Jewel in the tropics

After decades of turmoil, Sri Lanka has emerged as a serene oasis at the tip of the subcontinent. Tim Grey discovered that the locals are now welcoming visitors with open arms. Images by Tim Grey.

As the sun dipped behind the nearby range, the last light evaporating off the tea plantation, another, smaller illumination appeared. Dipping and swerving in the air around the verandah: a firefly. I cupped it a moment in my hand. It blinked away untroubled. 

Sri Lanka is similarly serene – which was the last thing I expected. Occasionally referred to as “The Jewel in India’s Ear”, to think of the island as a sub-continental offshoot is entirely unfair. Though colonised initially by the northern Indian Sinhalese, soon followed by the southern Tamil, Sri Lanka is very distinctly Sri Lankan. 

Despite its long, cruel and deeply divisive war, locals are hugely enthusiastic about the opportunities of peace. Instead of policing the capital, the standing army has built massive infrastructure projects, namely highways that, in some cases, cut travel times almost by four.

 

 

Colombo itself – not strictly the capital, but most travellers’ first port of call – has benefited most tangibly from this wave of renovation. Besides the rash of new hotels under construction along Galle Face Green, the army is shining up the city’s historic buildings, starting with the Dutch Hospital built in 1681. Only five years ago, the site was under heavy guard, but now boutiques and little bars nestle against the beginning of Sri Lanka’s nascent dining scene. Local photographer, Mark Forbes, who leads guided tours around Colombo, explained that the renovations have radically changed the city. 

“Five years ago, on a Sunday, it’d be completely dead, no one around,” he said. “There’s been tremendous development. I tell anyone, in three to four years, Colombo’s going to change.”

The city’s streets are by no means uncolourful: in Pettah, vendors sell triangular roti stuffed with spice; glazed buns with egg; lottery tickets; short, sweet bananas and lilac aubergines. Drivers hassle you (politely) to climb aboard their tuk-tuks, which proudly bear names like “The Jolly Boy Express”. But everything’s neat as a pin – even the stray cigarette butt would be unspeakably out of place.

Off the street, Colombo’s even more refined. Our tour with Abercrombie & Kent started at the Tintagel Paradise Road, an auspicious place to begin. Once the private residence of the country’s prime minister, Tintagel is now a 10-room boutique hotel. Roomy suites have private balconies looking out over the city’s chicer district, while the impressive marble lobby leads into a library, dining room and lap pool.

Nearby, The Gallery Café (also run by Paradise Road), is also historically significant as the former office of Geoffrey Bawa. The celebrated architect is foremost in the pantheon of Sri Lankan deities; the word “Bawa” is uttered in hushed reverence all over the country. The Gallery Café gives ample explanation for his high acclaim – while modest in scale, the building fuses traditional with the modern, Sri Lankan with colonial and, most impressively, inside with out. Leafy atriums with koi-filled pools fold into intimate dining rooms without a border dividing the two. In the tropics, it makes perfect sense. Besides being a great space, The Gallery Café provides a safe vantage from which to wade into Sri Lankan cuisine. The kitchen’s signature dish is black pork curry – a favourite almost everywhere – though a tart prawn curry with savoury, pungent kangkong (a leafy green vegetable) is more individual.

 

 

Cuisine in Sri Lanka, mostly, means rice and curry – though what constitutes rice and curry is endlessly open to interpretation. At Ulagalla Resort’s restaurant, housed in a 150-year-old mansion, we’re presented with a panoply of bright, fragrant curries. Pittu – red rice and coconut steamed in a bamboo shoot – is served along with string hoppers, a kind of delicate, springy noodle, and a sweet, textural dhal. And no meal is complete without a slathering of spicy sambal, made from chillis, coconut and fresh onion.

Ulagalla itself is one of the island’s most interesting resorts. Built on the ancestral estate of Anuradhapura nobility, the 58-acre grounds feature 20 private villas overlooking a working rice paddy. The entire resort runs on renewable energy, with a large solar array providing enough electricity to use and sell back to the grid. Each of the modern villas is elegantly set out, with almost 360-degree views of the surrounding jungle – and a personal plunge pool to boot. And, the service is impeccable. “It’s a luxury upmarket boutique resort so we are very personalised in our service,” says Ulagalla’s front office manager, Ronny Ollsen. “From the time the guest comes into the resort our concept is like welcoming a person into our house. So we make sure that the guest is taken care of ‘til they leave the resort.”

The area surrounding the resort is as attractive as it is within. Although wild elephants will occasionally wander onto the property, the nearby Kaudulla and Minniraya National Parks are a safer bet. Our marvellous A&K guide, Ajith, bundled us into a Jeep and hurtled us into the park. Even before we arrived, a magnificent Asian elephant bull stood chewing greens by the side of the road. Once within, we were greeted by around 50 more. 

Only an hour in the other direction is Anuradhapura, the country’s ancient capital. Founded in the fourth century BC, Anuradhapura was the centre of Sri Lankan cultural life for well over 1,000 years. As the country is largely Buddhist, Anuradhapura remains a living temple to some of the religion’s oldest relics, which are carefully swept and venerated in the garden-like jungle. Besides some truly colossal stupas (including Jethavanaramaya, made from enough bricks to build a wall from London to Edinburgh), Anuradhapura houses the “the tree of enlightenment”, a cutting from the bodhi fig under which the Buddha was said to have achieved enlightenment. Planted in the third century BC, the bodhi is a real presence, with its throng of worshippers and limbs propped up by golden scaffolding. 

 

 

Also close by is Sigiriya, an enormous granite plug, thrust up from the volcanic earth about 2,500 million years ago. In the fifth century, King Kasyapa thought it’d be a great idea to build a fortress up on top. It’s not exactly easy to reach (which was probably Kasyapa’s point), but once you’ve trudged up the 1,200 steps, the view is phenomenal. Ajith directs us through a pair of monstrous lion’s paws framing the palatial ruins, which flow out over the top of the mountain like a Sri Lankan Machu Pichu. There are also some, shall we say, titillating frescos painted on the way up, which have captivated tourists for well over a thousand years.

Later that day, we arrive in the centre of the Cultural Triangle. Our guide knows exactly what’s been on the mind of some of our small group: sapphires. Ajith suggests playing it safe when it comes buying gems, as quality ranges from the world’s best to blue glass. Gemologist, Mr S B Basnayake, told me that in Sri Lanka, sapphire mining has been going on for almost 3,000 years – and they’re still using the same methods they did back then. “It’s good for the stone, this primitive method,” he told me. “It preserves the quality of the stone, otherwise if you use machinery there is vibration, and they can break, the quality can go down. So this is okay for Sri Lanka.”

After all this shopping, culture and climbing, however, one finds themselves a little parched. At Kandy House, a very stylishly-attired manor on the outskirts of the country’s last kingdom, a very appealing aperitif is on hand in the form of an arak sour, made from the local’s tipple of choice. Built in 1804 by the last chief minister, Kandy House has been very sympathetically restored by hotelier Tim Jacobson, who updated without damaging its traditional style. “I wanted to be as sensitive as possible, but as with a lot of these sort of buildings, I had to bring it up to date,” explained Jacobson. “Bathrooms and other fixtures are quite traditional, and all the furnishings have been bought in Sri Lanka, of various vintages – some Dutch and some more recent. I just wanted to create an ambiance that was more like staying in a home rather than a hotel.”

Similar sensitivity was shown in renovating the bungalows at Ceylon Tea Trails, a suite of four converted residences set within the working tea plantation. Perhaps the most iconic boutique hotel in the country, Tea Trails lives up to its reputation. With only four to six rooms, each residence has its own personal butler and chef. But, while the service is spectacular, it’s nothing on the view out over Hatton, brightly-coloured pluckers in the distance, picking their way through the tea leaves.  

Our journey ended, as many travellers’ do, at the exquisite Amangalla in Galle Fort. A UNESCO protected site, the hotel is set inside a 17th-century Dutch fort, which mercifully protected it from the devastating 2004 tsunami. Refurbished in 2002, the hotel maintains all the original tiling, floorboards and furniture from its previous incarnation, which dates as far back as 1684. “We have to renovate quite strategically, in phases,” said Amangalla’s general manager, Kavita Faiella. “The hotel was redone by Kerry Hill architects, and it took seven years, five of which were spent researching and planning. It was a massive job.”

The results are genuinely stunning. With the afternoon sun filtering onto the verandah, a silver table set jostling with lemon-curd tarts, cucumber sandwiches and scones, and a gin and tonic in hand, one has to admit that for all their failings, the colonials knew how to relax. 

In mid-May, the Amangalla was all but deserted; which was strange, really, because an “off-season” shouldn’t strictly exist. Despite the occasional 2pm soaking, the weather was roundly balmy, and sightseeing at even the most popular sites was roundly civilised. But there’s no doubt that in a few years time, Sri Lanka will be at the top of travel lists world over. 

That one intangible, but essential element to a perfect trip is the people one meets, and in Sri Lanka the hospitality is exceptional. Endlessly obliging, polite and engaging, the locals couldn’t make a visitor feel more welcome. Of course, our guide’s skills and contacts eased interactions immeasurably, giving us a glimpse of what life’s like for an insider of Sri Lanka. And it’s really something special; for a moment in time, Sri Lanka’s a treasure of perfectly-preserved art and culture, an unspoiled wilderness and an evolving, cosmopolitan country. If you go now, you might hold a little of that lightning in your hand for an instant.

 

That one intangible, but essential element to a perfect trip is the people one meets, and in Sri Lanka the hospitality is exceptional. Endlessly obliging, polite and engaging, the locals couldn’t make a visitor feel more welcome. 

The tour

Abercrombie & Kent offers a number of tours through Sri Lanka. The 13-day Enchanted Sri Lanka private journey is available for departures any day and is priced from A$5,345 per person twin share. Rates include accommodation, transfers, guide and some meals. abercrombiekent.com.au

Getting there

Thai Airways International flies from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth to Sri Lanka via Bangkok daily. Return economy fares are priced from A$1,282 and business class fares (not available on the Bangkok to Colombo leg) from A$3,589. Flight time is from 10 hours plus stopover. thaiairways.com.au

 

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Weather to go

Sri Lanka’s weather greatly varies according to the region. Between December and March, the Hill Country as well as the west and south coasts are dry and warm. The east coast experiences the best weather between April and September, while the rest of country experiences monsoon season. The east sees monsoon season between October and January. The ‘Cultural Triangle’ is located within the ‘dry zone,’ and only sees rainfall in November and December. The rest of the year is warm and dry, though June and July may see hot, strong winds. 

 

Best places to stay

Coming soon.

 
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