From rooftop views to paradise beaches, Onyx Hospitality Group’s fam trip gave agents a glimpse of Sri Lanka and the Maldives. Andrew Doherty reports.
I’m holding on for dear life as my tuk-tuk rattles down the crowded streets of downtown Colombo – the toytown traffic, the symphony of car horns and two-stroke engines, and exotic bursts of colour from the market stalls is otherworldly. My head spins as I attempt to take it all in.
Thankfully for my nerves, and my rather numb behind, we finally arrive at the hotel to the merciful embrace of an air-conditioning system.
I have joined eight agents on a fam trip with Onyx Hospitality Group, led by UK sales manager June Delaney, with the aim of exploring a selection of its properties across Sri Lanka and the Maldives.
First stop is Ozo Colombo, where hotel manager Maheesha Ratnayake explains the hotel’s USP: “We have been open for three years now. We’re a unique property here as we have the rooftop pool and these stunning views.” He gestures towards the glittering lights spread across the city. “This was the first of the Ozo chains to open after the civil war. Our key message is that we are simple, smart and sexy; guests usually only stay for a couple of nights before moving on
to explore elsewhere.”
Ozo Colombo certainly appeals to a younger clientele with its easy access to the city and abundance of nearby nightclubs. Resisting the urge to party, I retire to my room for a good night’s sleep – tomorrow I’m off to Galle and will need all the rest I can get.
The next day, a three-hour drive takes me to the coastal city. The main attraction here is the Dutch Fort with its mixture of colonial-style restaurants, knick-knack shops and the stars of the show, the cliff divers.
For a reasonable fee these daredevils will leap from the fort’s ramparts into the sea, barely missing the jagged rocks below.
Getting around by bike is a great way to see the sights; I saddle up on a rusty relic and follow my guide along cobbled streets, weaving past static tuk-tuks and a host of bemused street vendors.
Back in Colombo and I’m zipping through the city in yet another tuk-tuk, passing colonial government buildings, Chinese-funded hotel developments, mosques, catholic churches and Buddhist temples. It’s hard not to notice the stark contrast between the rich and poor here – in a mere moment, I pass from luxury hotels to dusty side streets where families cram into tiny dwellings, sharing one room with as many as eight people.
Alan, our driver from Suba Gama Tours, informs me that the name Colombo was introduced by the Portuguese conquerors in the 1500s and is believed to derive from the Sinhalese “kolon thota”, meaning “port on the river Kelani”.
The tour ends with a well-deserved dinner at the award-winning Ministry of Crab, and despite its parliamentary-inspired name, the restaurant is anything but stuffy. Large tanks filled with live crustaceans face the dining area. Diners can get up close to their prey, even choosing which one to eat. Being a squeamish sort, I let my travel agent buddies choose from a selection of crabs ranging from 1lb to the aptly named crabzilla, a 4.5lb beast. Only a 10-minute drive from Ozo Colombo, this is one to recommend for foodie clients.
The next day we reach our second Onyx property, Ozo Kandy. Hotel manager Krishantha Damunupola greets us with open arms.
"The location is what makes this property stand out. We are a stone’s throw from the city centre. Clients also love the hotel’s simplicity and modernity – most hotels in the area are quite old and have been here since colonial times,” Damunupola says. “We are looking to impress a different generation – we concentrate on providing guests with a good sleep and a good breakfast so they can explore the surrounding area.”
From Ozo Kandy, the Temple of the Tooth is a 20-minute walk, although for less mobile clients, transfers can be arranged from the hotel lobby. Built at the turn of the 17th century and once the region’s palace, the temple is now a popular spot for tourists and worshippers alike.
As I wander through its impressive interior adorned with colourful frescos, the musk of potent incense and hum of traditional Sri Lankan trumpets fills the air. Legend states that a tooth belonging to Buddha rests here. It is presented with an offering of food three times a day at 5.30am, 9.30am and 6.30pm.
It’s worth telling clients that they should arrive early for the best views, and appropriate clothing is a must; shoulders and knees should be covered. Admission is free, but clients should be prepared to pay around £1 for shoe storage.
As my time in Sri Lanka comes to an end, I’ll miss the bustling streets and enigmatic sights, but the promise of the Maldives’ contrasting landscapes and activities means my excitement is quickly rekindled.
Kandy offers much more than just the Temple of the Tooth. From the Ceylon Tea Museum to the Udawattakelle Sanctuary, visitors have a wide range of cultural and beautiful locations to explore.
For me it's off to a cultural dance show where I'm promised I will be in a prime location to see the famous fire walkers. To my alarm I'm seated in the front row not even a metre away from the white hot coals.
I’m in the local Red Cross hall, a ten-minute walk from OZO Kandy. Looking around its 1940s interior I notice that the structure is made entirely of wood. Luckily there’s a swathe of vendors nearby selling soft drinks so I can always use a can of sprite to douse the flames should anything go awry.
A small man in a shirt two sizes too large appears from a door to the side of the stage holding a plastic bottle. He tips its contents onto the coal and a plume of flame and smoke reaches the building’s rafters. The heat hits me like a slap in the face.
The next hour or so is filled with drumming, trumpeting and dancing. The resulting concoction of these exotic elements lulls me into a trance-like state.
You can watch the video of the fire walkers here.
Situated on the Gaafu Dhaalu atoll – the second last in the Maldives – the Amari Havodda resort comprises a charming selection of beachfront, overwater and garden-pool villas.
Getting there couldn’t be easier; clients can reach the island via a 55-minute domestic flight from Male international airport to Kaadedhdhoo. From here, a 15-minute speedboat transfer offers an exhilarating entrance, but the new Trans Maldivian Airways seaplane flight from Gan shears two hours off the journey and provides a different perspective.
I arrive under a blanket of stars and climb on to the pontoon leading to a lobby flanked with gold lights. The heavenly setting is the closest thing to paradise on earth that I have ever experienced.
Over cocktails, general manager Christoph Leonhard explains what makes the resort unique.
“This is the nicest property in the Amari catalogue. For me it’s the overall experience on offer. We are blessed with having beach all around the island that clients can walk along. The sky is amazing too; we aren’t near other resorts, so light pollution doesn’t affect us,” he says.
Delany adds: “Although Amari Havodda is a bit further away than the other resorts in the Maldives, it has cleaner waters, and since we are closer to the equator there’s more marine diversity too.”
With a spa, watersports and an all-inclusive package to boot, the Amari Havodda has a wide range of selling points. A welcome break from the hustle and bustle of Sri Lanka, it makes for a perfect twin-centre getaway.
Book it: Hayes & Jarvis has an 11- night Sri Lanka and Maldives holiday from £2,749pp. It includes two nights’ B&B at Ozo Colombo Sri Lanka; three nights’ room-only at Ozo Kandy Sri Lanka, and a week full-board at Amari Havodda Maldives. Includes international and internal flights and is based on May 2017 departures.
Trailfinders’ Sarah Swinscoe on Ozo Colombo:
“When I opened the door and saw the sea view, it really blew my mind. This is a property I would recommend to clients that are looking to pass through Colombo. A standout feature for me is the rooftop bar – I loved the vibe and drinks weren’t expensive. The TV room service menu was great and easy to use. Less mobile clients would find this hotel very accessible on account of its large showers and easy lift access.”
DialAFlight’s Chavonne Farley on Ozo Kandy:
“For Sri Lanka, you are getting a great quality hotel and the location is excellent. For me, the rooftop bar is great, with its amazing views of surrounding Kandy. The hotel is a little taste of affordable luxury for all types of traveller.”
Travel Counsellor Kinza Kinninmonth Manship on Amari Havodda:
“This place has something for everyone. It has the privacy of the beach villas for honeymooners, it caters to families with its kids’ club and the watersports are attractive to thrill-seekers. I think the resort would also be perfect for the single traveller with its spa and great bars. Overall, it’s fantastic and I’m definitely going to come back here with my family.”