Nisala Arana: rustic luxury in Sri Lanka

Jacqui Gibson reviews Nisala Arana, a luxury boutique hotel in Sri Lanka

Nisala Arana bungalow, Sri Lanka (image by Jacqui Gibson).

Nisala Arana bungalow, Sri Lanka (image by Jacqui Gibson).


THE PLACE: Nisala Arana, Bentota, Sri Lanka.

THE LOCATION: You’ll find luxury boutique hotel Nisala Arana in the popular coastal village of Bentota about 60 kilometres south of Colombo and within easy reach of Sri Lanka’s international airport. As such, it’s the perfect place to either start or finish your Sri Lankan getaway.

Much less a busy resort and more a private, luxury escape, Nisala Arana is one of those rustic retreats that invites you to relax and switch off, while giving you plenty to do and explore nearby.

THE SPACE: The driver we’ve hired for the two-hour ($US47) trip from Colombo to Bentota eventually locates Nisala Arana down a shady residential lane, where locals pass by on foot or two-or-three people to a bicycle. It’s a far cry from the noisy, choking hustle-and-bustle of Colombo.

The family-run resort hasn’t been an easy find, but the quiet, leafy village in which it is located is a positive sign. The solid brass sign stamped with the resort owner’s name, Pereira, is the first indication we’re in the right place at last.

Then, like a couple of CS Lewis characters about to enter Narnia for the first time, we tentatively ring a copper bell fixed to the rock wall encircling the property and wait for the okay to enter. 

Driving onto the four-and-a-half-acre property is like transporting ourselves into another world. We’re surrounded by a tropical garden of towering coconut palms, a manicured lawn and sparsely-placed earthenware pots.

Australian-born manager Ben Pereira greets us warmly, immediately offers us a cool iced lime juice and ushers us on to the plush sofas of Nisala Arana’s central outdoor pavilion. We’ve made it. The property features a freshwater swimming pool surrounded by sunbeds and shade umbrellas.

There are bicycles, a volleyball court and seating areas allocated to private garden dining. While the boutique resort is not on the beach, it is only a 10-minute tuk tuk ride away from Bentota’s popular, golden coastline.

THE ROOM: Nisala Arana offers all-villa accommodation for a maximum of 18 guests. We take the heritage-listed colonial bungalow, the Doctor’s House, which dates back to the 1850s.

It’s a large shaded, three-bedroom bungalow set into a glade of frangipani and tamarind trees. Impeccably furnished with mahogany and teak pieces sourced from Colombo’s antique stores, the Doctor’s House brings to mind Sri Lanka’s Dutch and Portuguese colonial periods.

There’s a deck out front with cane chairs and side tables. From here, you can take in views of the property’s resident white heron and occasional mongoose zipping across the frequently swept yard. The indoor space offers two large bedrooms, a smaller twin bedroom, a library and plenty of room for dining if you plan on staying awhile or entertaining.

There is an outdoor shower and notably few mirrors. This is not a place you’ll need to spend hours preparing yourself for dinner. The open roof and indoor fish pond is a beautiful, albeit unusual design element that harks back to the building’s original use. Apparently the pond was once a dry storage area piled high with the doctor's rice and spices.

Staff service at Nisala Arana is personal, friendly and local. Sharnala and Roy look after the guests and all meals. Shelton, who is in charge of operations, clearly has a strong, long-standing relationship with the Pereira family who own the resort (Ben's dad is of Sri Lankan descent). Shelton took us to a local temple and gave us a tour of the many spice trees on the property used for cooking and Ayurvedic medicine.

Nisala Arana sambol (image by Jacqui Gibson).

Nisala Arana sambol (image by Jacqui Gibson).

THE FOOD: Breakfast, served in the main pavilion, can be as light or extensive as you want. Starting with a fresh fruit salad, you can move on to curd and coconut treacle, together with coffee or tea. Add to that egg hoppers, a Sri Lankan specialty, and local condiments. 

Tea and cake is on offer every afternoon (the pikelets, cream and jam are delicious). Dinners are a candle-lit affair either within the central pavilion or in the garden among the glowing fireflies and croaking frogs. The chef’s Sri Lankan chili crab, coconut prawns with mango salsa will not disappoint. Expect local and international cuisine made from fresh local produce and your choice of imported wine.

NEARBY: Definitely book a driver and take Nisala Arana’s cool, vintage Morris Minor to visit Lunuganga, the magnificent tropical modernist homestead and lakeside garden made by one of Sri Lanka’s most famous architects, Geoffrey Bawa. Bawa's aesthetic is the inspiration behind Nisala Arana’s gardens and Lunuganga is a wonderful place to wander and spend a couple of hours.

The drive to Lunuganga, Sri Lanka (image by Jacqui Gibson).

The drive to Lunuganga, Sri Lanka (image by Jacqui Gibson).

When we go, there are only a few tourists on site. Together with our guide, we spent two hours exploring the lily ponds, walkways and Italianate gardens – taking time to poke our noses into the four antique-filled suites and two-room cottage in which people can now stay. 

When Geoffrey Bawa bought the property (an abandoned rubber plantation) in the late 1940s, his goal was to recreate something distinctly Italian on home soil. Instead, it became a lifelong experiment in melding Sri Lankan and European design into an architectural genre known as tropical modernism. The gardens are both raw and spectacular.

If you love this kind of thing, don’t miss it. But be sure to take mosquito repellant and a sun hat. Other attractions close to Nisala Arana include local beaches (good for swimming), Buddhist temples, the Udawalawe Elephant Park, turtle hatcheries and Galle, the historic port town, which you can do in a day.

THE VERDICT: Nisala Arana offers top-notch boutique accommodation for those looking for a private, rustic getaway. It’s a sensory treat – whether it’s the slow-moving monitor lizard you spy cruising near a thicket or the evening call to prayer you'll hear every evening at 5pm or the riot of flavours you'll taste in any of Nisala Arana’s traditional Sri Lankan curries, there’s plenty to enjoy in this tucked-away oasis.

HIGHLIGHT: Occasional mongoose darting across the lawn on dusk.

LOWLIGHT: The outdoor massage was great, but could probably do with the added privacy of coming indoors.

ESSENTIALS: A villa at Nisala Arana starts from $US125.00 per night. See for more information.

This review was first published in Food, Wine & Travel magazine.

Entrance to Nisala Arana, Bentota, Sri Lanka (image by Jacqui Gibson).

Entrance to Nisala Arana, Bentota, Sri Lanka (image by Jacqui Gibson).