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Sri Lanka: A Revelation

Sri Lanka: A Revelation

Quickly recovering from a bloody and draining civil war, little-known Sri Lanka welcomes visitors with warm smiles and an astounding host of compelling attractions.


Sri Lanka is a feast for all the senses. This tropical island sits just a few degrees above the equator guaranteeing warm weather all year. Visitors are astonished at the depth and breadth of activities available, including surfing (in Hikkaduwa), fishing, and diving; dining on excellent fresh-caught seafood and a wide variety of luscious tropical fruit; exploring ancient civilizations and 17th-century Colonial era architecture; pampering spa facilities; great shopping (Sri Lanka is a center for the mining and finishing of precious and semi-precious stones); and animal viewing, with elephant safaris a must-do during any visit here.

Sri Lanka's first visitors were Arab traders, so Islam was the first religion on the island nation. There are still many Muslims but the predominant religion is Buddhism, followed by Hinduism. Buddhist culture tends to focus on the here and now, moving on quickly after calamities, like the war or the 2004 tsunami that killed between 30,000 and 40,000 Sri Lankans. There are also many Christians, with many gorgeous Dutch and Portuguese-constructed churches still in evidence. All religious groups get along here and, unlike neighboring India, Sri Lanka for the most part doesn't have the same sort of aggressive selling and begging that can often mar the experience of a trip there.

The gay scene is, in a word, non-existent, at least the way we in the west understand it. Technically speaking homosexuality is outlawed here though the law is not enforced with respect to foreigners or locals for that matter, but it does put a damper on the open expression of homosexuality. All visitors -- straight, gay, single or in couples -- are accorded a sincerely warm welcome. Both male and female locals look you in the eye and are quick with a smile and a laugh. Most Sri Lankans wear traditional clothing, which for the men is a lungee (or sarong), a long tube-shaped skirt worn to the ankles or folded to the knees. Sometimes they don't wear a shirt, which is very sexy considering most men are lean and muscular.

You may visit on a tour or independently. There's a very good train system and roads though they are quite crowded and it can take a surprisingly long time to cover even short distances. For first timers, the best approach to visiting this island may be to choose a hotel that offers dining, drinking and spa options and that can arrange pick ups, transfers and activities around the hotel property. Sri Lanka has two rainy seasons that take place at different times of the year in different areas making it a year-round destination. The best and driest seasons are from December to March on the west and south coasts and in the hill country, and from May to September on the east coast. They are working on reopening air service to the south (suspended during the civil war) and on completing a highway, which should considerably reduce travel time from the airport in Negombo to the south, where many upscale resorts are located including the two described here.


Where to Stay
Recently I visited Sri Lanka. I only stayed at two hotels. Though there are other very good ones, these two are usually ranked number one and two best properties on the island.

The Amangalla is located in the fort at Galle, a coastal city on the historical map since the 1300s when Moorish and other traders passed through. The 17th-century Dutch and Portuguese made the biggest impact on Galle leaving behind a remarkable architectural legacy that lives on today in the form of spice warehouses, churches, cemeteries and ramparts. Many of these old buildings have been restored; some repurposed. You'll also find upscale but inexpensive shopping along a couple of the historical streets crisscrossing Galle (pronounced as in the English gall).

The hotel itself is housed in historic colonial buildings formerly known as the New Oriental Hotel which was founded in 1863. Aman took it over, restored it and opened in February 2005. All furnishings are either authentic antique period pieces or made-to-order reproductions. There are four categories of rooms Bedrooms, Chambers, Suites and a Garden House, each with Colonial-period furnishings and art (original and reproductions) and spacious bathrooms with a big soaking tub in the middle of the room.

The hotel's major amenities include: a secluded pool, open 24 hours; The Baths, the hydrotherapy treatment area booked for private (solo or couples) enjoyment; a spa with several treatment rooms and expert massage therapists; a restaurant for breakfast, lunch and dinner (try the hoppers with eggs for breakfast). There's even a meditation and yoga pavilion nestle in the pool area.

Activities near Amangalla:
• Explore the Colonial fort town of Galle by walking all around the narrow streets, popping into the museum, public library, churches and along the ramparts
• Check out the town of Galle on bike or foot, shopping for handicrafts
• Visit ancient Buddhist temples (Fort Temple nearby and others a little farther away, including Yatagala, Poya, Pilano, Unawatuna)
• See the Hiyare Bio-Diversity Reserve a 35-minute drive north of Galle.

Amanwella, sister property to Amangalla is an entirely different though every bit as upscale and gracious as Amangalla. Set amidst a mature coconut grove, Amanwella is located in a quintessential tropical beach paradise. The hotel's design of clean straight white walls provide a contrast to the lush tropical vegetation and the hotel's many open spaces and glass walls afford views of the pristine beach and distant coastline and hills. The infinity edge pool is situated below the hotel's outdoor restaurant and above the beach.

The rooms -- located a short walk from the main hotel complex (reception, restaurant, boutique, pool area) -- are spacious with half the space devoted to the bed and sitting area and half to the bathing and changing areas. The separate water closets -- loos with a view -- overlook the sea. There's a spa facility with treatment rooms offering views of the seas. No matter where you are on the property, you can usually here the waves crashing below (though December through April, the peak of tourist season, the seas tend to be calm).

Activities near Amanwella:
• Visit any or all of the three nearby national parks, including Bundala National Park (great for birdwatching and other wildlife), Uda Walawe National Park (best known for elephant viewing), and Yala National park (for storks, crocodiles, peacocks and elusive leopards)
• See sea turtle nesting sites at Rekawa Turtle Conservation Project
• Climb over 600 stairs (each way) at the Mulgirigala Rock Temple, a 700-foot high rock temple dating from the second century B.C. and rediscovered in the 19th century.

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