Where to stay in Phuket: La Flora Resort and Spa in Khaolak

I fell in love with Thailand on my first visit, many years ago and that love affair grows every time I return. It’s very appropriately called the Land of Smiles – there’s always plenty of smiling going on – which is extremely catching. This was my third visit to Phuket (my first to Khaolak), which makes it my favourite Thai destination – so far anyway.

Today we’re heading an hour’s drive north of Phuket International Airport to La Flora Resort & Spa in Khaolak.

The hotel’s set in beautiful gardens with two pools, overlooking the golden beach of Bang Liang and those perfect Andaman Sea vistas.

Here’s what I loved about La Flora.

The beach

La Flora sits on a beautiful bay framed by palm trees. The beach is perfect for long post-breakfast meanders before settling down for the inevitable sunbed session. I was often the only person paddling through the beautifully warm water and watching the lone fisherman in action.

The sweeping beach is perfect for sunny meanders

The heavenly view from my subbed

Colourful boats alongside the beach

The drinks on the beach

There’s great beach-side service at La Flora. From frothy cappuccinos, fruity shakes and daily cocktail specials, all delivered to your sunbed for you to savour.

A mango shake makes beach life better

Cucumber gin and tonic overlooking the sea

The pool-side rooms

We upgraded from a regular to a pool-side room. And what a good idea that was.

Our spacious and comfy room offered all the facilities on my really-want list: a fridge, kettle with coffee and tea, a safe, good air conditioning, plenty of fluffy towels and great wifi. The bathroom had a huge shower and a magnificent spa bath complete with lights that changed colour as you submerged yourself in clouds of bubbles. Very indulgent.

The comfortable, huge bed in our stylish room

The room opened out onto a deck complete with two sunbeds (a lot of sunbed action going on at La Flora, you can see). One more step and you were in the sparkling blueness of the pool – private for those lucky enough to be living alongside it.

The pools

Step out of your room for an early morning dip, swim up to the central pool bar or expend some energy doing lengths in perfect peace. The sparkling water and fluttering palm trees made a fantastic scene to open the blinds to in the morning.

Living the pool life – steps from our room

And here’s the jacuzzi. Simply press the button and enjoy some relaxing bubbles on the top step.

Our own personal jacuzzi right outside our stunning room

You’re spoilt for swimming choice at La Flora as there’s also the main pool adjacent to the beach. You’ll have to be up fairly early if you want to  nab one of the overlooking sunbeds. It’s an active pool with swimmers, paddlers and those simply enjoying the view.

The main pool is right on the edge of the beach

The food

How I love the breakfast buffets in South East Asia. The colourful platters of tropical fruit make for a delightful start to any day. My three favourites – the combination of Ps – Passion fruit, Pomelo and Papaya. All made to taste even more delicious by eating them overlooking the beach. And that’s just the start.

The perfect way to start the day

Gotta love a multi-course breakfast. The Asian selection was quite intimidating – all that decision making first thing in the morning. A couple of times a week there was a huge dim sum offering which I dived into.

Lift the lid to reveal myriad dim sum

The restaurant had tables right on the edge of the beach which we always headed for whatever the meal. You couldn’t find a nicer eating environment. For lunch we often tucked into starters from the a la carte menu, all of which were delightful, like these chicken satays.

Eating chicken satays overlooking the sea

On the beach just to the side of the hotel was a street food cart. Or should that be a beach food cart? Corn piled high, large, luscious spring rolls, satays and my favourite Thai salad – green papaya made in front of you.

Beach food delights right next door

We ate dinner several times off the a la carte menu which offered a great choice. And twice a week the hotel set up an incredible buffet spread showcasing a wide range of Asian and Western dishes.

It’s also worth mentioning that there was a decent selection of good, well-priced wine on offer which is not always the case in Thailand. As wine drinkers it made our La Flora experience just that little bit more enjoyable.

The service

Thailand is known for its friendly service and La Flora didn’t disappoint. Waiters made an effort to get to know you and make you feel welcome and everywhere you went you were greeted with a cheery sawsdee ka. One night the manager even got an extra table set up for us overlooking the beach when they were already all reserved.

The entertainment

We enjoyed listening to the duo from the Philippines who sang on a few of the nights, took requests and could perform a mean version of Candle in the Wind. Plus one night we were treated to beautifully elegant traditional Thai dancing. Here are the lovely ladies.

Beautiful, graceful and colourful traditional Thai dancers

The nearby town

Okay, this isn’t actually about the hotel but the fact that it was set just back from a charming little town is definitely worth a mention. Five minutes walk up the street to myriad massage opportunities, rustic al fresco restaurants and bars and shops for all your necessities. Oh and a marvellous array of street food, too.

The street food is great in Khaolak

An array of tasty skewers to dazzle

La Flora Resort & Spa is the perfect get-away-from-it-all spot for a relaxed beachside holiday with beach walks and plenty of swimming, delicious food and warm service. They do offer a range of excursions if you’re inclined to explore the area more, but as ever I found it hard to drag myself off that perfect beach.

 

Where to stay in Vietnam: The Victoria Phan Thiet Beach Resort and Spa

Continuing my series of Where to Stay, today we’re in Phan Thiet in Vietnam. Phan Thiet is a coastal city in south-east Vietnam, a four to five hour drive from Ho Chi Minh City airport – sounds long but it’s totally worth it when you get there. It’s the capital of Binh Thuan Province with a population of around 300,000 and is actually only 200km from Ho Chi Minh City. At its centre is a bustling little fishing port and an amazing market.

The Victoria Phan Thiet Beach Resort and Spa is outside the centre in the beach resort area of Mui Ne. There’s a long palm-lined stretch of sand with plenty of watersports and a strip of hotels, restaurants and shops alongside it.

The hotel is laid out through beautiful gardens and is built in the style of traditional Vietnamese country houses. Here’s what I loved about our stay there.

The room

We stayed in one of their beach bungalow. A meander down a winding path through lush tropical vegetation takes you to your brightly painted, welcoming home for your stay. Set right on the edge of the beach – a few steps from the sand – the room was light and spacious with an enormous bed, large wardrobe and generous seating area.

Looking back from the beach to the beautiful bungalows

The bed’s made even cosier at night with the mosquito net

The glass doors opened out onto a large patio complete with two amazingly comfortable sun beds and an umbrella. This is where we spent a lot of time reading, sipping wine and just taking in the marvellous view from our verandah.

The seating area and our view towards the sea

There were good tea and coffee-making facilities, including a range of teas and a fridge which was restocked every day with fresh bottles of water and replacements for anything else you may have drunk. So no issues with in-room refreshments then. Other essentials (for me anyway) included a safe, plush bathrobes and towels, lovely bathroom products and great wifi.

The large bed and its crisp white linen

The bathroom

One of the best hotel bathrooms ever…large with a separate toilet, a wonderful corner bath for long bubbly soaks and – best of all – an outside area with a hammock and powerful shower.

Light floods in from the enclosed outdoor shower

How I love an outdoor shower

The views

The joys of waking up every day and opening the curtains to look through palm trees across the beach to the vast South China Sea.

Looking out across the South China Sea…just awesome

And as the sun set every day the little lights along the beach came on turning our beach view into a twinkling, magical land.

Night comes and a magic falls over the beach

I particularly loved the light at sunset

The pools

As well as the warm, inviting sea to swim in there were two pools, never crowded while we were there. Both had waiter service so you could lie back and enjoy lunch or a cocktail in the sun. The infinity pool at the top of the resort is perfect for getting in your lengths.

Looking through the hibiscus to the pool

Chef Hoang and his amazing food

This is a hotel with food in a league of its own with a genius chef. From the vast breakfast buffets to the amazing dinner menu with a selection of Vietnamese and Western dishes, there are plenty of exciting flavours to discover. Chef Hoang is always on hand making sure things are running smoothly when he’s not cooking in the kitchen.

The first couple of breakfasts took some serious decision making. The range of Vietnamese dishes on offer was stupendous – all on top of plenty of pastries, eggs any way you want them and a tropical fruit feast. I soon established my favourites – and tucked into fresh Vietnamese rolls every morning, filled with prawns, vegetables and herbs and dipped into Chef’s delicious, spicy peanut sauce.

Fresh Vietnamese rolls for breakfast, just delightful

A colourful first breakfast course of tropical fruit

We pored over the menu every night carefully choosing different dishes until we’d pretty much gone through it all. We tucked into delightful salads with Chef’s secret dressing, fresh fish and wonderful pork and duck dishes.

The amazing prawn salad in crunchy baskets

On our last night Chef Hoang made us a special dinner. We started with his special prawn salad served on banana leaves in these lovely bamboo bicycles (love the presentation).

Our prawns presented on the cutest of dishes

And for mains he specially selected a grouper for us from the market that morning. It was baked in a tangy sauce and  parcelled into rice papers with herbs, noodles and vegetables added at the table. A real ceremony.

Our special grouper and vegetable parcels

The beach

Okay everyone knows I’m a real beach baby, so I was in complete heaven here. The whole of hotel life is focused around the beach. You eat looking out to sea, open your curtains to the beach, exercise by walking along the beach…and it’s all rather quiet as the beach is private to the hotel.

At the Victoria life centres around the beach

My favourite time of day was sunset, which happens early in Vietnam – around 5pm. The beach became bathed in golden lights and shades of orange and pink.

Another beautiful sunset turns everything golden

The cookery course

We signed up for a food and cooking excursion. Awakening early we headed into the harbour with our guide, Lam and Chef Hoang. The catch of the day was coming in and the negotiations were in full swing as people heckled over prices – the women take delivery of the catch from the men and do all the bargaining.

The bustling harbour in Phan Thiet centre

From there we headed to the colourful market in the centre of town with it’s beautiful piles of tropical fruit, fish galore and every cut of meat you could need. Plus all those random household necessities dotted throughout. On the way home we stopped off at the local fish sauce factory where Lam explained the vast quantities of fish sauce consumed by the Vietnamese – it’s used in so many of their dishes.

On our return to the hotel we headed for our cookery course in the beautiful thatched gazebo on the beach. Chef Hoang and two of his chefs cooked us a delightful lunch which we ate overlooking the beach. Nothing like having three chefs cook you a private lunch! We left armed with a tasty collection of Vietnames recipes, including one for his secret salad dressing. I really must make that soon, it’s fabulous. And no, my lips are sealed.

Chef Hoang and his smiling helpers

Here’s the amazing prawn and banana flower starter they made specially for us. How exotic is that?

Prawn and banana flower with Chef Hoang’s secret dressing

The staff

The service at the Victoria is impeccable. We were so well looked after by everyone, from the front desk, waiters, chefs, masseurs, cleaners and gardeners. There were smiling, happy faces everywhere and nothing was too much trouble.

The spa

We had excellent massages in the open-fronted spa, with sea breezes and crashing waves providing the background to our indulgent treatments. Vietnamese massages are slightly less harsh than my experience of Thai ones, making it a perfectly relaxing experience while also getting rid of all those long-haul-flight induced knots. I also had a lovely manicure – the staff were expert and prices good value.

The gardens

The beach bungalows are sprinkled through the most beautiful and lovingly tended gardens. Perfect green lawns punctuated by our sunny yellow rooms and tropical trees and flowers including three of my absolute favourites: hibiscus, bougainvillea and frangipani.

Wash your feet off after a walk through the gardens

Live life surrounded by bougainvillea and hibiscus

The bedtime stories and other special touches

Okay this is a unique one. Every night we returned from dinner to discover cake delights in our little wooden box with a rolled up scroll alongside it – our nightly bedtime story. A truly charming touch and a great way to find out more about Vietnamese folklore.

I so looked forward to my bedtime story every night

Other special touches I loved included the fact that a chilled glass of water was delivered to your bed at the pool or beach as soon as you sat down – why doesn’t every hotel do this?

And the towels were extra large – having been specially made to perfectly cover the cushion on the wonderfully comfortable beach beds.

The Victoria Phan Thiet Beach Resort and Spa is the sort of place where you walk around with a smile on your face all day. Its beautiful and relaxing environment is made even more idyllic by the combination of smiley service and wonderful food.

It was a sad day indeed when we had to say goodbye and head off on the next leg of our adventure to Saigon, which you can read about here.

We organised our trip to Vietnam and Thailand with travel experts Eastravel. They are great to deal with and at the planning stage we spent some time discussing where we would visit and stay – with great results. It was a fabulous, well organised trip. You can read more about Vietnam and Thailand soon. Watch this space.

Have you been to Vietnam? What was your favourite thing about it? Do get in touch, I’d love to hear from you.

Absorbing the sights and energy of Saigon

I’ve been having a bit of a blog-holiday so apologies for being so quiet. But I’m back now and starting the new year (happy 2017 everyone) with tales of my recent trip to Vietnam and Thailand. My first time in Vietnam and I totally fell in love with the country – its people, food and unfolding story.

Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) is the largest city in Vietnam, although not the capital (that’s Hanoi in the north). In 1976 it was officially renamed Ho Chi Min City after the Communist revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh. It’s still widely called Saigon, though, (especially by the Vietnamese) which it was under French rule when it was the capital of Cochinchina.

The sprawling city has a population of more than 10 million and it’s rapidly growing, too. This makes for a serious hive of activity, hectic traffic, an energetic and hardworking people and, on the downside, somewhat polluted skies which means most citizens wear masks on the streets. There’s something happening around every corner and a friendliness and energetic feel that’s catching.

Here’s what you have to do when in HCMC.

Shop in Ben Thanh Market

In the centre of the city this bustling, partly undercover market sells pretty much anything you could possibly desire. Exotic, fresh vegetables and fruit, live fish and shellfish in all shapes and sizes, clothes, jewellery, souvenirs. The highlight is the towers of great quality, cheap t-shirts to choose from – don’t leave without one – Vietnamese cotton is fabulous.

dsc01962

The greenness of an exotic vegetable stall

Take to the streets and view the stylish architecture

Saigon is a great city to walk around. The centre is quite small and the best way to see everything is on foot. Notre Dame is the city’s most famous landmark. Built from the 1860s to the 1880s, it’s a reminder of the French influence – all the building materials were brought over from France. Newly married couples and their entourages cluster around the cathedral for wedding pictures – it’s said to bring good luck. It seems that everyone wants their picture taken in front of Notre Dame.

img_4909

Notre Dame’s pinkness is iconic Saigon

Saigon is also home to the most beautiful post office I’ve ever seen – designed by French architect Gustav Eiffel, who the Eiffel Tower was named for.

img_4910

Post offices don’t get prettier than this

Ho Chi Minh himself takes pride of place in the square in front of the City Hall which was built in the early 20th century – some more of that Parisian flavour – the city is also known as The Paris of the East.

img_4925

Ho Chi Minh stands guard over the city

Eat Pho and drink coffee

When in Vietnam…eat Pho. It’s a traditional Vietnamese soup consisting of broth, noodles, herbs and meat. It’s popular street food and it’s eaten any time of day – even for breakfast. Usually served with a plate of herbs on the side so you can add them to suit your taste. A deliciously, satisfying one-pot meal, one that I am certain to be making at home. Oh and there’s plenty of other street food on offer too.

Coffee is the most popular drink in Vietnam and coffee shops abound in the city, so no problem getting your caffeine fix as you explore.

img_4880

Traditional pho topped with fresh herbs

Visit the War Remnants Museum

Okay this isn’t the happiest thing you’re going to do in Saigon but I’m big on remembering and learning from history – something humans really aren’t that good at. This museum offers a pictorial record of the brutal Vietnam/American war and its aftermath. Some of the photographs are stunningly heart breaking and while the story is clearly told from a Vietnamese perspective the exhibits provide an almost overwhelming overview of this horrific time in Vietnamese history. Outside you can see the planes and the iconic Huey helicopter that I always associate with Vietnam. I’m too young to remember the war but one of my favourite songs is Goodnight Saigon by Billy Joel which is possibly one of the most powerful songs ever written. Worth a listen.

1080735389

The Huey helicopters that flew in packs

Chill out at a roof-top bar

Get a different perspective on the city and enjoy a local beer (or a tasty cocktail) at the same time. Our hotel The Majestic (more of which later) has a lovely roof-top bar overlooking the Saigon River. The perfect place to relax and plan over a cold one.

img_4836

Cheers from on high in Saigon

Marvel at the traffic and master crossing the road

The traffic is kind of a tourist attraction in its own right. There are millions of motorbikes in Saigon (they say there’s 25 to each car – and there’s no shortage of cars) and they don’t stop at red lights and have no compunction about riding on the pavement. So you need to keep your wits about you wherever you’re walking. I diligently pressed pedestrian crossing buttons to begin with but a red light didn’t stop the traffic. The best way to get across the many-laned roads is to walk at a steady pace without hesitation (when the lights are in your favour obviously) and the traffic will avoid you. Yes, I know I didn’t believe it either, but it seems to work.

img_4887

The traffic is a spectacle to behold

img_4943

Even at night it never stops

Take a dinner cruise

I do love seeing  a city from the river and the Saigon River is perfect for a cruise. We hopped on board our junk Le Perle de l’Orient at 7pm and settled in at a window table to take in the view. And enjoy a nine-course set menu of delicious Vietnamese food.

img_4968

Large, juicy prawns served in a coconut

The modern part of the city’s skyline sparkles in different colours, making for beautiful reflections in the river.

img_4989

The Saigon night skyline and its colourful reflections

img_4962

A traditional lotus salad with prawns and pork

Where to stay

We stayed at The Majestic Hotel, perfectly placed on the riverside corner of Dong Khoi Street – one of the best shopping streets in the city.

Our room was plush and spacious, overlooking the Saigon River and the bustling streets below. The huge bed was made up with some of the best linen I’ve ever slept in, I was tempted to pack the duvet cover in my suitcase! (No, of course I didn’t.)

img_4942

The best linen in the world? Possibly.

The hotel has a lovely rooftop bar/restaurant and the fabulous breakfast spread is served on an open terrace overlooking Saigon life.

Service is welcoming and efficient and the hotel has a relaxed elegance and calm about it – most welcome after the bustling life at street level.

Have you been to Vietnam? What was your favourite part of the trip? I’d love to hear your recommendations – they’ll give me an excuse to return.

COMING SOON

Read about my stay at the fabulous Victoria Beach Hotel and Spa in the seaside town of Phan Thiet.

The totally fabulous food of Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is a vibrant, bustling country with an amazingly diverse history and a wide range of influences that have made it into the fascinating place it is today.

There are delicious eating opportunities around every exciting corner, from the colourful street markets to the five-star hotels and restaurants. I even discovered several new dishes which became firm favourites. I’ll be testing out some Sri Lankan recipes myself at a later date and sharing them with you, so watch this space. You can read more about my trip to Sri Lanka by clicking here.

Now sit back and devour my pictorial tribute to Sri Lanka’s wonderful food.

There’s plenty of fruit on offer and the streets are lined with a seemingly endless supply of wonderful produce.

avocados

Love these huge, creamy avocados

Buffalo curd is a Sri Lankan delicacy. We visited a farmer who makes it by hand using milk from his buffalo herd and watched him stirring his concoction over a fire before pouring it into these terracotta bowls and letting it set. It’s tart and tasty and usually served with their deliciously sweet jaggery syrup.

dsc00356

Buffalo curd doesn’t get fresher than this

Restaurants serve up fresh crab in many shapes and forms. It looks beautiful with shells in pinky/ orange and tastes sweet and juicy.

buffetcrab

Fresh crab salad in the buffet spread

Dhal is a dish on offer with every meal – I loved it in my breakfast hopper (more of that later). Coconut cream adds a silky smoothness and richer flavour.

rsz_dhal

A bowl of spicy lentils

And here’s my personal favourite. From the first breakfast when I was directed to the hopper station I fell in foodie love with these crispy Sri Lankan-style pancakes and proceeded to create different versions every time I had one. Made while you wait with fried eggs nestling in the base, they really are a great addition to any mealtime.

2egghopper

Bring on the two-egg hopper

As Sri Lanka is an island you won’t be surprised to hear that there’s plenty of fresh fish to sample. One of the highlights of my trip was a visit to Negomobo fish market. We got up before dawn to witness the boats coming in, fish being auctioned and even carefully portioned and sliced for sale to eager customers.

fishmarket1

The fish is filleted and sliced straight off the boat

dsc00764

A lady seller sorts through her live prawns selection

The markets are a buzz of activity and aromas, selling a wide range of exotic wares. There’s a lot of grains in Sri Lankan cuisine, here they are proudly on display.

dsc00145

Sackfuls of grain in the market

Here’s my favourite hopper combo – an egg topped with dhal, tomato relish,and  coconut and onion sambals. So yummy!

rsz_img_3126

Spicy hoppers make for a great breakfast

When you have such a cornucopia of fruit on offer, you’ve simply got to make juice. This colourful little juice bar on the street in Negombo offered a truly exotic choice. We sampled the nelli and avocado juices. Nelli is kind of like a gooseberry and the juice has a serious zing to it and leaves a bit of a tingle on your tongue. Something of an acquired taste I would say. I adore avocado so loved the juice, which was literally just avos pureed. As you can imagine, it was thick, creamy and beautifully rich – and extremely filling.

rsz_dsc00785

Ordering juice is quite an experience in Sri Lanka

If you’re feeling thirsty on your journey there are stalls everywhere selling King coconuts. The top is lopped off for an instant, portable drink that’s full of electrolytes – ideal for rejuvenation on a sultry Sri Lankan day.

dsc00123

One unique Sri Lankan experience I was lucky enough to experience was lunch in the chena overlooking fields of okra, chilli and tomatoes. These shelters are dotted around the lands and used by farmers to watch their crops from and prevent wild animals from destroying them. The range of 10 colourfully tasty dishes were prepared for us by the farmer’s wife using local ingredients and served with an incredibly warm welcome.

dsc00386

A range of tasty traditional dishes to tuck into

Little roadside cafes are a great place to stop for lunch. There’s no menu, you’re simply brought what’s on offer that day. We tucked into a selection of vegetable dishes including the best tempered potatoes, a sweet carrot dish, dhal and onion relish served with smaller portions of fish and chicken and, of course, rice.

img_3125

A relaxed lunch on our road trip

I had the privilege of enjoying several cooking presentations which is why I’ve learnt lots of new recipes to share with you. As I said, watch this space. Here are some of the exotic spices I’ll be cooking with.

dsc00487

Sri Lanka’s spices are a joy to cook with

Of course Sri Lanka is also the land of tea – one of my favourite drinks. So I made sure I sampled plenty of it. I also visited the beautiful highlands around Nurawa Eliya with its emerald tea terraces as far as the eye could see and the delicate aroma of tea flavouring the air. Total tea heaven.

rsz_1img_3283

The tea pluckers are out no matter what the weather

I loved the flavours and aromas of Sri Lanka. And the freshness of all the ingredients. A wonderful foodie paradise.

I was a guest of the Sri Lankan Tourism Promotions Bureau on this trip.

 

Where to stay in Sri Lanka: my five favourites

Sri Lanka is a country of contrasts, from its cosmopolitan capital Colombo to the many sweeping beaches and majestically green mountains and forests, there’s a different aspect around every corner. And wherever you venture the welcome is warm, the food is exotic and delicious and there’s plenty of history and tradition to absorb.

Today I’m taking you to five places I visited and continuing my Where to Stay series, I’ve included five hotels I stayed in and why I particularly liked them. It’s a five-for-one sort of day. The pictures could speak for themselves really…some truly stunning places.

I started in Colombo. The city has a long history as a port on the ancient east-west trade routes (going back over 2,000 years) and it’s a very diverse history, too. Sri Lanka was ruled by the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British before independence in 1948 and this is reflected in the capital’s culture and architecture.

A mix of old and new (and updated) with teeming streets of myriad vehicles, bustling markets and people of all religions living in harmony. It’s the only place I’ve ever seen a mosque, a temple, a Roman Catholic church and an Anglican church all metres from each other. An example of diversity at its best. And easy to explore from the comfort of our base at The Kingsbury Hotel.

THE KINGSBURY HOTEL, COLOMBO

Perched proudly on the coast, The Kingsbury‘s sweeping driveway and spacious, high-ceilinged lobby makes for a grand entrance. And the rest of the hotel lives up to that initial expectation.

THE BEDROOMS

In the days of shrinking hotel rooms, I was delighted with the space and light with floor-to-ceiling windows and a massive bed in the centre of the room. I mean seriously massive, with the biggest and plushest pillows ever. How I wanted to bring one of those pillows home. A large ensuite with luxury walk-in shower was well stocked with Bulgari toiletries and fluffy towels.

deluxe-view

Beds don’t get more comfortable than this

THE FOOD

Buffets are extremely popular in Sri Lanka and The Kingsbury takes this to a seriously new level. Their splendid buffet spreads out over two rooms (I missed the second half initially) and offers a spread of Western, Indian, Japanese and South East Asian cuisine prepared by renowned chefs from around the globe. There are stunning displays of fresh produce at breakfast, lunch and dinner, an array of ready-prepared dishes and (my favourite part) food stations where the chefs cook fresh dishes in front of you. It’s where I ate the first of many hoppers (more of that in a later post) – a Sri Lankan favourite that I fell in love with. Their High Tea is a real show stopper.

dsc00045

The indulgent seafood section

THE SKY LOUNGE

Gotta love any opportunity for some alfresco socialising. The Sky Lounge is the perfect spot for sundowners – breathe in some of those sea breezes and watch the sun sink below the horizon. There’s a great cocktail list, so settle in.

Prishan Pandithage Photography

Al fresco sundowners overlooking the sea

rsz_dsc00041

My first Sri Lankan sunset…stunning

JETWING, YALA

Yala National Park, in the south-east of the country, is the second largest in Sri Lanka. It’s a unique mix of jungle, grassland, forest and scrubland also bordered on one side by the ocean. It is home to 215 bird species, 44 types of mammals and has one of the highest leopard densities in the world.

Set just outside the park, Jetwing Yala is the ultimate escape-from-everything sort of place. It nestles in an unspoilt forest reserve down a dusty road (always a good thing), bordered on one side by a stunning beach.

THE BEDROOMS

I’m no camper but give me a tent any time if it’s like this one. From the minute I unzipped the door (a novel way to get in to any room), I loved this large airy space and could have spent hours lying on the luxurious bed looking out towards the sea. And then there’s the bathroom. Light-filled and stylish with two showers – one indoor and one outdoor – I did love showering under the blue Sri Lankan sky and certainly left Yala squeaky clean.

Tented Villas, Jetwing Yala, Sri Lanka

Now this is my kind of tent

THE PEACE AND HARMONY

You’re driven in golf buggies to your tented villa (a quick call to reception and they’re there to pick you up again) and it really does feel you’ve been delivered to your own private piece of paradise. The large terrace looks out across the forest towards the sea and when night falls twinkling lights create a wonderland where the only sounds are the occasional animal on night time explorations. You’re woken at dawn by the rising sun and birdsong – another day to breathe in the freshest of Yala morning air.

Tented Villas, Jetwing Yala, Sri Lanka

As dusk falls, a new world unfolds

THE BEACH

A wonderful first for me – a national park that’s also a beach resort. And the beach at Jetwing Yala is stunning. There’s a bar and beds perched on top of the dunes where you can while away sunny hours or you can organise your own private dinner by firelight overlooking the sea. Just watch out for elephants – really, there’s a sign warning you to.

rsz_dsc00328

Sand dunes, the white beach and sparkling azure sea

JETWING KADURUKETHA, WELLAWAYA

Jetwing Kaduruketha offers a different environment to escape to. Set in the peaceful village surroundings of Wellawaya it’s a real chance to get in touch with the people and traditions of Sri Lanka. There are 25 chalets spread over 60 acres, overlooking the working paddy fields.

THE ROOMS

Beautifully spacious with light flooding in and an open-access bathroom running down one side. The huge shower looks straight over the fields. Plenty of seating options with a sofa, desk (with a fabulous view, I enjoyed blogging from here!) and verandah chairs. All rooms are supplied with their own bicycles for getting around the resort or heading off on your own voyage of discovery.

jetwingk

Your own private space with views all round

THE RESTAURANT

The open-sided dining room overlooks the hotel’s stunning pool, the paddy fields and majestic mountains in the distance. There’s an a la carte menu with a mix of traditional Sri Lankan dishes and contemporary Asian and International cuisine. Breakfast offered such a selection of deliciousness – my eggs Benedict was spectacular, with the addition of curry leaves for a bit of local flavour.

dsc00417

An amazing breakfast: Sri Lankan eggs Benedict

THE SCENERY

Kaduruketha is a perfect picture in shades of blues and greens. The resort itself with its trees, vegetable gardens, freedom and open spaces provides an instant leap back to nature. Meander through the fields, amble along the banks of the nearby bubbling streams, explore the village full of friendly locals or hike through the mountains. It’s your chance to kick back and immerse yourself in rural Sri Lanka.

dsc00407

Nature’s view: Paddy fields, forests and mountains

THE BLACKPOOL HOTEL, NURAWA ELIYA

The heights of Nurawa Eliya are often referred to as Little England – it was the favoured escape for the English and Scottish pioneers of Sri Lanka’s tea industry. The weather’s even pretty British – with swirling mist and plentiful rain. You can smell the aroma of tea in the air and see it growing all around you from The Blackpool Hotel (another touch of England for you).

THE BEDROOMS

The contrast from the steamy weather of the lowlands brings the opportunity to enjoy plush carpets underfoot, thick duvets to snuggle under and a wonderful in-room fire to toast your toes in front of. Large doors open onto the balcony overlooking the far-reaching greenness of terraced tea plantations.
blackpool

THE FOOD

Another amazing buffet spread to marvel at, below is just a small selection of the desserts on offer. Mind blowing! I also loved their grill station and area preparing fresh Asian dishes. Their chef prepared tempered potatoes and traditional dhal for us – two favourites from my trip – and these were the best I tried. The hotel also does a fantastic high tea – well you are in tea country after all. Remember to drink lots of tea while you’re here – it’s in a class of its own.

dsc00511

Dessert choices to make you very confused

THE SURROUNDINGS

I hadn’t anticipated that tea plantations could be so beautiful. On a magically misty morning the pickers were out in full force undertaking their daily delicate task of picking the best of the shoots from the tea plants. They punctuated the slopes of green in their colourful garb. The mountain views are stunning and the roadsides dotted with aromatic food stalls, tiny restaurants offering all means of local delicacies and fruit and veg vendors around every corner. The British introduced their favourites so as well as the usual Sri Lankan treats you’ll find plentiful strawberries, cabbages and cauliflowers on display. Nurawa Eliya’s like nowhere else in Sri Lanka.

dsc00538

A landscape of green with dots of colour

JETWING BLUE, NEGOMBO

Negombo is the fourth largest city in Sri Lanka and is famed for its expansive sandy beaches and fishing industry. Set on the west coast close to the airport, it’s a relaxing destination for a beachside break. You can see reminders of Dutch, Portuguese and British influence in the colonial charm of the town. And there’s an amazing fish market – more of which in another post. Jetwing Blue is one of four sister hotels set along a seemingly endless beach lined with palm trees.

THE BEDROOMS

Even when you’re in your room there’s no doubt you’re at the beach. The polished tiled floors, huge windows and balcony overlooking the sand and sea cleverly reflect your environment. There’s plenty of space to move with another enormous bed in the centre and a large desk area perfect for blogging. The stylish bathroom comes complete with Jetwing’s special toiletries and a deep bath to luxuriate in.

dsc00678

The perfect room for beach life

THE BEACH AND THE POOLS

It’s well documented that I’m a dedicated beach baby. So how heavenly is this beach/pool combination? Life is focussed on outdoor living with all roads leading to the beach which is lined with pools, bars and restaurants (but not too many) facing across the perfect view. There are plenty of sun loungers to chill out on and miles and miles to walk and ponder. Life’s better at the beach.

jetwingblue

THE FOOD

With one of the most fabulous fish markets I’ve ever visited just down the road, I knew there had to be great fish dishes at Jetwing Blue. The Negombo Crab is one of the signature local dishes and was made for us from scratch on the beach using a cornucopia of spices and the very freshest of crabs. The hotel’s buffet is another masterpiece of taste and vision. I started the day with a plate piled with tropical fruit – I don’t think my fellow travellers had ever seen so much passion fruit consumed by one person before. And there were more of those fabulous hoppers freshly made to order.

dsc00849

Negombo crab curry cooked for us on the beach

There’s a lot to discover in Sri Lanka. And its charming, welcoming people make it even easier to fall in love with this country of incredible diversity. Not to mention the food…more of which in a later post, so come back soon.

jetwingblueboats

Sailing boats are a typical sight on the beach in Negombo

I was a guest of the Sri Lankan Tourism Promotions Bureau on this trip.

I flew to Colombo on Emirates via Dubai.

Fabulous Sri Lankan dishes at Kaema Sutra in Colombo

So I’ve recently returned from Sri Lanka. I know, lucky me, another chance to visit somewhere exotic with an exciting, different culture to absorb. It’s an amazing country with a wide mix of influences which you can read more about in my later posts, so watch this space. Because today I’m going to tell you about this fantastic restaurant I dined at in the capital, Colombo.

Kaema Sutra is the third and most recent offering from chef Dharshan Mundisa. Dharshan was born in Tokyo to a Sri Lankan father and a Japanese mother and prides himself on being a self-taught chef – with his interest in cooking first aroused by watching his mother and Japanese aunts in the kitchen.

His first restaurant in Colombo (where he moved to as a child) reflects his Japanese background with Nihonbashi using the best of Sri Lankan ingredients to produce amazing Japanese food. The jewel in his crown, Ministry of Crab, opened in 2011 in the refurbished 400-year-old Dutch Hospital Shopping Precinct and is in the San Pellegrino Top-50 restaurants in Asia as well as being rated the best in Sri Lanka.

And tonight we were going to their baby sister, Kaema Sutra, which is located at the Arcade, Independence Square, which is now an upmarket shopping complex. The stylish, colonial building was created as the Jawatta Lunatic Asylum in 1889 and after various uses through the years and following a huge renovation project in 2012, the shiny new complex opened in July 2014. The Sri Lankans are very clever about creating new uses for historic buildings…from asylum to haven in this case.

Dharshan created a menu specially for us – lucky me, again – and boy did we have a feast. He’s taken traditional Sri Lankan cuisine, updated it and added a bit of something extra. It’s flavourful, exciting and different with each dish showing careful consideration.

Our selection of three starters got us off the perfect Sri Lankan start. First up, Godha chips, described as chips made from the local Godamba roti. It’s impossible to imagine what these little bites of delight are going to taste like…and quite hard to describe, too, but boy were they delicious. Light and tasty with bite.

roticrisps

Crisps Sri Lankan style

And then it was time for some hot chilli wings which were served with a buffalo curd raita dip. Buffalo curd is huge in Sri Lanka (more of which later) and went perfectly with the spiciness of the wings. I was aware of plenty more dishes to come so held back a bit on the wings…another time I ‘m confident I could polish off a whole plate to myself. They’re that good.

DSC00162

Crispy chicken wings with a bit of spice

Our third starter was a hopper…but no ordinary hopper, what Dharshan calls a Euro hopper. On discovering hoppers on my first night in Sri Lanka, I ate them at most meals (yes, breakfast, lunch and dinner). They’re kind of like thin, bowl-shaped pancakes that are made in front of you in a special pan and served hot for you to add your choice of filling. They are so delicious and the concept is so versatile. As proved here, with no Sri Lankan spices, simply dollops of local buffalo curd, baked sea salt and Italian olive oil. Yummy!

Oh and the other thing about the hoppers at Kaema Sutra – they are big! Bigger than any I saw anywhere else.

DSC00171

A Sri Lankan staple given a European touch

The curry was made with the local freshwater prawns which are huge, juicy and bounding in flavour.

Freshwater Prawn Curry

Giant freshwater prawns in a spicy sauce

Dishes were served with what they call the A La Minute Lunu Miris. It’s basically a chilli and onion paste that is made in front of you using a special board and roller – and the key is it needs to be made in a minute. I guess practice makes perfect because it didn’t look difficult and he had no problem with the time, such skill and speed with a heavy and somewhat unwieldy tool. The resulting paste was hot and beautifully fresh tasting, this method produced definitely something way superior to anything similar I’ve done in my electric blender.

Lunu miris

Add spice and zest to any dish

Making the paste on demand…how I’d love one of these in my kitchen…

Miris gala

The process to marvel at

Vegetables are a huge part of Sri Lankan cuisine and today we were served two classic accompaniments. This baby potato curry was simply luscious – I did go on to sample many other delicious potato curries on my journey. A dish you have to order when you’re in Sri Lanka.

IMG_2873

Sri Lankan potato curries are the best

As is their dhal. It tastes slightly different around the country but always has that light spiciness and perfect creaminess that makes it go well with just about everything.

IMG_2867

A wonderful lentil dish

And the dishes kept arriving. Dharshan loves cooking with crab (well, he did call one of his restaurants Ministry of Crab after all) and the Crab Kottu is the latest addition to the restaurant’s menu. It’s a lightly spiced mix of succulent crab meat, vegetables and chopped roti which is quickly fried on a griddle and served topped with the prettiest of crab shells. This was my first experience of kottu (though obviously not my last) – another Sri Lankan speciality you have to try.

Kottucrab

A delightfully different crab dish

Alongside the crab came a two-egg hopper. This is Kaema Sutra’s signature hopper and it’s giant – nine inches to be exact – with two eggs smack in the centre.

IMG_2864

This is an egg hopper deluxe

After a short interval it was time for dessert. Hopper dessert. See what I mean, they are versatile things. The chocolate chip hopper had a warm, creamy, chocolatey centre. A dream for chocolate lovers. I spotted a little girl on the next table tucking into hers as a main course while her parents enjoyed spicy delights. She looked very happy – well she would, wouldn’t she?

IMG_2877

The first of our hopper desserts

And to finish off…What the hopper! That’s what it’s called and it’s a different colour because there’s treacle in the batter. Filled with strawberries and cream and finished off with a drizzle of more treacle. Wow.

IMG_2879

Strawberries and cream with the Sri Lankan difference

Such a great introduction to the classic Sri Lankan dishes and a marvellous demonstration on what you can add to them with imagination. With its great food, beautiful setting (there’s a spacious terrace you can also dine on) and ever-present warm Sri Lankan welcome Kaema Sutra is an all-round great dining experience. And it’s amazing value for visitors, too. If you’re in Colombo go there. You have to.

Today’s price point

Eating out in Sri Lanka is great value.

As a guideline, 1,000 Sri Lankan rupees are equivalent to approximately £5.

To give you an idea on prices, a large plate of chilli chicken wings costs Rs960; the prawn curry is Rs960 per prawn (and you won’t need more than one each), the two-egg hopper is Rs240 and the amazing dessert What the Hopper is Rs480.

Kaema Sutra is at No 30, Arcade Independence Square, Colombo 7.