Over the last few years, this tear-drop shaped country off the tip of India has become a travel writer’s darling. Earning accolades for its ring of beaches, enduring ruins, distinct cuisine, vibrant culture, and wild game-viewing, this “up-and-coming destination” for tourists seeking “India Light” was “pure, untouched and unspoiled” and “ready for its close-up.” Sri Lanka sounded like a veritable Shangri-La. Encouraged by high expectations set by effusive media praise, I booked a two-week trip to see for myself.
The truth, I would discover, was murkier than the crisp images printed in travel mags. For example, game parks were burdened by hours-long entrance lines and competitive (dangerously so) racing to spot animals. Traffic congestion snarled for hours beyond the capital. Ugly Chinese construction proved Asian developers were already reimagining parts of the island. However, despite my frustration with the disputable adjectives lavished, notably “pristine” and “undiscovered,” I was also surprised at how little was written about one of the island’s most compelling distinctions: Ayurvedic medicine and the accessibility of treatments through some of the world’s loveliest spas.
Combing “ayuh” (life) with “veda” (science), Ayurveda is one of the world’s oldest holistic wellness systems based on restoring balance between mind, body and spirit. Ayurvedic medicine has been passed down from generation to generation for 5,000 years in Sri Lanka. It outlines a healing scheme that offers “rejuvenating pathways: from purifying skin, balancing and grounding the emotions, alleviating stress and fatigue, to treating a wide range of specific ailments,” according to the description on the Anantara hotel spa’s website.
You might call it “Ayurveda Light,” what was offered at the hotels. The full spectrum of Ayurvedic medicine, as opposed to spa therapies, was offered in Sri Lanka’s Ayurvedic hospitals. But I was told by our driver treatments there were reserved for serious medical patients, not tourists. Either locals with calamities like broken bones or the rare foreigner who had flown in to treat cancer, he said. But unless your ailment exceeded a stiff back from the long flight to Colombo, the spas would suffice in providing an enjoyable introduction to the concept, especially since most employed trained specialists to preside over their programs.
Starting at the Anantara Kalutara, the upscale hotel brand’s latest property an hour south of Colombo, I discovered a wellness center setting a new standard in serenity. On a secluded beach near the Indian Ocean and Kalu Ganga River, this sprawling resort offered private lagoon frontage. The property, inspired by the architectural vision of the late Geoffrey Bawa, Sri Lanka’s most famous architect, felt a bit out of the way and disconnected from the island. But for a peace-seeking mission, it was perfect.
The spa employed a resident Ayurvedic Specialist, Dr. Nadeesha De Silva. She wasn’t available the day of my treatment, so I met with a different professional. He assessed my dosha (energies believed to circulate in the body and govern physiological activity) and current state of health. After, I was escorted to a room and instructed to climb atop a wooden table and relax.
Flat on my back, hair strewn around my shoulders, I felt the first rivulets of warm oil from a stream positioned above my forehead. It drew ticklish trails down my ears and scalp and pooled around my head mimicking submersion in water. Prior to the treatment, known as shirodhara, I’d been instructed by the doctor to focus on my third eye. He advised this form of meditation would calm my restless New York mind, but instead it reminded me of the time I was told not to move during an MRI. By the end of the treatment, however, I’d relaxed enough to feel I’d sunk into the floor.
Outside of the spa, I took advantage of the pavilion to practice yoga and meditation, disciplines deeply connected to Ayurveda’s holistic approach to wellness. For those with little experience, the hotel offered a calendar of classes led by local practitioners.
While the hotel’s wellness offerings were my primary focus, the nearby village of Kalutara offered an afternoon’s worth of exploring — the 12th century Richmond Castle, the world’s only hollow Buddhist shrine and Kalutara Vihara, held vivid murals illustrating Buddha’s life. Lobster restaurants in ramshackle joints offered the first chance to eat off hotel premises, a feat I’d find difficult over the course of the trip outside of Colombo. (As advised by our driver, due to concerns over sanitation, we stopped just twice for street food.)
Surprisingly for a hotel, Kalutara boasted one of the best restaurants I dined at in two weeks – Spice Traders. And while the Ayurvedic doc might have shaken his head at alcohol consumption, the sophisticated cocktail program incorporating local spices and herbs occupied a few hours’ time in the quiet of night.
After Kalutara, I headed south to Galle. The former trading port popular with tourists for its Dutch-colonial architecture, replete with old mosques and churches and a romantic lighthouse, also housed the Amangalla. Home to a beautiful spa, pool, and grounds, the hotel seduced with its nod to a genteel time (for some of the population, anyway). Built in 1684, a careful restoration of the edifice preserved every architectural and decorative detail. It was nothing short of transporting, a signature effect of the Aman brand.
Flinging my windows open to reveal an ocean view had a restorative effect. The room decor evoked a bygone era resurrected with antiques, a porcelain claw-foot tub, and a four-poster bed neatly pintucked with crisp white linens. I sat at the spindly desk to scribble a version of “wish you were here” on a postcard stamped with a vintage scene of the hotel from several centuries back.
Any Amangalla spa experience should start with the booking of a private complimentary hour in “The Baths.” The website even advises guests “take the waters as a restoration for body and mind.” After my scheduled soak, I padded silently through the shadows to the spa desk. Cloaked in darkness lifted only by the candlelight of lanterns, the hallway’s lighting produced a dreamy effect.
The spa had five treatment rooms plus two hydrotherapy suites containing hot and cold plunge pools as well as steam rooms and saunas. The menu proposed a range of therapies, any one of which could be personalized by the Ayurvedic doctor. Treatments included massages, anointments, reflexology and scrubs. I chose a massage with aromatherapy, hoping to ease the pinch in my neck and shoulder inflicted by flying.
In the gray light of early morning, grass still dewy, I met the yoga instructor for an hour of pleasant stretching. She offered daily classes in the wooden pavilion. “Normal breathe, normal breathe, relax” she advised as we swept our arms to the sky then bent down in our dogs. “Normal Breathe.” That would become my mantra for the rest of the week.
The last stop on my coastal circuit was another Anantara Hotel called Peace Haven Tangalle. Located on a gorgeous patch of secluded sand on the southeastern tip of the island, it was the property that most lived up to the promise of paradise . Coconuts in the swaying trees, landscaping sympathetic to the environment, beach chairs equipped with sundries, plus another magnificent spa, made the stay a highlight of the trip.
I opted for another Ayurvedic treatment, this time a massage using medicinal herb-filled sachets called pindas. The benefits, I read, were numerous. The packets carried anti-inflammatory properties and would aid in relaxation, detoxification, muscle flexibility, and improve skin moisture and circulation, among other things.
Again, I climbed on to a teak platform, as distinguished from the soft, padded massage tables used in the West. Warm compresses were applied to various places on my back and legs, and left to work their magic. I rose an hour later feeling lighter, refreshed, and reinvigorated.
The aura didn’t last long, however, as I spent the latter part of the day tasting wine and grazing. I met the sommelier in the wine bar El Vino then indulged in pasta and seafood at the cliffside fine dining restaurant Il Mare. Under the stars, hair brushed by warm winds off the Indian Ocean, how could I resist a second (or third) glass of wine? Peace Haven boasted the best hotel list in the country.
As two weeks wrapped up with a final night in Colombo, I thought about how the island had missed or exceeded expectations. Had I spent enough time in Sri Lanka to make such a calculation? On the road I had seen a concerning mix of unchecked development projects, yet tasted fantastic curries; sat for hours in traffic, but enjoyed Ayurvedic treatments in gorgeous hotels; wept at the monument to the tsunami victims, then met welcoming locals. I discovered a surfer’s paradise, drank a coconut from the tree, experienced the backbreaking labor of tea-picking, discovered a people just trying to carry on with life after decades of conflict, and was introduced to Ayurveda’s notion of healing mind and body together –the former, perhaps, the most enduring lesson from the Sri Lankans.
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