We like the idea of being intrepid travellers. To that end, we trekked up famous cliffs and plunged into unfamiliar seas. We ventured into subterranean caves and learnt the Cyrillic script to get around ancient Philippopolis. After all, what is travelling without some challenge?
But we’re also beginning to appreciate the easier route. Call us pampered, but we read our Sri Lanka itinerary by Aman Resorts with gratitude. The luxury hospitality specialist has two properties in the former Ceylon – Amangalla and Amanwella. This makes logistics smoother if you’re planning a holiday in the south of Sri Lanka. Just book it and let the Aman team take care of everything.
After a scenic drive from Sri Lanka’s capital of Colombo, our trip began at Amangalla, within Galle Fort. It’s a beautifully kept property made up of original buildings from the 17th century, complete with a library that details its rich and colourful past. You may well be inspired to write a steamy period novel while ensconced in one of its lavish suites. Fueled by flutes of the hotel’s excellent Mango Bellini, of course.
A walking tour of Galle Fort is a trip back in time, since the Unesco World Heritage Site is preserved to protect its cultural and historical legacies. You can hear the clickety clack of manual typewriters emanate from offices that are still cooled by ceiling fans.
Souvenir shops dot the old town, but jewellery boutiques outnumber them by far. Sri Lanka is rich in mineral resources and some of the best sapphires, moonstones, zircons and beryls in the world are mined here. (If you intend to propose marriage, this might be the place for it. You have gorgeous engagement rings for the picking, and can count on the Aman team to organise the most romantic scene for this life event.)
On a promontory near the lighthouse, a few lads will dive off the cliff for a fee. Adrenaline-seeking tourists have also attempted this. If you’re game to try, we advise studying the drop and surrounding rocks first to prevent injury. Otherwise, just enjoy the breathtaking view.
Visiting The Bawas
First-timers to Sri Lanka are likely to feel a sense of familiarity. It shares a few things with Singapore after all, including British colonial history and a tropical climate. The latter definitely influences the way buildings and gardens are designed in both countries.
We understood this better on an excursion to Geoffrey Bawa’s Lunuganga estate and Bevis Bawa’s Brief Garden. Although not as famous as his architect brother, Bevis’ landscaping principles have been used in gardens throughout Asia.
Beyond their academic contributions, it was fascinating to see how the hedonistic lifestyles of the Bawa brothers carried over into their work. Old photos and erotic artworks reveal the glamorous existence they enjoyed in the company of film stars of the day – Lawrence Olivier and Vivien Leigh among them.
Some of their grandiose deeds include Geoffrey cutting down the hill so he could see the other side of the lake from his porch, and Bevis furnishing his lush outdoor bath with fountains and a mirror for the bathers to observe themselves.
Travelling is also about appreciating foreign cultures and seeing the different faces of humanity. When tropical rains prevented visits to temples and plantations, we made the most of things by visiting the spa at Amangalla, which has an Ayurvedic menu in addition to the regular massages.
Guests can also use the spa’s beautiful bath facilities in absolute privacy. There is a sauna, a steam room, a jacuzzi and a plunge pool in each bath chamber. It is recommended to spend a few minutes in the sauna or steam room, then cool off in the pool, repeating the process several times. The contrast in temperatures work to improve blood circulation.
Our culture fix came later, in the form of a hearty roti and curry feast and live traditional Sri Lankan music.
Life On Stilts
From Galle Fort, we moved on to Tangalle further south. En route, we spotted clusters of stilt posts along the coast. Men used to perch on these to catch fish for a living, but they’ve since discovered that it’s more lucrative to pose for snap-happy tourists. We didn’t begrudge them the small fee for some Instagram-worthy photos. After all, the country is still staggering from decades of civil war and last year’s terror attacks on Easter Sunday. Indeed, tourism may be the fastest way to economic recovery.
The second property, Amanwella, offers a completely different experience. While Amangalla maintained a retro colonial ambience, this beachfront resort oozes zen through a modern minimalist style that is elevated by luxurious comforts. Every villa offers a panoramic view of the ocean, a private pool and fresh supplies of cookies and refreshments daily.
Into The Wild
Anyone would be reluctant to venture out of such comfortable villas, especially at dawn, but it would be a crime to miss Udawalawe National Park. All the effort it took to drag ourselves out of bed paid off.
We came across elephants minutes after our jeep rolled into action. So much for managing expectations, and telling ourselves that free range animals don’t appear on cue. Our excellent guide also tutored us on the bird species we came across. We were thrilled to find peacocks strutting in the wild instead of yet another manicured hotel garden. It was a gainful morning. We saw a crocodile, some hyenas, jungle fowls, hares, spotted deer, eagles, exotic poisonous plants and more elephants.
By midday we were famished. Our jaws dropped when our driver pulled up on a plateau. Our lunch was set up on the most perfect spot overlooking the reservoir, on safari tables, with cushioned wicker stools and crisp table linens. The food packed in tidy baskets was no less spectacular. The chicken tikka sandwiches were delicious. Mango yoghurt, salad and dessert completed the meal.
Just when we thought the Aman team couldn’t outdo themselves, they proved us wrong once more. On our final day, we were surprised with a floating lounge ride at Mawella Lagoon.
There was no mistaking the Aman lounge. It stood out at the pier with its plush upholstery and polished timber dining table. It was a moment of visual magic when we pushed off into a lake covered in lotuses.
As the lounge made its way around the lagoon, we got the chance to see a wider segment of birdlife. Indeed, apart from being a suitable spot for seaplanes to land and take off, Mawella is also a bird sanctuary for both native and migratory birds.
There were egrets, herons, geese, kingfishers, waterhens and pelicans. They were almost everywhere — swarming the skies, resting on treetops.
It was especially fascinating to watch them hunt over the water, as they swoop low in search of fish before diving in the moment they spot prey. Seeing all this first hand beats watching a documentary, even if it were narrated by Sir David Attenborough.
A Taste Of Tradition
We would have liked to spend more time on the lovely lagoon, but we were scheduled to visit a village. This was where we would get to observe the workings of a traditional Sri Lankan kitchen. We were amazed at how such a rustic kitchen could put out the delicious spread that we had for dinner.
Certainly, it was simpler than our barbecue dinner on the beach the night before – when we dug into a feast of freshly caught seafood, and were entertained by vibrant Sri Lankan dances and pyrotechnic feats – but it was the perfect cap to our trip.