No Shoes Required - HAMBANTOTA

Using Shangri-La’s luxurious Hambantota resort as a base, Carolyn McKay discovers the stunning, relatively unexplored southern coastline of the Indian Ocean island of Sri Lanka

It was while on an expedition commissioned by Chinese Emperor Kublai Khan to retrieve the tooth of the Buddha, that 13th century explorer Marco Polo first laid down his moorings on the island of Ceylon. Enamoured by its ivory coastlines and emerald jungles, its port markets laden with fragrant spices bound for the trade routes of Asia, and the resplendent abundance of its mineral heritage, he found fit to proclaim it “undoubtedly the finest island of all its size in the world.” He wasn’t wrong. Ceylon, or Sri Lanka as the island became known in 1972, has since captivated the hearts of explorers, bohemian wanderers and discerning travellers, many of whom visit the teardrop isle in search of a soulful connection with the intangible.

To the very south of the island, approximately four hours’ drive from Colombo’s international airport and surrounding the port city of Hambantota, crystal clear seas, magnificent sweeping sandy beaches, a wealth of archaeological sites and an opportunity to witness first-hand some of Sri Lanka’s most spectacular wildlife make this part of Sri Lanka worthy of much closer inspection.

Historically seen as a thoroughfare en route to some of the country’s most well-known national parks means that the south of Sri Lanka boasts some of the most untouched areas of the island, including some rather beautiful hill country. In the past few years, the gradual addition of new infrastructure is gently opening-up the area to adventurers with a yearning for something a little more authentically Sri Lankan.

A distinct sense of adventure infuses the air when travelling along the sometimes-chaotic main thoroughfare that edges the south of the island. Traditional fishing villages and verdant green rice paddies bordering the road provide an insight into everyday life.

As one travels further east, the rural landscape becomes sparser, until one enters a noticeably more remote and semi-arid region that seemingly boasts its own micro-climate. When we leave behind the traffic and take a discreet turning onto a narrow, dusty track, calm immediately prevails.

Nestled between a peaceful lagoon and the ever-changing tidal activity of the Indian Ocean, and set upon the grounds of a former coconut plantation hugging a stretch of the island’s coastline as yet not overrun by tourism development, Shangri-La’s Hambantota Resort is genuinely a palm-fringed retreat and the perfect deluxe base from which to explore nearby Bundala and Yala parks and the temple complex at Kataragama.

Having opened just three years ago and filling almost 60 hectares, it is the country’s largest resort, with 300 rooms and 21 suites housed within two wings cascading away from the centre. Filled with 4,000 king coconut trees, Shangri-La’s Hambantota property has the lush, earthy feel of an eco-resort, resplendent with riotous tropical gardens and guest rooms situated along cooling breezeways with constant sightlines to the ocean. It is from this luxurious beachfront haven that I plan to discover more of Sri Lanka.

New arrivals are welcomed into a large open-air pavilion that serves as a supremely laidback lobby. The décor is earthy and tropical with wooden floors, a multitude of inviting seating, hand-woven rugs and cerulean splashes of blue that draw your eye outwards towards rambling gardens brimming with colour, verdant vistas of the resort’s golf course and uninterrupted views of the Indian Ocean. After a cool lemongrass-infused towel and a zesty mint and mango juice, I relax and take in the spectacular panorama. It is monsoon season but there is little rain. However, the turbulent sea adds a sense of wild and unchecked beauty to the proceedings.

Crossing the threshold into a Premier Ocean Room, my shoes come off and I am immediately drawn to an oversized balcony offering panoramic views. Natural materials are liberally used throughout the space, interspersed with Sri Lankan art and handicrafts. I can’t decide whether to soak in the oversized tub with a glass of vino or sit outside and gaze at the sun slowly descending over the ocean. I opt to recline on a chaise on the balcony, close my eyes and take a deep breath, to a soothing soundtrack of waves crashing on the shore.

An evening stroll takes me through the gardens and along curved pathways where preening peacocks parade. On the beach, sea spray dampens my face and my toes sink into sand still warm from the day. I wander back into the heart of the resort and chance upon Gimanhala Lounge. With its sprawling deck and elevated views, this is obviously the place to sip a sundowner at golden hour in Hambantota.

Dinner is served in a candlelit gazebo positioned on a slight rise overlooking the ocean, under clear skies awash with twinkling stars. Lights from local fishing boats form a string of pearls along the horizon. Freshly caught tuna cooked to perfection is the highlight of a sumptuous seafood platter prepared by a personal chef and served with a tangy tomato salsa. I sleep divinely well, having chosen the perfect pillow from a menu.

In the early hours of the next day, my breakfast is packed to-go and we depart the resort for Yala National Park as dawn is breaking. Passing through a natural elephant corridor, the sun’s rays shimmer on the salterns and I delight in the birds’ morning chorus. Yala can get a little crowded, but at this time of the year (June) there are few other jeeps in the park, which bodes well for spotting wildlife.

Originally a hunting ground for the British during colonial rule, Yala’s grassy plains, lagoons and tangled forests are now a playground for a healthy leopard population as well as sloth bears, crocodiles, deer and a plethora of birdlife.

Ranging from a small honeyeater sitting at the end of a narrow branch to a large Malabar pied hornbill looking like he might topple over at any moment, we observe a dazzling array of birdlife. A lumbering sloth bear making a rare appearance for a good ten minutes makes the early morning call utterly worthwhile.

Back at the resort, I spend a blissful afternoon at Shangri-La’s first CHI Ayurveda Spa – a holistic retreat where treatments are tailored to each guest’s individual well-being requirements, after consultation with an in-house ayurvedic doctor. A signature shirodhara treatment clears my mind leaving me relaxed and rebalanced. Afterwards, I sip ayurvedic tea in the spa’s overwater relaxation terrace and revel in the peace and quiet of the space.

The next day, after a lazy afternoon by the pool, I jump in a tuk-tuk to nearby Walawe River, which winds its way for almost 40 km from Adam’s Peak to the Indian Ocean. An evening boat safari, organised by the hotel, is another opportunity to engage with Sri Lanka’s wonderful flora and fauna. We gently meander through the graceful twists and turns of the waterway with chattering monkeys, graceful ibis and jungle fowl for company. As the sun begins to the set, the riverbank foliage creates stunning silhouettes in the sky.

One of Sri Lanka’s most important, sacred and popular pilgrimage sites, dating back to the 2nd century BC, Kataragama is but a one-hour drive from Shangri-La Hambantota and most certainly worth visiting, especially if you happen to be in the area in July and August when the annual festival draws thousands of pilgrims. During this blessed time, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus and Vedda people, together with fire walkers and Kawadi dancers, combine pomp and ceremony with devotion and religious excess as they process around the shrine. It’s a truly spectacular sight.

Committed to preserving the island’s rich cultural heritage, Kadamandiya village at the Shangri-La offers a glimpse into the traditions of Sinhalese culture. Here, visitors explore the studio huts that house painters, potters, weavers, sculptors and other artisans, whose wares are available to purchase. In the evening, the space is transformed into a performance area for traditional dance and Angampora displays – a martial art indigenous to the island.

Marking the jewel in the property’s crown is its par-70 18-hole golf course designed by Rodney Wright. The course takes players through water features and lush fairways complete with breathtaking ocean views. Unique in its attention to detail in the realms of biodiversity and protection of natural habitat, the course was crafted with sustainability in mind – repurposing an abandoned sapphire mine, restoring vegetation and re-introducing birdlife.

Shangri-La’s tantalising array of dining options ensures that guests never go hungry! Far from it, I feast like a queen throughout my stay, enjoying alfresco breakfasts at Bojunhala and dinners at Sera amid a veritable southeast Asian hawker’s market of street food.

Spending time in the south of the island reminds me that Sri Lanka continues to be a balm for the soul. The British author James Hilton described the lost world in his 1933 novel as ‘Shangri-La’ – a mystical earthly paradise full of harmony and wonder. Hidden away on the south coast of Sri Lanka, Shangri-La’s idyllic Hambantota resort is undoubtedly one of the country’s most wonderful properties, not to mention the perfect base from which to explore some of the many natural jewels that the enchanting island has to offer.