If Sri Lanka isn’t on your shortlist for family-friendly travel destinations, it should be. It’s got mountains, beaches, adventure, culture, history and a cuisine all of its own – all less than a four-hour flight from Singapore. As its popularity increases, so do the country’s service standards, perhaps no place more than at Àni Villas, an ultra-luxurious property along the country’s southern coast.
Set on a natural bluff above the Indian Ocean, Àni Villas combines the amenities of a five-star hotel, the ease of an allinclusive resort and the exclusivity of a private villa. Its two gorgeous villas – one with seven bedrooms and the other with eight – each have two-storey open-living pavilions, large pools with water-parkworthy slides and private pools outside most of the bedrooms (the ones without are perfect for small children). Bedrooms are designed with absolute comfort in mind; dressing rooms keep suitcases and toys out of sight, and bathrooms boast oversized tubs, and indoor and outdoor showers. Furnishings and décor are a blend of Dutch colonial and modern tropical styles.
Those of you with large families, lean in. We arrived to find a room with beds for my three kids and our helper already set up; it connected to our bedroom via a large, shared entranceway. Àni Villas is extremely accommodating with whatever room configurations you want, and they have extra beds and cribs to accommodate families of all sizes.
The idea of a staffed private villa is, of course, not new. But a villa with the size, amenities and service of a five-star hotel is. The property is set on 20,000 square metres and has its own tennis court, gym and Ayurvedic spa. And while having someone to clean your villa and cook your breakfast is wonderful, having an entire team catering to your every desire is a whole new level altogether. The staff – many of whom are former Aman and Four Seasons employees – predict what you want before you even have to ask. Emerge from the pool – they’re waiting with towels. Feel a twinge of thirst – here they come with iced Ceylon tea and canapés. Return from the beach – they’ve set up a station to clean your sunglasses and iPhone. This is the first trip I’ve taken where I thought “Ah, so this is how Oprah travels”.
There is something so very indulgent about wine pairings and dessert with every meal. Cyril, the villa’s executive chef, and his team prepare elaborate, multi-course feasts of Western and Sri Lankan cuisine, both heavily influenced by red mullet, sear fish and other locally-caught seafood. To keep things interesting, meals and dining locations change for every meal. One day, breakfast of egg and string hoppers and pittu is served in an air-conditioned room off the rock garden; lunch – a mix of giant prawn, calamari and fresh tuna – is served in an open living sala by the pool; and dinner is a clay-pot service of six curries, tableside-prepared kottu (a popular Sri Lankan street food) and more sambals, mallums and chutneys to count, eaten at the water’s edge. From breadfruit and thumba to custard apple and gamboge, ingredients are a foodie’s dream.
If you’re at that stage in life when holidays are really just you running madly after your kids in a foreign location rather than home, Àni Villas is your new best friend. That’s what my five-year old daughter called Shahani – “my best big girlfriend” – a name our villa butler earned by tending to my three children from sunup to sundown. She and other staff members helped the kids during meals and while we swam. They baked chocolate chip cookies and made flower crowns for their hair. They went on treasure hunts, painted pictures, played board games and made paper boats to float in the ponds. Every time an errant toy or shoe got swept away in the surf, a staffer heroically sprinted into the sea to retrieve it. Kids are in no way an afterthought, as shown each night when three tiny pairs of slippers would appear at turndown service.
All this attention allowed my husband to get in a few matches with the villa’s tennis pro, and me a private morning yoga class (the birds, the breeze, the sea!) and an Ayurvedic consultation with the spa manager followed by a four-handed massage in the spa.
My husband later said his favourite moment of our trip was a coffee we shared at sunrise by the pool. Aren’t parents funny creatures? When silence is scarce, it’s the simple pleasures that mean the most. The staff here gets that.
Aptly called a “super luxury” experience, a stay here doesn’t come cheap. If you’ve got Winfrey in your name, you’re all set. For the rest of us, a stay here is doable once you factor in that virtually everything is included in the price. And I do mean nearly everything – meals, beverages (including alcohol), spa treatments, sports (tennis, yoga, personal training, cycling tours), laundry, international calls, airport transfers, movies, mini-bar, cooking classes and kids’ activities. Join together with a few families and factor in all the inclusions, and you’re not that far from what you’d pay at a five-star resort. Add in value for the privacy and personal attention of it all, and Àni Villas wins every time.
What’s not included? Things like Cuban cigars and Dom Perignon (though you can BYO) as well as day trips to Galle Fort, the tea plantations or safaris to Udawalawe.
A few days here felt like a week, and we’ve been plotting to return since the moment we left. Speaking of leaving, there is no check-out. That moment when you tally up meals, massages and midnight mini-bar raids – it doesn’t happen here. You pay before you go, and then just enjoy. When we left, the kids produced Oscar-worthy wails for “Shahaniiiii!” all the way to Galle. Mentally, I concurred. If it was socially acceptable for adults to weep in these situations, I would have joined right in.
The property and the service are immaculate and refined to the smallest detail. Grass is billowy to the foot, soaps are hand-made; breakfast milk is poured from crystal decanters. If there was fault to be found, I never found it.
Where/when: Dickwella, opened December of 2015
Travel time: 3 hours from the airport via private van with snacks, drinks and Wi-Fi
Price: $$$$$ (inclusive of meals, beverages, sports, spa, activities and more)
Another new seaside locale that’s also chic and secluded is Balapitiya’s Kumu Beach. Located between Galle and Colombo, this modern 10-room boutique hotel is set off a stretch of the ocean that is dotted with scenic boulders – both on land and sea – which make for good climbing, crab watching and dare-devil diving opportunities.
Part of the Teardrop Hotels collection, Kumu Beach was decorated by Paradise Road’s Annika Fernando. Coastal blues and whites awash the suites (book ground floor rooms if you have young kids), which are spacious and come with stone-lined showers, four-poster beds and multiple sets of French doors leading out to the yard.
Yard? It’s indecent what I’ve paid for access to a small strip of grass so the kids have a bit of space to run around on holidays. It’s “condo guilt” in the highest, manifested from a childhood spent in backyards that seemingly had no end. Here, both of our rooms open to a soccer-field-sized lawn. This serves mostly aesthetic purposes for other guests but was the sight of leaping contests, bubble blowing and log rolling for us. A long, slender pool lines the property’s edge, just beyond which lies a wall that connects to the beach. (Note: this wall is low and thus little ones must be watched, as is always the case.)
Balapitiya is a sleepy town which means guests must inevitably rely on the hotel’s kitchen. Thankfully, food is a highlight at Kumu Beach. We ate dinner by the beach at sunset every night of our stay, a request the wait staff was happy to oblige, though it meant lugging a few tables and lanterns about. Breakfast is on the healthy side with an emphasis on dairy- and sugar free options. Lunch is best booked as a cooking demonstration; we spent one beautiful Sunday morning with Wasabha, Kumu Beach’s Chef de Cuisine, preparing a vibrant mix of eggplant, dahl, luffa and yellowfin tuna curries. The kids stirred, taste-tested and drew pictures for the chef, which he folded and tucked into his pocket with a broad, gracious smile.
Galle Fort is 50 minutes away, and the hotel can arrange a car and snacks for the ride. My husband and I enjoyed that, but the kids adored the private boat tour of the Madu River for monkeys, monks and Indiana Jones-esque adventures through the narrow passages of the mangrove forests.
Where/when: Balapitiya, opened in September 2017
Travel time: 1.5-2 hours from the airport
Price: $$$ (includes breakfast)
Kumu Beach’s sister property The Wallawwa is the perfect place to bookend a Sri Lankan holiday with less than ideal flight times (which is often the case when travelling from Singapore). Stop and get your bearings at this 18-room gem located 15 minutes from Bandaranaike International Airport. Travellers with kids can book family suites with interconnecting rooms, or the sprawling two-bedroom, two-bath Mountbatten Suite, complete with private gardens and plunge pool.
A former home of an 18th-century chieftain and home to the Royal Air Force during WWII, The Wallawwa sports a large lawn where families can play croquet and cricket in the shade of rambutan and frangipani trees. There are caroms, chess and board games in the library, and a pool hidden in the jungle not far from the hotel’s restaurant (which serves any dish on the menu in kids’ portions). We took the kids to explore the hotel’s two acre fruit and vegetable garden, and later sipped cocktails with lemongrass and mint plucked straight from it. There are kite- and lantern-making sessions, as well as a Kid’z massage in the spa (with three young daughters, we aren’t quite ready to get that going yet).
All ages will enjoy the complimentary tea break served on the verandah. We checked in just as the waiter cleared the last slice of cake; he graciously sent a tray of tea, cookies and cakes to our room despite our delinquency. The hotel is well-versed in early morning flights, and guests can request transportation and breakfasts packed to-go at any hour of the night.
Where/when: Kotugoda, opened in 2007
Travel time: 15 minutes from the airport
Price: $$$ (includes breakfast)
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