The first time Julian and I visited the tea growing island of Sri Lanka over 20 years ago, we drove from the airport to the capital, Colombo, in the thick of night down dusty roads, our taxi driver pushing his rickety car to the limit and almost (but not quite) missing the oncoming traffic as he weaved in and out. On our most recent visit the arrival was a far more relaxed affair. Our VIP meet and greet, straight off our flight, was by a rather pleasant airport official with a signboard: Mrs Ann Lesley and Mr Julian Peter. She efficiently whisked us through the form filling at immigration and, whilst we sat in the VIP lounge having our first cup of Sri Lankan tea, she collected our luggage and cleared it through security. All we had to do was slip out of the back door in to our waiting car and on to the new (Chinese funded) bypass for a smooth journey to Colombo.
People often think of Sri Lanka in the same way as India - noisy, chaotic, and a complete assault on the senses. It’s not. Sri Lanka has its own personality and a really lovely easy going island mentality with sweet, generous and welcoming people. You do have to go with the flow a bit since the island is still developing and whilst some parts of the country are sophisticated, others are less so. But you will be enchanted by Sri Lanka and surprised with the variety on offer for such a small island: dramatic landscapes, ancient temples, historic hill towns with reminders of the British Colonial era, verdant tea plantations, abundant wildlife, stunning beaches and some rather special places to stay.
I (accompanied by Julian as la Concordia’s official photographer) was back in Sri Lanka to see a raft of new hotel openings and also test some new experiences. Here are the highlights of my latest trip:
On The Road
The best way to see the island is to circumnavigate it. Planes, trains and automobiles are all possible, but travelling by road with your own private driver (who stays with you throughout your trip) is a great way to see the raw and untouched side to the island. We looked forward to the smiley face of our driver (Udaya) each morning and his handshake: “Good morning Madam, good morning Sir”. Outside of the towns with their tooting tuk-tuks you drive through the dreamiest landscapes of palm tree backed paddy fields and lakes full of stunning lotus flowers, egrets and cormorants. Some of the longer journeys can now be done by seaplane, which is a thrilling little addition to your trip.
(Not Even) 24 hours in Colombo
Colombo has changed over the years. Once a place I’d previously advise people to miss, thanks to some sensitive development I was pleasantly surprised to find that spending our first night in this bustling seaside capital was a great way to get over our long-haul flight. There are some smart boutique hotels housed in beautiful mansions, a stone’s throw from the eclectic Sri Gangarama Temple (part place of worship, part antiques centre) and the beautiful Seema Malakaya meditation centre, which sits serenely on Beira Lake and was designed by the famous Sri Lanka architect, Geoffrey Bawa (you’ll get to see a lot of his work around the island).
A private walking tour of the city with a local who can bring it to life is a great way to get a sense of Colombo’s heritage; discover the maze of streets at the bustling Pettah market and wander the Fort area replete with its colonial buildings. Or maybe join the locals in a stroll along Galle Face Green where friends meet for a chat, children fly kites and families take dinner at one of the many food stalls.
Discovering Ancient Civilisations
The Cultural Triangle in the northern plains is where you’ll find most of Sri Lanka’s historical sites, many of them UNESCO protected. On previous trips, Julian and I have cycled round the beautiful and well preserved 12th century ruins of Polonnaruwa, with its huge reclining stone Buddha, and climbed Sigiriya Rock, a great fortress which soars 200m up out of the jungle and comes with stunning panoramic views from the top.
On this trip we headed further north to the ancient city of Anuradhapura: The first Buddhist capital of Sri Lanka, it remains a devout holy site centred round the sacred Bodhi Tree, under which it is believed Buddha gained enlightenment. We again took to two wheels to see the many bell-shaped stupas (some of them gleaming white whilst others have faded to overgrown, sun-baked brick) and also getting off the beaten track visiting areas inaccessible by car or tuk-tuk.
We also made a return visit to Dambulla, one of my favourite historical sites, and the largest and best-preserved rock cave temple complex in Sri Lanka - deep inside you’ll find over 150 colourfully painted statues, images and impressive murals, many dating back to the first century.
Kandy is the geographical, cultural and religious heart of Sri Lanka. Built around a lake and surrounded by lush green hills, it’s a pleasant place to stop before taking the train to the Hill Country. You feel obliged to visit the Dalada Maligawa (aka Temple of the Tooth), as it houses Sri Lanka’s most important religious relic, the sacred tooth of Buddha, but you can’t actually see it and, call me a heathen, there are more interesting temples in Sri Lanka. We preferred strolling around the Royal Botanical Gardens in the company of an expert in Botany who made our visit incredibly interesting, filling us with lots of knowledge about the plants but also with little side stories about his life in Sri Lanka.
But the real highlight of our trip to Kandy was definitely a stay at the wonderful Kandy House in the leafy outskirts of the city. Once the private residence of the Chief Minister of Kandy, the striking 200 year old “Walauwa”, or Manor House”, has been sensitivity renovated into a stylish nine room boutique hotel with wrap around fan cooled verandas, antiques, impeccable friendly service and delicious food. Whiling away an afternoon by the infinity pool, reading a book and having a snooze was sublime and we felt totally privileged to stay in such a property.
From Kandy we took the scenic train journey into the hills near Hatton, where the landscape is one of misty lakes, tranquil woods and vividly coloured tea plantations that seem to wind over almost every inch of the slopes. Here, we experienced one of the most special moments of our trip, a stay at Tea Trails, a collection of five former tea planters’ bungalows dotted around the valley of a working plantation. Originally built during the days of the Raj for British tea estate mangers (whose names grace the bedroom doors), they have been sensitively restored and brought up to date (each with its own character) but still give you a sense of what colonial life must have felt like, including your welcoming Butler and other fabulous staff who look after you (a little too) well. We stayed at Castlereagh with its shimmering lake view and Norwood which is higher in the hills and totally surrounded by emerald green tea bushes.
As you would expect, most things revolve around tea: “Bed tea” is brought to your room as a gentle wake-up call; you can order a detoxifying green tea bath; indulge in traditional Afternoon Tea (well, it had to be done and the Battenberg was real nostalgia; and even dinner comes with a tea shot.
We took a Tea Factory Tour (an interesting insight into the process from plant to pot), strolled pristine trials through immaculate tea gardens studying the steady work of the Tamil tea pickers and just relaxed taking in the insanely stunning views you just can’t seem to take your eyes off.
Sri Lanka is amongst the most bio-diverse countries in the world and it certainly didn’t disappoint. There are herds of Indian elephants that still roam free in some of the national parks and it’s not uncommon to see one ambling along the road, like we did.
As for birds, now I’m not one for twitching but with over 200 different species, even I was impressed by some of the stunning feathered friends we saw from the everyday vibrant green bee catcher, to kingfishers, painted storks and the Malabar Pied Hornbill.
Yala National Park, the second largest of Sri Lanka’s 20 national parks, is the best place to spot the endangered leopard, which unfortunately was a little too illusive for us, albeit we were (apparently) very unlucky. However, we did get a brief sighting of the even rarer sloth bear, which more than made up for the lack of leopards.
If you want to do a proper safari in a tented camp, Noel Rodrigo’s Leopard Safaris is the best. Noel is passionate about showing you the wildlife whilst avoiding the crowds as much as possible - unfortunately Yala is very popular and can heave with jeeps in certain locations. Although simple, the tents (imported from South Africa) come with bucket showers, flushing toilets, king size beds and fans. Be warned, it can get very hot at night if you’re not lucky enough to snag the only air conditioned tent. But, it’s a wonderful experience where you are treated like part of the family, and soon get to know your fellow safari guests either in the open air lounge in between safaris (whilst children are taken on guided walks with one of the naturalists) or at the communal dining table where the food served was some of the best we had in the whole of Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka is blessed with a wonderful coastline. The caramel sand beaches backed by overhanging palm trees have a rugged, wild beauty so if you’re looking for white sands and flat as pancake seas you will need to combine Sri Lanka with the Maldives, which is very doable. The thing about Sri Lanka’s coastline is its variety: in the south sheltered bays provide safe swimming (but you do need to pick wisely as some have strong currents), the east offers mile upon mile of empty sand to stroll, there are gentle swells perfect for surfing and places where you’ll be able witness day-to-day Sri Lankan life as the fishermen, in their colourful boats, bring in the day’s catch.
Two of my favourite beach resorts are Amanwella in Tangalle and Cape Weligama in the town of the same name. Both are completely different in design but totally luxurious. Amanwella is very Asian-zen with sleek lines, symmetry, neutral tones and a complete air of low-key serenity. It’s set on a trio of terraces, overlooking an 800m crescent beach and backed by a grove of towering coconut palms, with each of the 30 (identical) rooms having terraces with uninterrupted sea views. In fact, from almost anywhere in the resort a slither of that bright turquoise sea is never out of sight. Whilst Cape Weligama is a little more showy; its 40 free-standing villas, which are dotted around meticulous landscaped gardens to reflect a traditional Sri Lankan village, come with contemporary interiors, cleverly balancing colonial influences with luxurious finishes, and a (very upmarket) homely feel. The position of the resort is stunning, on a headland jutting out to sea, with beaches on both sides, and the most wonderful views from the crescent shaped infinity “Moon” pool. The service is impeccable and I just wish I could have taken my personal Butler (Amal) home with me!
A perfect end to this trip to Sri Lanka was a couple of nights in the fortified city of Galle Fort. This UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the best preserved colonial sea fortress in Asia, has blossomed into a cool little place. Check-in for more on glorious Galle next month.
Sri Lanka really is waiting to be discovered and is perfect for families and couples alike. If you’d like some more information on visiting this wonderful country, or would like me to put together a totally bespoke Sri Lankan itinerary for you, then please do get in touch.