“It's love,” my music teacher assured us, “that makes the world go round.” He was trying to enforce some degree of harmony in a class burdened by learning yet another Mikado song. He might have cheered us all up had he shared W. S. Gilbert’s other great insight: “Man is nature's sole mistake”.
But this he failed to do and so, aged 12, I was left wondering just how on earth the world would motor itself forward, and go round and round, given the unhelpful existence of such hermits as myself. Of course, hermits often love, but given their restricted impact, the effect is like being licked by a gerbil. Not enough to really help the world go round and round. And round.
Quite how I got away with it, being brought up in a country then so explosively fecund that the Prime Minister’s younger son set about forcibly sterilizing any male within sight, was itself a miracle. Of course, he failed. Utterly. In the ten years from my arriving in India and then leaving it, the population jumped 100 million. And not just there. Everywhere. More and more people, making the world go round, with love.
The battalions of shrinks who spent so much effect making me into the balanced, burnished, and pleasing figure that I am today, never really explained what happened when or why to make me so. But hermiting, to coin verb, is a very pleasing occupation. And I am certainly getting better at it.
It was a challenge to do it well in India, at boarding school, university or the vortex-inducing publishing houses that greedily besotted me during an early career enthusiasm. But here, in the jungles of central Sri Lanka, it works much better.
The path of a hermit is rarely straightforward, especially if you are the sort that prefers looking upon caves, lighthouses, and abandoned windswept islands, rather than living in them. Why, after all, should hermiting be shorn of books, champagne, a good chef, or opera? Not everyone is St Paul, content with dates and bread, or opts to dine on leather shoes, like the Siberian hermit Agafia Lykova.
Clearly there are degrees in hermiting, as in any condition or occupation - though my friends still snigger at my career choice to run a hotel. That, they claim, is a perverse attempt to have ones cake and eat it. For, of course, you can’t hermit 24/7 in a hotel. In a hotel hermiting is intermittent. Like the building of Rome, it cannot be achieved in a full day. There are guests to greet, help, welcome and part with. Suppliers of everything from diesel to devilled cashews to meet. An unending parade of plumbers, electricians, garbage collectors, Wi-Fi repairers, gas deliverers dancing up the estate road in duets with government agents, tuk tuks, lost policemen, cinnamon peelers, monkeys and falling mangos.
But all of this misses that one essential point: hotels nurture hermiting. Ravi Shankar, Coco Chanel, Clint Eastwood all lived in hotels. And look at what they achieved. “When you get into a hotel room,” noted Diane von Furstenberg, “you lock the door, and you know there is a secrecy, there is a luxury, there is fantasy. There is comfort. There is reassurance.”
Amongst well-informed hermits, arguments rage gently over what type of hotel offers the best hermiting. And at first glance you would seem utterly spoiled for choice here in Sri Lanka. It lists over 10,000 places as providing accommodation. However, closer inspection shows that just a quarter of these places are classified as hotels. And of those just 8% (200) are rated as 5-star.
For a small island still greatly overlooked by international visitors who are more accustomed to visit Thailand, the Maldives or India, this may seem more than sufficient – but most of these 200 hotels are small private operations - authentically boutique in a world that has heartlessly commoditized the word.
Thankfully, the hotel chains that dominate the rest of the world – Taj, Sheraton, Marriot, Starwood, Meridian, etc. – have yet to put in much of an appearance here. Even so, as tourism roves forward on its somewhat uneven upward trajectory, local chains – such as Jetwing, Cinnamon, Resplendent, Tangerine, Teardrop, Taru and Uga - are developing a growing reputation for exceptional hospitality.
My Colombo hermitage of choice is the Colombo Court Hotel & Spa, a much overlooked habitat of calm sitting just off the traffic jam that is Duplication Road. Alternatively, Tintagel offers unquestionable peace, a far cry from its 1956 tabloid moment when the radical Prime Minster S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike, seated on its veranda, was shot dead by a Buddhist priest whose business affairs had gone awry - the first leader of the modern state to be murdered, but not the last.
For those who prefer Colombo hermiting in massive edifices, there is Cinnamon Grand; the Hilton, one of the first globally branded hotels to wash up on Colombo’s then more parochial shores in 1987; or the Shangri-La, an odd offshoot of China’s Belt-and-Braces mission. Two others are worth hermitting in just for their restaurants: YUMI at the Taj Samudra Or Yue Chuan at The Kingsbury. Others offer a dash of colonial theatre: wedding watching at the 1806 Mount Lavinia Hotel or the Crow Man at the Galle Face Hotel. This once modest Dutch Guesthouse flourished when the Suez Canal turned the trickle of eastward bound Europeans into a sea bobbing with the likes of Noel Coward, Che Guevara, Yuri Gagarin, or Nixon. But the ultimate prize for Colombo hotel hermits is Number 11, a rambling architectural museum with just two rooms to let. Here in Geoffray Bawa’s private town house, you have the entire gorgeous assemblage of curios and masterpieces to yourself once the day trippers have gone.
But it is to the south that most hotels lie, near or on the beaches where hermiting can be combined with imagining you are washed up on a desert island, albeit one that serves cocktails.
Galle, the beguiling navel of the south, offers Fort Printer’s, the Galle Fort Hotel, Fort Bazaar, or the Amangalla, their verandas places from which to watch the busy world worry past. And just outside the town is The Sun House, built by a Scottish spice merchant in the 1860s, Pedlar's Manor, with its heartfelt collection of vintage cars; or The Fortress, overlooking stilt fishermen,
Go on eat or west from Galle and you sink into the sort of luxury preferred by shy celebrities, or discarded Western prime ministers: the Amanwella, in Tangalle; Malabar Hill, or Cape Weligama in Weligama; Yala’s Wild Coast Tented Lodge, a cluster of seed pod ocean villa-etts; or Kahanda Kanda, an indulgence of cloistered English country style villas that have happily woken up in a more tropical wonderland than Hampshire, Harrogate, or Hartlepool.
For most hotels, the east remains frontier country – but even there you can hermit happily at The Spice Trail, or Jetwing Surf in Arugam Bay. The tea country gives you Living Heritage in God’s Forest; 98 Acres, Ceylon Tea Trails; The Grand or St Andrew’s, two hotels that hark back to the days when Nuwara Eliya was the Little England to whose cool climate homesick planters could cleve. For virtuous hermits seeking a triptych (solitude, scenery, and a good cuppa), there is Amba, a 130 acre organic farm, the centre of the growing artisanal tea movement on the island and a true social enterprise.
Head north and you hit upon two front runners of local chains, any of whose hotels are lovely: Jetwing Mahesa Bhawan in Jaffna and Uga Ulagalla, Anuradhapura. But it is Geoffray Bawa’s Kandalama Hotel that wins best building award, wrapped around a cliff, and so well planted that it is all but impossible to tell where nature ends, and the reception desk begins.
No list of Sri Lankan hotels would ever be complete without Helga Blow’s famous anti-hotel. Helga, Dior model, and niece of the eminent architect Minette de Silva, is the country’s last great eccentric, walking the lush corridors of her eyrie in Philip Treacy hats. Though at this point I would of course propose my “little slice of heaven and a big dose of serenity” as an alternative: The Flame Tree Estate & Hotel, Kandy where hermitting is nurtured with every breath we take. Sadly, Thich Nhat Hanh died just a year ago, but he was our hotel hermit of choice, a real hermit’s hermit: “Every breath we take,” he said, “every step we make, can be filled with peace, joy and serenity.”