Sri Lanka: The boutique technique

Thursday, 30 September 2010 15:29 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Travel Trade Gazette: Sri Lanka’s long civil war finally came to an end last year, and UK tourist arrivals from January to the end of July are already around a third up on 2009.

In August, the Foreign Office finally lifted the last of the country’s travel restrictions; wildlife-rich national parks have reopened; hotel groups are looking to move into the undeveloped east coast. It’s all looking a lot rosier for the tourist industry on the island.

This was always a place best known for cheap winter sun, but luxury travellers keen to discover a different side of Sri Lanka will find it has been quietly introducing small upmarket treats as well. “Our luxury is like a hidden gem,” says Sri Lanka Tourism UK director Sanjika Perera. “In terms of growth, what we are seeing now is not so much investment in big five-stars, but more in the realms of boutique properties.”

Indus Tours agrees. “With a scattering of new boutique properties and villas, Sri Lanka is well placed to handle the luxury travel market,” says Shawn Hendriks the company’s Sri Lanka specialist. And Perera adds: “We don’t do the bling kind of luxury, what we offer is more in terms of nature and a sustainable element; the authentic feel of Sri Lanka.”

New land of luxury  

Located at Hikkaduwa, Aditya opened in 2005 and was one of the island’s first boutique gems. This 12-suite property, featured by Audley, Carrier, Cox & Kings and Indus Tours, exudes relaxed romance.

My huge suite opened onto a patio with a plunge pool and a lily pond patrolled by fat goldfish. Characterful black and white photographs of local people adorn the walls of the hotel, and a pretty garden opens onto a fine stretch of sand.

All of Sri Lanka’s beaches are public, but the hotel’s secluded location meant that for a whole afternoon I had the beach, pool and carved four-poster day bed to myself. Perhaps the other guests were out and about locally. The city of Galle, with its Unesco-listed fort, is nearby, and a little further on whale-watching trips head out from Mirissa. This is a brilliant and new wildlife experience for Sri Lanka, also a reliable one — I saw five blue whales surfacing.

Further up the west coast, two more boutique properties opened last year at Wadduwa: Serene Pavilions, a member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World, and the low-key Reef. Both are featured by the likes of Abercrombie & Kent, but they’re very different propositions.

Serene’s 12 glass-walled pavilions are hi-tech and have European-style furniture, easily attracting UK guests who typically spend four or five nights here at the end of a cultural tour. It’s far from stuffy (chill-out music in the bar, a private tuk-tuk to take you to the market), but its 24-hour butler service ensures an appeal to those who like their luxury a little more formal.

Reef’s style on the other hand is eclectic, even eccentric, but service is still key with 28 staff and just seven rooms, and the whole resort is occasionally hired out by families on an exclusive basis. “Four or five years ago there were only a few average boutique hotels on Sri Lanka, but now we’ve got some good ones,” says Reef’s Managing Director Brendan O’Donnell.

Guestrooms at his hotel feature Indian campaign furniture, such as 150-year-old carved beds used by the British Raj. Pith helmets and old suitcases sit atop the wardrobes, while retro travel clocks take their place on the nightstands. The huge bathtubs are something special, having been hewn from single blocks of granite by an Indian sculptor.

Explorer’s glory

Despite miles of golden beaches, Sri Lanka’s real star draw is its diversity – such as lofty tea plantations, leopards and elephants in the national parks, the 5th-century citadel Sigiriya, and Kandy, one of the country’s most culturally-rich cities and home to the revered 17th-century Temple of the Tooth.

A recent addition on the cultural route is eco-hideaway Jetwing Vil Uyana, located in a private nature reserve near Sigiriya, with a spa, nature walks, bike rides and sightseeing excursions. Its 25 secluded villas thatched with coconut leaves sit on stilts over and around a reed-fringed lake populated by egrets and dragonflies. I was tempted to take a dip here rather than in the infinity pool until I browsed the visitors’ book, where newlyweds described seeing crocodiles from their balconies.

Sri Lanka’s capital Colombo has a great deal to offer and it has not missed out on the boutique arrivals. In the centre, the Park Street Hotel is a pocket-sized alternative to big brand properties. Some of its 12 rooms have high ceilings and modern art on the walls, while others are set in the colonial house which forms the hotel entrance.

A real surprise find is The Wallawwa, a converted colonial manor house with 14 rooms which opened last January. Hidden in a residential area among lush foliage 15 minutes from Colombo’s airport, it’s the croak of frogs in the pond rather than aircraft noise that punctuates the night. There are quirky touches such as retro telephones and Rubik’s Cubes beside the four-poster beds, while my stunning light-filled bathroom, with its double doors and high-arched ceiling, put me in mind of a chapel.

Managing Director Henry Fitch is proud to be part of Sri Lanka’s boutique revolution: “Around the country, in every major tourist destination, there are now intimate and luxury properties that will pamper guests while letting them feel like they are immersed in a country full of friendly, hospitable people,” he says.

And it seems it will be further pocket-sized hotels that will pioneer Sri Lanka’s next wave of luxury developments. The tourist office’s Perera explains: “On the east coast, what will be coming up first are boutique properties, because five-stars take at least three years to complete.”