Sri Lanka has an excellent range of accommodation in all price brackets, from basic beachside shacks to elegant colonial mansions and sumptuous five-star resorts – indeed staying in one of the country’s burgeoning number of luxury hotels and villas can be one of the principal pleasures of a visit to the island, if you can afford it.
Travellers on a budget will spend most of their time in guesthouses, usually family-run places either in or attached to the home of the owners. Some of the nicer guesthouses can be real homes from home, with good food and sociable hosts.
Hotels come in all shapes, sizes and prices, from functional concrete boxes to luxurious establishments that are virtual tourist attractions in their own right. Some of the finest hotels (particularly in the hill country) are located in old colonial buildings, offering a wonderful taste of the lifestyle and ambience of yesteryear, while the island also boasts a number of stunning modern hotels, including many designed by Sri Lanka’s great twentieth-century architect Geoffrey Bawa. The coastal areas are also home to innumerable resort hotels, the majority of which – with a few honourable exceptions – are fairly bland, populated largely by European package tourists on full-board programmes and offering a diet of horrible buffet food and plenty of organized fun.
Sri Lanka is waking up to its massive eco-tourism potential, and now boasts good eco-oriented hotels and lodges. You can also stay in bungalows or camp within most of the island’s national parks, although this can be difficult to arrange. The national parks are the only places in Sri Lanka with official campsites, and elsewhere camping is not a recognized activity. Pitching your tent unofficially in rural areas or on the beach is likely to lead to problems with local landowners and villagers.
Sri Lanka also boasts a huge (and continually increasing) number of villas and boutique hotels, many set in old colonial villas or old tea estate bungalows and offering stylish and luxurious accommodation.
Hotels are classified using the usual one- to five-star system. In addition, some smaller hotels and guesthouses are officially approved by the Sri Lanka Tourist Board, though it must be said that such approval means absolutely nothing – indeed, if anything, approved places often tend to be worse than their non-approved rivals.
Sri Lanka has its fair share of accommodation touts. One way of avoiding hassle is to ring ahead; most guesthouses will pick you up for free from the local bus or train station if given advance warning. If travelling with a driver, ring ahead in person – don’t let your driver do it for you.
What you’ll need from your room depends on where you are in the island; basic necessities change as you move up into the hill country and things become progressively colder. Virtually all accommodation in Sri Lanka comes with private bathroom. In lowland areas, you should also always get a fan (usually a ceiling fan; floor-standing fans are much less common, and much less effective) – don’t stay anywhere without one, unless you’re happy to sleep in a puddle of sweat. It’s also worth checking that the fan works properly (both that it runs at a decent speed and doesn’t make a horrible noise). In lowland areas, room size and ceiling height are both important in determining how hot somewhere will be – rooms with low ceilings can become unbearably stuffy. In some areas (notably Arugam Bay) many places are built with their roofs raised slightly above the top of the walls, so that cool air can circulate freely through the gap (although, equally, it provides free access to insects). Smarter places will also usually have air-conditioning and/or hot water; the cheapest places in the lowlands are unlikely to have eithe (though given how humid it is, cold-water showers are no particular hardship). Mosquito nets are provided in most places, although it’s well worth carrying your own.
In the cooler climes of the hill country, most places in all categories have hot water. As a general rule, you’ll need a fan in all places up to and including Kandy, and hot water in Kandy and anywhere higher. In the highest parts of the island, particularly Nuwara Eliya, you’ll usually need some form of heating and/or a good supply of blankets. Few hill country establishments provide mosquito nets, which isn’t generally a problem – these irritating little creatures shouldn’t (in theory at least) be able to survive at these altitudes, though in practice you might be unlucky enough to have an unusually hardy specimen buzzing in your ear anywhere in the island.
There are a few other things worth bearing in mind when choosing a room. Check how many lights there are and whether they work: Sri Lankan hoteliers have a penchant for twenty-watt bulbs, and rooms can be very dingy. And if you’re staying in a family guesthouse, keep an eye out for loud children, dogs or television sets in the vicinity of your room; and make sure you get a room away from any noisy nearby roads.
Room rates in lower-end places reflect Sri Lanka’s bargaining culture – exact rates are often somewhat notional, as owners will vary prices to reflect the season, levels of demand and how rich they think you look. It’s always worth bargaining, even in top-end places, especially if you’re planning to stay a few nights, or if business is slow. If you’re travelling on your own, you’ll have to work harder to get a decent price since many establishments don’t have single rooms or rates (and where they exist, they’re still usually two-thirds to three-quarters of the price of a double). Try to establish what the price of a double would be, and bargain from there.
In many places, your hotel or guesthouse will also be the place you’re most likely to eat, and half- and full-board rates are common. These can often work out to be extremely good value, though the food can be bland; obviously, the appeal of all-inclusive options depends on the presence or absence of other places to eat in the vicinity.
Prices in most coastal areas are also subject to seasonal variations. The most pronounced seasonal variation is along the west coast, where rates at almost all places rise (usually by between 25 and 50%) from November 1 through to mid- or late-April. Some places along the south coast also put up their prices during this period. East coast places tend to raise rates from around April through to September. Rates in particular towns also rise if there’s a big festival or other event going on locally – as during the Esala Perahera at Kandy – or during important holidays, as during the Sinhalese New Year in Nuwara Eliya, when accommodation prices everywhere treble or quadruple.
Room rates at mid- and top-end places are often quoted in dollars for convenience, but are payable in rupees only (a few places along the west coast quote prices in euros, again usually payable in rupees). Make sure you clarify whether any additional taxes will be added to the bill or are already included in the quoted price (the so-called “nett” rate). Cheaper hotels and guesthouses tend to quote nett rates; upmarket places are more likely to quote rates excluding taxes and service charge, although there’s no hard and fast rule. Many places add a ten percent “service charge” while there are also several other government taxes which may or may not be figured into the quoted price, but which can potentially add up to 27% to the total bill – a nasty surprise when you come to check out, especially since these taxes will most likely also have been added to your food and drink bill.
Finally, note that many hotels operate a dual-pricing system whereby foreigners pay more (sometimes significantly more) than locals. If you have a resident’s visa, you may be eligible for local rates.