I like to stop at airport souvenir shops and admire the postcards on display. These evoke in me a strong sense of yearning: I must visit, soak in the culture and breathe the air of the places these postcards display. Maybe then, on my way back, I will purchase them as mementos.
Things, however, panned out differently in the three days I spent on the southern coast of Sri Lanka.
Every view was postcard-worthy. For instance, at the beachfront boutique hotel, Cantaloupe Aqua, the waves often breached the fence and entered the wooden front deck. They always brought in a crab or two. The glimmer of these displaced crustaceans’ shells in the dying light of the day announced their arrival just before the sea creatures scuttled back into the sea. Similarly, from the roof of the hillside Cantaloupe Levels, another boutique property, I could see the in-house swimming pool, with its pink, blue and green tiles, juxtaposed with the vast bay, which seemed to have aquamarine tiles of its own.
I had come to this side of Sri Lanka as a visitor to the Kingdom of Cantaloupe. Obviously not an actual kingdom, Cantaloupe Hotels is a hospitality group that brands itself this way. It even has a coat of arms as a logo. Its portfolio consists of the two aforementioned properties, with some more on the way.
But what makes them unique? At dawn, I was driven from Bandaranaike International Airport, Colombo, to Cantaloupe Levels, located on a headland in the coastal town of Unawatuna in Sri Lanka’s Galle district. Tropical surroundings, red soil, shimmering ocean, and the many ponds and bays became visible with the sunrise. By the time we arrived at the hotel, the nearby Rumassala headland, its adjacent bay, a distant lighthouse and an inconspicuous beach were sunlit. It was then that the answer dawned on me—this breathtaking scenery in its fully illuminated glory is what sets this place apart.
Cantaloupe Levels was chic on a whole new level. I noticed polygons everywhere—the tri-coloured rectangular pool lay adjacent to a pentagonal lawn with a sitting area. This was further connected to a square garden. The multi-cuisine restaurant was somewhat hexagonal, and allowed a 270° view of the surroundings. Finally, there were three floors, with every floor smaller in area than the one below it. Proportions and shapes aside, design features that stood out included the many pure-white panels, railings and pillars. This whiteness was balanced out by the colourful Warholesque paintings in the hallways.
I spent a lot of time at the Clique Bed Lounge. King-sized beds were placed in a line on a poolside deck, where one could relax and swig Sri Lanka’s iconic Lion beer. The comfort of the bed and the hearty amounts of lager in my tummy had me snoring the whole afternoon.
And that pretty much set the tone of my stay at Cantaloupe Levels—a day filled with calm and laziness. At times I plopped down on the curvy loungers, at other times I sat with my feet dangling in the pool. My travel itinerary said ‘relax by the pool/rest’ multiple times, and that was exactly what I did. I was allotted a Superior Silhouettes room. These were supposed to be the smallest, but they were far from small. Minimalism and simplicity dictated the room’s layout, and the bay-facing window wall was a nice surprise. I walked into the bathroom to unearth a treasure—the jacuzzi.
The room I was allotted at Cantaloupe Aqua was even more sumptuous. This hotel opened in 2010, the group’s first property. As the name suggests, it is a beach resort. Located just about 15 minutes from Levels, it is designed to bring out Sri Lanka’s coastal beauty in all its splendour. I stayed in an Aqua Ultra Zen room, which was a sizeable duplex suite. The moment I entered the black-and-blue themed room, a sitting area greeted me. My king-sized bed was a walk up a staircase to a mezzanine floor. The front of the room had a spacious balcony that overlooked Aqua’s deck and the ocean beyond. The palm-fringed south coast is home to turquoise waters, and Aqua was so intimate with them, I felt as if I were aboard a ship.
I found at Aqua a bohemian vibe and elements of an art-deco architectural style—something that Levels also boasted of. My eyes were more sensitive to the curves here than the polygons, which was a telling difference in terms of design. But the colours remained similarly plain and unpretentious. I crossed the lobby to reach the front deck, filled with cream-coloured umbrellas, sofas, an infinity pool and loungers. Adjacent to it lay the restaurant, Coconut.
Both Coconut and the unnamed restaurant at Levels served us delicious Thai, European and Sri Lankan food. The executive chef, Nandana, welcomed me at Levels with authentic Sri Lankan breakfast fare: two kinds of idiyappam, one made with red rice and the other white (string hoppers or rice-flour pressed into noodle form), kiri bath (rice squares made in coconut milk), onion sambola and coconut sambola (both rice accompaniments), and fish curry. The food was refreshingly light, unexpected given the smorgasbord of rice- and coconut-based dishes. At lunch, things were taken up a notch. Two of the kitchen staff came carrying a tray the length of a fully-grown human being with a variety of meats, vegetables and carb accompaniments laid out on it. This monster feast, Nandana told us, was called ekamuthu-kema, which in Sinhalese means ‘a sense of unity’. Cantaloupe Hotels’ director, Nadeem, who joined us for lunch, was glad to rattle off the many items of this dish: saffron-hinted yellow rice, string hopper kottu (similar to kottu roti, which is the famous Sri Lankan chopped-up roti but made using string hoppers), fish ambul thiyal (marinated tuna wrapped in pandan leaves), lamprais (rice cooked with chicken stalk; a Dutch influenced dish) and mango curry, among many other meats, curries and chutneys.
Another highlight was the cooking demonstration Nandana held for meat Aqua. Sri Lanka is known for its cinnamon, which he used in most of the dishes. Its rich aroma was a pleasure to my nose, and so was that of the pandan leaves, another popular ingredient in Sri Lanka.
I also encountered cinnamon on the morning I went for a boat safari on the Madu Ganga. From Ambalangoda, about 50km from the Cantaloupe Aqua, we stopped by fish spas, a Buddhist temple and the more scenic parts of the surrounding mangroves, arriving at an island where a woman peeled cinnamon from its inner bark. I gladly bought some.
The southern coast also came with a host of other attractions. We took a circle around the Japanese Peace Pagoda, a five-minute walk from Levels, before trekking down to the secluded Jungle Beach. We then visited the tidy Galle Fort in Galle city, a Portuguese, Dutch and British marvel that has withstood tsunamis and provided its rulers with a titanic stronghold. Along its cream- and beige-tiled walkways, we saw black vintage cars, artistic souvenir shops, boutique cafés and quaint ice-cream parlours.
As our three days drew to a close, my eyes had adjusted to both white-themed Cantaloupe properties and the vivid colours of the southern coast of Sri Lanka. The prospect of returning home, on the other hand, felt colourless.
When I passed the souvenir shop at Colombo airport on the way back, I didn’t give the postcards a second glance. Their magic had gone. No postcard could be prettier than real life. All I had, and ever needed, were my memories.
Cantaloupe Aqua: 127km post, Palutugaha Junction, Habaraduwa, Talpe.
Cantaloupe Levels: Bona Vista Road, Rumassala, Unawatuna
Aqua: 15 rooms (standard rooms, duplex suites and hotel suites.)
Levels: 9 rooms (standard rooms, deluxe suites and design-oriented suites)
Aqua from $130; Levels from $175
Contact +94-11-722-1485; cantaloupehotels.com