“The tuk tuk is Sri Lanka’s Ferrari,” says my driver as we whizz through the streets of Kalutara, past hundreds of other brightly-colored trishaws, or cycle rickshaws. A bustling beach city located about 25 miles south of Colombo, Sri Lanka's capital city, Kalutara pulses with people, everybody with somewhere to go. “When the tsunami hit, the area was wiped out, and thousands of people suffered,” says my driver in a more somber tone, referring to the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami that devastated the western coastline of Sri Lanka, including Kalutara.
Over the past 30 years, Sri Lanka has endured several cultural, political, and environmental struggles; in addition to the tsunami, the country's civil war lasted over 25 years before ending in 2009. But even after peacetime, some travelers were wary of visiting; the island tended to attract backpackers, happy to explore untouched beaches and hidden surf spots, instead of those seeking high-end accommodations. But, over the past decade, Sri Lanka has evolved into a luxury destination in its own right.
Seeing Kalutara today, it’s hard to imagine how it would have looked in the months following the tsunami. The city has rebuilt itself completely and has added new luxury stays like the Anantara Kalutara, which opened its doors in October 2016. Located in a building originally designed by Geoffrey Bawa, a prominent Sri Lankan architect, and nestled on a peninsula between the Indian Ocean and Kalu Ganga River, some of its 141 guest rooms have private pools and ocean views. During the day, travelers can visit vibrant local markets or take a short drive to Lunuganga Garden, Bawa’s weekend estate, which boasts tropical, manicured gardens.
Additionally, south of Kalutara, the country's coastline (towards Tangalle and Hambantota) is lined with wild, golden beaches. Though some enclaves remain secret (only frequented by locals and in-the-know travelers), others have seen five-star transformations. For example, in 2017, the 152-room Anantara Tangalle Peace Haven opened on a secluded coconut plantation along the Indian Ocean, offering Sri Lankan cooking classes, an Anantara Spa with Ayurvedic and reflexology treatments, and beachfront yoga and meditation classes. The Tangalle is also the ideal jumping-off point for visiting nearby destinations, like exquisite tea plantations, temples, the cobbled town of Galle, and the Udawalawe National Park, which is known for its elephant safaris.
Despite Sri Lanka’s luxury uptick, the Pearl of the Indian Ocean hasn’t lost its grit. The dazzling new properties might be opening the country to a new market, but that doesn’t mean the backpackers have stopped visiting in search of still-secret surf spots, beaches that remain untouched, and the heart-racing tuk tuk rides, still Sri Lanka’s Ferrari.