Newsweek: Luxury Stays in Sri Lanka

(originally published in Newsweek, November 20 2010)

The road from Colombo to Kandy was a traffic jam of cars, tuk-tuks (three-wheeled taxis), and buses—along with the occasional cow—so we didn’t arrive at Mackwoods’s Labookellie Tea Estate until after dark, missing the scenic hills and waterfalls of Sri Lanka’s central highlands. The next morning, when we opened the doors out to the patio, my friend Oleg and I were greeted not only by the stunning, terraced hills, but also by the strong, rich fragrance of tea coming from the thousands of surrounding bushes. We spent the morning strolling the grounds of the plantation and taking a tour of the tea factory. (The company makes its own brand of tea and sells wholesale to companies like Lipton). Then I had an in-room massage. Not a bad way to start a holiday.

Opened to guests last year, the three luxury bungalows on the estate are just a few of the upscale plantation properties—including rubber, coconut, and palm oil—that Taprospa (a subsidiary of the Mackwoods Group) runs across Sri Lanka. It’s a good time to get in on the action. Since Tamil Tiger rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran was killed by government troops 18 months ago, effectively ending Sri Lanka’s decades-long ethnic conflict, the country has seen a boom in tourism. The number of annual visitors remained stagnant at about 400,000 for the past decade, but this year has seen a 46 percent increase. More than 700,000 are expected to visit in 2011. According to Nalaka Godahewa, the chairman of the Sri Lanka Tourism Board, the number of new hotel rooms will also rise by 30,000 by 2015. Hotel chains such as Shangri-La have already plotted out sites in Colombo, while Four Seasons and Hyatt have expressed interest in creating luxury properties on the island. “There has not been any investment in the north and east of the island in the last 30 years because of the conflict,” says Godahewa. “But these are some of the most beautiful areas of the country, and investment is coming.”

Godahewa credits word of mouth for the increase. What struck me most vividly—aside from the high quality of the roads rebuilt since the conflict ended—was how varied a Sri Lankan holiday can be. After we left the cool hills of the central highlands (which this summer became the country’s seventh UNESCO World Heritage site), we traveled to sticky Sigiriya, an ancient rock fortress renowned for its fifth-century frescoes. The town’s proximity to the ancient capitals of Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura—home to several of the world’s largest stupas (moundlike structures that house Buddhist relics) and a sacred bodhi tree grown from a sapling of the tree under which Buddha was said to have found enlightenment—makes it a favorite spot for tourist accommodations.

One of the most stunning properties is Vil Uyana, built on a man-made private nature reserve. Each of the villas extends into the marsh and features plush open-plan bedrooms with a huge shower (we had a resident frog in ours) and tubs that resemble plunge pools. In the evenings we sipped cocktails in the “library,” a porch built onto the marsh, and in the mornings, a crocodile lurked just above the water looking for breakfast.Nearby is Minneriya National Park, where tourists can take open-jeep safaris to see more than two dozen species of reptiles, 160 species of birds, and 24 species of mammals including leopards—Sri Lanka is home to the world’s highest concentration of the cats—and Asian elephants. Our tracker put our chances of seeing an elephant at “100 percent,” but I was a bit skeptical. I needn’t have doubted him; every July through October, as the water supply starts to dry up, several herds of elephants—there are an estimated 800 in the park—gather near the man-made reservoir built during King Mahasen’s reign in the third century to drink and graze on the grasses. At one of the more waterlogged areas we saw about 60 elephants of all ages and sizes gathered together.

We ended our holiday at the beach. There are several plush new boutique hotels and villas along Sri Lanka’s southwestern coast. We hunkered down at Reef Villa—opened two years ago by an Anglo-Irish couple—that offers prime real estate on the beach at Wadduwa, where king coconut trees permanently bend toward the ocean. The owners scoured India and Sri Lanka for amazing antiques, including 19th-century campaign beds, and each of the seven villas has a fabulous outdoor shower and bath. On the morning of my birthday, the entrance to our villa was decorated with balloons. Later, we went for a walk on the beach and passed a man riding an elephant. Turning older couldn’t have been any more spectacular.