We arrive, bolt down our lunch, change our clothes and head out to sea. We have been on the road since 4 a.m, but the bracing breeze and the sea spray is wonderfully reviving. Ahead, Pigeon Island rises out of the water.
Beside me in the boat is Henry Logan-Smith, front office manager at the Pigeon Island Resort. We spend the next few hours exploring the beautiful island, dotted with aloe vera plants and blooming orange sea shoe flowers.
As we walk around Henry, a native, tells me he left the region in the early eighties, when violence broke out. Today he’s back to ply his trade in the hospitality industry and following closely on his heels are busloads of tourists, all determined to discover the long hidden world of Trincomalee. As roads open up and the military presence becomes less visible, hoteliers all across the region are gearing up for a boom.
Among the many hotels dotting the shores of the sweeping stretch of Nilaveli beach, The Pigeon Island Resort enjoys a particularly breathtaking location. Just a little past the Nilaveli Beach Resort, it is one of the only boutique hotels in the area. The beach in front of it is beautiful and clean, stretching as far as the eye can see on both sides. Directly in front lie the Pigeon Islands themselves, one clearly larger than the other. (Together the two are a designated marine park, famous for their mounds of white coral on the beaches and the rock pigeons that nest in the rocky outcrops.)
A trip to the island is one of the highlights of staying in the hotel – as is the chance to explore Trincomalee itself. With world class dive sites and a number of beautiful reefs, the area is rich in marine life. Need some suggestions? The manager of the hotel, Patrick de Silva also grew up in Trincomalee and knows the area well.
The sumptuous meals served at the hotel though give one even less motivation to go wandering. Under the rule of chef M.D.J Anthony, the kitchen turns out everything from freshly baked doughnuts and croissants to an authentic rice and curry. With the bounteous ocean at their doorstep, fresh seafood is almost always on the menu. The dining room and lobby area boasts a lovely open design. Decorated in shades of white and blue, the furnishings are simple, with a few notable exceptions.
In the foyer a hefty wooden elephant stands. It is one of several Jaffna antiques on the premises. In fact, you’ll see the first as you cross the threshold. The exquisitely carved capitals that top the pillars on either side hold up heavy wooden beams. The door once belonged to a great house in Jaffna, says Patrick pointing out the distinctive pattern. Step inside and a worn wooden bench, tinged a faint green sits under a mirror. Taken from a railway station, it sits opposite a credible imitation piece, with its own identical mirror. A wooden staircase with thick railings is yet another antique, and Patrick estimates its age at around 150 years. The most dramatic of the lot though may be a wooden hackery parked near the bar. A family heirloom, the cart belonged to proprietor Dr. Maheshi Wijeratne’s great-grandparents.
A neurosurgeon, she and her husband Nigel Coomaraswamy have refurbished the property. Once known as Hotel Maoura Beach, it has been carefully restored to its formal glory. Solar heating and no less than three water treatment plants are already in service, but Patrick assures me that there’s a lot more to come. There are plans to build a conference hall and a few gift stores. Construction begins on a sports bar and lounge area this week. Currently they have 38 deluxe rooms and 6 suites. The suites boast views of the ocean, while most of the rooms look out onto the pool deck. Done up in cool white, the rooms are spacious. Large beds with headboards imbedded with blue mosaic make for striking centrepieces. The air-conditioned rooms come equipped with minibars and satellite T.V.
The 2 ½ acre property is long and lean, with the building sitting in an ‘L’ shape along it.
Seeming to invite the beach in, a poolside bar has its floor covered in sand. A little board carries the name of the cocktail of the day, tempting you to linger and catch the sunset. Stay a little longer and you can enjoy the sight of fishing boats, strung out along the horizon like a line of twinkling Christmas lights. The beach is the perfect location for a romantic dinner, and Patrick explains that the hotel often organises bonfires and music nights out under the stars.
Describing barbeques on the beach and dinners beside the pool deck, he emphasises the staff’s willingness to go the extra mile.
Numbering over 50, the staff keep the property immaculate. They’re also fun to get to know. Henry is a great guide to the region and has an inexhaustible store of stories. My favourites proved to be of his memories of the way Trincomalee used to be (but you can also ask him about Arthur C. Clarke, whom he met several times). He says they scour the beach on a regular basis, clearing debris that is washed ashore by the tide.
They’re determined to keep the surrounds pristine – a task that is likely to only get more challenging in the years ahead. In the meantime, Trincomalee is still one of the most beautiful spots on the island. Henry, for one, cannot imagine that he and the others who call it home will ever allow that to change.
Find out more at: www.pigeonislandresort.com.