I spent my second night in Sri Lanka 30 years ago at the Hotel Club Oceanic in Trincomalee. By way of commemorating the end of the war that restricted travel in some parts of Sri Lanka, I returned to Club Oceanic in May.
On the two-and-half hour drive from Habarana the only evidence of the situation were soldiers on watch at the roadside and some efficient, and polite, check points. All evidence of security vanished when I arrived at Club Oceanic. Having grown used to hotels on the west coast where the beach is fenced off, I was amazed to be able to step straight from my beach chalet verandah on to a vast stretch of golden sand.
While south and west coast beach hotels have moved upmarket with trendy refurbishment and boutique accoutrements, Club Oceanic remains basic and unpretentious. Of course, the hotel has changed over 30 years and was renovated after being devastated by the tsunami. (A plaque at head height in the bar records where the water reached.) However, the building’s exterior retains the low-slung look of the early 1970s without the frills of cutting-edge design.
The lane to the hotel after turning right about 4 km north of Trincomalee, is no longer lined with shops selling tourist tat, as it was when the hotel flourished. Now there is nothing to distract the visitor to Club Oceanic from enjoying a simple beach holiday. Entrance is through a gate on the right where the driveway swings around a garden, with a tennis court on one side. The security guards wear white shirts, a refreshing sign of a relaxed attitude. Only later did I realise the uniform shirts of the bar and restaurant staff are colourful and practical, ideal for a beach hotel.
V. Prem Kumar is the genial manager of the Club Oceanic and he tries to greet each guest personally. A veteran of east coast hotels his positive personality has helped the hotel keep going during difficult times. His leadership is evident in the helpful attitude of his staff, for whom nothing is too much trouble. Ajit, the bar supervisor, produced a perfect cocktail (not on the list) and remembered me from my visit in 1995 to the Maldives where he worked then. The restaurant supervisor, Herath, rustled up a fiery beef curry (not on the breakfast buffet that day), and recalled serving me in Nuwara Eliya in 1983.
The friendly attitude of the staff adds a heartfelt warmth to the ambience of the hotel and staff members are encouraged to develop a good rapport with guests. It is a garden property with the beach rooms on one side. Called chalets, there are 16 of them in four blocks, either upstairs with balcony or downstairs with verandah and direct access to the beach. With blue tile floors and contrasting drapes and linen, they are spacious and comfortable, with chairs inside and out; AC, TV and mini-bar and a bathroom with hot water shower. All the basics one needs, including fluffy towels.
There are also 40 rooms in the main block, equally comfortable, the only difference (apart from price) between the Superior and Standard grades being the view, either of beach or garden.
I relished the informality of Club Oceanic. There was no fuss, only an eagerness that showed the staff enjoyed being there too. I strolled along the beach to watch fishermen haul in their catch; lazed under a thatched awning after a long and leisurely swim (the sea remains the same depth for 200ms); sat at the beach bar making new friends; and dipped in the pool.
Meals are served as buffets, either from counters in the air-conditioned café or set up in the open sided pavilion restaurant. I missed the regular Saturday night beach barbecue but was lucky enough to sample Sunday’s buffet lunch with the most delicious crab curry I have ever tasted. And plenty of it. After dinner that night and breakfast the next morning, I realised it would be worth staying at Club Oceanic for the food alone.
Of course, there is much more to the hotel that makes it so appealing. There is a kiddies’ playground, an aviary, conference rooms, a cyber café, a souvenir and gem shop, a gym, and organised snorkelling and diving. The OM ayurveda spa, with the slogan “The human touch increase one’s life span” offers herbal baths and massages.
From now until October is the season for staying in Trincomalee. Occupancy was low during my visit but I bet that in a few weeks it will be impossible to get a room there, not just because of the improved situation in the country, but also because of the traditional, relaxing beach break that only Club Oceanic can deliver.
The cost of a beach chalet for two is Rs. 12,000, full board, and for a standard room starts at Rs. 4,700 for two. A neat idea is that all prices, including drinks, are nett, which means no unexpected taxes and service charge are added to the price list.(www.johnkeellshotels.com)