Hoppers, Heritage and Hidden Gems
Updated: May 8
The British may have European summers and Australian’s their Acai bowls in Bali, but none are as lucky as us living in the UAE, to have an island in such close proximity that offers every holiday experience just a short trip away. A myriad of sea, sun and sand that is only a four-hour flight from the UAE, Sri Lanka has no shortage of beautiful sights, stunning hotels and exciting adventures. Famous for its ancient cities and temples, its lush jungles and misty peaks, its endless tea plantations and palm filled beaches, the island idyllically located in the Indian Ocean promises many unexpected discoveries and memorable experiences, two of which I unearthed on a recent trip to the country. Previously known as Ceylon, Sri Lanka has had a turbulent history, having experienced years under the thumb of the Commonwealth and a civil war that divided the country for over 20 years. Nowadays however, the 22 million people, covering a multitude of religions, live in harmony, creating a destination ripe for exploration.
Having heard of the wonders of Anuradhapura and the beauties of Elia, this trip was focused on exploring two new destinations, the first Tangalle, an area with stunning shores, surrounded by some of Sri Lanka’s most vibrant wildlife parks. The second, Galle, home to the historic fort, has played tribute to some of the countries most significant moments in history. Sri Lanka has nearly 1600 km of palm tree dotted coastline, and it’s on the southern tip of this paradise island that you will find Amanwella, a tranquil hideaway set beside an 800-metre sweep of silky sand. As one of Sri Lanka’s best-kept secrets, this boutique hotel is carefully hidden, built into the hillside, offering stunning scenery from every viewpoint. Space and comfort all come in lavish abundance and the secluded crescent-shaped bay shared with fishermen offers a peaceful refuge from the outside world.
The linear design that fits perfectly with the spirit of the destination, takes inspiration from the work of the late modernist architect Geoffrey Bawa. Using traditional influences and simple touches, the resort represents elegance in spades whilst remaining faithful to Aman’s barefoot luxury philosophy. With plenty of space, the swivel-windowed restaurant and bar, connected to the small reception, library and shop, sits above a beautiful infinity pool, offering pristine views over the shores below. Different types of freestanding suites are just a stones throw away, built into the hillside and crafted from locally sourced stone and timber. Terracotta roofs and large glass windows cover the 30 suites complete with private plunge pools. Evenings can be spent with the sea singing you to sleep, whilst mornings offer beautiful views over the bay.
Perched eight metres above sea level; The Restaurant serves up the catch of the day, delivered fresh from the local fishermen’s boats as well as many local favourites. With elevated indoor and outdoor seating, both boasting sweeping views over the bay, using local seafood and spices the team of expert chefs prepare an assortment of Asian, Mediterranean and Sri Lankan cuisine, which are not only locally sourced, but are also well-balanced and healthy. Dietary requirements are extremely well catered for with a selection of gluten free, dairy free and vegan dishes. Tucked below the restaurant and bar, Amanwella’s 47-metre long infinity pool hugs the hillside and is flanked by cushioned sun-loungers and five-star service.
Those who aspire to have sand in their toes can eat at the Beach Club, which serves up daytime dishes as well as private dinners on request. The menu is simpler than upstairs but serves a similar variety of flavours. Seafood (think local lobster, giant prawns and squid) is cooked over a coconut charcoal barbecue and served with garden salads and local relishes - refreshing coconuts are served straight from the trees! Romantic moments can be enjoyed dining at this moon-bathed coconut grove in the evenings, where candlelit tables are accompanied with local, live music and shooting stars. During the day, beach-lovers can soak up the rays amongst the coconut groves, however, despite its prettiness, the sea is quite rough and best suited to more adventurous and advanced swimmers.
Those looking to take a more relaxed approach to island life can kick back with a good book from Amanwella’s library, full of Sri Lankan history, or relax at the spa, where healing massages and traditional therapies are performed using all-natural ingredients. Tangalle lies five miles to the east and local sights include Mulkirigala Rock Temple, Rekawa’s turtle beach and crafts villages. Further afield, lies some of the country’s finest national parks including Udawalawe, Yala and Bundala, where elephants, leopards and other wildlife can be spotted in their natural habitat. Nearby beaches play host to a string of surfers and at certain times throughout the year, giant turtles can be seen laying their eggs on the sandy shores.
(Our petit peak having an absolute blast at Amanwella)
Those looking for a bit more ‘life’ can visit Galle, home to a jaw-dropping fortress crammed with colonial memoirs. Situated on the southwest coast where sunset strolls are filled with fort views and fisherman, this is an area of the island where there are many beautiful boutique hotels, restaurants and shops to choose from. However, when it comes to elegance, history and understated style all rolled into one, there is only one hotel worth visiting!
Amangalla is not only an extraordinary sanctuary from which to explore the fascinating culture and a slice of Sri Lankan history, the hotel itself has a truly unique story to tell. Originally built in 1684 by the Dutch East India Company, the premises first opened in 1863 as the Oriental Hotel, making it the oldest operating hotel in Asia. At the turn of the century, the hotel re-branded as the New Orient Hotel, where the Ephraum family, who quickly became known as ‘Faulty Towers’, ran the hotel for many years. Reborn as Amangalla in 2004, the elegant, Ayurveda retreat now attracts cultured travellers looking for comfort, charm and character. Black-and-white photos, old-school four-poster beds, unique antiques and teak floors give Amangalla a sense of time and place, and from the moment you enter its arched entrance, it’s like you have stepped back into a beautiful bygone era.
Named after the Sanskrit word for ‘peace’, and the Sinhalese word for ‘Galle’, Amangalla offers a sanctuary of 21 bedrooms, chambers and suites, decorated in tasteful colonial style with historic arches and shuttered windows, free standing bathtubs and pettagama chests and planter’s chairs adding to the colonial ambience. The three-story structure offers a variety of views from Galle Fort to the immaculate garden and the buzzing Church Street. Families looking for privacy can also book the magnificent Garden House, a two-storey house fitted with a private terrace, wraparound balcony and a small garden as well as a pantry that's serviced by a private butler. My suite, number 8, was a delightful corner room, with views over the fort and the many Para Mara trees. Just outside sat a wonderful sunset spot with large windows and wooden chairs opening up onto the sea, sky and beyond.
One of my favourite aspects of the hotel had to be Amangalla’s Great Hall (or Zaal as it was known by the Dutch). Representing the heart of the hotel, its soaring ceilings, chandeliers and colonial veranda, all elegantly intact, form the perfect refuge to enjoy beautiful food, drinks and afternoon tea. Serving both international and Sri Lankan cuisine accompanied with white linens and silver service meals, I enjoyed a myriad of varied dishes, from eggs benendict for breakfast, superb curries for lunch (the crab curry was a favourite) and succulent Australian steaks or shellfish for dinner. Romantic dining experiences can be arranged on arrival with secret spots including a candle lit table by the pool or a secluded coconut palm ‘island’ overlooking the rice fields, surrounded by nothing but stars and the sounds of nature.
Afternoon tea is also an adventure not to be missed! Set up on the shaded verandah, enjoy some local Ceylon tea accompanied by a selection of delicious pastries and sandwiches – a tradition taken from the British Commonwealth days.
In keeping with the hotel’s peaceful retreat ethos, the Baths Spa has been created with five serene treatment rooms and an indulgent therapy menu. Choose from traditional aromatic massages, Ayurveda anointments, classic facials as well as hydrotherapy pools. The hotel's Ayurveda practitioner is available to give you a helping hand and assist with any ailments, whilst a yoga instructor is on property to stretch you out and tone you up! To assist in the relaxation process further, there are beautiful tropical gardens to be explored and a library which provides moments of quiet. The gardens also reveal a beautiful swimming pool with shaded spots, - perfect for a late lunch - and small pods, the ideal sheltered lounger for an afternoon nap.
One of the highlights of Amanagalla however is its proximity to adventure! I would encourage you to see Galle on foot, allowing you to peruse the shops on Church Street (Barefoot is a must!), check out the spice warehouses, the town hall and the Lighthouse – all of which are part of the fort wall. The maze of streets offer amazing restaurants with fresh seafood, beautiful crafted jewellery and signature spa products (you could get lost for hours in Spa Ceylon!). If all else fails, at least try and catch one of Sri Lanka’s stunning sunsets from the sea walls – from experience, this is something that rarely disappoints.