You’re ensconced in a wicker armchair on a tiled veranda overlooking a charming garden framed by lush green mountains; behind you, a bungalow houses six capacious guest rooms, replete with open fires, roll-top baths and four-poster beds. Or, perhaps you’re nestled in your very own luxury “tent”, on whose roof monkeys dance in the late afternoon and, if you’re lucky, a wild elephant passes by as you sip on a cocktail in the pool that encircles an open-air bar. Yet again, you might be in a vast and elegant suite set above the Indian Ocean, choosing between an hour in your very own sauna, a dip in your semi-private pool or a cooking class with the resident head chef.
These three scenarios aren’t simply the dreamed-up advertisement for a premier stay in Sri Lanka, they’re very real (but no less magical) options from the folks at Relais & Châteaux. Each residence – respectively, Ceylon Tea Trails, Wild Coast Tented Lodge and Cape Weligama – offers a unique stay in a different part of the country’s undulating southern region.
Surrounded by the warm currents of the Indian Ocean and sandwiched between the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea, Sri Lanka is a small pear-shape jewel off the coast of southern India. The country has suffered from a turbulent recent history and the reverberations of civil conflict are still felt today, yet in the last few years it’s been recast as one of South Asia’s hottest destinations. In light of this new-found interest, exclusive properties have begun to spring up, each one designed to showcase the incredible diversity of Sri Lanka’s landscape and its rich cultural history.
The three Relais & Châteaux residences do just that, and over the course of six days I was privileged enough to experience each of them – courtesy of Resplendent Ceylon and the travel experts at luxury tour operator Lightfoot Travel – as I made my way from the Ceylon tea region, bordering Sri Lanka’s Central Highlands World Heritage site, to Yala National Park on the southeast coast, and finally westward to Weligama.
Tea is one of the country’s biggest exports, and time spent in the central massif and southern foothills allows you to explore the terrain that enables its production. Ceylon Tea Trails is a perfect base. The first stop on my visit, the property is made up of five individual bungalows set at different locations within the terraced landscape. Originally the home to tea planters and their families, these authentic, colonial-style dwellings have been renovated to reveal even more of their original charm.
In Tientsin, the bungalow I called home for two nights, you really do feel transported to another world – in my case, it seemed I’d wandered into a Dorset manor that had been picked up and flown 5,500 miles before being dropped into the heart of Sri Lanka. A hearth filled with crackling, spitting fire was the focal point of an elegantly appointed drawing room (bar trolley included), while bells next to the grand beds in each room (mine was more like a suite, thanks to a separate sitting room complete with a writing desk, fireplace and various antique equestrian pictures hung on the walls) allow you to ring for a cup of tea to be delivered to your bedside each morning.
There’s no dining menu. Instead, the resident chef shares his recommendations, and your meals – three, four or five courses – are served at whatever time is convenient for you. And you’ll have to choose that time carefully, as with a clay tennis court and outdoor pool on site, as well as myriad local activities to pick from – including hiking, biking and tea tours – there’s no shortage of opportunities to lose yourself in the region’s lush landscape.
Although our stay was interrupted by a duo of afternoon monsoons – three hours of ominous thunder and spectacular rainfall – it was no easy feat to say goodbye to Ceylon Tea Trails, but the Wild Coast Tented Lodge beckoned. For the most scenic way to travel, head to Hatton station and hop on board a train to Ella. Dangle your legs from the open doors between carriages and marvel at the sight of cloud-kissed mountains that fall away to reveal deep valleys below.
An almost full day of travel later (tripping between properties does require some stamina through sheer time spent on the road) and you leave behind green plantations for dusty roads and open bush. Thanks to the unfenced perimeter at Wild Coast Tented Lodge, a welcome here is as likely to come from a wild boar or chattering monkey as from one of the resident naturalist guides or reception staff. And it’s precisely this wilderness experience that makes a two-night stay so unique.
“Tents” of stretched canvas serve as luxurious self-contained homes, exuding a handsome explorer feel thanks to the warm tan leather upholstery, rugged carpets and free-standing copper tub in the centre of each bathroom. You’d be forgiven for spending your stay drifting around the complex (though at night you’ll need to call for an escort as there are a few animals you’d rather not encounter on your own when popping over for dinner), visiting the spa or picking up a book at the library to read bar-side, but you’d only be doing yourself a disservice.
An early morning safari in nearby Yala National Park is a must. Leopards, sloth bears and wild elephants call the plains home, and it’s almost impossible to resist the allure of seeing these arresting creatures in their natural habitat. Sightings done, shower off the morning’s dust and spend the afternoon exploring the sand dunes beyond the beach, before feasting on a selection of delicious Sri Lankan food in the open-walled restaurant come evening. Or, for something truly memorable, opt to dine oceanside with a special barbecue on the sandbanks.
Before too long, it’s time to get back on the road for my final stop. Cape Weligama is a quiet resort that teeters on cliffs overlooking the ocean. Every corner of the property invites you outdoors, from the (not-so) secret lookout spots dotted about, to the semi-private pools shared between each trio of oversized suites. Space may be a luxury back home in the city, but here at Cape Weligama, big is most certainly better, and you’ll find yourself lost in the welcoming expanse of your immaculate room.
It’s a boutique hotel designed for rest and relaxation. While away the hours on your private terrace – perhaps with one of the many peacocks that roam the gardens as company – or lounge beside the crescent infinity pool set on the highest point of the complex. And when you’re done there, maybe a one-to-one cooking demonstration, a surf lesson or a day trip to Galle takes your fancy. It’s a build-your-own itinerary with endless customisable options – the true definition of luxury.
Three very different Relais & Châteaux properties. So, which should you mark as unmissable on your visit to beautiful Sri Lanka? While each offers a unique taste of the island – green mountain, vibrant safari or majestic ocean – it’s the stunning Ceylon Tea Trails that steals the show for me. Pad through your bungalow barefoot, step out of your room straight into the arms of the Bogawantalawa valley and allow yourself to lose track of time with a sip of freshly brewed tea that takes on new meaning as you gaze over the lands where the leaves in your pot were plucked, perhaps only a few days earlier.
Lightfoot Travel is a luxury tour operator specialising in tailor-made holidays around the world. Email the team to enquire about a holiday to Sri Lanka, or visit lightfoottravel.com to begin your bespoke journey now.