If you’re like me, there is one exotic thing you’ve missed above all others in the past two years of barely travelling at all – and that something is tropical heat. Whether it is lazing under the coconut palms with a cold drink, or stepping on to a moonlit white-sand beach, there is something about the tropics that cannot be replaced by anything else. But where to find that holiday bliss at an affordable price right now? I’ll give you a clue: it’s in the Indian Ocean. But not the Maldives, nor the Seychelles – they’re way too expensive. It’s Sri Lanka.
Yes, the long-haul flight will put a large dent in your budget – a return fare on a direct service from London to Colombo will set you back at least £700 – but once you get here everything else is incredibly cheap. Thanks to a combination of a weak currency, a custom-starved tourist industry, and a government yearning for dollars and pounds, you can get sensational bargains – think luxury hotels for half or even a third their normal tariff. Ditto the delicious food, the incredible sights, and simply getting around: it is all surreally under-priced.
What’s more, by coming here, you are doing Sri Lankans a big favour. Because they want us here. And it is rather nice to be eagerly welcomed. Especially with that modest bill at the end.
Take, as an example of these bills, the five-star hotel I recently chose for the first leg of my Official Tour of Surprisingly Cheap Sri Lanka. It’s called the Marino Beach. It’s a swish new five-star complex in Colombo, about 10 minutes tuk-tuk ride (which will cost you £2) from the main action around the colonial Fort District.
For anyone looking to sleep off the jet lag, and begin defrosting their British bones, this hotel is perfect. It boasts a sumptuous 40-metre rooftop infinity pool overlooking the Laccadive Sea, where at night the lights of the fishing boats bob on the ink-black horizon, like half the stars have descended to the water for some synchronised swimming. It has a similarly agreeable rooftop garden, plus hedonistic Jacuzzis, two sea-view bars, one of which leads via a skybridge to a large, gleaming gym. So how much is it per night, this luxury oasis in a capital city next to a whispering ocean with all the amenities? Maybe £200? More? It’s £62.
There’s not much to do around the Marino Beach except soak up the rays and the hotel curries (and a fine fish curry, plus dhal, chutneys, coconut sambol, pappadums, and a frosted glass of cold Lion lager, served on the ocean-side terrace, costs £6). But I do strongly recommend one nearby stop: The Gallery Café. Housed in the low-slung ex-home of a famous Sri Lankan architect, resembling a Pompeian villa decorated in stripy liquorice colours, this soothing, semi-al-fresco bar/art gallery/restaurant serves some of the best food in the capital, fusing Asian and western flavours. Try the prawn and lobster linguine, sublimely lifted with a subtle whack of chili. With caprese salad starters and some chilled white wine, that’s a cracking lunch for two, and costs about £25, max.
Now it’s time to wander south, 100 miles along the coast to historic Galle. I could get a one-way Uber down the expressway for just £23, but I opt for the more romantic method. The train, which trundles down the seashore, meaning you can spend two hours watching loin-clothed fishermen hauling in silvery handallos (not unlike whitebait) from the comfort of your berth. Pineapple and samosa vendors ply the platforms and carriages, so you won’t go hungry either.
And the price? A first-class ticket, it turns out, sets me back 600 Sri Lankan rupees. That’s £1.35. It’s around this time I start to wonder if there is a word for the strange sensation that I am being consistently undercharged.
My next hotel is not cheap in absolute terms. I’m paying £130 a night for a “deluxe seaview room” in Le Grande Galle. But then, this is a world-class hotel which, in normal times, can charge £500. This is because it has an unequalled location – next to the famous sea-ward battlements of Unesco-listed Galle, and also because it offers tip-top hospitality, from the hi-tech Japanese loos (which open automatically as you approach, like a kind of hungry porcelain crocodile) to a sybaritic pool overlooking the crumpling surf, to lashings of art and great Sri Lankan service (and, by the by, an epic mud crab curry feast, for about £8).
Old Galle itself is just a few minutes’ stroll away, or a 70p tuk-tuk ride. A near-flawless example of an 18th-century Dutch colonial fortress town – with some British military additions – it was, pre-Covid, rather overrun with visitors, especially in peak season. Now you can wander the hushed, colonnaded, wood-and-whitewashed streets at dawn or dusk – the most poetic times – and find yourself essentially alone, apart from the odd Sri Lankan wedding, complete with groom in traditional velvet-and-dagger Kandyan costume. Aim to have a cocktail at the elegant Fort Printers Hotel, under the outdoor ceiling fans, and watch a very small bit of the world walk very slowly by.
Where to next? At these enticing prices, all of Sri Lanka is your Indo-Pacific oyster. You could go inland to the hill-towns and tea plantations, you could amble sideways along the coast for a pure beach experience – maybe turtle-haunted Hikkaduwa to the west, or blue-whale-visited Marissa to the east (both lovely) but after seven dreamy, sunny days in Galle I want a last taste of Colombo.
This time I choose a central, celebrated hotel, the Cinnamon Grand (five stars, six restaurants, two pools, spa, enormous gym, you name it: £74 a night). I tour Colombo’s vivacious markets, I buy cute souvenirs for pennies, I admire the temples, mosques, lakes and cathedrals, and when I am done I walk five minutes down the boulevard to an even more celebrated haunt: the great British-colonial Galle Face Hotel, which has a prime position by Colombo’s favourite garden, gazing directly out to sea.
I drink rather too many excellent dry martinis on the oceanside terrace as I absorb the priceless beauty. Then I get the bill. Again, I ask myself, how much should this cost? Several hours of blissful drinks in a world famous hotel with a magnificent view of a tropical sea? It costs the same as two pints of lager in my local pub, back home.
Your biggest expense will be your flight. Sri Lankan Airlines (srilankan.com) flies direct from Heathrow to Colombo, with return fares in January 2023 from around £800.
A double room at the five-star Marino Beach (marinobeach.com) with balcony and partial sea view starts from $75 (£62) a night, breakfast not included.
Or try the five-star Cinnamon Grand (cinnamonhotels.com). A premium double room in December, with pool or garden view, and excellent breakfast included, costs from £126 a night.
Eat and drink
The Gallery Café is a 15-minute walk from Marino Beach, Colombo. See paradiseroad.lk. The revered black pork curry with rice, dhal and all the condiments is less than £6.
The Fort Printers, Galle (thefortprinters.com). This exquisite hotel, beautifully carved from an 18th-century townhouse in the heart of lovely Galle, also features “39”, a bistro and winebar. A G&T will set you back about £2.50.
The Galle Face Hotel (gallefacehotel.com). One of the most famous colonial hotels in Asia (think a Ceylonese Raffles). The food is good, the drinks are great, the views are peerless. At night it comes alive with the gilded youth of Colombo, who really like to party with exuberant expats and tourists. £3 for a dry martini.
To try Sri Lanka’s celebrated mud lagoon crabs in Sri Lanka’s most celebrated restaurant visit. The Ministry of Crab (ministryofcrab.com) housed in an airy, sensitively converted colonial edifice in central Fort. Half a dozen of their famous salt water oysters (with soy and chili) costs around £8.
Trains are quite slow but extremely cheap, you can generally just turn up 20 minutes before your journey, and buy a ticket in 1st or 2nd class. 3rd is “characterful”. See rome2rio.com for times. For short journeys, tuk-tuks are best: reckon on about £1 per kilometre.
All arrivals must have proof of either Covid vaccination or a recent negative test. Children under the age of 12 are exempt. See gov.uk for full details.