Maybe it was because I arrived at dusk, that magical hour when things aren’t as they seem. Maybe my spatial understanding had taken a temporary break from its usual hyperactivity. Or maybe it was Geoffrey Bawa’s genius. But it wasn’t till my final evening at the Anantara Kalutara resort that I finally stopped walking around in circles asking for directions to my room; only then did it all finally click into place.
But I did quickly grasp that this was a beautiful place, set in an astonishingly perfect locale. Kalutara town is just about an hour’s drive from Colombo airport, down the Southern Expressway—Sri Lanka’s tourist highway. The scenery outside the window of my car evoked the expected sense of déjà vu for someone who’d spent time in Kerala. Red earth, groaning green trees, balmy weather, white-clad women. And then the resemblance ends. Nobody who has travelled on Kerala’s roads could mistake the calm, smooth, orderly expressway for Kerala—for instance, nobody honks.
After you turn off into Kalutara town, five minutes takes you to the resort. The Anantara is set on a narrow peninsula, bordered on one side by the Kalu Ganga river, which meets the Indian Ocean, which in turn laps at the other flank of the resort. If the periphery has two contrasting natural features, the resort itself is bisected by a road that makes two parts of its whole. Thus, on the left lie buildings that house the Ocean View rooms and suites, the Italian restaurant Acquolina bordered by a pool, and the Private Villas; on the right are the reception, Olu restaurant, another pool and the Lagoon View rooms, with the spa and another restaurant, Spice Traders, set ahead. You can walk across this bisecting road (interestingly enough, this is a public one that leads to another hotel, the Avani, also owned by Anantara’s holding company, Minor Hotels) from one cluster to another; or you can walk above it all, through a covered ‘bridge’ that connects the two.
Geoffrey Bawa looms over this property. As he does over virtually every other chic hotel in Sri Lanka (some travel companies even offer ‘Geoffrey Bawa Holidays’, which take in stays at a string of boutique hotels that he designed from the late 1970s onward). But the Anantara Kalutara is in a unique position, both literally and figuratively: this is one of the last projects the legendary architect began work on before a stroke in 1998 left him incapacitated. Bawa did not live to see it through to completion (he died in 2003); that task was left to his protégé, Channa Daswatte.
As GM Giles Selves escorted me from the work-in-progress that is The Geoffrey Bawa Library—a soothing space filled with Bawa’s architectural drawings (and which Selves hopes will eventually house Bawa’s personal collection of books)— and walked me from one wing to the other through the overhead bridge, the giant jigsaw puzzle began to fall into place. The bridge is immediately reminiscent of the narrower, more modest one Bawa built over a public lane that bisected his own famous country estate, Lunuganga.
A visit to Lunuganga is imperative for anyone interested in architecture, inventive use of space, or simply natural and built beauty. The estate, now managed by a trust, is public monument, hotel and a study in beauty. About an hour’s drive away, and set inland up gently hilly terrain inland from Bentota, Lunuganga’s 25acres house a collection of discrete buildings. These were built over the years, and were used variously as his study, library, living quarters or guest rooms. But the built structures are only as fascinating as the natural surroundings, with visual surprises around every bend, all of a piece with Bawa’s famous aesthetic—simple and austere, industrial and inviting. Much erudition has been expended on the subject so I’ll merely add two words: do visit.
If you have ventured this far, you must also visit Galle, a little further south, again accessed via that excellent expressway. The walls of the fortified township, founded by Portuguese colonists and expanded by the Dutch and British, now hold within quiet streets lined by old structures that are home to hip restaurants, bars, cafés and boutiques. Arriving at 2pm, I am hungry and somewhat anxious. My nice hotel driver, who had been entrusted with the task of ensuring that I had a good lunch, had said, “We go to hospital.” Naturally, I am anxious. But the Dutch Hospital turns out to be a beautifully restored colonial structure with dazzling white walls and red brick tiles, located picturesquely next to rocks on which sea waves crash. It’s a prime plot of trendy touristdom, with a confusing array of restaurants and cafés. I chose A Minute by Tuk Tuk, mainly for its location in a corner of the first floor with ocean views and ocean breeze, and had an unexpectedly outstanding meal of chilli pork, rice and beer. Two words: eat here.
Galle is a good place to wrap up your Sri Lanka shopping: cool clothes and homeware (Barefoot), souvenirs and gifts (Odel), tea and spices from any number of shops. Another popular excursion recommended by the folks at Anantara is a visit to the Handunugoda tea plantation and factory. I skipped this, since I’ve already seen a tea factory, don’t drink tea, wasn’t interested in buying any and, most crucially, had a date at the Anantara Spa.
If I were a reasonable person, I should have strode along the laterite path leading to the spa joyfully—Anantara spas are world-famously good. Being unreasonable, however, I approached it with a combination of pusillanimity and a sense of heroism at overcoming my fears in the line of duty. I do not care for massages (pathologically ticklish). But at the end of the facial that I had requested in an act of grave cowardice, I found myself perversely wishing that the talented Ms Yuwan from Bali had forced a massage on me instead. Gentle, firm, reassuring—the bits of neck and shoulder massage that she threw in with the facial indicated that maalish-by-Yuwan would be outstanding too. Sigh. Three words: get a massage.
I retreat wistfully to my living quarters. Room I cannot call it, because room it is not. My hosts at the resort have accommodated me in a One-Bedroom Private Villa, a thing of beauty, which features two rooms separated by a corridor that leads towards a private pool and sit-out area, equipped with loungers, outdoor table and chairs. The room to the left is for living—the high life. It features gorgeous, comfortable seating, LED flatscreen TV, dining table, a wine humidor, Nespresso machine and a generous assortment of fine teas. The room to the right is for sleeping—on a kingsize bed that looks out onto the pool—and other activities such as lazing, reading, beautifying oneself at leisure and luxuriating in a vast bath area equipped with rainshower, Anantara-branded toiletries in addition to a range of super-fine Thémaé toiletries.
Frankly, the Villa was wasted on me. It needed a family, or at least a couple, to populate it, to fully enjoy the privacy, space and luxury. I would have been blissful in a Lagoon View room—they are generously sized and come with large, airy balconies with views of the quiet waters. The Ocean View rooms might disappoint, though, because only those on the top floor really have the promised views (those from lower levels are currently compromised by mangrove thickets).
The last but far from least important reason this is an excellent resort is, of course, its food. Everything I ate, from the dreamy rib-eye steak (oh, beef) at Acquolina to the Thai at Spice Traders to the Sri Lankan breakfast at Olu, was beyond reproach. I could see families splashing about in the pools, discussing boat rides, eating and drinking joyfully—a perfect indulgent family holiday. As for me, I’ll just have to bring the animals along next time.
Location: St Sebastian Road, Kalutara, Sri Lanka/1hr from Colombo airport
Accommodation: 141 rooms, suites and villas
Tariff: From $200 on double occupancy
Contact: +94-34-7226060, kalutara.anantara.com