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W15 Escape: A Sri Lankan escape from the rat race

W15 Escape: A Sri Lankan escape from the rat race

 

Sri Lanka was the first country I visited after I quit my job, my house and my life in London, and I’m sad to say that I probably didn’t do it justice. A two week dash through half of the country while trying to get my head around what the hell I had done was not exactly conducive to a fun time. But when we arrived on Sri Lanka’s sleepy, surfy south coast and checked into the gorgeous W15 Escape for a few days, I finally felt like things might just be ok.

As a backpacker, you don’t often get to stay in luxurious hotels. Of course, there’s the occasional exception when you may decide to throw caution to the wind and treat yourself to a five star hotel for a night… But one of the great things about travelling from the UK to Asia is that you really do get some serious bang for your buck. W15 Escape is the kind of place I could never usually afford to stay if it were in Europe, for example. So it felt like a real treat to check in to an Instagram-worthy hotel at long last; a place where there was nothing else to do but unwind.

And unwinding was definitely on the cards for us after our journey to W15 Escape. Life on the road in a foreign country is rarely without a hiccup, especially when you’re trying to work out how to get from A to B. Sri Lanka doesn’t have the greatest public transport system, as we discovered after we arrived, so we had to hire a succession of drivers to deliver us to each destination. Not the cheapest mode of transportation but surely one of the most convenient? No schlepping across town to the bus or train station with your bags, no spending hours squished into a cramped seat. You can stop whenever you like and relax in the back seat of a car safe in the knowledge that your bags are tucked away in the boot. Until your driver gets lost. And pissed off.

We had made the long journey from Tissamaharama to Weligama without incident but all that changed when we realised that our driver actually had no idea where the hotel was. Things were complicated by the fact that there’s another W15 in Weligama – and our driver had assumed that’s where we were going. What’s more, we hadn’t realised that W15 Escape isn’t even in Weligama but is actually a few kilometres west, near the town of Ahanagama. We drove around and around and around. And around a bit more. Every time we stopped for directions we were sent to the other W15 – mainly because the language barrier meant that our driver hadn’t fully grasped that there were two hotels with similar names. He was getting increasingly irritated and we were feeling increasingly uncomfortable. Fortunately, someone eventually realised where we wanted to go but, as we drove away from the town and down some little back road to a set of gates, I have to say that my heart sank a little. I hadn’t expected to stay in the middle of nowhere…

All concerns vanished, however, when the gates opened and, as if they were the pearly gates to paradise, we entered a world of pure, gleaming white. W15 Escape is an unusual combination of Scandinavian and Sri Lankan influences – two design styles that you rarely find together. Yet, in these circumstances, they work. The clean white lines and washed out wood that characterise Scandi style are softened by local touches such as peacock-patterned cushions and an emphasis on nature. That manifested itself in outdoor dining and bathrooms that were open to the elements – luckily for us, the weather was nothing short of glorious when we stayed. And of course, no luxury hotel would be complete without an outdoor swimming pool surrounded by palm trees and white-draped cabanas for lounging. Pure bliss….

We stayed in one of W15 Escape’s garden suites; a set of pristine white rooms arranged around the communal outside area, overlooking the dining “room” and pool. After staying in some fairly basic rooms over the last couple of weeks, our suite felt like heaven. A huge double bed in the centre dominated the room, there was loads of space for us to spread out, oversized fluffy dressing gowns, a choice of seats (gasp!) and then there was *that* bathroom. Separated from the bedroom by a set of French windows and floaty, gauzy curtains for modesty, it opened onto a small plant-filled patio so you could gaze at the greenery while going for a wee. The shower was one of those fancy rain showers AND there was plenty of hot water – not that we really needed it in the Sri Lankan sun but it’s always nice to have the option. Using a bathroom with a wall missing took a bit of getting used to. It felt “wrong” to me and I was a little paranoid at first, thinking someone would be able to see me. But, of course, it’s completely private.

I also loved the fact that there was a little seating area outside each suite and that the staff would come over and take your order for any drinks or food. It felt very decadent to be able to have a glass of chilled white wine brought over to me while I worked just outside of my room. The drinks menu at W15 Escape is extensive, with a great selection of cocktails. I particularly enjoyed their mango daiquiris. As the hotel is located a little way from town we ate there every evening, in the lovely outdoor dining area overlooking the pool. The menu offers a mix of local and Western dishes, with lots of locally sourced seafood to choose from. Portions were generous and the service was second to none. Breakfast was equally brilliant. I never quite got to grips with the whole “curry for breakfast” thing that’s so common in Asia so I was glad to have options like porridge, French toast or eggs.

We did end up visiting the “other” W15 during our stay; having passed it so many times, it felt like the right thing to do. Located right on the popular surf beach of Weligama, it was a pleasant spot to enjoy a few cocktails and watch the surfers doing their thing. The town of Weligama was what I would describe as “interesting” rather than lovely. Despite the emphasis on surf tourism, it felt very much like a local’s town and I really enjoyed seeing daily life unfold, particularly the fantastic range of seafood stalls along the beach. If it’s the beach bum lifestyle you’re after then the other direction from W15 Escape will take you to Unawatuna. Here you’ll find a gorgeous beach, loads of great restaurants and plenty of spas should you feel like a massage. Some of the restaurants offer beach cabanas which are “free” to hire as long as you order something from the menu – and that something only has to be a drink.

Luxury hotel? Cocktails? Lazy beach days? Ayurvedic massages? Yep, things on the Big Travel Adventure were definitely looking up…

W15 Escape Pros:
Huge, gorgeously decorated rooms
Great food and drink options
Excellent service
Swimming pool with a view over the ocean

W15 Escape Cons:
Mosquitoes!! The pesky blighters made sitting outside from early evening onwards bit of a nightmare
The wifi connection wasn’t great if you’re doing the whole digital nomad thing
Not within walking distance of any town

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The Grand Hotel in Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka

The Grand Hotel in Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka

To say that we were a bit wet is an understatement. Our hike through the verdant tea plantations of the Sri Lankan highlands was cut soggily short with the arrival of the downpour to end all downpours. As we waited for our tuk-tuk driver in a nearby cafe, the thought of returning to our chilly and damp guest house did not fill us with excitement. We were desperate to get out of our sodden clothes and have a hot shower, but we knew that nothing was going to dry at our current abode. A cheeky thought occurred to us…why not treat ourselves to a night at The Grand Hotel.

The Grand Hotel in Nuwara Eliya – former home of the Governor of Sri Lanka – is a testament to the old-fashioned British influence that still lingers in this part of Sri Lanka. The town itself is known as “Little England” and the climate is certainly very reminiscent of home! The centre of Nuwara Eliya is very much like the majority of Sri Lankan towns but the outskirts tell a slightly different story. Here, deep among the shade of cool deciduous trees and golf courses, you will find grand colonial buildings of a by-gone era. Here is where you will find The Grand Hotel.

This luxury establishment discretely whispers elegance; from the manicured lawns to the white-jacketed staff. Of course, we totally destroyed this by rocking up in a tuk-tuk with our huge backpacks, wet and covered in mud, blaring Bob Marley at full volume. Never let it be said I don’t know how to make an entrance… The staff didn’t bat an eyelid at their new, rather careworn, guests. Our bags were taken from us and we were ushered into the lounge, where we were given hot vanilla tea and handmade fudge. It was like they read my mind and knew exactly what I needed to feel 100% better.

Our room wasn’t HUGE for a five star hotel, but there was still plenty of space for two people with lots of luggage to be able to move around comfortably. Best of all there was a heater – perfect for drying wet shoes. The bathroom – yes, proper bathroom not a sodden, slippy wet room – had an actual bath and endless hot water. Hot shower, white bathrobe, dry clothes = a substantially happier me. The only niggle was that there is no wifi in the bedrooms, only in the common parts.

We’d actually visited The Grand Hotel the previous day, so already had a feel for what it offered. Next stop on our road to feeling human once again – high tea. This is offered every day at The Grand Hotel from 3:30pm in another nod to British tradition. Softly-spoken staff pour endless cups of tea as you nibble on a mixture of British and Sri Lankan-inspired treats. And if you want something a bit stiffer than tea, the same tea lounge also offers tea-themed cocktails or you can decamp to the subterranean wine bar for a sharpener in front of the open log fire.

There are numerous restaurants to choose from, catering to all culinary tastes. So much so that it was actually a bit difficult to find Sri Lankan food among everything else. We eventually found a few curry options in The Magnolia, but if Thai or Indian or Arabic is your bag – or even if you’re just craving a burger – you can find it at The Grand Hotel. Not surprisingly, breakfast is an event. A mind-boggling variety of food options are available, with a number of items made fresh in front of you. You can even find good old fashioned British baked beans. Go hungry!

The staff at The Grand Hotel were brilliant and helped push our laundry through (we really didn’t want to pack damp, muddy clothes) and organised a driver to take us on the long journey down to Tissamaharama the next day. Our tea plantation hike may have been a wash-out but our experience at The Grand Hotel made up for it somewhat.  If only I had an excuse to dry out in five star luxury every day…

The Grand Hotel, Grand Hotel Road, Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka
Rooms start at £138 per night, including breakfast. We booked through Booking.com for a discounted rate.

Esala Perahera in Sri Lanka: What you need to know

Esala Perahera in Sri Lanka: What you need to know

I’ll be honest. I had never even heard of the Esala Perahera before, let alone considered getting in on the action. But, in one of those wonderful strokes of luck, we arrived in Kandy in time for this most magnificent of Asian festivals.

The Esala Perahera is linked to the Buddhist Temple of the Tooth in the Sri Lankan hilltop town of Kandy. The temple holds the sacred Buddha’s tooth and, for 10 nights every summer, a grand procession is held to honour this relic. It’s one of Sri Lanka’s – indeed, Asia’s – biggest festivals. So that’s why it helps to be at least a little bit organised if you want to visit Kandy at this time – unlike us! For a start, hotels are more expensive and get booked up much faster. If you want to stay in Kandy but you’re not bothered about seeing the festival, choose a different date. That way you’ll get a much better deal on your accommodation.

Kandy town centre is EXTREMELY busy during the Esala Perahera, making it pretty much impossible to explore at your leisure. People start camping out on the pavement hours before the parade starts and most of the pavements are fenced off, so you either have to climb over the sardine-like sets of families picnicking on tarpaulin sheets laid over the floor or take your chances with the traffic on the road. You also get funnelled through security checkpoints where your bag is searched and you get a very “thorough” pat down. None of this makes for a particularly relaxing experience.

However, gird your loins because it’s totally worth checking out this incredible festival. For a start, you get to see a totally different side to daily life in Sri Lanka. The general sense of excitement is wonderful; people start getting into the party mood well before festivities properly kick off and the streets are filled with vendors selling balloons, flags, whistles, popcorn and other snacks. The festival attracts visitors from all over Sri Lanka and it’s fascinating to observe the anticipation building throughout the day. It’s nothing like anything you would see in the UK.

So, how do you get to watch the parade? You can join the locals on the pavements if you don’t mind making a day of it. It’s free but you’ll need to get there early to get a good spot – and bring plenty of provisions with you. However, you can also buy tickets for the numerous seats that are dotted around town. One of the most popular places for tourists seems to be the Queens Hotel. This old colonial building is located right at the start of the parade route so you will get a great view. Tickets here are very expensive though; you’re looking at paying between $95-$125 per seat! They also tend to sell out pretty quickly so you need to be a bit more organised than we were.

We had done hardly any research before rocking up into Kandy and, in fact, had only found out about the Esala Perahera the night before we arrived. So we literally had no idea what we were doing. The owner of the guest house we were based at said that he could get us tickets for the parade at a cost of 9000 rupees, but he couldn’t tell us exactly where we would be sitting. Without having seen the parade route or even the town, we weren’t confident that we would actually have good seats. However, upon heading into town we saw that there were loads of different seating options available. Pretty much every local business had opened up the front of their shops and/or constructed makeshift balconies with seating. The owners hang around outside selling tickets and most of them will approach you if they see you looking. We simply wandered along the route, checked out a few different places and eventually bought a couple of seats above an electronics shop for 6000 rupees each (about £30).

The only “problem” was that, because we hadn’t got our shit together beforehand, our seats were three rows from the front. All the front row seats tend to sell out in advance so if you want a first-class view then you need to get straight onto it. Bear in mind that you will pay more for a front-row seat, however. We were seated a couple of hours before the parade started as well – it’s basically a case of bagsying your spot. Oh and it can be a bit of a squeeze and a scramble to reach some of the balcony seats, so if you’re wobbly on your feet then look for a seat at pavement level.

Squishing in with a bunch of other tourists and locals was all part of the fun of the Esala Perahera, however. It really helped build a sense of anticipation and when we heard the distant cannon fire, signifying the start of the parade, followed by the sound of the first whip-crackers coming down the road, the excitement was palpable. The parade kicks off with the whip-crackers and incredible fire dancers, who “clear” the streets before the flag bearers arrive, solemnly carrying Buddhist flags. Next up is wave upon wave of dancers and musicians in traditional dress, who become increasingly frenetic as they process down the street. The atmosphere is intoxicating; the frantic sound of drums and pipes swells in the smoke-filled, flame-lit night. After each wave of dancers, come elephants – yes, actual massive IRL elephants. These really are an incredible spectacle. Splendidly caparisoned and covered in fairy lights, they stomp through the streets with costumed riders sat astride.

There are five phases to the Esala Perahera and the tooth relic makes an appearance during the first one. It arrives on the back of the Maligawa Tusker – a huge, magnificently decorated elephant. All the locals stood up and bowed their heads as it passed by (although these days the “relic” is actually a replica; the original stowed safely away in the temple). The other phases of the procession include peacock dancers and female dancers venerating different deities, as Hinduism mixes with Buddhism in that way that is so typical of Asia. We didn’t stay until the end; jet lag was kicking in and the Esala Perahera is very long – something else to bear in mind if you’re visiting. Getting back out of the town centre was a bit tricky and I’m pretty certain I stepped on a LOT of people!

The Esala Perahera is definitely worth it. If anyone really needs any more reasons to visit Sri Lanka, this is one of them. It’s a spectacle like nothing else and was such a wonderful way to kick off my trip to Asia. I can’t wait to see what else I’ll discover over the next few months – but hopefully we’ll try to be a bit more organised from now on!

What amazing things have you accidentally stumbled upon when travelling? Let me know in the comments!

PS. My photos are DIRE because I was sat so far back and it was dark. If you want to get good pics, bag a seat right at the front somewhere and bring the usual low-light equipment.