A safari in Sri Lanka is a traveller's paradise
Sick of the concrete jungle, Ben Winstanley heads to Sri Lanka’s wild south-east region to get an experience of the real thing instead
Sri Lanka, 9pm: we’re walking through a thorn scrub forest in the pitch black. The beam of my torchlight knifes through the darkness, while shadows dance along rustling branches above – grey langur monkeys en route to bed. Out here in the wilderness, the soundtrack comes courtesy of waves crashing against the beach a few hundred metres away as cawing tropical birds and chirping insects join the chorus. All around is nature in blissful isolation from the human world. It’s too easy to get lost in the beauty of it all.
The walkway swings round to the left and we stop dead in our tracks: there’s something pushing through the trees up ahead. “Shhh,” I mouth at my startled girlfriend, but she’s already turned on her heels and is off in the other direction at pace. Good effort, mate. People react differently to coming face to face with a five-tonne Sri Lankan elephant, I guess – you just don’t know until one’s ten feet away from you. For my part, I was determined to get my David Attenborough on: tip toeing like Wile E Coyote, I advanced three steps forward, made direct eye contact with the humongous beast, paused… and quickly followed my partner down the path. Sod this, I want to go home – there’s none of this shit at Longleat. Keep your nature, Tarzan, I’ll stick with humanity.View on Instagram
I’m visiting the lesser known south-east region of Sri Lanka, home to Yala National Park, numerous herds of Asia’s largest elephant (we’ll check back on them later), and two of the finest new hotels in south Asia. As transport links from the capital Colombo improve, my money is on this part of the country becoming a hotbed for global tourism. You’ll also find the best of Sri Lanka’s often temperamental weather here, a plethora of natural oases teeming with all kinds of flora and fauna, and gorgeous wild beaches that are begging for your favourite Instagram filter. For those seeking a balance of R&R and adventure, it’s a traveller’s paradise – and you can bet that many of those people will be making use of Sri Lanka’s latest and largest resort, the Shangri-La Hambantota Golf Resort and Spa.
Located in a former coconut estate, the property’s massive 145 acres backs onto a handsome crescent of raspberry-ripple beach, where purple-pink sand weaves through the typical golden hue. It’s deserted, save for a smattering of colourful boats that local fishermen haul into the raging surf once a day, and me in my Orlebar Brown’s feeling pretty darn pleased with myself. It’s as far removed from your usual sandy destination as you can possibly imagine – and a welcome sight after the not-so-small matter of a four-hour journey down from Colombo.
Turning my back on the Indian Ocean, the hotel offers plenty to its inhabitants. As you might expect from a 300-room behemoth, Shangri-La Hambantota caters for everyone without overstretching itself. For starters, there’s the three pools – including the infinity pool a hop, skip and a running bomb away from our premier ocean suite room – an Ayurvedic spa and even a 23ft-high trapeze for more acrobatic guests to throw themselves into. It’s symptomatic of Shangri-La’s holistic approach to creating resorts; fun without sacrificing elegance.
Rooms are as bright and breezy as the climate: polished bamboo flooring and hand-woven rugs under foot, beautiful local artwork on the walls and an enormous bed upon which to flop in the evening. It’s a safe design, befitting an international audience, but charming nonetheless – not that you’ll notice when a sea-view balcony commands your attention throughout the day.
Elsewhere in the grounds, I tee it up at the 18-hole championship golf course – it’s Sri Lanka’s first resort course, but is wizened beyond its years. It’s no small feat to build a high-class course in a country with almost no experience in doing so but, here, Shangri-La has succeeded. Everything from the sand in the bunkers, the resilient paspalum grass on the fairways and even the resident pro has been carefully considered and shipped from more golf-savvy countries. The result is a promising 6,110-yard track that makes up for its short yardage with tight, well-guarded fairways and clever hole designs tasked with testing every aspect of a player’s game. Testament to its quality, discussions have already taken place with the European Tour about hosting a tournament in the near future, and it’s safe to assume the course would be an interesting addition to the circuit.
I can’t say I’ve ever been excited by poo before, but it’s difficult not to get a thrill when you’re tracking an animal – even with a fistful of excrement
Five days of quiet luxury – drinking coconuts grown on site (a memory of the property’s previous usage), gorging on the south Asian cuisine prominent across all three of the hotel’s restaurants, and occasionally getting taken out by the waves (the swell is so strong here, swimming is a no go) – and it’s time to move on.
From Sri Lanka’s largest resort to one of the smallest, we make the 40-minute journey from the harbour town of Hambantota into the jungle for our stay at Chena Huts. It’s an immediate and wild departure, but one that excites the inner adventurer in all of us.View on Instagram
Perched on the shore at the edge of Yala, Sri Lanka’s oldest and second-largest national park, this boutique hotel is unlike anywhere else I’ve ever visited. Monkeys, residents long before the hotel arrived, greet your arrival with curiosity before bounding off into the trees; birds every colour of the spectrum dart through the muggy air; and wooden walkways, dotted with 14 camouflaged luxury huts, weave through compact thorny jungle before opening out onto a beach where sea turtles come to lay their eggs. It’s another world.
Chenas were originally small clearings in the jungle where locals farmed crops – their huts simple affairs in close enough proximity to chase hungry elephants away. Other than sharing the name, Chena Huts couldn’t be further removed. More elegant pavilion than hut, these palm-thatched cabins are furnished in safari-chic style with a large bed and freestanding bath. It’s a luxurious escape from the wild, aided by a terrace and a plunge pool handy for when the heat and dust gets too much.
The beauty of Chena is not just its style or situ, but the daily safari excursions included in the room rate. Taking the 4x4 out for the day in search of Yala’s famed leopards (the highest population density of anywhere in the world) is a joy, especially when it’s on your doorstep. The hotel’s rangers are also happy to take you on beach walks in search of saltwater crocodiles (no biggie, just the largest living reptile alive) or into the brush in search of even bigger beasts.
Anyway, back to the elephant in the room – or startlingly close to the room at least. When we arrive at Chena, the hotel rangers are on high alert. One of the quirks of the property’s location is its position on an elephant crossing, and right now an adult male is believed to be circling the site. This might sound fun, but when you’re dealing with something as heavy as a lorry and capable of travelling 27mph you’ve got to have your wits about you.
Undeterred, we accompany head ranger Steaurt on his early morning rounds and end up on the animal’s tail. “Excuse my interest in dung, I just like shit,” he smirks at us before passing a big ball of the stuff to me. “Get your nose in there. It’s fresh.” I can’t say I’ve ever been excited by poo before, but it’s difficult not to get a thrill when you’re tracking an animal – even with a fistful of excrement. Sri Lanka’s answer to Steve Irwin then pulls us towards a ripped tree branch, it’s wound still wet with sap. Oh boy, this is happening: we’re close. Steaurt’s eyes dance into the undergrowth: “It’s funny. For big bastards you never see them coming.” Spoken like a man who’s seen it all before. But we lose the scent and end up circling back to grab egg hoppers and curry at the hotel’s sensational restaurant – we’ve earned it.
It’s only that evening the elephant finally scythes through the trees in front of us. Maybe in time I’ll come up with a better ending than wimping out, but it’s safe to say Chena Huts over delivered on its promise of being at one with nature, and I’ve more than had my fill.