They rank among the top long-haul destinations for British holidaymakers. Sri Lanka has become a firm favourite thanks to its sugar-white beaches, lush forests, tea plantations, colonial-era hill stations, elephant sanctuaries and wildlife-rich national parks: the Maldives for its five-star island resorts offering away-from-it-all escapes and coral reefs teeming with tropical fish.
However, these Indian Ocean neighbours serve up a twist that adds a surprising extra element to a Sri Lanka and Maldives holiday – you can play golf in both!
Luxury hotel operator Shangri-La opened Sri Lanka’s first golf resort, Shangri-La’s Hambantota Golf Resort & Spa, in October 2016 while its Villingili Resort and Spa, the most southerly resort island in the Maldives and the only one south of the equator, opened in 2009 and has offered guests the archipelago’s only nine-hole golf course since 2012. Sri Lankan Airlines flies between Sri Lanka capital Colombo and former Maldives RAF base Gan, just a five-minute boat ride from Villingili, making a twin-centre holiday to both resorts very easy from the UK.
I set off to discover their appeal, packing my golf shoes along with my swimming trunks, shorts, t-shirts and flip-flops. Guests don’t need to be weighed down by golf equipment, however. You can hire golf clubs and golf shoes at both resorts, as well as caddies and buggies at Hambantota.
Situated in the far south of Sri Lanka, I reach the Hambantota resort after an 11-hour flight from London’s Heathrow to Colombo and a five-hour luxury minibus transfer. After a speedy inland bypass the last part of the journey is on the single-lane coast road, behind veteran buses that stop frequently to pick up and disgorge passengers in bustling towns. We pass a colourful parade with dancers and musicians, reminiscent of my previous Sri Lanka visit 10 years earlier when I came across a Deepavali festival parade. Sadly it’s impossible to stop and photograph it.
There are plans to extend the bypass, linking it to the island’s new, multi-million pound international airport that currently lies virtually unused just 20 minutes from Hambantota. Guests will arrive quicker but they will miss the local colour en route.
Shangri-La’s Hambantota Golf Resort & Spa is the largest resort in Sri Lanka and features 300 well-appointed rooms and suites. I am welcomed with a fruit cocktail and cold towel and shown to my large room, which overlooks tall coconut palms, an outdoor pool and the beach and Indian Ocean beyond.
My visit coincides with a golf tournament organised by HSBC Sri Lanka for the bank’s elite HSBC Premier customers. I am invited to play in a guest four-ball at the end of the tournament, partnering former Sri Lanka cricket captain Angelo Matthews, a golf novice. We manage an enjoyable seven holes before lunch ends the round early. Local hero Angelo asks for my help with club selection and stance on several shots – and is a quick learner.
I do play a full 18-hole round during my stay, a friendly duel with the resort’s director of golf that I surprisingly win, thanks to the rental Titleist golf clubs. The course is short at 6,100 yards but is no pushover. Thick savannah grass rough, stands of palm trees, a pineapple grove and 15 lakes line the tight fairways, while the stiff ocean breeze tugs at every shot.
Golf aside, there’s a huge array of activities for resort guests. I rise in darkness for a dawn safari trip. Yala is the island’s most popular national park, for its leopards, but I’m here during its annual September-October closure. Udawalawe National Park, home to Sri Lanka’s largest elephant population with 500 resident, is an excellent alternative. A group of elephants with babies in tow ambles through the bush close to our safari vehicle, nonchalantly grazing on tasty shoots. We also see monitor lizards, water buffalo, peacocks and a flock of painted storks sifting a river for food oblivious to sunbathing crocodiles in their midst. Then it’s on to watch the delightful feeding and bath time at the adjacent Elephant Transit Home, which rehabilitates orphaned and injured juveniles.
That afternoon, I take a red tuk-tuk to nearby Ambulantota for a bird-spotting jungle safari along the Walawe River that my driver, Sisira, helps crew. I’m no twitcher but it’s amazing to see the profusion of birds, including hawks, owls and kingfishers. At one point, the skipper guns the outboard engine to rescue a crewman left dangling from an overhanging branch he had tried to fend off, inadvertently causing dozens of roosting fruit bats to dramatically take to the air in a blizzard of flapping wings.
Back at the resort spa, which offers a range of Chinese and Sri Lankan treatments, I opt for a local Ayurveda ritual that includes a consultation with a doctor to determine the right oils and herbs for me. I then stroll around an artisans’ village of thatched huts that features workshops and galleries of local weavers, sculptors, painters and potters whose products guests can buy.
Guests can also rent mountain bikes, join aquagym and fitness classes and even learn circus skills on a seven-metre-high trapeze, while a children’s pool and other facilities for young ones will appeal to families.
There is no time to tee off at Sri Lank’s three other courses – Royal Colombo Golf Club, in the capital, which uniquely has a railway line crossing one fairway; Nuwara Eliya Golf Club, in the hill country; and the Victoria Golf and Country Resort, near Kandy – but I have played them before and they are worth including on a tour.
A 90-minute, early-morning flight from Colombo to Gan, on Addu Atoll, brings me back to the Maldives for the first time in three decades. Tourism in the Maldives was still in its infancy then. Today, there are over 100 resort islands with another two dozen planned.
After a five-minute speedboat ride I arrive at my destination, on neighbouring island Villingili. They often have royalty and heads of state here (Prince Andrew stayed recently), but all guests get the red carpet treatment and a warm welcome. There are 132 villas in all, with 60 water villas in three clusters that fan out on stilts over an azure-blue lagoon, besides tree house villas and pool and beach villas. Each has free broadband internet, TV and DVD, indoor and outdoor showers, with Island Hosts – butlers – on hand and bikes to roam the island. Nihad, my Island Host, drives me to my water villa in a golf buggy. It is epic in size, with a daybed and sundeck at the back and steps down into the water where a pair of striped Moorish idol fish seem ever-present. I have seen smaller presidential suites in some hotels; there is an even bigger one of those here and, like that one, mine has the ocean lapping below the floor!
The golf course is one of only two in the Maldives, the other being a six-hole academy course on Velaa Private Island on Noonu Atoll. It winds round the narrow southern end of Villingili, one of the largest Maldive islands at 6km in circumference. A short nine-hole layout with a par of 30, it is a mix of par 3 and par 4 holes that skirt both coasts. No hole is longer than 180 yards but you have to thread the needle between the lush jungle and sea to keep the ball in play. On my second round, I manage to land one errant tee shot on the beach and almost reach my Titleist Pro V1 ball before a wave gobbles it up. I bet divers would find bucketloads offshore here.
A sign on the elevated 8th tee reads ‘Mount Villingil Summit. Elevation 5.1 metres, 16.7 feet’ while another on an adjacent palm tree explains that it is both the highest point in the Maldives and the lowest high-point of any country in the world – making the Maldives the world’s flattest nation. A sobering thought in this age of global warming and rising sea levels.
The golf course makes for an enjoyable diversion when not lazing on your villa’s sundeck or the 2km of white-sand beaches. Another draw is the amazing snorkelling (guests can borrow mask, fins and snorkel free during their stay) and diving. I gained my BSAC diving qualifications in the late 1970s and dived extensively when I visited the Maldives’ North Male Atoll before. It’s a while since I last dived but the rustiness quickly vanishes when I join diving instructor Juan Contente for a wonderful 50-minute exploration of Villingili’s south house reef. As we glide weightlessly through the crystal water, I’m treated to a profusion of vivid fish on healthy coral formations that escaped the 2016 coral bleaching that affected most reefs in the Maldives as well as seeing seven turtles close-up.
Guests can learn about marine life including the turtles that nest on the island, and plant coral for its underwater coral garden at Villingili’s Eco Centre. They can also try climbing a palm tree to pick coconuts, while a nature trail through the jungle can be explored on foot or by bike. Excursions include tours of local islands guided by staff who live there. Water sports such as sailing and kayaking are available, as well as floodlit tennis courts, an outdoor pool and a children’s Cool Zone, for holidaying families. The Maldives is a couples paradise, of course, and Villingili offers five wedding and blessing locations including on beaches, in the jungle and even underwater.
There are three restaurants offering a range of cuisine, plus three bars. In addition, the resort’s Dine By Design offers intimate dining in-villa or in romantic locations such as the jungle, on a chartered luxury yacht trip to the equator and atop Mount Villingili. Just hours after teeing off from its summit, I am sat at a candlit table atop the “mountain”, tucking into fresh lobster. Another day, I have breakfast on a deck in front of the golf course clubhouse, watching dawn break over the Indian Ocean. And during one round, I stop for tea of sandwiches and fruit juice served up by a waiter at a dining table set up alongside a green.
At the opposite end of the island to the golf course, Villingili’s spa has 11 treatment villas laid out in a spa village surrounded by dense tropical vegetation and the beach, with meditation pavilions and a yoga pavilion. I have the signature Kandu Boli Ritual coconut oil treatment, in which the masseuse uses heated cowrie shells to gently massage me while singing a traditional island lullaby. I need soothing after cracking a rib when I take a tumble into an ornamental rock pool in reception while rushing into the spa, having momentarily forget the island has its own time zone – an hour ahead of the rest of the Maldives so that guests can watch the sun setting before going for dinner – and being late for my appointment! Thankfully it’s my final day.
For anyone in search of Shangri-La, and particularly golfers who want a break with the chance to play the odd round, Villingili and Hambantota are well above par.
Photos © Peter Ellegard