For a short, dreamy break, Sri Lanka’s Bentota makes for a perfect getaway

Believed to have been named after a mythical demon, ‘Bem’ who ruled the river banks ‘tota’, a portion of this coastal town, once a fishing/farming village, and now popular with tourists, is sandwiched between the river and the sea

April 09, 2024 04:29 pm | Updated 08:41 pm IST

An aerial view of Cinnamon Bentota Beach

An aerial view of Cinnamon Bentota Beach | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Where can you go for a short, three-day break, say a long weekend that serendipitously pops up on your calendar? You’re in Chennai or somewhere in south India and the question looms: how do you make the most of this rare luxury? A hill station? The tourist spots are crammed. A city break? Not relaxing enough. An out-of-the-way eco resort? Often, the time taken to get there eats into your holiday. 

For me, Sri Lanka ticks all the boxes: it’s close enough to south India to make for a quick flight, it can accommodate diverse interests ranging from history to wildlife; from food to culture, and it offers, in spades, my personal must for a real holiday – the beach. 

The lobby is built around a pool that houses a frangipani tree, which, a sign says, was rooted to the ground even before the construction of the hotel in 1969

The lobby is built around a pool that houses a frangipani tree, which, a sign says, was rooted to the ground even before the construction of the hotel in 1969 | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

On a recent trip, I was at Bentota, a resort town on the island nation’s southern coast, about an hour and half away from Colombo. Getting there presented no issues: a pleasant flight on Sri Lankan Airlines to Colombo, and from there, Bentota is about an hour and a half’s drive away.

Believed to have been named after a mythical demon, ‘Bem’ who ruled the river banks ‘tota’, a portion of this coastal town, once a fishing/farming village, and now popular with tourists, is sandwiched between the river and the sea.

A view of the ceiling at the reception of the resort, done in rich batik, envisioned and brought to life by artist Ena de Silva

A view of the ceiling at the reception of the resort, done in rich batik, envisioned and brought to life by artist Ena de Silva | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Cinnamon Bentota Beach, the resort I stayed at, embraces you with its stunning Geoffrey Bawa architecture, the pops of art work scattered across the property, and everywhere you turn, the soothing murmur of water. The views from the rooms at the resort are unbeatable: open the front door for a glimpse of boats bobbing on the lagoon; open the casement windows opposite, and watch the waves of the Indian Ocean crash.

The thing about holidays is that they mean something different to every person who goes on them. Bentota manages, however, to meet almost all criteria: want to lie on a pool/beach lounger sipping refreshing drinks with an occasional dip? Check. Want to sample different kinds of food? Check. Want to go for energetic walks in the morning, indulge in water sports in the afternoon and kick back in the evening? Check. Want to learn a little about local culture through perhaps a traditional mask painting class? Check. Want to have the children occupied while you revel in the luxury of doing nothing? Check.

A view of the pool at the resort

A view of the pool at the resort | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Want to have your wedding here? Check. The resort, spread across 11 acres, with 159 rooms, has now become an attractive site for destination weddings, says Radhey Tawar, Cinnamon Hotels & Resorts’ Chief Commercial Officer. “Couples from India as well as Indian expats from the Middle East, the U.K. and U.S. find it advantageous: the flying time from India is short, the drive from Colombo is straightforward and we offer an Indian Chef to meet food needs,” he says. 

Things to do in and around Bentota
Go on a guided tour of the Meetiyagoda Moonstone Mine
Plan a day-trip to Mirissa, where you can go whale and dolphin watching
Visit the turtle hatchery and learn about the conservation of Olive Ridley and other turtle species
Explore the Sinharaja rain forest, a UNESCO World Heritage Site

This apart, Mr. Tawar says, it’s also popular with a multitude of social groups – for friends or family travelling together for a milestone birthday for instance, and of course, honeymooning couples.

The resort offers four restaurants and two bars, a spa, activities including pottery, puppet making, coconut leaf art and bobbin lace (beeralu) lessons alongside a host of watersports and local excursions. 

Outside of the resort, the town is home to a number of temples, of which Benthara Galapatha Rajamaha Vihara, a Buddhist temple, is a prominent one. Dating back to the 12th century, much of the temple was destroyed in the 16th century, but was subsequently rebuilt by loyal devotees. Now a protected archaeological monument, the temple houses an eight-metre sleeping Buddha statue.

A view of the ocean from a room at the resort

A view of the ocean from a room at the resort | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

If another form of local tourism interests you, there are visits to cinnamon factories, where you can see cinnamon peelers at work, as well as to toddy farms. Before tourist incursions, Bentota’s main source of income was from fishing and coconut products, one of which was toddy, made from the fermented sap of coconut flowers.

There’s also Brief Garden, created by Bevis Brava, older brother of legendary architect Geoffrey Bawa, out of a rubber estate he inherited. Lushly beautiful, the garden is believed to have been designed in 1929, with meandering paths through garden rooms, surrounding a bungalow that houses art work. 

The resort offers different dining experiences, including dining at the pier

The resort offers different dining experiences, including dining at the pier | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

On a morning when energy levels are high, try a boat ride on the river, into the cool depths of the mangrove forest. Even for those who have seen these forests before, it’s a charming experience: one moment the sunshine is bright on your face and the next, it’s dark and cool, branches brushing against your face and with only the sound of birds breaking the silence. The mangroves here, like elsewhere in the world, serve a crucial ecological function, protecting the coastline from erosion, and are also habitats for a number of water animals and birds.

Energy levels not so high? Take a walk along the beach. If you time it right, you may just be able to watch the sun set in the arc made by swaying coconut trees, gold and crimson over silvery-blue.

(The writer was in Sri Lanka at the invitation of Sri Lankan Airlines)

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