Halcyon Hotel Days.

YAMU takes a trip down memory lane and experiences resort heaven and resort hell at the Jetwing Lagoon and Tangerine hotel.

Once upon a time in the era BE (before expressway) a day-trip down south didn’t mean cocktails and posing at some beachside hideaway by a secluded cove at the southern edge of the island. Instead it meant being packed (by harried parents) into whatever vehicle was handy and driven an hour or two down the coastal road till you reached a point that was ‘south enough.’ The resorts at Kalutara and Wadduwa were typical destinations, though on a good day you went as far as the soft sands of Bentota and Beruwala. Forays were also sometimes made north to Negombo.

For a certain generation of Colombars these are shared memories and for just about everyone, these trips were composed of the same basic elements. There was the drive down. The extensive but inevitably mediocre buffet and crucially there were enormous pools where you and your friends, vaguely supervised by lifeguards, frolicked while parents took extended snoozes on shaded sun loungers. Of course if it was a really serious excursion a day room was taken – good for storing grandparents, more intensive snoozing, and also for stashing booze bought at supermarket prices and smuggled into the hotel.

Lastly there was the beach – golden and palm fringed falling into a brilliant blue sea, but at Kalutara and Negombo, the water was often rough and the sand coarse, so it was more useful for wading, paddling and sandcastle building than actual swimming. Oh and there was the return – sandy, sea-salt sticky, satisfied.

These were halcyon days. In the midst of a war you barely understood, the sheltered world of the resorts offered a slice of the paradise promised on tourist board advertisements. These days however, the appeal of these classic beach holidays, seem to have faded.

With the new highway day-trips are now taken on the finer, whiter sands and calmer bays at Hikkaduwa and Galle, so gone are the days of the 3-star resort buffet and the towns an hour north and south of Colombo where many of us acquired some of our fondest childhood memories are now neglected, at least by local tourists.

Neglected but not forgotten… struck by a bit of yuletide nostalgia, YAMU decided to revisit the ritual of the resort hotel. We chose the Jetwing Lagoon (formerly Blue Lagoon) in Negombo and the Tangerine Beach Hotel in Kalutara. Both classic mid-range resort hotels, one hour’s drive north and south of Colombo, and thought we’d see how they compare against each other and against the currently in-vogue day-trip to Unawatuna/Hikkaduwa.

The Tangerine Hotel (Rs. 2600 nett including pool use)

The Tangerine hotel is a down south staple. It’s been serving sun-starved Europeans since the early 80s and its mid-range pricing and location within easy striking distance of Colombo means that a lot of people have spent many a day guzzling their buffet. It seemed a pretty logical destination for a childhood rerun…

It’s actually quite pleasant not to be on the highway. The Galle road’s sea views, street life and snacking options make for a nice change from the more desolate, plantation fringed E 01. The bridges as you cross the west coast’s many rivers provide some spectacular panoramas and just as you begin to tire of dodging the tuks and murderous trucks, you’re pulling into a familiar gated world.

Those expansive ponds, the sleepy reception, the long walk to the pool, gaggles of lobster-red European tourists. It’s all much the same but you notice that everything seems a little faded. Maybe it’s that decades ago, we had nothing to compare it with, but the unwittingly ‘kitsch’ artwork and gaudy fittings are a little more grating.

The small touches – welcome drink, big smiles are missing and the staff is preoccupied with their almost exclusively Russian b city clientele. Worst of all, it’s expensive at Rs. 2,600 nett for the buffet – this is the same price as the excellent brunches offered at Colombo’s swankiest hotels. That would be fine if the buffet was good, the service pleasant and the pool/ beach a real escape. However, from our first moments in the hotel, things began to go badly wrong.

The buffet was close to appalling. Really just canteen fodder for captive tourist cash-cows whose packages lock them into three meals a day at the resort. By piling our plates high with the odd combinations only hotel buffets allow – vambatu moju and potato gratin, sweet and sour fish with chicken biryani – we tried to recreate the enthusiasm of childhood but it didn’t work. The food turned to lead our stomachs and by the time we reached the undefined, luminously coloured piles supposed to be dessert we were forcing ourselves to eat.

Oh well, we would at least be able to work off the weight in the pool? Not really.

The small pool was so crowded and worn that a swim hardly appealed. Beyond design deficiencies, the poolside service was appalling to the point of being offensive. We were told we couldn’t have a towel because the hotel had too many guests. As our Rs. 2,600 buffet specifically included pool use, we persisted and were rewarded with some tatty (perhaps used) half rags.

Even when we tried to drown our sorrows, the bar staff wouldn’t bring a Coke out to our table and instead we were summoned to the bar to collect every order. At first, we thought we were seeing a revival of that nasty old preference for white-skinned visitors, however we quickly realised that everyone was receiving equally bad service. For us, the last straw was when we wandered out on to the beach and the staff confiscated our hard-earned towels (not allowed on the beach). Even the poor Russians were reduced to constant air drying – it wasn’t a pretty sight and the moment our Cokes were drained, we made to leave.

Just before we left however we did, towelless, take a dip in the ocean and there at least everything was as it should be. Swaying palms and a bronze sweep of sand. It’s not Unawatuna but it is attractive in its own way. However while Kalutara may have its charm, Tangerine does not. If you’re on vacation from rural Kazakhstan (there was a Kazakh tour bus) it might be tolerable but for anyone else definitely not. We returned to Colombo several thousand rupees poorer and with our childhood memories in tatters – we really use to enjoy THAT pool?

Verdict: Kalutara might be worth a day-trip, just don’t go to Tangerine.

Jetwing Lagoon (Rs. 2500 nett including pool use)

After the disaster in Kalutara, it was difficult to muster much enthusiasm for the trip to Negombo. Still I remember the Blue Lagoon being a class above your average resort and the drive up the painfully beautifully Pamunugama Road (the thin stretch of land between the Negombo lagoon and the sea) is always a highlight. That the Blue Lagoon was recently bought by Jetwing (a competent seeming group), and recently refurbished and re-launched as the Jetwing Lagoon also inspired confidence.

In fact, the moment we turned from Ja-ela onto the Pamunugama road, our spirits lifted. This is easily the best drive in the vicinity of Colombo. The lagoon on one side, the Indian Ocean on the other, and the narrow coconut covered strip in between. Still natural location alone doesn’t make for a satisfying resort stay but as we stepped into the property we knew we were in for a different order of experience. The staff at reception positively gleamed with enthusiasm and the walk along the aircraft carrier-sized pool through the Bawa designed lobby and onto the dining verandah just feet from the teal-blue lagoon took our breath away. It’s obvious that the place has been refurbished with real thought and care.

It was really the diametric opposite of Tangerine – one tarnished our childhood memories while the other burnished them. Everything at the Lagoon is familiar but somehow better than it used to be. The rooms are now fabulously well appointed, the paint gleams and the passable buffet has been replaced with a really generous spread. The food was very good. The local dishes were excellent.

A feast of crab, prawns, chicken, fish, kos, mango, cadju, manioc, plus every imaginable condiment, this is one of the few buffets that does really does justice to the island’s cuisine. The Western and Oriental dishes on offer were also above average. There was sushi, roast lamb and beef, a tempura station, a grilled meat station and plenty of other well prepared vegetables, fish and meat. Notably the desserts had evolved beyond the unseemly gelatinous mass phase and the ginger pudding with butterscotch was standout.

After lunch and lagoon-side snooze we moved, with bloated difficulty (happy full, not nasty full), to the hotel’s showpiece. The Lagoon’s pool has always been enormous but it seems somehow to have grown. At 100 meters long, it’s twice the length of an Olympic pool but instead of being an unformed tile encrusted mass, it’s super sleek. The view from the edge nearest the hotel, over the burning terracotta roof, is jaw dropping. Best of all, as the Lagoon still seems to be in soft-opening mode, the pool is amazingly un-crowded. You can have it to yourself and feel impossibly glamorous – just you in the middle of a vast turquoise-tiled fantasy. It’s pure Hollywood.

The service anywhere in the property is also outstanding. Every time you interact with the staff, you are made to feel utterly welcome. It was really a near flawless resort experience. A sharper contrast with Tangerine could not be imagined. The fact that it takes advantage of the massively under-appreciated Negombo lagoon is a real plus and that it’s not even an hour from Colombo means this is actually one of the most competitive hotels in the vicinity of the city. As its also just minutes from the airport, I’m also going to venture that it’s one of the best airport hotels anywhere. I really can’t think of a better introduction to Sri Lanka.

At Rs. 2,500 nett, the buffet is great value and while it’s not Cinnamon Grand quality, the added value –pool use, the lagoon and a great drive, makes it a strong contender for best brunch experience in the city.

Verdict: A perfect resort experience. Great food, service and value. It’s not Hikkaduwa/Unawatuna but it’s not trying to be. The lagoon is an attraction in itself and there is seafront right opposite the hotel. If you want a serviceable beach, Negombo is about 10 minutes away.

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