TikaWeeks #51-1/2019: Sri Lanka update
Posted by John on 16th December 2019
Our journey around the island takes us up north initially, through the Cultural Triangle and on to Jaffna. After a couple of nights there, we head east to Nilaveli before staying in Passikudah further south along the east coast. The following day we made our way back to Kandy via Gal Oya Lodge. We managed to cover a lot of ground in a short space of time by doing long days and thanks to Sateesh’s expert driving – he was also very useful to have with us in the north and east being a Tamil speaker.
The first stop is Elephant Stables Dambulla, which is on the same road as Diyabubula and Kalundewa Retreat just south of Dambulla in the countryside. We visited the hotel previously under a different guise and it wasn’t up to scratch. However, this time Elephant Stables have renovated, extended and developed the site well, although the approach road is still diabolical! (Best to leave the car at the bottom and walk up – about 50 metres). The individual villas are spacious and private – well, they will be once the foliage landscaping has matured between the villas – and have wonderful views from the elevated position on a ridge. The actual build quality is not perfect and lacks the finesse of the likes of Taru Villas, Manor House Concepts or Teardrop Hotels, but it also lacks the associated high price, too! It needs to develop a little more landscaping wise in order to be ‘special’ but it is a good boutique alternative in the area. May be wait a while before staying?
I always visit Sri Lanka during the change in the monsoon seasons, which is also low season funnily enough, so our arrival at Roo Mansala is in a deluge. Proffered umbrellas are welcomed as we step gingerly from the car and enter the rather nondescript and ill-defined reception area – my first impression is probably coloured by the weather… However, the (two) resident staff is friendly and smiling and take us on a quick tour of the bijou hotel (only six rooms). Not quite sure it lives up to its somewhat grand and poetic moniker – Roo Mansala means “alluring abode” in Sinhala! – nevertheless, the bedrooms and bathrooms are spacious, comfortable and well-appointed, and there are good views to both Lion Rock at Sigiriya and Pidurangala, particularly from the upstairs rooms. Looking at the menu on the way out, I get the distinct impression that the restaurant (and chef) is trying too hard and a more Sri Lankan and restricted choice would be better. This is a common feature (failing?) of many hotels in Sri Lanka, which wrongly associate an eclectic and extensive selection of obviously frozen food with the superior quality and flavour (as well as the health benefits) of creating freshly cooked meals from local produce. Recommended.
Continuing our journey north in sporadic rain showers on the A9 takes us about four hours to reach Jaffna, with a couple of pit stops on the way. We stay our first night at Jetwing Jaffna, where we’ve stayed before and like the rooftop bar, although the main restaurant is pretty uninspiring. Still recommended though.
Fox Jaffna by FOX Resorts is a gem and the best place to stay in the area. Centred on an ancestral walauwa, the unassuming and tranquil estate is of generous proportions and attractively landscaped. The restaurant is housed in a new rear extension to the original manor house, with inside and outside dining spaces, overlooking the swimming pool and modern block of deluxe rooms, which feels a little out of character with the stately and historic house. However, these rooms are comfortable and enable the management to run a more comprehensive service for an incredible price – if this was anywhere else on the island the room rates would be at least double. Returning to the villa the delightful GM Glen(ville) shows us the four bedrooms, which have original features and furnishings, upgraded bathrooms, interesting décor, and provocative local artwork. These bedrooms radiate from the internal colonnaded courtyard with its serene and rain-fed pond full of water lilies. The hotel has an adjacent estate of similar size which it is planning to develop in the future and construct more modern rooms. So long as the new development is discreet and doesn’t overrun the facilities already in place then it may well work. Highly recommended.
Out of Jaffna in the surrounding fertile countryside is Thinnai Organic, a new concept in tourism on the island based around a working organic farm of more than four hectares. Ideal for families or couples looking to get back to nature, the peaceful environs are complemented by either air-conditioned farmhouse rooms or basic tents with fans – we will only offer the rooms. The organic farm grows a variety of vegetables and fruit, and rears livestock with herds of milking cows and goats as well as a large paddock full of free-range chickens. The tasty and healthy produce is served at the in-house restaurant and also sold at market. Thinnai Organic provides a very different lodging experience more akin to a classic farmstay in the UK. Recommended.
Our last visit of the day is back in Jaffna at Thambu Illam, another original walauwa but of an inferior kind to Fox Jaffna… Although it has potential, at the current time the restaurant pavilion in the rear unkempt garden is in need of serious help – peeling paint, leaks, mould and structural cracks – and the aspect is poor, looking out onto a muddy and unappealing fenced enclosure. The rooms are oddly arranged but could be improved. The whole place feels tired and rundown. Certainly not for us at the moment.
We stay our second night at North Gate by Jetwing, which we saw previously as a developing shell on our last visit. The entrance is very bizarre and we missed it the first time round! Just a slot in the side of the building – no great fanfare usually associated with entrances to hotels in Sri Lanka. On entering, however, the cavernous reception area is light and welcoming, with a large map of the Jaffna peninsula on the right-hand wall and a row of booths to the left emulating a train carriage – a nice touch since the hotel overlooks the railway station. Ahead is the main reception desk on the back wall preceded by a parallel line of sofas and coffee tables. Although newer than Jetwing Jaffna, the end result is not so good: obvious welding joints on metal balustrading, lower quality floor finishes and bathroom fittings, cheap-looking bedroom balcony window/door construction. In addition, even though the bedrooms are more spacious than JJ and have balconies, they still feel less appealing somehow. There is a swimming pool and pool bar, which JJ doesn’t have, but the location is unattractive with views of ‘back of house’ and the main street as well as capturing unwanted and distracting city noise. The redeeming factor is the restaurant, which has been well designed and makes for a pleasing space to have dinner. (As an aside, the “…by Jetwing” brand signifies properties that are managed by Jetwing but not owned or built by the company, whereas “Jetwing …” indicates owned, constructed and managed hotels.) I prefer Jetwing Jaffna.
Retracing our tracks south down the A9 to Medawachchiya, we then take a new road for us as a short cut to join the A12 east to Trincomalee. With the presidential electioneering in full swing, the military is on the streets so we pass quite a few checkpoints and negotiate others. Turning back north before arriving in Trinco, we head to C Beyond Nilaveli, an authentic Long Island-style beach house in a spectacular location at the confluence of ocean, river and lagoon. Designed by Laki Senanayake, one of the island’s most revered and best loved artists who was also a close colleague and friend of the late and great Geoffrey Bawa, the wood-clad and wooden-floored beach house is a wonderful homage to traditional oceanfront retreats the world over. Natural ventilation and cooling was Laki’s aim with the house elevated on stilts above water and making the most of onshore breezes aided by ceiling fans. However, clients won out and air conditioning was installed in all of the (now) glass-sealed bedrooms – what a great shame and a travesty considering the climate emergency… Anyhow, the property is one-of-a-kind and much sought after. There are five bedrooms in the house and two in a bungalow annex with two more being built as cabanas overlooking the beach – “then there were nine” (and no more according to the management). Highly recommended.
The journey south along the east coast skirts around massive China Bay, one of the world’s largest natural harbours, and follows the A15 over a string of bridges that cross a myriad of rivers and lagoons on our way to Passikudah. Now developed, we first visited the area back in 2012 when only Maalu Maalu Resort & Spa was being built. How times have changed; now there are a plethora of oceanfront resorts to choose from for your summer beach holiday. We’re staying here the night but first we need to visit Karpaha Sands at Kalkudah further south.
During the rainy season access to the hotel from the main road isn’t ideal for a saloon car (4x4s wouldn’t haven’t a problem) so we hail a tuk tuk. The mud road is rutted and potholed but the old-timer of a tuk tuk driver negotiates the hazards expertly while Pathi and I hang on in the back. The 4 km seem a lot longer but then distances always do when you don’t know where you are going! (On the way back it didn’t feel too far at all.) Wow, what a fantastic setting and definitely worth the effort to get here. Owned by a French couple, and designed and landscaped by a team of architects from Sri Lanka, France and Thailand, it is the best place to stay that we have seen in this region. With only 17 luxury tented suites, Karpaha Sands is an exclusive, intimate and isolated retreat where you put down roots for a few days and do not leave – why would you? The location is truly spectacular – 15 km of pristine and deserted sandy shores for you to enjoy with only the local fishermen for company. The more intrepid guest may like to walk the 6 km north along the beach to Passikudah and return by tuk tuk for an adventure, or explore the local environs by bicycle, which is provided free of charge. The air conditioned tented suites are enormous, just like their secluded gardens, and actually are three units interconnected – lounge, bedroom and bathroom. They have an exotic, Lawrence of Arabia desert camp feel to them, and there must be nothing better than to relax on your own private deck looking through swaying palm trees to the sparkling Indian Ocean beyond the coral-white sandy beach – ahhhhh! Highly recommended.
We return to Passikudah and visit Anantaya Resort & Spa Passikudah, which, for all of its typical tour group beach resort affectations, offers very spacious, comfortable and well-appointed bedrooms, an unusual water feature swimming pool, and the added bonus of two-bedroom villas and one three-bedroom villa with private pools. Probably the best of the bunch when it comes to a traditional beach resort in the area. Recommended.
Dulashinee at Jetwing, who we have known since setting up Tikalanka over 15 years ago, has been very generous and arranged complimentary or reduced room rates for our accommodation whilst on the road and we spend the night at Sunrise by Jetwing. More of a classic beach resort the hotel nevertheless has extensive landscaped gardens and a beachfront position. There are only a few rooms occupied in the low season when we stay so Pathi and I enjoy a quiet drink and dinner by the large illuminated swimming pool before turning in for the night. Recommended.
Back to Kandy via Gal Oya Lodge
The following day we head for Gal Oya Lodge, which should be a cinch of a journey but then what is assumption?! We decide to take the most direct route, which is the A5 from the Chenkaladi junction, but soon we hit roadworks after roadworks as the bridges and highway are being upgraded and it takes us an hour longer than expected. We finally arrive at Gal Oya Lodge at lunchtime after travelling through vast areas of forested valleys and mountainous terrain without passing more than a handful of other vehicles.
The primordial landscape conjures up images of King Kong suddenly appearing from behind one of the surrounding peaks, in fact it could bound around “Monkey Mountain” that overshadows the lodge at any moment... We are collected from the main road by a 4x4 to take us to the lodge 10 minutes’ away. Constructed from locally sourced materials, and built and managed as sustainably as possible, the non-air conditioned bungalows are surprisingly temperate and airy without the aid of artificial cooling ventilation, and the spacious and secluded en suite rooms comfortable and well-appointed, with a private veranda allowing you to take in the wonderful views and natural setting. Solar panels supplement the power supply and also provide hot water, while the staff is from the immediate area as much as possible and the use of plastic kept to the bare minimum – a truly responsible and inspiring place to stay. Many of the local activities are free of charge including bird walks and hikes with the naturalist, cycling trails, jungle night safari on foot, and an early morning trek to the summit of “Monkey Mountain”. Unique to the island, the highlight is a boat safari on Samudra Senanyake, Sri Lanka’s largest freshwater lake that lies within Gal Oya National Park, and the sight of swimming elephants (potentially!). The park is known for its elephant herds and aquatic birdlife as well as one of the last remaining communities of the Veddha – the forest-dwelling, indigenous people of Sri Lanka. Highly recommended.
The return to Kandy is a breeze since the road has been upgraded so we arrive back to base in around three hours – and the sun has come out!« All articles