Spoiler alert! It’s impossible to make sense of star ratings in just about any place in the world! Why? Because there are no international regulations governing them, and in the United States there is not even a group who monitors these star ratings or checks them for compliance. What this often leads to is motels, hotels and guest houses labeling themselves, and don’t we always think better of ourselves than we should?
In a country like Sri Lanka, some standards have been placed on higher rated star hotels by the tourism department. Months ago, scanning through the ever-increasing list of luxury hotels in Sri Lanka, I even ran across a hotel being built that made a rather bold claim. The tag line read, “Sri Lanka’s first 7-star hotel,” and I wondered what that even means? What has followed are other new constructions projects claiming to be a 7 star, and we now even have a luxury apartment tower being built which boasts they will be the first 7-star residence in Sri Lanka.
My questions are many. Who told them they were a 7-star property? What are the requirements and the list of criteria to be 7-star? Who will be monitoring your service and upkeep to maintain this 7-star rating? And the most burning question, with everyone claiming to be 5 or 7-star… why has the 6-star property been completely neglected? I can’t find a single hotel claiming they are 6-star. What does everybody have against the number 6?
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been in a number of these properties, taken my family, had high tea there and even stayed in them on occasion. There are some terrific hotels, and the opulence along with the atmosphere in some of these places falls somewhere between breath taking and inspiring. At the same time, I’ve stayed in a 5-star hotel that had 2-star service and I’ve stayed in a 3 star hotel that had 5 star service, or maybe it was 7 star?
When it comes to staying in Sri Lanka, you have a few options in terms of lodging. First, the luxury hotel chains which even include a couple of American brands. Second, you have boutiques which are by comparison smaller properties but with fewer rooms they have the potential to offer great service. Lastly, you can go the route of a villa or bungalow where guests typically rent the entirety of a property which could be comprised of 1 – 4 bedrooms. If it fits the budget, I would recommend going the route of boutiques, villas or bungalows.
From my own perspective, let’s breakdown for a moment how we might describe the star rating system for Sri Lanka. When looking through our site and at possible itineraries, you’ll want to have an idea of how things vary from place to place. First let’s consider the 3-star category:
- AC rooms if applicable for the location
- Free Wi-fi available at least in the lobby area
- Television in room (this could go either way)
- On site restaurant
- Clean facilities
- Minimal toiletries included
- Pool if applicable for the location
- Complimentary Water Bottles
- Mosquito Nets/coils/plugs to discourage bites – if needed
- Baggage Hold for early arrivals and late departures
So, all 4-star hotels have the 3-star amenities plus the following:
- Mini bar/fridge in the room
- 24-hour reception
- Customizable menu for meals
- Spa facilities
- Minimal Gym
- Room Service
- Reliable Wi-fi
- Generator for power cuts (possibly)
- Electric Tea Kettle for hot water
Likewise, all 5-star hotels have the 3 and 4-star amenities plus the following:
- Laundry services available
- Bath robe and slippers
- Premium bedding and linens
- Premium cutlery and dishes
- Coffee machines in room (along with the tea kettle)
- More Extensive Gym
- Iron board and iron
- Hair dryers
- 24-hour room service
- Highly trained chefs
- High standard of cleanliness and attention to detail
- Immaculately landscaped
- Multiple pools
The above lists give you an idea about what might be available in hotel offerings. But what if you desire to stay at a bungalow or villa which is also quite popular? While these types of properties may cost you more, many people enjoy the intimacy, care and attention they are shown in these particular properties.
In the tea or hill country bungalow you could expect that you will have a personal butler or “house boy” in each bungalow. As a result, you will be looked after consistently but non-intrusively. They will set up for each of the meals provided inside the bungalow, provide room service and cleaning once per day. Also, they would do general clean ups as needed, bring tea and other snacks upon request. In the evenings they will offer to build a fire in the fire place and ensure your comfort. On particularly cold nights they may also provide hot water bottles for your bedding to keep you warm.
Meals in these bungalows or villas are provided by a highly trained chef who will typically ask for your culinary preference. I’ve made it a habit to ask the chef what he recommends or enjoys preparing. They will usually be known for a few Sri Lankan and Western dishes that they take great pride in perfecting. Please do yourself a favor and go with these few dishes they recommend, as you will not regret it! Also, they will have a few desserts you will want to try as well. Curd & treacle is a favorite for me along with Wattalapan. For more information on these dishes see our blog on (Sri Lankan food.)
Here are a couple of our favorite holiday bungalows:
Kelburne estate in Haputale is a fully functioning tea estate. We were originally recommended this place as a serene location for reflection and cooler temperatures by a friend, and wow did this bungalow surprise us with its attention to their guests! While I’ve definitely stayed in more modern locations with new amenities, this retreat was exactly what we were looking for. The buildings themselves have been around for years and the décor is also from another era. But that’s part of the charm of this place. We sit on white wrought iron dainty filigree chairs in the British gardens drinking a fresh pot of local tea and admire the view of the mountains and the cool breeze that is never found in Colombo.
The rooms have mosquito nets rolled up hanging over the beds and fresh flowers laying on the pillow as an invitation to rest! In the mornings, you can have your breakfast in the garden or in the house where your butler arranges the table in the most fantastic display of color using antique china/ colored napkins/ and fresh flowers. The fresh fruit juice is so refreshing, and the service is just impeccable. I find it difficult to ring the bell for service (think of all those British TV shows with a butler and a bell) but it seems the butler knows I am wishing he would appear and there he is, standing at attention ready to help with our every need. He makes the fire in the fireplace at night and is always ready to bring water bottles or milk down from the kitchen.
For those wanting to move up the scale to premium luxury just down the road from Kelburne but with the same magnificent view I would recommend the Thotalagala Plantation. Having the same views as Kelburne, the accommodation is 5 star and beyond. Carefully selected furniture, premium drapes and bedding will envelope you into the very fabric of this estate.
Moving toward the sea and beaches you will find many luxury bungalows and villas as well. Breezy porticos, carefully placed windows and swimming pools with a distant sound of crashing waves make these destinations a place of calm and retreat. Small and attentive staff in each location ensure your comfort while giving you the privacy you desire.
For those seeking seafood the options are endless as fish, several versions of lobster, prawn or shrimp and shellfish are available. As with other bungalows or villas, the chefs always aim to please so discuss menu options with them. Also, be sure to try a fresh fruit platter during the morning or afternoon tea times. Dependent upon the time of year you may choose to sleep with the windows open to enjoy the salty sea breeze. However, for those desiring greater comfort you can use the AC instead.
Some favorite properties in the villa or bungalow seaside category would be:
The Owl and the Pussycat for couples travelling on romantic getaways and cliff top Cape Weligama for families or groups travelling together. Both places have excellent amenities and are in prime locations for whale watching and beach activities. Weligama is one of our family favorites for beach days and we can recommend it for lazy days as well.
It would seem that properties can be star rated based on the service, amenities and/or overall cleanliness and efficiency. When rating places personally these are some things that I consider:
In regard to the property:
- Is the location desirable (ie: close to beach or desired excursion site?)
- Have the lawn and landscape been maintained and manicured
- If swimming pools are present, are they well maintained and clean?
- Is the pool furniture adequate and comfortable?
- Are there adequate restroom facilities in public areas?
- Is the wi-fi signal constant and available throughout the property?
- Do the rooms have a pleasant odor and are they clean?
- What in room amenities are offered, such as bathtub, quality of linens, extent of toiletries, mini-bar, etc.
- What is the wow factor, such as a mountain view, ocean view? Open air lobbies vs. cozy well designed lobbies.
In the Dining realm:
- Do they offer a variety of foods?
- Do they have an a la carte menu?
- Is there quality coffee available made with a real coffee machine?
- Have they done some creative spin on traditional dishes?
- Was I greeted in a friendly way and led to the check in area?
- Was the check in process efficient and clear?
- Did the staff direct me to my room and give overview of the room?
- Are the staff in dining areas and pool areas attentive to needs and able to offer assistance in a timely manner?
- Has the communication been clear and understandable?
- Have I been addressed by name?
- Are there included excursions or unique offerings such as: cooking class, safari excursion, massage or spa, boat rides, visit to local village or site?
- Were there complimentary items offered such as coffee, dessert, fruit or fruit drinks?
As I’ve stayed in hotels, guest houses and boutiques of all types all over the world, the only conclusion I’ve reached is that I need my own rating system. In addition, I’ve stayed once at a place and been “wowed” only to be disappointed on a return trip. They weren’t able to deliver in the area of consistency. This is why it’s important to have someone on the ground constantly assessing and quality checking so your only surprises are pleasant ones.