Ever since Sri Lanka emerged from its civil war in 2009, it’s been on everyone’s hot list of next destinations. So far, most of that interest has centered on the UNESCO-designated colonial treasures and tea plantations in the north of the country. Now the sleepy south coast, with its glorious white beaches and secluded blue-green coves, is about to catch up.
There are more luxury resorts, including a Shangri-La, in the works, and there’s talk of a proper airport. (Visitors arrive by seaplane or road now.) But for now, the new hotel that’s shaping the future of tourism on this side of the island is part of the Thailand-based Anantara group of smart, soulful high-end resorts. Opened in December, Anantara’s Peace Haven resort near the sleepy town of Tangalle is leading the area’s shift from backpacker way station to cushy spot “where you end your Sri Lankan vacation to relax in five-star comfort,” George Morgan-Grenville of the bespoke tour operator Red Savannah told me when I spoke to him late last year for, yes, my hot list of the next destinations.
For many guests, though, the Anantara is their Sri Lankan vacation, particularly for Europeans and Russians who stay for weeks and do little more than sunbathe by the enormous pool. But for those whose vacation tastes run more toward cultural adventure, the resort has plenty to offer. Guests are greeted with a performance by local musicians, Sri Lankan curries are served at one of the restaurants and making them is taught at the outpost here of Anantara’s popular Spice Spoons cooking school, and authentic Ayurvedic treatments are given in the extensive spa. An Ayurvedic doctor and yoga guru are also on hand for consultations and detailed treatment programs.
The largely local staff prides themselves on their Sri Lankan hospitality. Just try to walk anywhere without an employee rolling up in a battery-powered tuk tuk or e-bicycle rickshaw and insisting on giving you a ride. (I recently stayed as a guest of the resort.) A yoga studio, tennis courts, bicycles and a 24-hour gym are available for those who insist on exerting themselves.
Just outside the resort gates, Sri Lankan culture and spirituality are vibrant. Anantara’s “experience gurus” take guests to village markets, craft workshops and the spectacular Wewurukannala Buddhist temple and Mulkirigala Rock Temple, where murals and statues grace ancient caves some 700 feet up. Guests can also easily go to Udawalawe National Park for elephant safaris, the Kalametiya Bird Sanctuary, the Rekawa Turtle Sanctuary or on whale-watching trips to Mirissa Harbour. And the resort’s partnership with “art of luxury surfing” operator Tropicsurf gives guests a chance to go with top-notch instructors and gear to prime surf spots nearby.
All of this is why the resort lives up to Anantara’s marketing promise to connect “modern travelers” to “genuine places, people and stories through personal experiences.” Every luxury hotel company is selling that now, but here, Anantara is delivering.
Not that there’s anything wrong with not leaving the resort. Its 152 rooms, some in hotel blocks and others in freestanding cottages, are spread across a 21-acre coconut plantation—employees still shimmy up the trees every day to pick fruit, machete off the tops and serve the water to guests—and have a subtle island-colonial vernacular. They’re full of locally made hand-loomed textiles in soft natural colors and carved teak furnishings. (Giving back to the community was one of the goals in sourcing.) The villas have fabulous bathrooms, private plunge pools and outdoor dining areas. The building plan left as many trees standing as possible, making for an unusually mature landscape within a new resort. There are peacocks all over too.
Anantara takes food seriously. There are six restaurants and bars, ranging from the all-day Journeys, which puts out a lavish breakfast spread and offers a nightly à la carte menu of Sri Lankan, Middle Eastern, Thai and international dishes, plus a rotating set-up of food stations (general manager Tamir Kobrin is anti-buffet, with their lukewarm chafing trays, but gave in to demand for the abundance of stations), to the richly authentic Italian restaurant, Il Mare, a reflection of Anantara owner Bill Heinecke’s love of that cuisine. The chef and the maître ‘d are both Italian, and so are many of the imported ingredients. (To say nothing of the impressive wine list.) Later this year a seafood restaurant will open on the beach with a striking design inspired by sea urchins.
And if none of those appeals, there’s always Anantara’s signature Dining by Design program, which lets guests arrange private, romantic dinners with customized menus and a high level of personal attention. With the breeze blowing your hair at a table high above the palm trees, or with your feet in the sand right by the sea, concerns about “next great destination” bragging rights have a way of simply dissolving.
Getting there: Sri Lanka is far away. One of the most comfortable options is flying Etihad Airways, which has regular service from many U.S. gateways to Abu Dhabi and easy connections to Colombo. From there, Cinnamon Air flies seaplanes to Dickwalla, where Anantara staff pick up guests for the ten-minute drive to the resort. If flight times force an overnight in Colombo, the Gateway Hotel is a fine choice near the airport.