Looking for places to stay in Sri Lanka? Want a beautiful airport hotel in Colombo? Read our review of The Wallawwa in Sri Lanka.
The Wallawwa in a nutshell
One of the world’s most beautiful airport hotels (it’s 15 minutes’ drive from Sri Lanka’s main international airport, Bandaranaike). Stay at the Wallawwa and you can pepper day trips to the country’s capital (Colombo is 40 minutes’ drive) with time spent wallowing in the hotel’s elegant guest rooms, gardens, spa and restaurant.
Soothing. In contrast to the traffic- and fume-filled frenzy of Colombo, the hotel oozes calm, tropical langour. Fans whirr rhythmically overhead, birds coo-eeh to each other across tropical treetops and footsteps pad softly towards you whenever the urge for a drink or a snack arises. Otherwise, all is serene and still with a large verandah framed by graceful stone columns and guest rooms leading off from courtyards set around shallow pools. Wander through beautifully kept gardens, dip in the velvety shade of a jungle swimming pool, pick up a croquet mallet on the lawn, borrow a book – or a board game – from the library and let the hours drift by.
Which room should I book at The Wallawwa?
Owned by the Teardrop hotel group (which added a new wing in 2012), the hotel is knitted together with an Instagram-worthy colour palette that sets off creamy white walls with powder blue window frames and scarlet parasols. Occasional tropical thunderstorms only add to the atmosphere, with roofs fringed by rain chains that spring into mesmerising action during downpours.
Like the rest of the property, the 18 guest rooms and suites spin a restrained, modern take on tropical chic. Whether you choose a standard double or twin, one of two larger family suites, a garden suite (these have their own private gardens) or, grandest of all, the Mountbatten Suite (Lord Mountbatten was based at the property, along with his troops, during WWII), all come with high, wooden ceilings, terrazzo floors and retro black telephones. The latter hint at the building’s colonial past; Wallawwa means “old manor house” in Sinhalese and the main section of the building is 200 years old, a single storey house with terracotta roof tiles and gingerbread fretwork that, at one point in its long history, belonged to an English brigadier (the hotel’s restaurant sits in what used to be his garage).
Bathrooms are enormous, with showers rather than baths (except in the Mountbatten Suite) and a moody, low-light feel. If you prefer a long soak you may be disappointed but we felt the walk-in showers were in keeping with the climate.
The Wallawwa isn’t quite perfect – amenities are surprisingly basic (don’t expect cotton buds in the bathrooms or posies of fresh flowers) and nitpickers might feel that light cotton bathrobes would be better suited to the climate than chunky waffle ones – but it certainly comes close.
The food and drink
Being close to the airport means that the Wallawwa’s restaurant, The Verandah, hosts a real diversity of guests and it caters, commendably, for all. If you hunger after European holiday stalwarts such as pasta, burgers or salads you’ll find pretty decent versions of them on offer here (croissants and burger buns are made in-house while salads come scattered with edible flowers and crunchy winged beans, a gorgeously grassy local veg), some of them with a Sri Lankan twist; the Ceylon chicken pizza is topped with a tomato-y curried chicken sauce, shavings of coconut, curry leaves and raita while homemade ice creams make the most of local spices (don’t miss the delicate cardamom version).
It’s the local dishes that really shine, however, especially at dinner when the more casual lunchtime menu gives way to more sophisticated cooking. Head chef, Jagath, is as knowledgeable about the health properties of his ingredients as he is with their culinary characteristics, and happy to share recommendations.
Sri Lanka’s famous lagoon crabs, we were told, tend to be exported (or sold under expensive licenses) but you can try them here in crispy little lagoon crab croquettes. Spiny rock lobsters and unfeasibly large prawns (think crustaceans the size of baby squirrels) from the Negombo Lagoon, just 5km away, are sometimes available, too. We tried the latter in a prawn salad with a gorgeous curry leaf pesto that had a hint of smoky sweetness and just a touch of fire.
Other highlights include black pork, a dish whose title describes the tempering of its spices rather than the breed of pig. A pan-scrapingly good dry curry, made with cardamom, tamarind and ginger, it’s served at the Wallawwa with a buffalo curd, lime juice and tomato raita, mango chutney, creamy coconut dal, caramelised brinjal moju, a sweet, crunchy carrot chutney and coconut sambol. Make sure you order a side of loofah to go with it; this marrow-like vegetable is served in a mildly spiced, creamy, coconut sauce that tastes so moreish you’ll be licking the bowl.
Comforting desserts, meanwhile, make the most of local flavours. Choices range from passionfruit crème brulee and banana and rum tatin with vanilla ice cream to pineapple carpaccio with chilli salt and jiggery pancakes with coconut and fruit salad.
The drinks list could do with a refresh, however. A range of imported beers, wines and spirits is available (five of the wines by the glass) but it’s a safe selection (no subcontinental wines, for instance) and we felt the Wallawwa was missing a trick by not having a more imaginative cocktail list; its 15 options are dominated by Cosmopolitans, Margaritas and Piña Coladas with very few more locally influenced drinks like the Arrack Attack (arrack with ginger beer and lime).
The continental basics are covered well (including those freshly baked croissants) and guests who like to start their day with a vitamin-kick will be spoilt for choice with the Wallawwa’s fruit plates, which are entirely made up of fruits grown on site, including papayas, bananas and pineapples. This is also, of course, the place to order a pot of Sri Lankan tea rather than coffee.
It’s well worth trying some of the Sri Lankan breakfast dishes, though. The country’s famous hoppers are there for the ordering, as is buffalo curd with palm treacle, but our top pick is the unpromising-sounding mung bean milk rice – a comforting, nursery-like concoction of coconutty rice served with an extra-mild cashew, pea and coconut milk curry and a fresh, spicy little pot of tomato, onion and chilli purée.
What else can foodies do?
Join the hotel’s chefs for a cookery class. Take a tour of the five-acre kitchen garden (60% of the fruit and veg served at the Wallawwa is grown on site, from mint, cabbages and curry leaves to peppers, chilli, basil, lemongrass, coconuts, limes, papaya, bananas, dragon fruit, lettuces, red mustard leaves, aubergine, mangos and pineapples). Many guests head into Colombo to eat East Asian classics at sister restaurant, Monsoon. Or, stay put and while away a soporifically sunny afternoon grazing your way through complimentary tea and cake.
Is it family friendly?
Children are welcome, with a generous supply of Rubiks cubes, Jenga and cricket for older children and an extensive children’s menu in the restaurant (choices range from classic penne pomodoro and burgers to crumbed chicken fingers with coleslaw and steamed rice or pan-fried fish fillet with corn on the cob and mashed potato). However, the small pool and peaceful atmosphere makes the Wallawwa feel more of a romantic, grown-up retreat than a raucous family bolthole.
Don’t miss the on-site Z Spa, tucked in one of the Wallawwa’s tranquil courtyards. Carried out using Ophir products (made in Sri Lanka and based on the therapeutic properties of various teas) treatments range from signature facials to black tea and cardamom wraps. Choose a rainy day and enjoy the soothing effects of both a massage with black tea, vetiver and black pepper oil and the calming sound of tropical rain.
Words by Rhiannon Batten
Photographs by Teardrop Hotels and Rhiannon Batten