Coloring Outside The Lines

OUR EDITORIAL DIRECTOR, ALEXANDRIA GEISLER, CURATES SRI LANKA

On our first day in Sri Lanka, my husband and I stumbled upon a charming bookshop where a book of vivid photography— Sri Lanka: Colour— caught my eye. As I thumbed through its images of sun-drenched clay and sapphire mosaics, I hadn’t yet realized how prescient the publication’s title would soon become. Looking back, “color” is perhaps the only single word at the heart of the country, an island where its scarlet Buddhist sites are as vibrant as the spirit of its people; where unripe emerald bananas seem, somehow, irresistible; and where amber gilded saris swish alongside others in mustard, brick and bright blue. Yes, Sri Lanka is life in color— only there, it’s outside the lines. From lakeside yoga retreats to gemstone shopping, check out my personal guide to Sri Lanka, below.

Colombo | Paradise Road Tintagel


Pull up to Paradise Road Tintagel and you may feel like you’ve come for a visit with a (very rich) aunt or, even better, like you’ve suddenly become some exotic kind of Cher Horowitz. Of course, what we’re trying to say is that the 10-bedroom, black and white mansion isn’t your humble bed-and-breakfast, but it isn’t your cookie-cutter grand hotel either. It’s stately and homey and, well,  somewhere in between— the kind of place you can cozy up into, turmeric craft cocktail in-hand (and yes, we did just that). Inside, it looks like the kind of place you’d imagine Princess Di might stay in while out on safari: a mix of vintage luggage, bronze masks, jute rugs and surprisingly chic mosquito net canopies (FYI, Di did stay here on several trips through Colombo). We stayed in the Executive Princess Suite which, from the animated reactions of the staff, we gathered to be the best room in the house— the bedroom leads into a sitting room complete with French doors to Tintagel’s gorgeous front veranda, private and just for you.

In terms of dining, the main restaurant is housed in an ivy-walled courtyard off of the main lobby. While we opted to eat dinner elsewhere, we did try their coursed breakfast which included very nice coffee, a tropical fruit plate, a pastry basket with excellent passion fruit jam, eggs of any style and a can’t-miss bowl of “curd with treacle,” a traditional Sri Lankan dish made of buffalo yogurt drizzled with local honey (the best version we tasted of this dish, and honestly, one of the greatest things we ate overall). As previously mentioned, we made a point to grab a nightcap in Tintagel’s “Red Bar” too. Essentially, it’s The Gramercy Park Hotel’s Rose Bar meets Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. The drink menu boasts classic cocktails, but with a twist, using spices like cinnamon, cardamom, tamarind, turmeric and curry leaf to tie in traditional Sri Lankan flavors. If you prefer to venture out for meals, let us keep this short and sweet with the one can’t-miss recommendation per meal. For breakfast, Café Kumbuk is an airy, Sri Lankan dream serving “conscious cool” fare (their words) around hand-painted walls, potted plants and vintage moss green furniture. The menu is East-meets-West and healthy-ish with plates like avocado toast on turmeric bread, huevos rancheros and a vegan jackfruit sloppy joe, plus there is a full juice and smoothie bar. For lunch, visit Kaema Sutra, a contemporary Sri Lankan restaurant singled out by every local we asked to name Colombo’s best curry. Its location and atmosphere are a bit odd (it’s tucked away in a small strip mall with bare walls and little décor), but the food is very good. We sampled several curries and one of their renditions of “kottu,” a traditional, stir fry-like street food made up of chopped roti, onions, vegetables, peppers, egg and whatever else the chef decides to throw in (there’s no recipe). While the curries were nice, the banana blossom kottu was one of those life-changing dishes you eat, then never forget. We would go strictly for this. Of course, for dinner, Ministry of Crab is legendary in Colombo— it’s set in a 400 year-old Dutch hospital and was named one of the World’s 50 Best in 2016. Again, the décor isn’t the most charming (funnily enough, it’s the same chef as Kaema Sutra; although here, it suffers from over-branding with everything from plates to cups to walls emblazoned with the restaurant’s logo), but you will be hard-pressed to find better crab— in Colombo or anywhere. Tender, sweet and swimming in tingling curry, every bite was worth the work of cracking and de-shelling.
The best way to experience Colombo is to simply wander the streets and explore. Before visiting, we did a ton of research on where to buy quality Sri Lankan goods, but we still managed to find ourselves caught up in a few tourist traps. Our advice: steer clear of Pettah Market and 5th Cross Street, two famous open-air markets that were more mass-produced gimmicks than they were one-of-a-kind treasures (we were told they were must-stops for ayurvedic oils and handmade textiles, but we didn’t find either). Instead, spend time walking along Galle Road, a quieter, more developed part of town with beautiful boutiques like Barefoot (the Sri Lankan equivalent of ABC Carpet & Home) and Kandygs Textile. You’ll find everything from hand-dyed bedspreads to sarongs to Ceylon tea, all for a decent price. On our visit, we even bought a pair of vintage cane and teak wood chairs for (wait for it) $100 each!?! On another note, a guide to Colombo wouldn’t be complete without a mention of Geoffrey Bawa, the Sri Lankan architect, who remains one of the most influential Asian architects to date. Coining the style of “tropical modernism,” Bawa championed the seamless relationship between indoor-outdoor space. In Colombo, his works include the Buddhist temple Seema Malaka and Number 11, his own residence, both of which were lovely to tour.

Overall, we spent 36 hours in the capital city before heading south and we’re not sure anyone would need much more. If you hit the ground running, you can take in everything Colombo has to offer, then jet to the coast for some idyllic R&R.

Koggola Lake | Tri

Somewhere between Colombo and the Southern coast, a banyan tree soars above a lake scented, softly, of cinnamon, wet palm and lemongrass. While the capital city beats with chaos and the coast, an exuberant ease, here, it is, in all sense of the word, serene. This is Tri Sri Lanka, the 11-room, secluded retreat that beams wellness for the everyman. It isn’t a hippy-dippy detox for the devoted crystal collector, nor is it a big-time resort for the humdrum traveler— it’s simply a space for living well, whether that means waking up with sun salutations, eating mindfully or reading a book poolside.

Founded by Brit Rob Drummond and his wife, Lara Baumann, Tri sits on Koggola Lake and aside from its indoors-meets-outdoors approach, the property is a far cry from its Bawa-inspired predecessors. Instead, an exotic minimalism manifests itself in cement, bunker-like suites (most rooms are built into the hillside), a midcentury modern library and a lofty, cinnamon stick-clad water tower complete with two guest rooms and a balcony bar for sunset drinks. Determined not to hinder, but help the surrounding ecosystem, Drummond installed living walls and solar-powered water, and built using recycled, locally-sourced wood.

When we arrived for our stay late afternoon, we were greeted with fresh mango juice and a tour of the jaw-dropping grounds. We took time to settle in, toast to the sunset over wine on top of the water tower (plus, take a handful of requisite photos), and soon, we were sitting down to enjoy our first six-course dinner— Tri’s culinary program is health-conscious, but (trust us) you won’t go hungry. Focusing on local ingredients prepared healthfully, its kitchen serves six-course breakfasts and dinners daily. In the morning, meals include a tropical fruit plate with frozen buffalo curd and house-made granola, a bread and pastries basket with marmalades like pineapple and rhubarb, a smoothie of the day, “kurrakan,” a traditional red millet porridge, and a rotating selection of Sri Lankan and Western egg dishes. The kurrakan, which tastes like a better, cinnamon-flecked cream of wheat, was a surprising highlight. In the evening, the food was distinctly Sri Lankan with at least two ingredients per dish being completely foreign to us. Soups, salads, curries, and vegetarian and seafood entrées are typical, though details of the menu change nightly (a few favorites included a prawn curry and “pol pani,” a coconut pancake stuffed with coconut jaggery). Beautifully plated on handmade pottery, each course felt like a labor of love— ambitious, nuanced, and yet, wonderfully authentic. While it may not be on par with the greatest in fine dining, it didn’t leave us feeling weighed down in quite the same way either. We ate good food for us and we felt good about it too.

In terms of activities, Tri has plenty. Guests are welcome to take the hotel’s private boat over to Cinnamon Island, where they’ll learn how to carve cinnamon off of the tree. Hiking, biking and whale watching round out the most popular “to dos;” learning to climb a coconut tree, less so (however, my husband marked their first guest to take them up on the offer!). Of course, Tri’s on-site yoga program is most special— its co-owner Lara Baumann is also the founder of Quantum Yoga, an ayurvedic-based practice. She oversees the property’s open-air yoga studio which puts on three complimentary morning classes per week (plus, private sessions and hosted retreats on request). We attended one 90-minute morning class and found it to be a well-paced blend of Hatha (breathwork), Kundalini and meditation. We left the mat feeling revived, newly centered, and yet, uncharacteristically relaxed. Come to think of it, that feeling could sum up the whole of our stay at Tri. We’ll leave you with that…

Weligama | Cape Weligama

Chalk it up to the papaya lassi welcome popsicles, our ocean-view villa or its view of tropical florals as far as the eye can see, but when we arrive at Cape Weligama, we get the feeling that we have, indeed, arrived. It’s the kind of place that smells naturally of paradise and the kind you’d suspect stocks excellent bath products and boasts several swimming pools because, well, variety is the spice of life, isn’t it?, and really, why the hell not? (P.S. you’d be right on both counts.) But, most importantly, it’s that rare gem of a hideaway that will make you feel worlds away, and yet, right at home.

On top of the cliffs of the Southern coast, Cape Weligama sits above one of Sri Lanka’s preeminent surf spots. The sweeping property feels like a tiny gated community with a mix of pool and ocean view suites and villas, each named after famous world explorers. Our Premier Ocean Villa, which clocked in just under 2,000 sq. ft. (also known as more than twice the size of our NYC apartment), included a roomy bedroom, a steam shower-bedecked bathroom and a private front veranda outfitted with a breakfast table, sun loungers and a full sitting area (not to mention, lush private gardens in every direction). Each night, as if on cue, the sun would serendipitously set right in between the two palms framing our porch.

Where food is concerned, Cape Weligama is next to none. We enjoyed the greatest meal of our entire trip in its main Ocean Terrace restaurant— humbly listed as “rice and curry,” what soon took over our table was a bonafide Sri Lankan feast of various seafood and vegetarian curries, coconut rice, pickled vegetables, fruit chutneys and chile pastes. A ballet of spice and flavor, it was utter perfection. The dining room serves a host of Western dishes too, although we personally prefer to eat local (excluding, of course, our morning request for avocado to top our Sri Lankan “aappa,” or “egg hopper,” a typical thin coconut-rice pancake similar to a crepe with a fried egg in its center). If the “hot roti salad” or “Weligama kottu” are available, don’t leave without ordering both at least once. Other dining options include the Ocean Grill, a high-end steak and seafood restaurant where every plate is cooked in front of you, and Cape Colony Club, Weligama’s tea salon by day, craft cocktail den by night (the daily high tea is included in the room rate and shouldn’t be missed! There are over 30 Ceylon teas available to taste alongside 100-percent-worth-it scones and biscuits with clotted cream and jams).

If you’re like us AKA “unplugging and relaxing” is your end goal, Weligama has an incredible spa program that pays homage to the original Sri Lankan wellness practice of ayurveda. We settled on one massage that incorporated a unique elixir of herbs and pure essential oils created to suit our personal dosha and cleanse our spirit (the aromatic rub included cinnamon, peppermint oil and turmeric). While the hotel does have a traditional spa on-site, guests can also opt to have treatments done in their own suites at no additional charge (FYI, your masseuse will even prep your shower for a post-treatment steam before departing). During the day, the hotel’s adult-only, crescent-shaped Moon Pool offers its own sort of relaxation— between its coastal cliff-and-ocean views and the subterranean pool bar, we found little reason to leave.

If you are more inclined to explore, the old Dutch colonial town, Fort Galle, is about a 45-minutes drive away. You can easily cover the entirety inside the fortress— a mash-up of art galleries, gemstone dealers, souvenir shops (some overly touristy, some less so) and cafés— in under three hours. As Sri Lanka is known for its sapphires, we were apt to see what was available; after asking around, we were warned of the many dealers selling blue glass as sapphire stones and were recommended to stop in Ibrahim Jewelers only (Ibrahim is one of the oldest gemstone shops around and if you’re willing to barter, you’ll walk away with a fairly affordable, high-quality and certified stone). For lunch in town, Poonie’s is excellent for healthful bowls and salads; Church Street Social at The Fort Bazaar is known for its posh setting and selection of curries (though after reading dozens of glowing reviews, we were somewhat disappointed as we found Weligama’s Sri Lankan fare to be much better— and no, we’re not being paid to say it!); and Galle Things Roti is the place for cheap, albeit delicious and authentic eats (where we would choose to eat next time). Should you decide to venture out for dinner one evening, Owl & The Pussycat is one of the buzziest new hotspots on the island’s South coast. We first discovered the pop art and punchy-hued boutique hotel on Instagram (go figure); however, after a night out at its vibrant, al fresco restaurant, we couldn’t help but think, “It’s good, but it’s just not as good.” We headed back home smiling at the thought that Cape Weligama knew this all along.

Ceylon | The Tea Trails

Six hours of constant “S” curves later and you’ll happen upon a quiet bungalow shaded by misty mountain peaks and hung above a still, mellow lake. Plausibly ill, you won’t ask yourself why you agreed to this journey because, though several eager buses had you convinced of a near-death experience, you just saw the rural hills of China fade into the Redwoods of California, then mingle with the lushest jungles of Brazil. You saw monkeys swing from cashew trees and uniformed schoolchildren being guided home by their sari-clad mothers. You watched as dense forests turned into tea leaves as emerald as Ireland. Yes, entirely humbling, Sri Lankan tea country will leave you speechless— the kind of noble landscape that brushes past your mind and, instead, resonates with your soul.

Founded by the Ceylonese tea company Dilmah, Ceylon Tea Trails is made up of five original colonial era tea planter residences in lieu of one central property. All of the bungalows have been elegantly restored to resemble upscale B&B’s, each with a unique personality. We were assigned to the Summerville bungalow which is across the lake from all of the other properties. Clad with an old turn-table, vintage British furniture and a lake-facing back patio for dining, it felt like a cross between a European family home and some sort of done-up summer camp— read: charming. We visited one other bungalow, Castlereigh, during our stay, which we found to feel more like a Greek sorority house— it was much grander than ours with better outdoor space (including a croquet lawn and larger pool), but it was also a great deal busier with less options for “private public space” (ours had several sitting areas that were easy to monopolize as a couple while being unencumbered by fellow guests).

Because the experience at the Tea Trails is all-inclusive, the nightly room rate includes breakfast, a 3-course lunch, high tea, dinner and any alcohol (wine is available as well as a full bar of spirits) and snacks. Each bungalow has its own staff including an on-site butler and chef. As soon as we arrived for our stay, we were greeted by Summerville’s head chef to discuss our culinary preferences, a morning ritual that determines each guest’s meals for the day (the property offers no set menus). As you may have guessed, we opted for Sri Lankan dishes over Western plates; however, the chef typically cooks two Western lunches, one Western dinner and one Sri Lankan dinner for guests staying for two nights. Often, Western meals include a bread basket, vegetable soup like blue cheese-pumpkin, a protein-topped salad (they were serving roasted salmon on butter lettuce while we were there) and dessert. We indulged in our house chef’s take on kottu (our favorite roti-based stir fry mentioned in our Colombo write-up above) for lunch and different rice and curry menus for dinner— prawn on one evening; pork and pumpkin, the following. The food and service were top-notch.

A few activities are also included at the Tea Trails— namely, the guided tour through Dilmah’s working tea factory. First, let us preface this by admitting that it sounds like a shameless brand “plug.” Second, we weren’t just pleasantly surprised by the tour; we were fascinated. Over the course of two-and-a-half hours, a Dilmah guide will walk you through the entire process of tea manufacturing— from picking the leaves to rolling, fermenting and drying to grading the quality and auctioning off the final product. It isn’t unlike a winery tour. You’ll learn the difference between green, black and oolong teas (hint: they all come from the same leaves, but undergo varying fermentation processes), Sri Lanka’s own tea history, and what it takes to maintain a modern tea plantation (BTW, tea is harvested every day of the year). The activity ends with a flight of tea tasting and some biscuits. For exercise, each bungalow at the Tea Trails has its own hiking trails which take you into the tea hills; hikes range in difficulty and length, but jaw-dropping views can be seen from any of them. And in cases of inclement weather (the area is much cooler and wetter than anywhere on the coast), board games are piled high in the bungalows’ main sitting rooms. We experienced a few rain showers, but, somehow, watching the rain fall over the tea fields while cozying up to a pot of Ceylon tea and a game of Scrabble felt more like luck than curse. CP

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