From ancient cities and centuries-old rock fortresses and temples, to golden sandy beaches, lush tea plantations and a rich biodiversity both on land and in water, Sri Lanka offers very diverse experiences to tourists have seen its popularity rise rapidly in recent years as a travel destination. It looks set to grow even further and faster as more visitors are venturing beyond the usual places. These days, many are heading in two distinct directions; east, which is starting to welcome visitors after two decades of a civil war that only ended in 2009, and south, to relax on the island’s pristine beaches.
With expectations of a likely tourist boom, a number of luxury hotels have already set up shop along prime locations ahead of competition. Among these is the Anantara group of hotels, resorts and spas which has opened two luxury resorts on the southern coast of Sri Lanka.
Anantara Kalutara Resort is the younger of the two, having just opened its doors in September last year. Situated on a tiny peninsula between the Indian Ocean and the Kalu Ganga River, the resort is only an hour’s drive south of Colombo. It is possibly the last project to be built based on designs by Geoffrey Bawa, Sri Lanka’s foremost architect. Bawa conceptualised the hotel in 1995 but passed away in 2003 before it could be completed. It was then up to his protege Channa Daswatte to carry on where the legendary architect had left off and finish the project with designs reflecting the principles and visions of its original creator.
The best way to get a better understanding of the life and works of Bawa is to visit Lunuganga estate, a 45-minute drive from Anantara Kalutara Resort that served as his country home. Bawa purchased the then-cinnamon estate in 1947 and spent the next 40 years designing and bringing his visions of buildings and gardens to life. Today, the gardens on the 15-acre property are open to public, while most of the buildings have been converted as guest suites and run as a country house hotel. A guided tour through the tranquil sprawling estate throws up surprises at different turns and corners — a delightful butterfly-shaped pond, whimsical sculptures, quiet contemplative nooks, and rolling verdant plains which easily trick one into thinking you’re wandering around an English countryside.
As I make my way further south from Kalutara to Tangalle to check out Anantara’s more established resort, I make a quick stop at one of the top attractions in Sri Lanka, Galle Fort. The fort has a rather chequered past, having been first built by the Portuguese in the 16th century, further fortified by the Dutch in the 17th century and modified by the British in the 18th century. Its robust construction has withstood the ravages of time over 400 years, including the devastating tsunami in 2004 which destroyed a big part of coastal Galle. I was recommended to walk along its ramparts built into the sea between Galle Clock Tower and Galle Lighthouse, and it was later told that that was one of the best ways to explore the fort.
Anantara Peace Haven Tangalle Resort certainly wows, even with its simplicity of location. Fronting a secluded sandy beach with parts of the resort perched on a rocky outcrop, while the rest of the rooms and villas are spread over 21 acres of greenery, it certainly lives up to its name. My garden pool villa comes with a private plunge pool and a generous terrace overlooking a gentle stream, exuding the vibes of an oasis within an oasis, if that were possible.
Like its sister resort at Kalutara, this has several food and beverage outlets serving different cuisines. A favourite amongst guests is Il Mare, the Italian restaurant that’s loved not just for the food but also the breathtaking views it offers, being perched on top a small cliff that looks out to the ocean. Another popular option, especially with couples, is Anantara’s Dining by Design, which offers bespoke dining, where you get to select your chosen cuisine (prepared by your personal chef) and decide on the setting, be it dining onthe terrace by your private pool or in a romantic gazebo on the beach right beneath the star-littered sky.There is plenty to do around here, and all activities can be easily arranged through your butler. I climb to the top of the 205m-high Mulkirigala Rock Temple to gawk at giant sleeping buddhas, hide from irritable buffalos that were being milked, and get drenched at the Hummanaya Blowhole.
One of my favourites though would have to be the safari ride through the Udawalawe National Park. The reserve covers an astounding 31 hectares and is an important sanctuary for Sri Lankan elephants and water birds, which are easily spotted as we drive across the arid flatlands in a raised jeep. Three hours fly by as I train my eyes to catch glimpses of bee-eaters, hornbills, a white-bellied sea eagle, storks, ibis, a crocodile and a mongoose, amongst others.