Our first introduction to Sri Lanka was warm, traditional and rather formal. As we stepped out of our taxi at the beautiful Cocoon Resort and Spa, we were presented with flowers, invited to light the oil lamp that symbolises homecoming and wished “Ayubowan” – Sinhalese for welcome.
Our second was more of a rude awakening. As dawn broke over the jungle behind our room a series of ear-splitting thuds on the roof sent us leaping out of bed. A falling tree? A burglar?
We raced on to the veranda and peered over the railings to investigate. Suddenly my husband Les was eyeball-to-eyeball with a hairy face hanging upside down from the roof edge.
It turned out to be the alpha male from a resident troop of monkeys checking out the new neighbours. And he must have decided we were all right because they dropped in nearly every morning.
After a few days our monkey visitors felt like a normal element of the Cocoon Resort experience – part hotel, part home-from-home, part nature reserve. There are so many breeds of birds in the grounds, the management have employed a naturalist to identify them all.
And pretty soon you think nothing of seeing a 3ft monitor lizard stroll past your sunbed. The staff’s favourite is known to all as Puppy. It’s a gentle introduction to the wild, ancient landscape of the Sri Lanka beyond the hotel’s landscaped grounds where just 26 rooms and villas are dotted around an eight-acre site, creating an aura of peace and privacy.
The Cocoon Resort is in Induruwa, an idyllic village a mile inland from the inviting unspoilt beaches of Sri Lanka’s south coast, a 10-minute tuk-tuk ride from watersports centre Bentota. A shuttle service runs to the hotel’s beach club partner where there are loungers, umbrellas and a nice restaurant.
While this area is a few hours’ drive from Sri Lanka’s cultural trail, there is plenty to do and see here in the Southern Province. For just 2,000 rupees (about £11) you can take the Jayantha Boat Service tour of the Maadu Ganga River estuary and its dozens of islands.
We passed through tunnels of mangrove thickets and spotted cormorants diving for fish and sea eagles riding the thermals. We visited Cinnamon Island and saw how the spice is farmed. The tour is free but you can buy their products.
Keen bakers can get a great deal on ground cinnamon, but I didn’t fancy negotiating customs with a plastic bag of unidentified beige powder, so I went for the cinnamon sticks and oil instead.
hen we treated ourselves to a pedicure, Sri Lankan-style.
It’s the same principle here by the river – except that the fish are twice as lively, 10 times the size and it costs £1.50.
I felt like the lobster dish at a free buffet. Great fun, especially for the fish.
The tour also takes in a Buddhist temple where the monks showed us ancient artworks and holy books centuries old. For a few rupees you can buy a drink or snack from one of the floating shops – basically large sheds bobbing up and down in the middle of the river.
Another popular trip is to the nearby gardens at Lunuganga, the former country estate of renowned Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa, where £7pp buys a personal guided tour.
For a less manicured but equally enchanting snapshot of Sri Lankan life, the Cocoon Resort runs a guided bicycle tour of the villages around the hotel (£17pp).
We saw workers in the paddy fields watched by wild peacocks, drank tea at the blacksmith-cum-refreshment stall, took evasive action when a mongoose shot across the track and met the local lottery outlet – a man on a bike who travels round selling 40 rupee tickets (about 22p) to locals hoping to win the £60,000 jackpot.
For a few pounds you can visit the nearby Kosgoda Sea Turtle Conservation Project, where turtle eggs from the five native species are hatched safely, away from people and predators, maximising their numbers before they are released into the sea.
Arrive as the sun goes down and you might get the chance to help release young turtles into the sea. But after exploring the area we found the tranquillity of Cocoon Resort calling us home.
An absolute must is a visit to the hotel spa, where the treatments all cost less than £20. We both had the anti-stress body massage with herbal oils prepared to local Ayurvedic principles.
It’s a very different experience to a western massage. There’s none of that “I’ll just wrap you in towels and leave you to listen to irritating whale music for 20 minutes” nonsense. The whole 40 minutes is devoted to head-to toe-bliss provided by spa manager Mayura, the man with the golden thumbs.
There’s also a gym, a whirlpool bath and an indoor pool. But the highlight of the Cocoon experience was the amazing food prepared by the talented kitchen team, led by head chef Deepthi. Curry lovers can indulge their spice addiction for lunch, dinner and even breakfast. And we did.
A traditional Sri Lankan breakfast will set you up for the day, but it takes a little getting used to. The main dish is fish or chicken curry served with lentil dhal, coconut and chilli chutneys, milky rice (much nicer than it sounds) and string hoppers – tasty little nests of soft noodles.
And the tandoori marinated prawn kebabs at dinner were pretty special. But the Cocoon offers a wide range of Western dishes too. The motto seems to be “if we’ve got it, you can have it”.
It’s that attitude, promoted by the genial general manager Ernest Blackett, that makes this resort feel like home. Don’t fancy anything on the menu? Tell smiley head waiter Indrajith what you’d like and they’ll cook it – beautifully – for you. Want to come back from the beach early? Just ring and Gayan, the friendly tuk-tuk driver, will be there in minutes.
The staff will also suggest good restaurants and drive you there and back. One recommendation was Amal’s, a seafood place where you meet your dinner before eating it. We were warned it was pricey, and by Sri Lankan standards it is, but worth every rupee.
Our banquet of spicy crab and huge prawns included salad, coconut roti, cocktails, wine and dessert and still came in at under £50 for two. Naturally we went back, and this time we had the local para fish, a bit like salmon, but lighter. amal-villa.com
Which was very like Sri Lanka itself – exotic and beautiful, but very easily digested. (Courtesy Mirror.co.uk)