Authentically Sri Lankan boutique hotel the River House is the private-pool-equipped, butler-at-the-ready bolthole your jungle-hideaway dreams are made of: a five-room spot on the waterfront, tucked away amid the greenery. With its laid-back ambiance, it’s more like staying at your chic friends’ private waterfront home than a hotel.
Noon, but flexible, subject to availability. Earliest check-in, 2pm.
Double rooms from £175.12 ($240), including tax at 11 per cent.
Rates usually include international and Sri Lankan breakfast.
The WiFi’s technically available everywhere, but you’ll need to be patient with it at times (or better yet, put down your phone and step away from your email).
At the hotel
Library (with books and DVDs), concierge, free WiFi. In rooms: free WiFi, tea- and coffee-making facilities, TV and DVD player.
Our favourite rooms
We love Gin (it’s the name of the room, not the drink, although we do love that too) for its private courtyard overlooking the river, high ceilings and open-plan spaciousness. You’ll find traditional furniture inside and out, and it exemplifies the hotel’s origins as a private home. Walawe is another favourite, tucked away from the other rooms right on the river bank.
Splash lazily about admiring the garden scenery (it’s all tropical plants and manicured lawns), or relax on one of the extra-comfy surrounding loungers with a book. The pool’s cosily ensconced within the jungle greenery and feels perfectly private… except for the odd monkey swinging from tree to tree.
There’s no spa as such on-site, but you can certainly book a Balinese massage or mani-pedi in the privacy of your suite.
This is your intimate home-from-home, so you can wear what you like, but if you’re susceptible to bug bites, perhaps err a little more towards covered up.
Eat on the balcony, in the garden, in your room… anywhere you like. Just pick a spot and your table will appear (and if you ask nicely, it might also be accompanied by candles and lanterns for extra-special evenings).
Formerly Sri Lanka’s hippie hangout, the southwest has upped the style stakes a bit in recently years: pack something chic alongside the bikinis.
This atmospheric open-air restaurant overlooks the river and serves Sri Lankan delicacies, Indian curries and almost anything else you fancy: Chef Anuradha will (with a little notice) source fresh seafood and native veg to suit your taste.
Who needs a bar when the ever-helpful staff is standing by to make you whatever you feel like sipping? Try the Caiepolanka cocktail, arak with ginger beer, ginger and lime.
Dine from noon till 11pm.
Order anything you like from the hotel’s restaurant menu, noon–11pm.
Set on the edge of the Madhu Ganga River, the River House enjoys a secluded spot on the outskirts of a fishing village; it’s less than a kilometre to a laid-back surfer beach.
The nearest airport is Colombo’s Bandaranaike International Airport, a two-and-a-half-hour drive from the hotel, which is served by Sri Lankan Airlines, Emirates and British Airways, among others. Call our Smith24 Team on 03300 376 891 to arrange flights and transfers.
The nearest station is Ambalangoda, 3km from the hotel.
If you’re adventurous enough to drive yourself, from Balapitiya head towards Galle for 2.5km, pass the Balapitiya Bridge and keep an eye out for the sign on the right-hand side pointing you to the hotel. Once you get there, parking’s free.
Worth getting out of bed for
It’s a tiny riverside hideaway, but the River House can keep you entertained: you can borrow their kayaks and go for a gentle paddle along the river itself, for example, or if you’re after something a bit faster they’ve got a handy motorboat, too. The nearest swimmable beach is just a 15-minute tuk-tuk ride away (and you can borrow those on-site, too).
The main way you’ll be spending your day, though, is indulging in a decadent dose of sheer laziness. But if there’s anything special you’ve a hankering to do, then just say the word and the hotel staff will see what they can arrange… if yoga’s your thing (and in such a laid-back location, why wouldn’t it be?) an expert instructor will meet you whereever you choose in the grounds to put you through your poses. If that’s too much like hard work, take to your bed and let your massage therapist work their magic with ocean salts and virgin oils.
To crib, somewhat poorly, from Walt Whitman: Sri Lanka is not particularly large, but it contains multitudes. After three weeks in the country, Mr Smith and I had clambered over ancient ruins and scaled vertigo-inducing mountains; sped through the brilliantly green hill country by tuk-tuk, and crossed it at a snail’s pace by train; spent days sunbathing with chilled coconut water in hand, and evenings stalking elephants in the wild. (And somewhere in there, he proposed, and luckily for the remainder of our holiday, I accepted; but that’s a story for another time.)
Which is to say: we’d seen beach Sri Lanka, historic Sri Lanka, mountainous-tea-plantation Sri Lanka. But the River House – shall we call it lush riverside Sri Lanka? – may have been our favourite of all.
The property itself helped, of course; I’m not sure a tent pitched in the nature preserve would’ve had quite the same effect. With five rooms on a sprawling property of frangipani trees and swaying palms, it feels less like a hotel and more like an awfully smart private home. And our room – the second-floor Menik Suite – must have been the smartest of all.
The room itself is elegant enough: a stately four-poster bed, antique carved wooden furniture, and enough space to turn cartwheels, which I certainly felt like doing. (About that bed: this being, well, a river house in the tropics, we’d recommend you request a mosquito net.) Double doors led onto an equally sized balcony – well, outdoor living room – with three seating areas, a dining table, a stocked minibar, and a tiled pool along its entire length. We’ve done balconies, we’ve done private pools; but a private pool on a balcony felt more decadent still.
With his unerring sense of what every occasion calls for, Mr Smith wasted no time in pouring two gin and tonics. (Having opted against malaria medication, we had a strict daily dose of quinine to maintain.) We sipped them from our pool, staring out onto the grounds and the river beyond. ‘I was going to put on some music,’ he mused, ‘but I’d rather just listen to the birds…’ easily half a dozen in continual chirp.
Feeling as if we should properly earn our second round, we took a kayak out onto the river itself for a sunset paddle, an awfully idyllic one; schools of silver fish jumped in high arcs in front of us while white herons glided slowly overhead. But our river trip early the next morning – we’d asked the hotel to arrange us a guide – proved a far superior nature excursion.
Winding up through the Madu Ganga, a legally protected nature reserve, we spotted monkeys and hanging fruit bats; snapped photos of traditional bamboo fish traps and skinny, single-paddled canoes; wove through the mangroves and for a time, glided upriver alongside a lurking crocodile. (‘Keep your arms inside the boat, please.’) We stopped off to see a local cinnamon farmer curling bark by hand, and a local temple where a wisecracking monk chanted while tying string around our wrists, in a ritual blessing our travels.
Our uncharacteristically early morning merited a huge breakfast upon return, perhaps the best we had in Sri Lanka: tangles of rice flour string hoppers and thin disks of flaky onion roti, served with intricately spiced curries and a peppery coconut-chilli sambol. To sip, king coconuts – still intact, their tops neatly lopped off with a straw to drink the water.
It’s easy to lose hours on the grounds at the River House, whether lounging on your own balcony or at their attractive, secluded pool. But nearing the end of our Sri Lanka trip, we wanted one last beach afternoon. Easily arranged: the hotel’s tuk-tuk shuttled us the 10 quick minutes to its beachfront sister resort. We took in a few hours of afternoon sun, breaking occasionally for a dive into the cool waves; at cocktail hour, a cinnamon-ginger-lemongrass iced tea so impressive that Mr Smith, a mixologist by trade, vowed to replicate it at home.
With only a night remaining, we were reluctant to leave our balcony, though the open-air restaurant was perfectly pleasant. So our favourite waiter-butler, Lakmal, suggested we take a walk while he arranged dinner en suite. We passed the time sitting in the motorboat docked down at the waterfront, where just at sunset, fruit bats woke from their daytime slumber – the sort of bats with a half-metre wingspan, the sort actually shaped like bats. We watched as one, then 10, then hundreds, swooped across the lake. It’s an unmissable sight, thought I’d recommend the skittish (of which I am one) watch with a drink in hand.
Lakmal had a can’t-keep-this-secret-any-longer smile as he led us back to our room and threw open the doors to the balcony with pride. Fully merited pride. Candles and tea lights illuminated the space in a soft glow. Flower petals were not only strewn about the perimeter, but arranged into true flower art – patterns and spirals of tiny blossoms winding around the table and across the pool. It was a setting worthy of a proposal, or a Bachelor TV-show finale… or a breathlessly happy, newly engaged couple who squealed with delight (me) and clapped Lakmal on the shoulder (Mr Smith).
As the doors closed behind us, we did the only thing one does in that situation: cue up Van Morrison on the iPhone, put down the G&Ts, and dance a few songs in the flickering candlelight. I vaguely remember dinner, a classically Sri Lankan array of six excellent curries, and I’m sure there was more Tanqueray. But it’s hard to recall anything other than the glowing candles on our stunning balcony, the late-night swim that ensued, and a night that was beyond idyllic.