Passion Points: Style
Sri Lanka has been through a lot of recent hardship: there was the 2004 tsunami, which greatly affected this tropical island nation, as well as the resolution of a lengthy civil war in 2009. But despite all this, the destination, about 18 miles off the southeastern coast of India, has slowly, quietly been transforming itself, thanks to dedicated rebuilding efforts and significant growth. (Its southern resort of Kalpitiya was featured on the exclusive list of the New York Times’ 46 Places to Go in 2013.)
Indagare insider Stephanie von Watzdorf, founder of Figue, visited Sri Lanka recently and returned with rave reviews about the up-and-coming destination that she dubs “the next Bali.” Having spent much of her childhood in Europe, Stephanie first cut her fashion teeth with an Yves Saint Laurent internship in Paris. Today she’s trusted for her impeccable style, which comes through in her globally-inspired womenswear brand, Figue. Indagare spoke to the frequent traveler about her trip and why Sri Lanka should be on the lists of savvy globetrotters.
What prompted this trip to Sri Lanka? Had you been to other areas of Southeast Asia before?
I’ve always wanted to go to Sri Lanka since I was a child–in my mind it was this magical kingdom with beautiful people and incredible jewels. I travel to India a lot, and it’s so close, it would have been crazy not to go once. My visit coincided with Sri Lankan Fashion Week, so I got to see some of the shows and hang out with a friend who lives there. The fashion I saw was a mix of Balinese and new-wave India. It was interesting to watch because I think it’s going to be a real hot spot for travelers in the coming years.
Sri Lankan culture is still evolving, and while parts of the country are sophisticated, others are very raw and untouched. The country has been ravaged by hurricanes and tsunamis, so they are in a period of regrowth and modernization.
How did you map out your itinerary and what were your stops?
I knew I wanted to visit Colombo, Galle, and the coastline, and spend about 2-3 days in each spot, which turned out to be the perfect amount of time. I’d read a lot about Galle (a UNESCO World Heritage site), so I wanted to see it first-hand. I was very impressed, and our hotel, Dutch House (www.thedutchhouse.com/dutch.html), was an adorable little property with majestic rooms teeming with antiques. In Colombo I stayed at this uber-chic hotel called the Titangel (www.paradiseroadhotels.com/tintagel), which had a lovely colonial feel to it. I went to some events at really big hotels that were in need of major refurbishments, so I would definitely recommend travelers stay in boutique hotels in Sri Lanka.
Our third stop was the coastal town Bentota, where we stayed at Villa Bentota (www.paradiseroadhotels.com/villabentota). The refurbished villa was perched right on the beach with a beautiful outdoor seating area overlooking the coastline. We had to traverse two railroad tracks to get to the long, massive beach–a beautiful adventure, and a study in contrasts!
The Sri Lankan people were so friendly and welcoming. For many, meeting us was their first encounter with Americans. For us, interacting with the locals was truly one of the most memorable parts of the trip. We had a tuk-tuk driver in Galle who was so kind and helpful that we hired him for the rest of our time in the city—he even wanted to take us to his house to meet his family and make us dinner!
Did anything surprise you while on your trip?
The lush, vibrant palm trees were incredible. I would sit with my tea and watch the trees move, mesmerized by how they swayed in the wind like belly dancers. It was truly magical, and made even more so by the fact that they grew back with such vigor after being destroyed just years ago.
What kinds of travelers would you recommend a Sri Lanka trip to?
Sri Lanka is best for a sophisticated traveler who is not too particular. The service is a little slow; there aren’t always high-end amenities like a gym, and the air-conditioning can be spotty, so a trip to Sri Lanka requires patience. You have to go with the flow, so if you’re curious and interested in witnessing a culture in the throes of a cultural Renaissance, the lack of super-luxurious amenities won’t matter. The same traveler who goes to India can go to Sri Lanka.
I think Sri Lanka could be the next Bali, that’s how impressed I was. There’s enormous regrowth after the tsunami and some really chic places; in ten years it will be in every magazine and chic travelers will flock there.
What item in your suitcase were you most grateful for/use the most?
My pareos were crucial because it was so hot. I use them as scarves on the plane or wrap them up into a skirt or dress. I also brought caftans that were light and great for the heat.
What were your most interesting purchases?
I didn’t buy anything, which is weird for me! I’m always hunting for incredible jewelry; I find it all over the world and it’s always one-of-a-kind, whether it costs $20 or $5,000, but I just couldn’t find anything in Sri Lanka. There were lots of gemstones that would have required settings, but I couldn’t find any sophisticated jewelry already polished and finished. I was disappointed not to find any gorgeous vintage pieces, but I think unfortunately a lot of antiques were swept away or destroyed in the tsunami.
Was there anything you wish you had known before leaving on your trip?
The food was kind of tricky there—it was good but not great. I would describe it as clean Indian food for lack of a better word. Even at the nice restaurants there were only one or two choices for the entrée, and while I’m admittedly picky, the cuisine definitely leaves a bit to be desired.
What were the challenges of visiting Sri Lanka?
We visited in the spring, when it is insanely hot. I would say the weather around Christmas and during January would be better. Also, our flight leaving at 4am was killer, and the airport was pretty awful.
Where are you traveling next? Where are you dreaming of traveling next?
I’m going to Brazil soon and to Kenya in December. I’m going to visit the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, a haven for baby elephants that we donate some of our proceeds to. The trust is dedicated to protecting elephants from the rampant, horrendous poaching going on all over Africa. I’ll be on safari for a couple days after that, and then I will finally visit Lamu, a fabulous little island off the coast of Kenya where my father vacations often. I’ve been dying to go.
Read a member postcard from Sri Lanka.
Read about the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust
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