We're reversing. I’m in Sri Lanka’s Yala National Park, juddering backwards in a safari jeep. Until this crossroads, we’d been travelling in the usual forward fashion through jeep-high brush, spotting comatose crocs, paranoid deer and a flurry of birdlife which included the impressively plumed junglefowl, Sri Lanka’s national bird.
Dome-like mountains stand mute in the distance. After some time passes in this fashion, I turn towards my twenty-something animal spotter, Lahiru, and enquire why. A blank look from beneath his boy-band quiff. ‘It’s one-way,’ he replies.
A little rough around the edges is old Sri Lanka, and certainly here in the less explored south-east, where the new (and only) highway runs out of road and stray dogs chase ambulances through crowded, rust-roofed villages. But this tropical pendant dangling from the Indian subcontinent is in the process of finding its feet after the traumatic end of its 26-year-long civil war, and all the while still laying to rest the devastation wrought by the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004.
But you wouldn’t know it from their faces. There’s a buoyant mood in the air — the men apparently selling washer-dryers in duty free at Bandaranaike International Airport wear smiles beneath their moustaches, and the enthusiastic young guides, like Lahiru, grin as they jostle for day passes. Visitor numbers are booming, and June presented the tourist industry with yet another reason to smile: the opening of Shangri-La’s Hambantota Resort & Spa, only the country’s second five-star luxury resort.
The arrival of Shangri-La opens up the south-east for the luxury market; previously, most tourists have tended to stay in the capital, Colombo, or flocked to the sparkling surf of the eastern beaches. Also unlocked is a stalled redevelopment plan in the region. Hambantota was the site of one of the most ambitious urban construction projects in the country, involving a new international airport, a new port and the incomplete motorway. When the former president (who hails from this neck of the woods) lost power in 2013, the new president brought the development to a halt. Flights landing on the freshly laid runway were few and far between.
Now that Shangri-La is the biggest foreign investor over the next few years, with an investment of $800 million that includes a new hotel in Colombo with luxury mall and apartments attached, the situation is resolving itself. The frequency of flights from Dubai into Hambantota is increasing, and with the resort now open, new airlines are sure to be attracted to the route. So if you had your heart set on the four-and-a-half-hour drive from the capital to the resort that this journalist enjoyed, it may be that you’ve already missed the luxury bus.
Constructed within a former palm plantation, the property nudges up to the seafront where, my hotel guide informed me on our bike excursion one scorching morning, they used to transport elephants to Egypt. This stretch of coast also enjoys some of the island’s most clement weather, with a cool ocean breeze shivering the palms and dispelling any mugginess. But the property’s overt selling point is golf: it is now the country’s premium golfing destination, being the first such property constructed on an eighteen-hole (Rodney Wright-designed) course. And then there is its one-hour proximity to popular Yala, renowned for having the highest density of leopards in the world, and the even closer twitcher-mecca wetlands of Bundala National Park.
Life within the resort is ordered in much the same way as it is in Yala. You have several watering holes/swimming pools around which the inhabitants congregate. On one side are the two family pools (expect unselfconscious troops of grey langurs, skittish spotted deer, cute bee-eater triplets) and, at a remove, the adult Sunset Pool (sloth bear, bleary-eyed mongoose couples, poseur hawk-eagle).
Fortunately, unlike Yala, mealtimes at the resort do not involve screaming preceding a bloodbath. There are four venues to choose from (not including the private chef’s table experience), although Bojunhala is the all-day culinary epicentre, delivering superb Southeast Asian, European and Sri Lankan buffets. Never mind the anaemic pizzas as you enter — the food is superb, especially the native cuisine. For breakfast, try an egg hopper (a bowl-shaped pancake made of coconut milk batter; for comparison, have one at Hoppers on Soho’s Frith Street first), and follow that up with sticky jackfruit curry and smoky brinjal moju (eggplant pickle) for lunch, with the typically effervescent chilli doused by a scoop of jaggery (coconut-blossom sugar) ice cream. Sated, return to bask by your preferred watering hole.
While complete inertia may be your aim, Shangri-La has been at pains to weave the local colour into the resort landscape, meaning that if you fancy a dose of culture, it’s at hand. The Artisan Village is a circle of thatched huts housing traditional arts-and-craft displays. Particularly impressive is the laksha (lacquer work) artist who employs his toes alongside a hand-operated lathe to produce intricately decorated jewellery boxes. (He’s hard of hearing, so stand in his sight line if you want to demonstrate your appreciation.)
Otherwise, you’ll subliminally soak up dribs and drabs of the island culture simply by strolling through the resort. Looming over the check-in desk is a locally handwoven rectangle of fabric, intended to be the dusky indigo of a peacock’s throat — the birds are native to the country. The hotel has sourced 400-year-old tiles from nearby Galle, and contained within the overall Chinese feel of the architecture, Balinese copper cauldrons add a tertiary layer to the aesthetic that dominates in the resort’s Ayurvedic spa, Chi.
And elephants. Everywhere. In Sri Lanka, there’s never too much of a good thing where elephants, or coconuts, are concerned, and Shangri-La has embraced this enthusiasm. You’ll find charcoal drawings of the world’s largest land animal hung among the Ceylon teak and Emperador marble of each of the 300 rooms, while artistic sculptures — part of a resort-sponsored competition highlighting the importance of recycling — add a playfulness around practically every corner.
This playfulness extends to the friendly staff, who appear uniformly to have a genuine rapport with children. So you shouldn’t feel guilty if you leave the little tykes with the babysitters while you take time out on Sri Lanka’s premium golf course. The narrow fairways and devilish crosswinds offer quite a challenge, while long-tailed monitor lizards scurrying through the rough and the occasional falling coconut (not to mention the disused sapphire mine beneath the back nine) add that frisson of the exotic. Or just immerse yourself in the infinity pool, listening to the chatter of the parrots and mynah birds over the cannon shot of the waves.
You won’t get to swim in that sea, however, as it’s a tumultuous stretch of water they’ve pitched their five-star tent on. But you should definitely walk the beach. You descend from the resort’s manicured lawn, past the wall of cacti sporting chunky mango-yellow blooms, before finding yourself standing on shifting bronze and amethyst sands. The surf sends a salty mist up the steep beach and into the palm groves. Walk left, and you’re likely to see local fishermen launching long boats into the choppy water in a small-scale Sri Lankan version of The Great Wave off Kanagawa, with the new harbour wall in place of Mount Fuji.
The rough and the smooth marry up charmingly in south-east Sri Lanka, which makes now such a special, fragile time to visit. It could mean reversing for five minutes the wrong way down a one-way road in a safari park with little or no explanation. But when the reversing stops, you’ll find yourself close enough to a full-grown male elephant to almost reach out and wipe away the tears streaking its dusty cheeks. The romance of this country beguiles.