With elephant safaris, ancient Buddhist cities, and unspoiled Indian Ocean beaches, Sri Lanka is a hot new destination. So how good are its spas? Very good, as it turns out. Formerly known as Ceylon, this large island off the coast of India has many excellent new properties that have made spas a priority.
The people are warm and friendly, the Sri Lankan curries made with local fish, meats and home-grown vegetables are delicious, and the shopping is amazing -- especially for jewelry made with Sri Lankan gems, hand-woven textiles, and renowned spices and teas.
Even in high season of December through March, when the days are sunny and the temperatures moderate, the major tourist stops are surprisingly uncrowded. Sri Lanka is clean, has a low-key vibe that appeal those who think India might be overstimulating, and it's a great value.
01 of 07
International flights to Sri Lanka arrive in the capital of Colombo on the western coast of the island. I stayed in The Kingsbury Hotel, an oceanfront five-star property in the downtown district. An executive room (around $200 a night) includes access to a lounge with extras like morning breakfast, afternoon snacks with tea or wine, and lots of other extras, all expertly delivered by a warm and friendly top-notch staff.
The Kingsbury is the perfect place to get over jet lag, best done with a massage at The Senses Spa. The spa menu includes an Indian head massage and Thai heritage herbal body scrub, an amazing add-on.
I had a Balinese massage, which uses deep tissue massage, acupressure and reflexology to stimulate the flow of blood, oxygen and qi (energy) around your body, and was amazed at the results after a long flight (about 20 hours of travel time from JFK on Qatar Airways, through Doha).
The most interesting part was when the therapist literally got up on the table,... straddled my back, and used her body weight to rhythmically press with the palms of her hands. This is a technique known as compression, which quickly brings more blood into the tissues, and I was amazed at how much muscle release I experienced after just one hour.
As in many international spas, the therapists are not as concerned about modesty. My friend's therapist asked her to disrobe and get on the table in front of her. That is okay with me, but a first-timer might be taken aback.
My therapist also lacked a little of the grace and orchestration that the best American therapists deliver. But I would give up a little grace for superior results any day. I loved the price -- $70 with service charge included -- closer to a day spa than a five-star hotel spa. Plus I walked in and got an appointment that night. Nice!
02 of 07
From Colombo, I traveled inland to an area known as The Cultural Triangle, which contains eight remarkable UNESCO World Heritage sites that reflect Sri Lanka's ancient Buddist civilization. They are all contained with a region defined by three points -- Anuradhapura in the north, Polonnaruwa to the east and Kandy in the south -- which is why it is known as the Cultural Triangle
I stayed at Uga Ulagalla, a fascinating property with a 150-year-old chieftain’s mansion that serves as the reception area and restaurant. From there you take a buggy to one of 20 stand-alone villas spread out over 58 acres on this LEEDS-certified property, which gets half of its energy requirements from solar energy.
I was delighted to wake up to observe a troupe of monkies eating fruit off the trees outside my window, and spotted a mongoose crossing the road on a buggy ride to reception. (You can also grab a bike outside your door.)
There is lots to do on property -- horseback riding, kayaking, a guided... cultural walk to nearby farmers' villages, and birdwatching. The spa, which you reach via charming stepping stones over water, offers a number of western massages and Sothys facials, along with Balinese massage and a BioRhythm treatment that uses green tea extract to help restore your circadian rhythm after a long flight. But the main reason to go is the area's stellar archeological sites. Type: resort spa.
03 of 07
Going further south from Anuradhapura to get closer to the sights of Dambulla, I stayed at Signature by Amaya. This is the luxury wing of Amaya Lake Resort, and they are set near each other on banks of the majestic Kandalama Lake (an amazing spot for birders). Lined along a tree-covered wooden walkway, the luxury villas are modern and comfortable -- very much in line with an American luxury corporate ideal -- and have a dedicated restaurant and swimming.
This is one of the most interesting spas on the trip because it specializes in Ayurvedic treatments, including massages with special herbal-infused medicated oils, steam (sweda) treatments and shirodhara. Prices are unbelievable by American resort spa standards -- $35 for a 45-minute massage or $60 for a 105-minute shirodhara with head, neck and shoulder massage and body wrap.
Amaya is also a good launching point for elephant safaris to one of three nearby parks. The park you visit depends on what time of year it is and where the... elephants are (your guide will know). I saw many mothers and their babies, and we got very close because the groups of elephants were small. Thrilling!
04 of 07
The Kandy House, Kandy, Sri Lanka
The city forming the southernmost point of the Cultural Triangle, Kandy is a vibrant city set in the hills and surrounded by a river on three sides. It was the last bastion of Buddhist political power against colonial invasion, to which it succumbed when the British came in 1815. Its Temple of the Tooth holds the sacred tooth relic of Buddha, brought to Sri Lanka in the third century A.D. and encased in seven golden caskets. This was the most crowded temple I experienced -- a massive scene on a Saturday -- and there were lines to glimpse the sacred relic.
The hotels in Kandy tend to be small boutique properties, like an 1804 manor called The Kandy House. Furnished with antiques and four-posters swathed with netting, The Kandy House doesn't have a spa, but can arrange for an Ayurvedic therapist with 25 years experience to give you a treatment in your room. Private classes for yoga may also be organized.Continue to 5 of 7 below.
05 of 07
About 45 minutes outside of Kandy, Clingendael is a modern boutique property that just feels like it's been there for 150 years. Perched on a hill with sweeping vistas, it has five individually designed suites decorated with artwork, antiques and furniture. The atmosphere is colonial, with spacious and cool verandahs and lounge rooms.
The most interesting feature for spa lovers is the indoor/outdoor individual spa suite overlooking the garden. It is absolutely delightful! Finally, Kandy is a town to do some serious shopping, especially if you love jewelry, antiques, silk fabrics and pashminas.
Next, catch a train for one of the world's most scenic rides, to the coolr hills where world-famous Ceylonese tea is still grown, harvested and processed according to time-honored traditions. You'll also find the country's absolute stand-out luxury property, Tea Trails, which can open the doors to a tea factory tour.
06 of 07
Dilmah Tea, which owns some of Sri Lanka's finest tea estates, received many requests from people who desired to visit the lush green highlands. It began to arrange special stays in its estate managers' gracious homes, built between 1890 and 1939. Guests so enjoyed the tours of the factories and plantations, the historic homes, and traditions such as port or sherry by the evening fire that Dilma opened a completely unique property.
Today Tea Trails is a series of five "bungalows," each with four to six suites or rooms and its own distinct personality. Separated by two to six miles, the bungalows are connected by scenic walking trails through the waist-high tea bushes, tended to by the brightly garbed tea pickers.
It truly feels like you're staying in a home -- even your home -- due to the setting and incredibly gracious service from highly trained butlers. The meals (included in the rate) are the very best in the country, whether the food is Western or... traditional Sri Lankan.
Activities at this 4,000 foot elevation include hiking, mountain biking, kayaking, white water rafting, tennis, wildlife outings and an in-depth tour of the tea factory available only to Tea Trail guests. Because the houses are small there is no central spa, but you can have a massage therapist come to your room.
07 of 07
Providing the perfect contrast to the quiet hill country, Cape Weligama is perched on a cliff-top site near Galle on Sri Lanka’s southern coast, with an amazing view of the sea.
Cape Weligama features 39 generously sized rooms -- mostly "private residences" that share a swimming pool with one neighbor. (Some even have a private swimming pool on the second floor balcony!)
Sanctuary Spa has four treatment rooms and tea-based treatments from the THÉMAÉ Paris. (Or you can get treatments in your luxurious oversized bathrooms.)The treatments uses a custom 4 Teas Elixir which blends antioxidant green tea, regenerating white tea, soothing red tea and stimulating black tea with pure spring water.