Everyone asked me the same question once they found out I had been to Sri Lanka 3 years before, “Has it changed since you were here last?”
It took me a long time to determine that answer, but after spending 2 weeks there with way too much time looking out the window of a vehicle getting from place to place I decided it has changed in some ways. There were more tourists (which means more cars on the roads), and a few new highways being built. But the main change I noticed was the sheer number of mid range to luxury hotels and lodging that had been developed since I was there last. Sri Lanka luxury accommodation were in abundance now. The last time I was in Sri Lanka I traveled independently on a tight budget and I mainly used Trip Advisor to find cheap places to stay. However 3 years later, the new properties I noticed were higher end and large – they were beautiful 4 and 5 star properties and experiences on an Asia budget. Based on my experience there’s really something for every type of traveler and desire in Sri Lanka.
Experience high end 4 or 5 star stays at all of the main tourism hot spots throughout the country through Cinnamon Hotels. Cinnamon sort of owns the country when it comes to development of tourism with 14 hotels/resorts around Sri Lanka, conference centers, as well as an domestic airline called Cinnamon Air. They had some beautifully designed properties with multiple restaurants, fitness centers, bars, and some gorgeous pools – everything you would ever need and not have to lift a finger. I stayed at Chaya Village near Sigiriya and Cinnamon Bey Buruwala on the southern coast. Cinnamon offers up some nice sustainability solutions and were starting to offer a bunch of ‘experiences’ which get you more involved with the local community. However, since they are so big they get a lot of motor coach tours it appeared and it was an overload of buffet food for my liking, but for the person looking for some easy luxury in super locations – they have great options.
Another big hotel (90 rooms) but it had a totally different feel of privacy. Boasting a huge pool (230 ft long!), an unusual sand dune coast line, simple classy design, 10 luxury glamping villas with private butlers, and a convertible/outdoor shower in each hotel room. I was pretty impressed with Jetwing Yala that just opened this year right next to Yala Safari Park. However, I became really impressed with it when I learned of their green initiatives.
I was introduced to the head engineer to walk me through the various uber-eco heating/cooling/water systems and explain how they worked. He was so incredibly excited about these systems, he was grinning ear to ear and rapidly drawing me diagrams on how the cooling and water systems worked. I don’t think he fully understood he was talking to a writer – but I tried my best to follow along, as it was hard not to get caught up in his enthusiasm. Boasting the largest private sector solar farm with 2,900 panels – it just started there. The solar panels were used to heat the water and for 40% of the resort’s electrical needs. They had a huge boiler they fueled with 4 to 5 thousand kilos (a large truckload) of cinnamon wood per day. The steam power generated from the boiler also heated the water and ran the AC unit for the property. The wood was bought from local farmers and was a byproduct of the cinnamon farming industry. Finally the engineer showed me the complex water system. The resort used sea water, processed and filtered it to be used for all the non-drinking water in the resort (shower, sinks, laundry). They pump in 500,000 Liters per day from the sea, filtering it, and 200,000 liters are useable at the resort as the brine byproduct was pumped back into the sea. Needless to say – I was very impressed by the Jetwing Yala resort and would recommend it to anyone.
Looking for smaller intimate luxury lodging then villa life in Sri Lanka might be for you. This is my favorite kind of place to stay – with only a few rooms and lovely shared areas. The Mosvold villa is located near Weligama bay on the south side of Sri Lanka. And most importantly – it is located right on the beach. In fact I’m typing this now while sitting on an outdoor sofa with the waves lapping near me 6 ft. away. The rhythmic crashing waves and constant see breeze is all I need to make me happy. From the moment I arrived at this private setting along the sea – I was also doted on by the staff. The property is a haven for relaxation, however it’s also nestled between surf schools on the beach and if you can easily find some adventure by learning how to ride the waves nearby. Just walk down the beach and find Rashid, a local guy as skinny as a twig, but strong as an ox with curly dark hair and a big smile. He could be hired for surfing lessons and supplied the boards and coconut juice. To relax you can also hire a yoga instructor to show up at the villa and run you through some good stretching and ‘Om’ after you get done surfing. The villa itself is just a villa – but you can arrange these other things with the staff or easily on your own. No need for a big concierge or tourist desk – this place is chill and they’ll help you however they can.
Kottukal Beach House
A secluded 4 bedroom home surrounded – and I mean surrounded – by the coast. Kottukal Beach House, located near Arguam Bay on the East Coast, is the most remote place I stayed. I didn’t see another tourist anywhere near here. It was on a little corner of coast line which meant it had ocean and bay on 2 of it’s 4 sides. They were in the process of building a pool on the property, so it’s only getting better! Fishing boats were ‘parked’ out on the expansive beach, which also happened to be dotted with local fishermen throwing lines in from the beach. The best part is the villa comes with a villa dog – Dan. Dan will happily take you out on long beach walks and then you can come in and relax in the living room or on your room’s patio. Do note though, the best time to be on the East Coast of Sri Lanka is May – September before Monsoon season. This is also a great surf area.
Other Small Local Hotels and Guesthouses
There are hundreds of these – but honestly they are hard to find on the internet. I was struck by how many beach hotels and surf schools we drove by on our way from Yala to Galle on the south coast, yet when I did a search on surf schools and midrange hotels I barely found any online. The country’s tourism industry still hasn’t caught up entirely with the online world. So – if you really want a local experience and probably a really great deal on lodging, my recommendation is to get yourself to Sri Lanka and then look for a place to stay. And don’t forget to negotiate prices in person – even luxury villas will negotiate if they aren’t full and you are standing there in front of them ready to stay.
However – do keep in mind that when you are planning your Sri Lankan holiday, even though the country is now filled with luxury accommodations, the building of hotels has outpaced the country’s ability to build infrastructure to support the hotels. The roads are really rough and crowded (by buses, trucks, cars, rickshaws, motorbikes, cows, and stray dogs). They are trying to build new roads as fast as they can, but like with most things in developing countries – infrastructure always seems to be slow to catch up. The country is only 150 miles wide yet it takes a minimum of 9 hours…(actually it took me 12 hrs) to get across it in a very roundabout way. Or – another example of change in progress – the 12km road to Yala Jetwing was in the process of being repaired and widened, and the12k took us 50 minutes to drive due to the potholes and construction.
So my recommendation is if you only have a week then only choose one location to go to – don’t try to do too much and go too many places as you’ll spend the majority of the time looking out the window of a car (or a bus/train if you are looking for local experiences!). If you have two weeks – go to a beach location and an inland location. Don’t get caught up in trying to do it all, as I was miserable in the car feeling as if the country was passing me by and I wasn’t really interacting with it. Maybe it would have been different if I was doing the driving! But I wasn’t as engaged as a passenger being shuttled around.
Or if you feel like a moderate splurge and a unique way to see the country, then check out Cinnamon Air – the only domestic airline who offers ‘taxi’ service to main parts of Sri Lanka on the coast and inland in the hill country. This will cut down your time considerably and allow you to ‘do it all’. However it comes at a price (yet not entirely unreasonable).
Looking for more budget lodging options for Sri Lanka – then check out my Sri Lanka budget lodging recommendations.
Disclosure: I was hosted by these hotels during my time in Sri Lanka. However all opinions here are my own.