Castaway-to-colonial looks dominate Sri Lanka’s south coast. But Palm Hotel’s East London-hailing owners have given a whole new meaning to Shoreditch-on-Sea, with a spread of illuminati-esque black A-frame cabanas, rosy nods to colourful modernist architects Geoffrey Bawa and Ricardo Bofill, and an industrial shipping-container pavilion that looks like the setting for a – literal – jungle rave. And if that all sounds a bit too East London, Palm’s lushly Sri Lankan too in its coconut grove setting, chill-pill effect and spice-must-flow meals.
Eight, including two Deluxe Suites and six A-Frame cabanas.
11am, but flexible, subject to availability. Earliest check-in, 2pm.
Double rooms from £120.48 ($150). Please note the hotel charges an additional service charge of 10% per booking on check-out.
Rates include a delicious Sri Lankan breakfast of egg curry with string hoppers; bacon-and-egg chapati wraps; roti with passionfruit jam, citrus marmalade and curd cheese; rye waffles; coconut-milk rice and more.
If you’ve spent your stay thinking ‘damn, I smell good’, you can buy the organic and locally produced products from your bathroom in the hotel’s concept store (in the main pavilion), plus flip-flops made with woven reeds, powerfully flowery shirts from La Ceyloné and Palm-branded bits and pieces.
At the hotel
Garden lounge, upstairs library, concept-store, music player to borrow, charged laundry service, adaptors to borrow, free WiFi. In rooms: Bluetooth speakers, minibar, desk, air-conditioning and fan, locally made Green Pearl Ceylon bath products.
Our favourite rooms
The A-frame cabanas certainly have the edge – well three of them – when it comes to something completely different; if you’re planning on papping much of your stay, these will certainly stand out in photos. And, with white rattan lining on the vaulted ceiling, Sri Lankan crafts and a romantic bed on a dais within, they’re beautiful on the inside too. For extra space and seclusion among the treetops, go for the stilted Deluxe Suites.
Set in front of the main pavilion, the 14-metre pool has kingfishers playfully skimming its surface, palms checking out their reflection, and gentle background beats. Mats for lounging on, under palapa-thatched umbrellas, and swing chairs are set out around the side (the bar’s not far away too), and there’s a long pink wall with steps and a cut-out that frames the scenery behind it. It’s a touch random, but it’s an Instagrammable nod to Spanish architect Ricardo Bofill’s geometric apartment complex La Muralla Roja (now famous for inspiring some of Squid Game’s set pieces).
Before leaving London, the hotel owners took in some orphaned Crossfit equipment from a Shoreditch gym (free weights, powerlifting and bodybuilding, squat racks and pull-up rigs, weights and barbells, medicine balls, kettlebells, and more) and set them up in a huge concrete-lined space softened by Crittall windows letting the sunlight in. Orientations can be organised for work-out newbies.
Surf gear can be hired on the shore, but you might want your own rash vest, wetsuit and any other wearables. And, wardrobe-wise, think Shoreditch in sizzling heat.
Cabanas are wheelchair accessible, but the plantation is tricky to navigate without help.
Wheeling a buggy across the estate might make you cry, but for juniors extra beds can be added, there are dogs and rabbits to play with onsite and lots of wide open space, plus a locally inspired kids' menu.
To ensure nature – the resident peacocks, monkeys and more – carried on as normal, efforts were taken to build around the estate’s coconut palms; and on the rare occasion one was felled, it was worked back into the property as part of a bridge or bench. Sri Lankan carpenters and weavers were called on to craft the custom furnishings, and jobs in the main pavilion (itself built from repurposed shipping containers) or ferrying guests about on a tuk-tuk have provided employment opportunities for the locals. The fitness equipment was rescued from an East London gym, toiletries are all natural from Green Pearl Ceylon, and are decanted into glass bottles; and there’s a kitchen garden onsite – any discarded trimmings and seeds go straight back into the earth.
Rock yourself soothingly in the swing chairs on the dining terrace, or mosey your drinks on over to your private terrace for drinks in the golden-hour light.
Bit of Lahndahn, bit of Lankan.
The hotel’s main pavilion looks like the backdrop for Lara Croft out on the lash in Hackney Wick. A Lego-stacked set of black-metal shipping containers with concrete floors, spritzes of foliage, handmade cane seating and daubs of pink here and there, it’s not what you’d expect to come across after venturing deep into the jungle. When it comes to the menu, there are touches from the west, but eats like string hoppers and roti spread with passionfruit jam and curd cheese for breakfast; spicy crab curry with locally made kade bread and mustard butter, checkin sheekh kebab with a jungle-gathered salad, and sweet narang kavum with fresh passionfruit keep things local. It’s all thrilling, but we’re seduced by the indulgence of the coconut masala bean stew and lemony banana with passionfruit caramel.
All guests are welcomed with an unabashedly pink, rose, lime and vodka (if you’re ready for spirits) soda when they ‘check in’ casually at a communal table at the pavilion. It’s a refreshing start to proceedings and a delicious indicator of drinks to come. The menu changes from season to season, but you can be assured of the classics (say, an espresso martini with rich local coffee), fresh exotic juices, island-grown and roasted brews from Tusker Coffee Co, plucked-from-the-landscape teas and a traditional arrack sour, made from a spirit distilled from coconut-palm flowers which gets stronger the longer you leave it in the sun. And, a cardamom-infused espresso martini, watermelon rum punch, coconuts with straws poked in and other signature sippers made using garden herbs and fruits give you a taste of the surroundings.
Palm Hotel sits on a four-acre coconut grove close to picturesque surf haven Ahangama and about a 40-minute drive from Galle.
Bandaranaike International airport is around a two-and-a-half-hour drive away from Palm Hotel. Staff can help to arrange transfers in cars or larger vehicles for groups from $60 one-way.
Ahangama train station is about a 10-minute tuk-tuk ride from the hotel. There’s a direct train that runs along the coast from Colombo Fort – passing through fortified town Galle and beachy beauty spots such as Hikkaduwa and Bentota – it’s a scenic, all-about-the-journey trip that takes two to three hours, but take note, it can be overcrowded and lacking in spare seats.
Driving in Sri Lanka isn’t a straightforward process; visitors who want to hire a car must have their licence validated by the Automobile Association of Ceylon first (and pay a small fee), and once you’ve crossed that hurdle, there’s the assault course of rogue animals, wayward tuk-tuks and seemingly kamikaze drivers to deal with. It costs more, but for the sake of your sanity, it’s worth hiring a driver to chauffeur you about. Once you see the Palm Hotel sign, you’ll go into the wild, past rice paddies and tea plantations, but just keep going and you’ll end up in the right place; there’s free parking on the property with a night attendant.
Worth getting out of bed for
Palm Hotel lives up to its name; set on a four-acre coconut plantation, there are slender shaggy-haired trees peeping over the wall of your alfresco shower, giving some totally tropical vibes to the industrial pavilion, and accentuating sunsets that look like flooded watercolour palettes. And there’s more green to behold in the paddy fields tilled by water buffalo, tea plantations cut into terraces and jungles with monkeys and birds of paradise in the branches. So, every stroll feels like an adventure. Onsite, you can swim, work-out, meditate or swing into golden hour before stargazing sessions. That’s kind of it; but, that’s sort of the point; and anyways, you have some excellent surf breaks just a 10-minute tuk-tuk ride away in Ahangama – the kind of place where creative sorts and beach bums arrived in the Sixties and never left – which has retained its low-key, left-undisturbed feel. Ride waves that rise up to around three metres (the barrels are on the smaller side here), see fishermen perch patiently on their poles, and find a towel-spreading spot on the golden sand. If you’ve not come prepared, HR Surf Place offers lessons and board hire. Further east along the coast, Midigama also has surfable bays and has largely stayed on the DL. And to the west, snorkel off Wijaya Beach (keeping your eyes peeled for wild turtles) and explore colonial Unesco-darling Galle. For wilder encounters, the nearest safari park is Udawalawe, around a two-hour drive away.
Palm has possibly the best restaurant in the near vicinity, but there are a few in Ahangama worthy of your attention. Follow the White Rabbit and you’ll find yourself settled by the ocean with a plate of hot-buttered cuttlefish, sesame-crusted tuna or a curry plate with more colour and texture than a Van Gogh. This beach-shack-style eatery is laidback and wallet-friendly too. And, the self-acclaimed ‘groovy’ Lighthouse Rooftop Café is where you should capture the sunset with shareable Med-Sri Lankan fare.
Beautifully dressed vegetarian hangout the Kip Café in Ahangama is a beloved brunching spot with a fruitful garden and effusively green terrace, plus homemade ceramics to eat off and lives-for-the-land gardener Anura. It’s known for its egg-and-caramelised-onion breakfast brioche, but there’s also the hash with confit tomatoes and a poached egg, banana bread and later-in-the-day-delicacies such as pink ravioli filled with cauliflower and broccoli purée in a vegan-cheese sauce; gotu-kola-leaf and cabbage salad with walnuts and coconut; and cashew-lavender ice-cream with shortbread. And, in nearby Kabalana is kooky yet cool Café Ceylon, where you can co-work, watch old surf movies, or join in the pub quiz. A monthly crafts market is held here and there’s a true community feel, plus well-spiced shawarma, craft cocktails (largely gins), and a very tempting brunch (savoury crêpes with the likes of pulled chicken, chilli, lime and coconut milk; and a full-Sri Lankan, with dahl, sambol, fruit with curds and sausage and bacon).
Every hotel featured is visited personally by members of our team, given the Smith seal of approval, and then anonymously reviewed. As soon as our reviewers have returned from this pinks and palms retreat – with a steely industrial edge – in surf haven Ahangama and unpacked their flowery La Ceylone? shirts and tropically scented skincare from the hotel’s boutique, a full account of their lush and lazy break will be with you. In the meantime, to whet your wanderlust, here's a quick peek inside Palm Hotel on Sri Lanka’s golden south coast…
Palm Hotel is a goth-kawaii love story. Steel shipping containers, poured concrete finishes and Dark Side of the Moon-esque black A-frame cabanas give a cutting edge to blush-hued tiles and feature walls, beds swathed in white netting, and cane seats woven into flower shapes. And, as if that wasn’t enough of a split personality, it also has the chill-as-can-be attitude of Sri Lanka’s south coast with a strong East London accent, albeit with a much looser stiff upper lip (the British and Swiss-Sri Lankan owners both hail from Shoreditch). It half looks like the guts of a warehouse where any moment speakers shuddering with EDM will descend as tanked-up revellers mass, but in reality, you’ll sip an arrack sour in a swing chair as a peacock sidles by and you’ll feel very cool doing it. This skews younger than most hotels close by – there’s a bright and view-blessed gym and a pool, but few other bells and whistles – but it’s a slicker take on the prevalent palapa-thatched villas and design is considered to the nth degree, with flea finds and Boxpark picks from London, handmade brass trays from India, rose-gold-tinted mirrors from Morocco and some respectful nods to the owners’ architectural heroes: Geoffrey Bawa and his modernist jungle estates, and Ricardo Bofill’s pink-stepped La Muralla Roja apartment block (best known for inspiring Squid Game). Also taken into consideration: location (nearby Ahangama is a friendly artsy surf haven, while the hotel feels away from it all, buffered by paddy fields, jungle and plantations), and guests’ appetites (start your day with a bacon-and-egg chapati and roti with passionfruit jam, and end it with a coconut masala stew washed down with a curry-leaf G&T). Sultry yet sweet, authentic yet a little bit Brit, Palm Hotel is something Sri Lanka hasn’t quite seen before.