Why Sri Lanka is a perennially irresistible destination for the visitor

The sumptuous Paradise Road The Villa in Bentota
In The Art of Travel, Alain de Botton observes that while where to travel to is discussed seemingly incessantly in travel supplements, why we travel is often overlooked altogether. This year, in part because of a mid-year move of residence from Hong Kong to Bengaluru, my fourth move in 10 years, for me the greatest luxury has been staying home in both of these cities. When circumstances have somehow inoculated you against the travel bug, planning a holiday becomes complicated, a contradiction in terms. 

By mid-year, this loss of wanderlust seemed akin to a lack of curiosity. I had been nowhere on holiday other than to Kochi for the Biennale. The celebrations in late July of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Geoffrey Bawa, arguably the most influential Asian architect, provided the perfect impetus to travel again.

Sri Lanka, a country I have visited more than a dozen times, is more familiar than foreign, in the best sense. I arrived with an unusual to-do list of repeating experiences from years ago and resolutions such as leaving my credit card locked in a hotel safe if I went to Colombo’s fabulous Barefoot store, which has a sense of colour that Gauguin would have envied. (I failed to do so and came away with two large shopping bags of gifts.) My first stop was a hotel I had stayed at years earlier on layovers on Sri Lankan Airlines on my way from Bengaluru to London. Renamed and revamped, the Jetwing Blue in Negombo is the epitome of a restorative beach hotel that happens to be just 30 minutes from the airport. The minimalist rooms are so close to the hotel’s three large pools that with a bit of gymnastics, it is possible to leap off a room’s balcony and land in one. The pools in turn tip you out onto a long expanse of sandy beach. On my first morning, I watched a European woman delight in being the only person on the beach, sitting in the sand as the waves spilled over her.

The waterlily pool at Lunuganga | Jetwing Blue Hotel
“I can see you are missing being home so much.” I looked up from The Economist I was reading to see a waitress named Barbara beaming with approval at the sight of a middle-aged man overcome by greed. I was finishing an egg hopper (appam) with fish curry while a sweetened coconut cream hopper had just been delivered to my table. She assumed I was Sri Lankan, but I had to tell her that what I was missing in part is the Kottayam of my childhood summer holidays. The breakfast buffet at Jetwing Blue is an epic; it is impossible to contemplate lunch afterwards. 

Geoffrey Bawa’s study in his country home, Lunuganga | Labeet/Wikimedia commons
The next afternoon I was at Bawa’s country home, Lunuganga, a garden estate overlooking the river. I was there for a tour of his relatively little known furniture. Bawa, who died a decade and a half ago, was nothing if not cosmopolitan: In Lunuganga, one feels simultaneously drawn by his use of Japanese techniques of getting the eye to focus on aspects of the landscape as well as the sense of being in the midst of an English country garden. Bawa fashioned a pavilion that overlooks two ponds of waterlilies bifurcated by a walkway, which together look as if it is a prehistoric butterfly. After the tour led by architect  and close associate of Bawa’s, Channa Daswatte, was over, at tea I enjoyed chatting about Bawa with Suhanya Raffel, executive director of M+, the giant new museum in Hong Kong, and Sean Anderson, associate curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Then, the garden’s estate manager decided to take me for a walk through the butterfly pavilion long after the other attendees had left. I found myself locked into the estate, vainly pulling on the rope of a giant medieval bell to get the attention of the absconding guards. It is possible to overstay, even in a garden paradise.

The Jetwing Blue hotel | Lunuganga Trust
That weekend I was at another Bawa-designed property, Paradise Road The Villa in Bentota. I stayed at this boutique hotel in 2002 on my first trip to Sri Lanka. I was with my parents and two friends from Hong Kong. The Villa’s conception of what constitutes a garden is utterly original. It features carefully mowed grass and coconut trees and nothing else, beyond the occasional frangipani tree at its edges. With the beach beyond, it is one of the most spectacularly situated hotels I have stayed at anywhere. Returning for what must have been my tenth stay, I found that even though the staff were entirely new, they retained the charm of the ones I remembered from more than a decade ago when I would wander into the kitchen, on occasion in my pyjamas or swimming trunks and a t-shirt, to discuss the next meal. Today, the property is more luxurious — indeed almost too sumptuously decorated with paired artefacts in almost every nook and cranny from the Paradise Road home design store in Colombo, founded by its owner Shanth Fernando. 

For me, it is crammed more full of memories than a hotel should be. The holiday with my parents in April 2002 turned out to be the last we had together. A few months later, my mother became seriously ill with complications from diabetes. Holiday memories sometimes have the force of a cinematic flashback: I turned a corner into a space where a large dining table used to be more than a decade ago and for a moment I could see my parents, posing for a photograph with my friends before a long, laughter-filled lunch.

Characteristically colourful toys at Colombo’s Barefoot store | Photo: Barefoot
Between runs on Bentota’s uncrowded beach, swims in a long, elegant pool that is a welcome addition to the property that wasn’t there more than a decade ago and wonderful grilled fish dinners at night, the weekend went by quickly. On a Monday, I discovered I was the only guest at the property. I apologised to the restaurant manager, saying the staff could have taken the day off if I hadn’t been around. I was charmed by his reply. One of the joys of holidaying in Sri Lanka is that not only does it outdo Thailand in smiles per capita, but English is widely spoken across the hospitality industry. “Look at it another way,” replied the restaurant manager, a subcontinental Jeeves. “Treat it as if you own the place.” 

And, for the rest of the morning, I did. I curled up with a book in a favourite corner of the house where the wind from the sea wafts in to duel with the fragrances from the kitchen 100 metres away.  I was reading about a French relative of Bawa’s, somehow convincing customs officials that the chandelier she is carrying for him is an idiosyncratic style statement that is part of her wardrobe on her travels. I return again to a magnificent biography of Leonard Woolf, who was a civil servant in Sri Lanka before returning home in 1911 to marry Virginia Stephen. In letters to Lytton Strachey, Woolf is imagining staying on as a colonial civil servant. He sees himself warding off the boredom of “accounts of the province, test(ing) weights and measures and issuing orders I barely understand” by reading Voltaire and “copulating” with a concubine in a vast mansion that smells of bats.

Inside the treasure house, the Barefoot store | Photo: Barefoot
My day-dreaming was much more routine: I decided that The Villa is precious enough and close enough to Bengaluru for me to pretend it is a holiday home. It was not quite the rekindling of wanderlust, but the anticipation of returning lingered for weeks afterwards.

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