As the sun's last golden rays kiss the tranquil waters of the Indian Ocean, turning the sky a spectacular shade of golden orange, a group of us have dressed up in our tropical resort best.
Martinis in hand and with a gentle sea breeze keeping the humidity at bay, we gathered at the art gallery of ANI Sri Lanka to witness a private portrait drawing session. With finely eked, confident charcoal strokes, three artists sketch out an uncanny likeness of the live model from three angles in about 30 minutes. We are undoubtedly impressed by their show of talent – and even more so because they are all still students of the nearby ANI Art Academy, just about 15 minutes by tuk tuk from this private resort.
Who knew there were such talented artists-in-training in this idyllic southern coastal town of Dickwella, located about an hour’s drive from Sri Lanka’s World Heritage Site, Galle Fort? But that is exactly the point of ANI Private Resorts, which was founded to support the operation of the non-profit ANI Art Academies. The Academy provides intensive multi-year art skills scholarship education to aspiring artists in some of the most far-flung – and breathtaking – corners of the globe, like Sri Lanka.
Established in 2010 by philanthropist and arts patron Tim Reynolds, the goal is to uplift the local community by providing students with the skills to become working artists when they graduate. There are currently six art academies worldwide, including outposts in Thailand, Sri Lanka, Anguilla, and the Dominican Republic. Each of these four academies are closely paired to a nearby private resort, where proceeds are channelled towards the running of the schools.
What is unique is that ANI is an all-inclusive resort designed specifically for single groups of about 20 to 30 guests at any one time – making this ideal for multi-generational family vacations, special occasions like weddings, or even a getaway for groups of affluent friends seeking to escape the madding crowd.
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At ANI Sri Lanka, which covers a sweeping two hectares of beachfront, there are 15 tropical modernism-inspired suites, many of which have their own private plunge pools and outdoor patios.
The suites are strategically positioned around two double-storey Living Salas, which overlook large infinity pools and house various social spaces including an air-conditioned dining area, interactive show kitchen, lounge, terrace, and library to foster convivial quality time. There are also facilities galore from a glass fronted gym, tennis court, shuffleboard court, and yoga and meditation pavilion to keep guests entertained from sunrise to sundown.
But what really forms the heart and soul of the resort are the close-knit team of some 30 staff to not only keep the estate running like clockwork, but to ensure that every minute of one’s stay is carefully customised to delight, surprise, and cater to each guest’s personal preferences, whether they are seeking tennis coaching, a movie screening under the moonlight, or even a personal escort on a shopping trip to town.
Yeshi Phuntsho, CEO of ANI Private Resorts says, “As we focus exclusively for one group at a time, the level of service and personalization is focused to every guest’s needs. We are constantly learning and adapting according to the guest requests, ensuring that we are always one-step ahead.”
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Mealtimes are always an anticipated event, thanks to the team’s creativity in transforming various spaces in the resort into stunning tablescapes. For instance, after the art demonstration, we are ushered to the ankle-deep wading section of the infinity pool for an atmospheric “floating dinner” under the stars.
Chef Cyril Human’s culinary versatility is given free reign too – he is equally adept at whipping up multi-course French and Italian meals as he is with Japansese-inspired and Asian fare. Still, it is his love for Sri Lankan cuisine that truly sparkles. One morning, we take tuk tuks with him to the market to pick out fresh vegetables and spices for a Sri Lankan cooking class. As we weave through the sprawling market, stopping every few steps to gawk at the fresh produce, my mouth starts watering at the thought of the varied curries and other Sri Lankan dishes we will be feasting on.
On another afternoon, we are brought to a 200-year-old colonial house. Once an ayurvedic clinic, the doctor’s descendants still live here even though they no longer practise ayurveda. But in honor of this traditional medicinal practice, the ANI team has prepared a lunch inspired by ayurvedic principles and ingredients. With medicinal yet flavorful dishes like bitter gourd sambal said to detox the body and a baby jackfruit curry, which has antibacterial properties, we feel sated and cleansed all at once.
Back in the resort, Manjulah Wijekoon, the resort’s head of wellness, is a trained ayurvedic practitioner and incorporates various ayurvedic spa treatments into the resort’s treatment menu. During my shirodhara treatment, where a stream of warm, medicinal oil is poured onto the forehead for a soothing effect, I am lulled into a blissful state of relaxation.
For those whose interests might lean towards more esoteric practices, the team can also engage a palm reader to offer readings on the resort premises. While most of us make a mental note to take the readings with a pinch of salt, the consensus after our sessions is that the reader was for the most part, uncannily accurate. We end up spending hours chatting and mulling over the pearls of wisdom that were aimed at nudging each of us towards taking proactive steps in various aspects of our personal and professional lives.
As it turns out, this sense of close-knit bonding we experience is by design. “Togetherness is a core theme for us,” says Phuntsho. “When guests spend a week together peppered with so many moments that naturally bring them together, they realize that they feel more connected by the end of the trip. ÀNI is the perfect container for this as there are no other groups or distractions, meaning all they need to focus on is doing things that bring them together.”
Indeed, for our last dinner at the resort – a dreamy, fairy light-lit barbecue featuring fresh local catch – we cannot help but get caught up in the idyllic beauty of the moment. With a two-piece band gently crooning popular tunes and the sound of the Indian Ocean waves lapping at the shore, I cannot help but slip off my sandals for a spontaneous barefoot dance on the emerald green lawn.