Motti Verses

A luxury getaway – Sri Lanka aims high

Since childhood Sri Lanka, formerly named Ceylon, has been associated in my mind with tea. A mysterious island in the Indian Ocean with proximity to India’s southern coast. I must admit that aiming east to explore Thailand and Vietnam were always more appealing. A couple of years ago, when my son’s teenage girlfriend vanished for almost a month to surf in the ocean in a mysterious village named Weligama, I became curious. A few weeks ago when a direct weekly flight from Ben Gurion to the capital city Colombo was announced, I decided the time had come.

Since I wished to visit this island-country for 10 days I booked a flight via Dubai and after a long (and a rather expensive) trip my spouse and I landed in Negombo airport, near Colombo. I was curious to reveal the mystery of how the country survived 4 years of endless misfortunes and focuses now on reboosting tourism. Travelers arrivals dropped drastically in Easter 2019 after bombings in luxury hotels and churches,  killing more than 250 people. Covid hit Sri Lanka before it had a chance to recover. In 2022 the country experienced an economic and political turmoil.

What are the chances to start over again?

In 2023 Sri Lanka received  1,487,000 tourists, an increase of more than a 100% from 2022. 2024 just started and when I met drivers, hotel receptionists, restaurant managers and tour guides optimism was felt in the air.

Exploring wonders in Sri Lanka’s inlands was a marvel. Tea plantations contribute significantly to the economy. This ‘green gold’ features on travel itineraries. In the early 19th century, plantations were terraced into the mountainsides, with adjacent factories. Between Kandy and Ella visitors will enjoy the product associated the most with this island.

Dambulla’s famed rock cave temple house some of the finest works of Buddhist art in Sri Lanka. The dozens of Buddha statues and his disciples left us speechless. Climbing the endless steps, accompanied by jumping monkeys, was surrealistic. Purchasing a Moonstone necklace from a local by the temple surely helped to embrace our emotions. Associated with the heart and third-eye chakras, Moonstone is said to open us to the wisdom of our subconscious. Time will tell.

Dambulla’s famed rock cave temple house some of the finest works
of Buddhist art (photo:Motti Verses)
Dambulla’s golden Buddha is the largest in the world in this posture (photo: Motti Verses)
The massive Sigiriya Lion Rock column leaves us breathless (photo:Motti Verses)

The massive Sigiriya Lion Rock column in the middle of the jungle is a powerful creation of nature. For my money it is the highlight of the Sri Lanka visit. Climbing 1270 steps is a challenging effort. Heat and humidity are valid factors to consider, but it is an adventure not to be missed at all costs. The fortress at the very top dates back to the 5th century King Kasyapa, who chose this site as his new capital.

By the ocean, Negombo’s fish scenery is a must visit. Unfamiliar fish are presented here. Most of them are laid out on enormous mats made of coconut fiber, an age-old method of open-air drying.

In the capital city Colombo, a bustling lively metropolitan, we visited the marvelous Gangaramaya Temple, and paid tribute to Sri Lanka’s independence in the city center national monument. In this very capital tourism experts were challenged on how to increase the number of visitors this year. Especially the high end travelers. To achieve this, the country has launched its first global tourism marketing campaign in 16 years, under the slogan “You Will Come Back For More”.

Negombo’s fish scenery is a must visit (photo:Motti Verses)
Colombo’s iconic Gangaramaya Temple (photo:Motti Verses)

Does Sri Lanka offer luxury resorts by the west coast ocean to attract the wealthy tourists from India, China, Russia, Britain and even Israel? We were curious to check it out at Anantara Kalutara Resort, 90 minutes south of the airport. This monumental and friendly resort is inspired by the impressive architecture of Geoffrey Bawa, the late reputed genius of Sri Lanka. Bawa, the father of Tropical Modernist architecture, began the design of the resort almost 30 years ago. The main building here is a signature aesthetic of sunlit, breezy structure. This was to be one of his final projects. Due to his death, the project lay dormant for 15 years until one of his followers, Channa Daswatte, completed the architecture masterpiece. A one not often to be seen in any resort on the globe. It is the hub for arriving guests, welcomed by encouraging young folk dancers. It is home for check-in and check-out procedures, the bar, lounge and the main dining room. An impressive multifunctional planning utilitising winds and fresh air.

Geoffrey Bawa’s main building is a signature aesthetic of sunlit, breezy structure (photo:Motti Verses)
Happy young folk dancers welcome guests (photo:Motti Verses)

With an extraordinary secluded beachfront setting on the picturesque southwest coast, where the Kalu Ganga River meets the roaring Indian Ocean, this resort certainly offers an authentic local leisure experience for the upmarket. Our sense of wanderlust to a paradise was transformed to reality in our pool garden villa, with a unique design and comfort. It included a separate aristocratic well equipped living room and an adjacent state of the art bedroom. The two rooms are flanked by a fenced yard and a small pool. This intimate compound was pure luxury.

It was difficult to decide which of the soothing lagoons to enjoy. The family oriented one, or the adults only. The beach was the most appealing to us, especially during the amazing sunsets. We relaxed  under screw-pines, a tropical tree with long blade-like leaves and fruit that looks like a pineapple. Just magical.

Our pool garden villa featured unique design and comfort (photo:Motti Verses)
It was difficult to decide which of the soothing lagoons to enjoy (photo:Motti Verses)
The beach was our favorite, especially during the amazing sunsets (photo:Motti Verses)
The Ayurvedic spa retreat is certainly a highlight (photo:Motti Verses)

The Ayurvedic spa retreat in the Anantara Kalutara Resort is certainly a highlight. Ayurveda is the natural system of medicine, originated in India more than 3,000 years ago. Surely the ultimate shrine to rejuvenate the body and soul. The treatment we experienced there was divine. An hour to cherish.

The gastronomic experience in the resort was truly exceptional with Thai chef Wirat Junpratus’ creations in ’Spice Traders’, the Asian outlet. Sri Lankan chef Shanaka Dilruwan amazed with his Italian creations in ‘‘Aqualina’ restaurant. Those two places certainly aim at elite travelers that will surely approve. The hotel offers a Sri Lanka authentic cooking class called ‘Spice Spoons’. Young enthusiast Commis Chef, Uvindu Iroshan toured with us the resort’s herbs garden and taught us patiently how to cook a fabulous genuine lunch that his mother is preparing daily at home. Another up market wow to remember.

Thai chef Wirat Junpratus’ creations in ‘Spice Traders’(photo:Motti Verses)
Sri Lankan chef Shanaka Dilruwan amazed in ‘Aqualina’ (photo:Motti Verses)
Boss Keith Tomkies: “We need to expand to new markets” (photo:Motti Verses)

Anantara Kalutara was the best proof that high end tourists will surely enjoy this island country. All they have to do is put it on their top lists in Asia. “What are the challenges?”, I asked Anantara Hotels and Resorts Country Director, Keith Tomkies. “We need to expand to new markets. There is a constant need by the Ministry of Tourism to find ways to encourage new visitors. A major challenge is the increase in the number of flights arriving here. Emirates and Qatar airlines are key players and Cathay Pacific just resumed flights. More direct flights from Europe are essential”, he says. Tomkies admits that I am the first Israeli he ever meets and tourists from the holy land are most welcome. He is definitely thrilled with the direct flight from Ben Gurion Airport. “We are around 90 minutes from the airport, ideally located between the lagoon and the ocean. Visitors will surely enjoy the rich history and culture that Sri Lanka presents, together with the many experiences the resort offers”, he promises.

Israelies might find the airfare costs high, however staying in Sri Lanka in luxury resorts like the Anantara Kalutara are much more affordable than resorts in any place in Israel, or Europe. Visiting a friendly country which reflects a local rich heritage and is not affected by heavy tourism like in popular destinations in Asia is assured. A destination to explore.

About the Author
The author is a hotel expert, traveler, writer, videographer and the former Head of Public Relations of Hilton Hotels and Resorts in Israel
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