There are plenty of reasons to put Sri Lanka at the top of a client's trip list. Scenery that ranges from postcard-worthy beaches to mountainous tea plantations; spectacular ruins of ancient cities; elephant refuges and cool train trips; interesting cuisine; and friendly people. Plus — a lure I hadn't considered when I planned my vacation — luxury accommodations, specifically two of the fabled Aman resorts, Amangalla and Amanwella.
They are a 90-minute drive apart on the island's south coast but occupy opposite worlds. I first checked into Amangalla, which was once the Dutch governor's mansion anchoring Galle, a major stop for English, Dutch and Portuguese traders starting in the 16th century and is now a Unesco World Heritage Site. The fortifications still stand and enclose a vast promontory of 17th century lanes and alleys that bustle with gem shops, curry parlors and restaurants.
Amangalla itself is just inside one of the fort's main gates with a colonnaded veranda, the perfect observation post for the teeming traffic of tuk-tuks (motorized rickshaws), chattering schoolgirls or the stunning model arriving for a photo shoot.
Inside, past the chandeliered Great Hall, there are several dozen guestrooms and suites, each lavishly appointed and many overlooking the lush, centuries-old gardens. A personal butler demonstrated the complex lighting and climate-control options and assured that he is available to arrange anything from wake-up tea service to visits to Amangalla's private island that comes with a Sri Lankan cooking lesson.
He will also, if you insist, deliver a TV or DVD player. There is an impressive collection of jazz CDs in the beautiful library. There was a heat wave during my visit and so, among many pleasant memories, I will only mention the partitioned lounge beds with overhead fans that abut the glorious pool and the chilled wet towels that the staff rushed to present on a silver tray whenever we returned from the sweltering streets.
Amanwella is the newer of the resorts and opened shortly after the December 2004 tsunami devastated the southern coast. Most of the area has been rebuilt, and certainly there is nothing to suggest anything but paradise in the coconut-palm-studded cove, a backdrop to the 30 villas that rise up the hillside.
Each comes with a private plunge pool and the usual excess of Aman amenities. The resort here is an aesthetic stunner, modeled in the style of Sri Lanka's most famous architect, Geoffrey Bawa. I found myself torn between the allure of my outdoor patio watching the birds, spending time on the beach or lounging by the infinity pool. Wherever you settle it's not long before an Aman staffer arrives to offer towels, a drink menu or the chef's special dish of ice cream.
If you get restless, one of Sri Lanka's major wildlife refuges is an hour away. The resort will also arrange excursions, including an $8,000 helicopter ride to the spectacular Sigiriya rock fortress that includes a picnic and flyby of Adam's Peak.
Nothing quite matches the Aman resorts for over-the-top, boutique luxury, but it's possible to enjoy a variety of high-end accommodations throughout the country. In the capital, Colombo, a likely arrival/departure point, I found the Taj Samudra an excellent choice: an ideal location overlooking Galle Face Green, the city's sunset mecca, with wonderful service and top restaurants.
Assuming your itinerary will include Kandy, the picturesque culture capital in the hill country, there's the surprising five-star Mahaweli Reach Hotel just three miles out of town with beautiful, landscaped gardens and banquet halls. It's a five-minute tuk-tuk ride from a local reservoir where seaplane service Cinnamon Air flies to a lagoon only half an hour from Amangalla.
Rates start at $550 at Amangalla, $650 at Amanwella. See Amangalla.com and Amanwella.com.