Mention Sri Lanka and what spring to mind first are beaches, palm trees and vibrant food. With a popular travel bible ranking it the top country to visit in 2019 this little isle is set to see its popularity surge. As the country braces itself, I explored an altogether off the beaten track part of the island in aid of those who, like me, prefer their travel slower. What eludes the masses is that Sri Lanka remains ever more beautiful inland as it does on the coast. You never have to travel too far to experience it. Bolgoda Lake which sits a mere 45 minutes east of the commercial capital Colombo was my chosen destination. I arrived here to experience a luxury river cruise with Flow by the independently-owned Amber Collection; the first of its kind in Sri Lanka.
The lake is named after the village of Bolgoda. Historically, Bolgoda Lake has been considered a tranquil place attracting the country’s elite; many of whom have second homes on its shores. It’s made of two bodies of water and it’s possible to access the rivers which are interconnected by cruising across the lake. Surrounded by impossibly beautiful mangroves, fishing villages and wildlife, on an ordinary day, it will take your breath away.
Legend has it that a 14th century voyeur prince hid behind the mangroves to watch women that would bathe here. During the Dutch colonial period the lake was used for transporting people and goods. Today the shores of this 374 square kilometre lake are dotted with thatched cottages and architect-designed second homes of the wealthy sitting side by side in perfect harmony. The occasional boat swaying by a jetty being the only indication of human life. One thing that becomes evident, as soon as you arrive, is that there is enormous respect held for the lake by all those who live around it.
My car pulled up to The Marina, Bolgoda which is a private members’ water sports club. The fleet of two boats that make up Flow are docked here. If you’re a guest of Flow you will have access to their private lounge, swimming pool and restaurant. If anyone is feeling particularly energetic, they can take part in a host of water sports available.
On this particular day I was impatient to get on board and begin the luxury river cruise. My bags had been discreetly moved to my cabin whilst I sipped a welcome watermelon smoothie from the juice bar. I walked across and stepped on to the magnificent vessel that is Flow 1. The air conditioning in my cabin had been turned on and the Wi-Fi connected immediately. To the right a colonial-era four poster bed with pristine white coverings looked out to the lake. A fresh bowl of fruit, with enough fruit to feed three people, stared at me from a corner of the room. To my left a free-standing bath most certainly felt extravagant given the setting.
Stepping out of the blistering heat outside into the cool, ethereal feeling inside changed everything. The Wi-Fi may have connected but I had disconnected from the world. I ran a warm bath. The air filled with the scent of lavender and I sunk myself in to it. At 157cm tall I took up less than half the space in the bath; no doubt built for two.
A gentle knock on my door informed me that afternoon tea had been served in the restaurant on the upper deck. I made my way up and found all manner of Sri Lankan finger food laid out. There was only one other guest on board, and we tucked in to fish cutlets (fish, vegetables and potatoes rolled in breadcrumbs), cucumber sandwiches, vegetable patties (similar to the Caribbean variety but smaller) and sweet, vanilla-scented cake. Everything had been freshly prepared by the head chef on board. Afternoon tea in the middle of a lake surrounded by a tropical jungle felt surreal. But it happened. And it will forever remain in my memory as an unforgettable travel moment.
After tea I stayed on the deck to take in the rugged, peaceful surroundings. The water was very still, I could count at least four continuous layers of canopies in the forest, birds flew overhead, and tiny silver fish leapt out of the water only to disappear back in again. Far away in the distance I could hear the faint sound of Buddhist prayers being chanted from a temple I couldn’t see. It was the only sound in the air. Everything seemed to move slowly and with purpose.
As dusk settled Flow embarked on the first part of the luxury cruise: a sunset dinner cruise. The sky was crimson, orange, purple and blue all at the same time. It reflected against the lake’s deep black rippled surface. The vessel started to glide gently away from the shore. As it did, I spotted the villages along the banks. Fishermen looked up from traditional fishing boats. Families waved at us frantically from their cottages and we waved back just as enthusiastically. It was at this moment that I truly appreciated the experience on board Flow. I felt present, without haste and fully immersed in everything around me. There were no crowds and no sound except that of the water being parted by the boat, the gentle flutter of birds overhead or the occasional bird call.
Dinner itself was a rather elegant affair. I’d ordered fish baked in banana leaf and my companion had ordered Fettuccini. Yes, the à la carte menu was nothing short of incredible. With island-grown, sun-ripened fresh produce always to hand the kitchen creates magnificent dishes at your request. My fish was caught in the lake that evening and the banana leaf no doubt foraged from the shore. The pasta was al dente and a delight. Every mouthful was simply divine.
I looked up during dinner to see millions of stars shining in the sky. At the end of the meal, coffee in hand, I lingered on the deck as the boat made its way back to The Marina. The captain explained that the vessels return to shore to dock each night. The muddy nature of the lake’s bed does not support a safe overnight anchoring. With an ex-marine captain on board I certainly felt that I was in good hands.
So, what else did I do on board my luxury river cruise? Plenty. The following morning was a breakfast cruise which included a local wildlife expert who’d come on board to join us. As we tucked into warm coffee, fruit and buffalo yoghurt, he talked us through migratory birds that call the lake its home. We spotted two fresh water crocodiles within the space of ten minutes. He also talked about local initiatives for preserving the wildlife in and around the lake.
At lunchtime I had a Sri Lankan cookery lesson with the vessel’s head chef. Local ingredients that I’d never used before took new meaning. I learned how to use lemon grass, pandan leaves and an array of brightly-coloured spices. Under expert guidance I made a chicken curry and a dhal dish. As a result, I’m now a deft hand at making an authentic Sri Lankan dhal curry. My home fills with the aromas of Sri Lanka and my mind floods with memories of Bolgoda Lake.
It would have been a wasted opportunity if I didn’t use the jet skis that were available to me. The following morning we took a jet ski and explored the northern, less accessible part of the lake. The waterways were narrower here and there were many occasions when we turned off the jet ski and sat in silence to observe an animal, let a fisherman row past or to allow a fisherman to lay his nets. This is lake etiquette that is deemed important by Flow.
All of this felt like the truest luxury on this river cruise. I saw life on the lake as it happened. No part of it had been manufactured for my benefit. I simply found my own space in the tapestry and fit in with it. If anyone is searching for a way to experience Sri Lanka slowly, as it truly, authentically lives and breathes, I’m here to say that I’ve found it. I humbly suggest that you make a beeline for Bolgoda Lake. Just don’t tell anyone about it.
Flow – Amber Collection Sri Lanka, No 58, 42nd Lane, Colombo 06, Sri Lanka.
Tel: +94 117 520 050 / International: +94 763 652 456
Directions to Houseboats: 45 minutes by car from Colombo. Transfers from Colombo to Bolgoda can be arranged with Flow at the time of booking.
Type of accommodation: Two luxury houseboats that cruise the Bolgoda Lake on Flow
Number of rooms: Five rooms with air conditioning and free Wi-Fi on each houseboat.
Price Band: Medium with prices starting from US$650 per person for a three-night package.
Insider Tip: You can pre-book an Ayurvedic massage with a qualified therapist during your stay.
Reviewer’s Rating: 10/10
Demi Perera was born and raised for part of her life in Sri Lanka. She loves the open road, prefers the mountains over beaches and loves reading. Demi writes about two of her passions – food and wine.
Photographs courtesy of The Amber Collection