Jun 14 2022. views 707
With fuel shortages in the country, Fox Resorts encourages train travel with their new travel-inclusive hotel offers. It’s 5.30 AM and I’m standing on platform 3 of the Fort Railway Station with too many bags balanced on my shoulders as I wait for the AC Intercity train to take me to Jaffna. While I’ve heard that the train to Jaffna is fantastic, I have always thought I would drive to Jaffna to enjoy the sights along the way, but with a fuel crisis taking its toll on the country; driving to Jaffna is now not only too expensive of a journey, but the thought of using up fuel stocks for a leisure trip is picking away at my conscience. This is why when hospitality groups such as Fox Resorts offer transport-inclusive packages to their resorts – I am willing to jump aboard. Jaffna has been on my bucket list for years and Fox’s B&B offer is inclusive of first-class train tickets and transport to and from the station to the resort.
The Trip to the North
Our package to Fox Jaffna included first-class, air-conditioned train tickets from the luxury train service that was launched earlier in the year. The AC Intercity train leaves from Mt. Lavinia at 5.10 am, stopping at Colombo Fort at 5.35 am, and arrives at its last stop in Kankesanthurai at 12.17 pm, stopping along the way at Kurunegala, Anuradhapura, Vavuniya, and Jaffna, the same train departs from Kankesanthurai same day at 1.15 pm and arrives at Mt. Lavinia at 8.31 pm. In what should be an exhausting 7-hour journey, the AC Intercity with comfortable reclining seats, air conditioning, seat trays and footrests, a stocked restaurant car, and importantly, clean and modern toilet facilities made for a fantastic journey to the North. At the Jaffna station, we were greeted by a staff member from Fox Jaffna armed with a cooler of refreshing wet towels and thirst-quenchers before embarking on our 10-minute ride from the station to the resort.
Fox Jaffna Resort
Fox Jaffna is a part of Fox Resorts, the hospitality arm of the Capital Maharaja Group (CMG). In Kokuvil, Jaffna this particular property bears a bit more significance than the other properties of the Group as Fox Jaffna is the 200-year-old ancestral home of the Rajandram family of CMG. The property was seized both by the LTTE and the Sri Lankan Army during the civil war and was returned to the family at the end of the conflict. Since then, the property was restored to its original form; the courtyard main house hosts 4 main heritage superior rooms and the remaining expanse of the property hosts 24 deluxe rooms in 4 roomed villas separated into 6 blocks. The property also has a pool and green, lush garden space and in the early hours of the morning, you can witness bridal parties in vibrant colours make use of the space for their wedding shoots.
In a ground-level deluxe room of the David Paynter block, I’m warmly welcomed by a spaciously sunny room, artfully decorated by the works of David Paynter (Fox Jaffna is big on art I discover, but more on that later). The rooms are fully equipped with the necessary luxuries and amenities; Wi-Fi, cable TV, in-room safe, complimentary coffee and tea from their sister tea brand Jones, bathroom toiletries, and a mini-fridge. The resort also practices an anti-plastic policy and offers complimentary filtered water in glass bottles, and paper packaging, and enforces re-use policies. I spent the majority of my stay either exploring the area or indulging in the most delicious foods from the restaurant for hours so my room was occupied mostly for rest. Their big, comfy double bed was what I immediately made a beeline towards after a long day of exploring the area!
Jaffna Style Food
In no slight exaggeration, my time at the resort was mostly spent at the restaurant ‘Chef’. I spent hours at every meal and I ate portions beyond my usual style. The food at Fox Jaffna is simply phenomenal. Chef Balan Pushpendren, the said chef of ‘Chef’, had an agenda to ensure that I enjoy every delicacy from the northern cuisine and it was an agenda I could readily get by. “You had the crab yesterday, why don’t you try the prawn today?” he’d say, “You must try our mutton curry!” he’d remember while bringing what was already a feast for lunch.
And when the staff shared stories with me about how guests can’t handle the heat of famous Jaffna ‘Kool’ seafood soup, as a spice enthusiast with something to prove, I proceeded to ignore the chef’s warning of “careful, it is very, very hot” and insisted I try it out. It was, in fact, so incredibly spicy that I spent a few minutes chasing away hot tears and chugging thambili water. But hey, I tried it!
Food prepared in Jaffna style is an absolute treat. The Jaffna curry mix, a blend of 10 or more spices with intense flavour evoked by coriander, chilli, turmeric, cumin, fennel, and curry leaves, is the highlight of the cuisine together with the heavy use of tamarind. Though all curries are prepared to a thick consistency, the Jaffna style uses very little coconut milk, relying instead on the curry powder that often includes a mix of rice flour that thickens the curry while cooking. During my stay, I had Idli Dosa with red chilli coconut chutney for breakfast, Jaffna style crab curry with moringa leaves, tamarind brinjal curry, potato tempered, and Jaffna style mutton curry with bone for lunch, and poori with potato and masala and prawn curry with paneer rice for dinner. Desserts after meals included delicious in-season Karthokolmban mangoes and Rasa Valli Kilangu; a sweet dessert made from purple yam and jaggery topped off with cashew and raisin.
The Chef at Fox Jaffna is a popular restaurant even among those residing in the area as many come to dine in for lunch or dinner from their a la carte menu. In the future, Fox Jaffna hopes to kick off a Jaffna Street Food Festival during the weekends, and oh, how I wish I could hop over for the weekend!
Service & Hospitality
Experiencing Jaffna for the very first time, I had to rely a lot on the staff to help me decide what places to visit, the times, and how to get there. If you travel to Jaffna by train, you will either have to hire a vehicle to explore or opt to flag a tuk from the road. The staff tried their best contacting known tuk drivers from the area to help me plan my tour but as they were all busy, the staff was kind enough to help me flag a road tuk and negotiate the prices. I’m particularly thankful to the GM Shane VanHagt and staff Amith and Scotty who not only made my stay relaxing but also indulged my many questions!
Back to Colombo
My three-day ‘workcation’ came to an end when the train pulled into Colombo Fort at 8.10 pm. I return with more bags than what I left with – you must stop at the Jaffna Market to bring home some goodies. Jaffna left me feeling incredibly content; the travel was not at all too exhausting, and the comforts of the resort, the Jaffna cuisine, and the striking feeling of experiencing somewhere for the very first time were the mental and physical re-charge I needed. Sri Lanka is experiencing a difficult time and every industry, family, and person is feeling the effect. The hospitality industry, which used to be one of Sri Lanka’s most profitable industries, has taken a heavy toll over the last four years with the Easter Sunday Attacks, the pandemic, and now a currency-driven economic crisis. With foreign tourism at low and local tourism dwindling due to tightened purse strings and fuel issues; this industry which employs hundreds of thousands and supports other industries and livelihoods is doing its best to stay afloat. Hospitality groups like Fox Resorts are adapting with the times, offering solutions to locals who want to travel while ensuring minimum fuel waste on non-essential travel with their transport-inclusive packages.
If you are within the capacity to travel for leisure, I can only encourage you to travel locally in support to the industry and consider travel packages such as these that utilize public transport services that travel daily regardless over travelling in your private vehicles.
The Bunkers at Fox Jaffna
The Bunkers were a fascinating aspect of staying at Fox Jaffna. We are told that when the property was taken over by the LTTE when the Jaffna peninsula was under their control, three underground bunkers were dug out throughout the property as a safeguard from aerial bombings. When the government forces regained control of the peninsula, the property was then taken over by the army and the bunkers were used as the intelligence headquarters in the North. When the conflict ended and the property was returned to the original owners, one underground bunker was sealed off while the remaining two were restored and transformed into viewing galleries dedicated to the arts and history.
Fox Jaffna plays an ode to art in a big way. The Chairman of CMG is a well-known patron of the arts and Fox Jaffna pays homage to his love of arts at his ancestral home. The Bunker, an Art Gallery by Fox Resorts, contains a large repository of replicated artworks by the renowned ’43 Group of Sri Lanka and other 20th-century local artists. A stroll through The Bunker will showcase the works of Harry Peiris, George Keyt, Ivan Peries, Aubrey Collette, David Paynter, Donald Friend, Justin Deraniyagala, Lionel Wendt, and more.
The second underground bunker titled ‘The Vault’ is a history museum displaying information on the rich history of Jaffna and its most historical sites and artifacts. Most guests use this bunker to get an idea of the places to visit and educate themselves on the history and significance of each place.
Pictures by Kithsiri de Mel