by Claire Wrathall
This year Sri Lanka hopes 2.2 million holidaymakers will visit the country. It’s quite an ambition given that as recently as 2009, admittedly the year its 26-year civil war ended, it was attracting fewer than 450,000 people. But the island has much to recommend it as destination: ancient Buddhist temples, verdant hill country, exceptional food, wildlife (500 leopards are reckoned to survive on Sri Lanka, notably in the Yala National Park in the south east of the island), beaches and diving.
In the long off-limits north of the island, near Passekudah, the wreck of the British aircraft carrier HMS Hermes lies at a depth of 54m and has become a compelling if challenging dive site, having sustained 40 hits from Japanese kamikaze bombers on April 9, 1942, which sunk it within 10 minutes. Launching on September 10, a new diving-focused cruise launched by Dive Worldwide will stop here as part of a 10-day trip. Passengers will sail on the 13-cabin, 44m yacht the Sri Lanka Aggressor, which offers three itineraries (from £2,445pp, based on two sharing), embarking from Trincomalee or Colombo, and focusing respectively on snorkelling with 40-strong “super pods” of blue and sperm whales; wreck diving; and recreational diving.
For those who’d rather remain on dry land, the island is also witnessing seeing an unprecedented number of upscale hotel openings, the latest of which is Shangri-La’s Hambantota Resort & Spa which opened on June 1 on a 145-acre beachfront estate on the south coast.
If it attracts a similar demographic to its Maldives property, its major market is likely to be China. For though some Shangri-La hotels – notably its Paris outpost – are undeniably very luxurious indeed, the fact that this one has 321 rooms and suites and is offering beach volleyball, “drone-flying experiences” and the promise of coach transfers from the airport (the coach may be equipped with air-con, cold towels and snacks, but it’s a good five hours from Banaranaike International Airport) suggests it isn’t aspiring to offer especially rarefied experiences. To be fair, its rates start at a reasonable £145. And its par-70 golf course is likely to prove popular, even if its Club House has, off-puttingly, been decorated with “a touch of colonial tartan”.
Those nostalgic for the colonial era might do better to check out Ceylon Tea Trails’ recently added properties in the tea fields of the Central Highlands. Founded a decade ago by one of Sri Lanka’s pre-eminent tea-growing families, Merrill Fernando and his sons Dilhan and Malik (founders of the Dilmah brand), it is what they call “the world’s first tea bungalow resort”. There guests will find a clutch of late 19th- and early 20th-century houses close enough to walk between (lest you fancy a meal in one of the others), but not so close as to be visible from one another. Last February they opened a fifth house, built in 1890, named Dunkeld and close to Castlereagh Reservoir, on which you can land a seaplane. (Cinnamon Air offers transfers from Colombo.)
If, however, you’d prefer a big Asian brand with standards one can rely on, consider also the Thai brand Antantara’s first resort on the island. Its 152-room Peace Haven Tangalle Resort, a 21-acre site, thick with coconut palms, 152 rooms and villas (rates from £240). It lies an 80-minute drive (traffic permitting) west of the Shangri-La, and stands on a rocky outcrop above a sweeping crescent of sandy beach behind which lies an 18-hectare coconut plantation. A second Anantara, Kalutara, is scheduled to open on the west coast in August. Just as a second Shangri-La, this time with 500 rooms, opens in Colombo next year.