As soon as my husband and I realized that even a two-day weekend is enough for an out-of-town trip in Sri Lanka, we started going through Tripadvisor reviews of hotels in the beachside town of Bentota and ended up reserving a suite at the Taj Vivanta in Bentota. (We’re not usually this fancy but felt we deserved a special treat after the whole hectic move and whatnot.)
I was keen on taking the train – it was supposed to be a beautiful coastal journey by rail and I didn’t want to miss it snoozing in a hotel car. The Sri Lankan Railways website is fairly helpful, and so is The Man in Seat Sixty-One’s lucid explanation of the country’s railway system.
We made our way to the Colombo Fort station early Saturday morning, bought the tickets for LKR 190 each (less than US$ 2) and hopped onto the second-unreserved compartment. This was the first time my husband was getting into an unreserved compartment and he had the hunted look of a cub being forced to make its own way through the big, bad jungle! As it turned out, we didn’t get seats and had to settle down, bag and baggage, next to the open door of the compartment. It wasn’t too bad – pleasant breeze, coastal views and barely a 2.5-hour journey. The only major downside: your butt goes numb after the first half-hour and it take some serious walking to get nerve sensation back!
From the postage-stamp-sized Bentota station to the Taj Vivanta is a five-minute walk. On the way we passed the highly recommended Malli’s Seafood Restaurant (where we were unable to have a meal – not enough time!) and the budget-hotel Wunderbar Beach Club.
The Taj Vivanta is a lovely property, the perfect luxury beach hotel: bright and colourful, yet tasteful; laidback and serene, yet attentive; casual and fun, yet mellow. The beach right next to the hotel is practically private, with only hotel guests lounging about on the clean sand.
We devoured the divine seafood at the outdoor SHACK – wonderful service, a good wine list, and live music. We had crabs, prawns, and calamari – freshly and sumptuously prepared with light, flavourful dressing – and washed our meal down with a Californian Chardonnay.
The next day we ventured to the Bentota river and found ourselves a little shop offering equipment and guides for various activities on the river. My husband, a keen fisherman, had brought along his prized fishing rod, so off we went on a little speedboat with a sunbeaten, utterly friendly fisherman. Prices were a bit steep compared to other services (US$ 60 for 2.5-3 hours of fishing), but perhaps this is the one area in which the residents can make good money considering how many water-sports and fishing enthusiasts come to Bentota all year round. The fishing expedition proved successful, with plenty of jackfish ending up in a red bucket on our boat. Afterwards, we took a quick round of the deep, dark, and mysterious river mangrove forests.
However, my absolute favourite part of the trip, the one that will make me revisit Bentota again and again, was our visit to Brief Garden. Lonely Planet calls it a “barely controlled riot of a Jungle Book garden”, and I really cannot think of a better way of putting it. Brief Garden was the home of Bevis Bawa, brother of famous Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa. The home and the gardens are both equally Xanadu-like, with exotic sculptures, bric-a-brac, artwork, and flora and fauna. The hallways are filled with paintings, many of which contain humorous limericks about Bevis and his friends. We arrived too late for lunch, but if you call ahead, they lay out a meal in the garden for you – something I am really looking forward to for my next visit. The trip takes about 30-40 minutes each way in a tuk-tuk from the main town – the (often unpaved) road is absolutely deserted though and passes through tricky marshland and dense jungle, so take a cab if you tend to get jumpy in foreign lands! Entry tickets are LKR 1,000 (approx. US$ 10). The pictures don’t come close to doing the wilderness and secrecy of Brief Garden justice – it’s something you’ll have to see for yourself.
All in all, we managed to pack a lot into a brief weekend trip. Next time, we hope to spend more time in Bentota, catch a meal and explore the house in Brief Garden, and try our hand at a couple of water-sports along with the inevitable fishing trip!
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossom’d many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.