My Sri Lankan Escape Into the Pandemic

15 months since I’d last traveled (Morocco for work). 17 months since my last personal travel (US for the holidays). 20 months since my last foreign holiday (France and Belgium). Things were kiiiiiinda getting better (???) with the pandemic, I’m vaccinated and a long Eid holiday break was approaching in the UAE so I figured now was as good a time as any to start traveling again — using my close-your-eyes-and-jump-into-the-cold-deep-end-before-you-think-about-it-too-much trusted method of living life, anyway.

That belies the consideration I put into choosing my destination, though: How has the country handled the pandemic?; How have the infection rates looked over the past year/last several months?; How is tourism being handled to keep residents and tourists safe?; Would I be required to quarantine for part or all of the time?; Are tourist spots even open?; What standards are the hotels subject to?; If I ended up unable to explore my chosen destination due to restrictions, how much would that disappoint me?; Would my chosen hotel/room be one I’d be happy to be confined to if I could not leave it for a week?

Inside my villa, “Hibiscus”

I didn’t have many options to choose from. I definitely wanted greenery/tropics, and Asia would be a bonus as my “big” 2020 holiday was always meant to be Vietnam, but that’s been delayed seemingly indefinitely due to the pandemic. Maldives (nope, been there done that, it’s nice, but not for a week); Seychelles (tempting, but never been and would be bummed if I couldn’t properly explore, plus I couldn’t find the low-key, boho, boutique style of hotel I was hankering for); Lamu (really tempting, but again I’d be disappointed if I couldn’t properly explore, and Kenya seemed iffy in terms of reliable flight service and restrictions).

So I settled on Sri Lanka. Its numbers had been pretty under control from the outset. It had recently started carefully reopening to tourists and select, “safe”, government-approved hotels were open only to foreign travelers. Vaccinated tourists only had to quarantine for about 24 hours until your PCR-on-arrival test came back negative, then you could, within limits, explore the country — but I’d been twice before so if I missed out exploring it was OK. And I found a great little hotel, Kahanda Kanda, that was exactly what I had in mind for myself.

Orchids, a lilypond (stocked with enormous koi), and brightly hued walls in the main pool, dining and living area of the hotel

And then just about  two weeks before flying out cases started skyrocketing (likely due to April New Year celebrations), restrictions and lockdowns were falling into place in individual districts and there was talk of a stringent national lockdown ahead. I did consider canceling, but… refer to my CYEAJITCDEBYTAITM life method.

So armed to the teeth with documents and negative PCR tests, off I went to the airport, to land in Colombo’s much quieter and more shuttered than I’m used to Bandaranaike International Airport, where my PPE-garbed driver was waiting to escort me directly (do not pass go, do not collect $200) to Kahanda Kanda, located in the hills above Lake Koggala and near UNESCO heritage fort town Galle. On arrival at the hotel I was welcomed, given a much-needed latte, and swiftly checked in and escorted to my villa, where I had to wait for a clinic to arrive to give me a thorough PCR test (both nostrils and my throat) and would be unable to leave until I received my negative test results back (which arrived about 24 hours later, as promised).

But what a place to spend those 24 hours! Kahanda Kanda comprises 13 rooms/villas dotting a small tea estate, each individually designed in charming and cozy, locally inspired style by English interior designer George Cooper. Some even featured private pools — and mine was one of these, knowing that should I end up confined to my room for the trip’s duration a pool would be an absolute necessity in South Asia’s early-monsoon heat and humidity (which still is not nearly as uncomfortable as the UAE’s summer clime). Named Hibiscus, my holiday home leaned Mediterranean with its crisp whites and jewel-tone blues, but a four-poster bed canopied by mosquito nets, a smattering of Sri Lankan antiques and the soothing creak of a ceiling fan firmly placed it in Asia. There were also two bookshelves packed with well-thumbed tomes, which I was hoping to add to with one of the three books I brought — but I never ended up finishing any as the surrounding nature and wildlife was a buzzing distraction always giving me something to watch. Outside, I had a private garden surrounded by jungle foliage on three sides, and straight ahead the infinity pool dropped into a swath of the tea plantation. It was gorgeous.

A sampling of incredibly flavorful, fresh — and sometimes quite spicy — Sri Lankan curries for dinner

In addition to the well-trimmed tea bushes, mango, cashew and jackfruit trees hosted birds of all shapes, colors and sizes, nimble squirrels and raucous langur monkeys that were always hooting, yelling and jumping from limb to limb, knocking mangoes down to earth. On the ground, life would start to emerge in mid-afternoon, after the day’s worst heat passed and clouds — sometimes gently thundering for hours before pouring with rain — gathered and blocked out the sun. Sprightly mongooses (or is it mongeese?) would trot across my garden from one set of bushes to the next; lethargic and wary monitor lizards poked their heads out from one of the holes they’d dug around the edge of my pool before sauntering across the grass and into a drainpipe at the other end of garden. Then the occasional cat or dog would dash through chasing something or another, temporarily scaring everything back into hiding. Never a dull moment at Hibiscus villa.

Once I received my negative PCR results back, I was barely motivated to leave the comfort of my villa, fascinating as its surroundings were. I also had come to the realization that leaving the hotel wasn’t really an option — technically I could, but due to the local restrictions, nothing would really be open. So there I happily stayed for a week, immersed in nature, sunning and splashing about my pool in the mornings and afternoons, then moving out near evening-time to spend a couple hours lounging in the hotel’s Living Pavilion, drinking the excellent KK Signature rum cocktail muddled with garden-fresh fruits and waiting for the sun to set.

My home for the week, Hibiscus villa

The cocktail was just the tip of the gastronomic iceberg, and I would alternate taking meals either on my villa’s terrace or at the airy restaurant. Breakfast was either Sri Lankan or European, and I normally went for the former as I’m never one to turn down egg hoppers — fried eggs in a crepe-like bowl of rice flour and coconut milk. Lunch and dinner were each three courses from daily-changing menus, all made with fresh local ingredients, many of which were sourced right on the hotel’s grounds. There was everything from gazpacho (so refreshing at midday) and rosemary-grilled pork filets to mahi-mahi tacos or a spread of Sri Lankan curries. I have not eaten so well in a long time and looked forward to each meal.

There was also a yoga sala, a treatment room for spa pampering (I had a wonderfully relaxing massage), well-equipped gym overlooking the tea plantation and a sprawling main pool with views over the jungle, through which you could just get a peek of Lake Koggala a few kilometers away.

I was having the best time watching nature, and eating, and loafing about… and then got the news that the UAE was, in about 48 hours, suspending flights from Sri Lanka to the UAE. It only cut my holiday a little more than a day short, so I was thankful to have had as long as I did before reality bit. The hotel team was excellent in hustling to get everything together — including yet another PCR test — so that I could hop on the last flight out of town the next night. But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit there was a part of me sort of hoping I’d find myself stuck in that paradise.

My villa, perched above a swath of the hotel’s tea plantation

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