Vivanta by Taj Bentota – A Review By Punam Mohandas
The Vivanta by Taj Bentota is a stately colonial style building set over nine acres, with manicured lawns and quiet woods that are flanked by the sea. There is a railway line running close to the hotel and the whistle of the engine against the sea panorama is all terribly reminiscent of a Daphne du Maurier setting.
One enters into a lobby that has a high, vaulted, wooden ceiling with graceful arches. Three huge hanging cane lamps in delicate conical shapes are the focal point of this space. There are two separate areas with plush seating, one for check-ins while the other serves as a casual waiting lounge, where tea/coffee (only) can be served. All around the hotel are colourful paintings of traditional Sri Lankan life, done by local artists.
Winding stone paths lead to the 160 rooms, which are divided into the following categories: Superior Charm (440sqf); Deluxe Delight (440sqf); Premium Indulgence (590sqf); Allure Suite (850sqf); Temptation Suite (1,400sqf) and the Presidential Suite (1,600sqf).
The accommodation wing that overlooks the lawns is one of the finest examples of colonial architecture; a whitewashed building that rises graciously with gabled, red-roofed balconies breaking the monotony and making their own individual splash of colour against the brilliant green of the lawns. The other wing has come up around what is almost an inner garden, with dense foliage surrounding a pond that has goldfish swimming around nonchalantly.
The Allure Suite goes in for a minimalist look, with a chaise lounge, foot stool and armchair in fawn, against black printed drapes and a fawn and black carpet, with touches of aquamarine in the flower vases, throw pillows and bed runner. The bedroom has the wardrobes and headboard in black; while the wall behind the bed is a cloudy blue, the others are in a pale biscuit shade. There are two large screen television sets, one in each room. There is a small, circular balcony leading from the bedroom that gives onto a partial view of the sea. The rooms are small, but adequate, although the heavy door leading from the bedroom into the living room requires a proper stopper.
The bathroom surprisingly has the shower fixture over the bathtub, rather than being separate utilities. Unfortunately, the bathrooms are not equipped with jet sprays.
The Taj Bentota uses Forest Essentials toiletries across its room categories. In-room amenities include tea/coffee maker, minibar, electronic safe, iron and three complimentary bottles of drinking water. The welcome check-in service includes a fruit as well as white chocolate platter. Unlike the usual terrycloth bath gowns, this hotel goes in for thin, cotton robes with simple blue embroidery along the hems and back – very striking and elegant.
Some of the rooms may have a run-down feel; the Superior Charm and Deluxe Delight categories have recently been furbished and phase two will see the rest of the keys spruced up as well.
F&B options include the 40-covers, Chinese fine dining Oriental Pavilion, open only for dinner. The interiors are a pleasing mix of peach and red, offset by dark wood. The 55-covers Shack is quite literally a shack on the lawns and overlooking the sea, serving grilled seafood during dinner only, to the accompaniment of a Sri Lankan calypso band. The novelty here is that guests select their main seafood course and then the chef matches that with a complimentary amuse bouche, salad, soup and dessert. The 40-covers Seaview is also open for dinner only, serving continental cuisine. Instead of the usual PDR, there is a small terrace here that can be used for small, private groups, while a bigger terrace can accommodate outdoor tables should the weather be fine. The 60-covers Tease bar serves tapas and drinks, with a daily live band in attendance. Tease has a raised, circular dais seating and also has a couple of pool tables and a small library within its environs. Celsius is the pool bar, with 150 sun loungers spread over the pool deck as well as the manicured expanse of lawn.
The 180-covers (inside as well as outside seating) Palms by the swimming pool, is the multi-cuisine, all-day dining outlet. The colourful Noritake crockery here puts you in even more of a holiday mood than you are already. Breakfast includes local Sri Lankan specialities such as appam, string hoppers and pittu, with the menu changed daily. It must be mentioned that the breakfast is a really extensive spread, with five types of honey alone, while the a la carte menu is also wide ranging. Apart from the fresh juices on offer, the friendly chefs are willing to put together any juice combination based on a guest’s personal preference. Every Friday night there is a street food spread at the Palms, with special décor at the restaurant and a local band in attendance. On the other nights, it is quite enthralling to be entertained by a flautist and his haunting tunes under a moonwashed sky.
It would be remiss not to make a special mention of the food which is overall so good that one indulges in over-eating. Under chefs Neeraj Chaudhry and Manjula Silva, the Indian and Sri Lankan specialities are well attended to. The biryani and raita were quite simply among the best I’ve ever had, while a must-try is the Sri Lankan seafood thali, with seven varieties of local fare such as prawns in coconut milk, fish, cashew nut curry and more.
Recreation facilities include two computers for complimentary guest use in the Business Centre, indoor pool tables, tennis, volleyball and badminton courts, a mini golf course and of course, a swimming pool that overlooks the sea. Bicycles for hire as well as water sports activities, can be arranged. Furthermore, there are four boutiques on the premises, including a gems and jewellery shop.
There is also a spa, set amid a clearing in a wood, well away from the rooms. It is almost like stepping into a secret garden that has a blessedly still ambience. There is a fish pond in the centre of a square, around which are two couple and two single treatment rooms, with another two rooms devoted to Ayurvedic therapies only. All rooms are equipped with shower facilities, with a steam/sauna area (common for ladies and gents) to be used only by guests who have booked spa treatments (there are steam/sauna facilities in the fitness centre as well.)
The Fitness Centre has a small gym that is open 24-hours, as well as separate Jacuzzi and steam/sauna facilities for men and women (open till 7pm only.)
Since the beach is not private, there are watchful security staff by all exit points to the beach and guests are required to furnish their room numbers to the staff. While there are no hawkers, there are local operators trying to wheedle visitors into water sports; one enters into these bargains at one’s own risk. It is better to ask the hotel to arrange such activities.
Convention facilities include the Orchid hall that can seat 300-pax theatre style and has a stage set-up as well. Pre-function and buffet set up is in the corridor, while the lawn expanse can handle another 400-pax cluster style; a stone stage is set into the lawn, which can be used for performances. Outdoor buffets can also be organised in the wooded area leading to the spa.
There is a lotus pond off to one side of the lawn and overlooking the sea, where a private (couple) dinner can be set up under a tree.
Quite a few beach weddings take place at the Taj Bentota, where a cluster seating of 300-pax can be arranged. Apart from these, there is the Billiard room that can accommodate 20-pax and the Agenda room that can seat 30-pax boardroom style. There is a long, narrow parapet outside these rooms that can be used for cocktail functions. Both rooms are near the after-party 80-covers venue, My Kind of Place and therefore, small, private parties can be moved here if they are to go on past midnight (guests have to obtain a special permission from the government for music and liquor service to continue post midnight, which can be arranged for by the hotel.)
It must be mentioned here that, under the aegis of the general manager, Ranjit Shankar, who embodies the age-old Taj tradition of warm hospitality which has successfully permeated through to the team, one only has to wish for something – and it is done. F&B service is extremely attentive and surprisingly, the chefs too help out with service; the teamwork is worthy of notice. While Front Office staff are polite and efficient, Housekeeping is friendly but a little casual, with the typical island folk demeanour. The staff by the swimming pool need to brush up on their manner, though.
With such a verdant landscape surrounding it, the hotel offers a lush backdrop to the seascape and there are plenty of quiet spots one can find away from the other guests. Pest control does need to be stepped up. Another point the management may like to take under consideration is that there may be about 150 sun loungers, but barely three dozen sun umbrellas, making it a fight to the finish with the patrons.
Vivanta by Taj Bentota is two hours away from the airport, thanks to a new expressway. There are some shops, a small mall and eateries around the hotel. Local sightseeing options include the turtle hatchery, the Kande Vihare temple and Cinnamon Island. Galle, the farthest end of Sri Lanka, is about 1.15 hours away. If you would like to head into Colombo for shopping, that detour will take almost three hours. It is possible to buy Sri Lankan tea from a wholesaler about a kilometre away from the hotel; do check with the front office desk. Apart from tea, other items to buy are spices such as cinnamon, cardamom, vanilla and pepper, cashew nuts and batik ware. Sri Lanka is also where Noritake as well as Marks & Spencer have manufacturing units and hence, it is possible to buy these items at fractionally cheaper prices than elsewhere.
Most major airlines fly into Colombo’s Bandaranaike international airport. If you are looking for budget options, consider flying with Sri Lankan airlines; it is safe enough, although the food as well as in-flight service leave much to be desired.
VIVANTA BY TAJ BENTOTA
Punam Mohandas asserts her right to be identified as the author of this work. Any views or opinions expressed in this review is that of the author.