building is part Grand Designs super-structure, part wooden rocket ship, where breakfast, lunch and dinner are served in neat, ergonomic booths.
5. Cape Weligama
A beautiful coastal road winds around the tip of Sri Lanka’s southern coast; here, past fishing villages and long sandy beaches, you will find Galle, a historic town with ancient walls popular with box-ticking tourists. Cape Weligama is a 30-minute drive from Galle, set high on the cliff overlooking a public beach and a tranquil bay with a break reef perfect for wannabe wave chasers. A range of suites are available (honeymooners should pick a Cape Pool Villa for maximum luxury and privacy) and a spa takes the best of the natural surroundings (Ceylon tea and cinnamon-laced essential oil massages) to make you supple and smug. Children are welcome, but grown-ups can head away from the family pool (with crèche) and take up a horizontal position at the 60-metre crescent-shaped infinity pool, where swimmers can enjoy a 270-degree vista of the Indian Ocean. For the restless (and non-vertigo sufferers) take the cliff steps to East Beach, where snorkelling and scuba await.
Need to know:
Cape Weligama is the largest hotel GQ visited, which means more choice: including two restaurants, Ocean Terrace and a 12-seater “chef’s table” steakhouse, plus The Surf Bar and Cape Club.