August 31, 2021

Smitten with Sri Lanka

With international travel to Sri Lanka now an absolute possibility, Rebecca Recommends took a little trip down memory lane to share their experiences of travelling across this incredible country in anticipation of a long-awaited return.

Now, sit back, perhaps with a cup of Ceylon tea, and read on for the many highlights of their serendipitous stay in Sri Lanka.

Welcome to Sri Lanka

True to its Arab name, “Serendib,” Sri Lanka is undoubtedly a land of serendipity. Not a day went by that we weren’t pleasantly surprised by a new cultural discovery, a welcoming local resident, a fabulous new hotel or another jaw-dropping vista. Each delightful day on this intimate, teardrop-shaped atoll – the southernmost point of mainland Asia – outdid the previous day. Marco Polo once declared Sri Lanka “the finest island of its size in the world,” and it didn’t take long for our group to recognise its paradisiacal qualities. We began in Colombo, with an insightful tour of this fascinating capital city. We followed in the footsteps of the original Portuguese, Dutch and British traders, who all left their mark here in the form of various churches, monuments, names, religions, dress and culinary traditions. We took an hour to shop for local sapphires and gemstones, then made our way to dinner at the iconic Gallery Café – once the office of Sri Lanka’s famous son and celebrated architect Geoffrey Bawa.

Next morning, we boarded the adorably named Cinnamon Air flight for our transfer to Sigiriya, set in the country’s Cultural Zone and home to Sri Lanka’s ancient kingdoms. First stop: Polonnaruwa, the medieval city that rose to fame as a capital between the 10 th and 12 th century. Likened to Angkor Wat, the ancient setting includes an insightful museum, Royal Palace, Audience Hall, Quadrangle and the spectacular Gal Vihare complex, where we got a taste of Sri Lanka’s past glory.

Anticipation ran high as we embarked early the next morning for World Heritage Site Sigiriya, originally a hermitage for Buddhist monks until it became a bastion and palace in the sky for scorned royal son King Kashyapa, who initially took refuge there. We made our way to the massive 200-meter-high rock plateau. About 1,200 steps lead to the summit, taking you past 1,500-year-old frescoes of beautiful maidens, the mirror wall and ancient graffiti. The reward is the yielding, panoramic view of the surrounding jungle, Sigiriya villages and being a few calories lighter.

It should be noted that for those for whom the climb is too taxing physically, the view is just as beautiful from ground level and you can walk the geometrically laid water gardens, ponds, canals, alleyways and fountains. The freshly cut coconuts and ice-cold towels were a much-welcomed surprise from our Ventours team when we finished the descent.

Afternoon brought us to World Heritage Site Dambulla, a vast, isolated rock mass known for its richly painted cave temples and more than 2,000-year-old frescoes depicting Buddha’s life and Sinhalese history – all explained in detail by our insightful guide, Walter. The colossal figure of a recumbent Buddha carved out of the living rock and some 15 meters long is a highlight.

To end our afternoon, we enjoyed a unique visit to nearby Diyabubula, “meaning bubbling fountain,” an art and jungle hideaway designed by the talented artist, Laki Senanayake. We enjoyed an audience with
the artist over an intimate cup of tea and local savories (much welcomed after having been caught in an incredible electric storm and torrential first rains of the monsoon season). We took in the surprising creations – sculptures, paintings, metal work – mostly animals. His passion is birds, and the inspiration for his work is all around him in this gently touched piece of jungle.

Time for Tea

Our next destination was Ceylon Tea Trails, a two-and-a-half-hour, picturesque train ride from Kandy to the hillside town of Hatton. The train ascends along winding tracks, past Devon & St. Clair waterfalls, often known as “the little Niagara of Sri Lanka” into the home of the famed Ceylon tea, with its rolling hills, carpets of velvety green plantations, gushing streams and tumbling waterfalls.

This is truly a place like no other. The brochures and videos we studied prior to departure could not adequately prepare us for how breathtakingly beautiful the bungalows are. Our first stop was Tea Trails Tientsin Bungalow for an exclusive tea-tasting session with the resident planter, and an afternoon cream tea. We learned how to taste and appreciate the unique flavor profiles that differentiate tea varieties – all while eating up our hosts incredible experience, knowledge and tongue-in-cheek wit. Every staff member we met exuded gentle warmth and extreme professionalism.

The Norwood and Summerville Bungalows reserved for our stay oozed sophisticated charm of bygone times. Summerville presides proudly over the lakeside and offers five suites, some of which open to private gardens – the rooms may be taken individually or as a group to enjoy the personal atmosphere of the home. Norwood is equally as delightful, commanding a view of the eastern end of the Bogawantalawa valley and in the shelter of a handsome stand of bamboo. A billiard room, croquet lawn and large swimming pool complement six guest rooms and oversized suites.

The second day in tea country meant a visit to Dunkeld Tea Factory, where we observed first-hand the age-old tea-making process, from plucking to converting, with century-old machinery. We walked through the scenic tea fields, a maze of wondrous pathways that snake between tea gardens, patches of forest home to local wildlife (including leopards!) and the home gardens of planter families – accompanied by a qualified naturalist, who was able to point out the tracks of wildlife that had traversed the trails just the night before and a unique portfolio of hill country birdlife.

Our stroll concluded at a pretty spot by the hillside, where we enjoyed a delicious Planter’s Lunch, a plusher, al fresco ode to the traditional picnics planters of the past would carry while conducting field inspections on foot. A glass of Sauvignon Blanc in hand, we marveled at the rolling tea fields in the distance, punctuated by jagged mountain tops, and glassy Castlereagh Lake.

Before returning to our respective bungalows, we had a peek at the newest addition to Tea Trails, Dunkeld Bungalow, poised high above Castlereagh Lake with spectacular views of the Great Western mountain range (particularly from the infinity-edge swimming pool). There’s a secluded one-bedroom Owner’s Cottage available, hidden privately amidst the tea fields.

In Search of Leopards

Just like that, we board our seaplane from the private jetty of the Summerville Bungalow to take a scenic 45-minute flight to Weerawila. With a short onward drive to Yala National Park, home to the highest density of leopard in Asia and innumerable wildlife. Our home for two nights was Wild Coast Tented Lodge, right on the edge of the park along the dramatic rugged beach with its distinctive huge rock formations.

The tented “cocoon” suites, with views of the jungle, were unique and hugely satisfying. Each private cocoon features a four-poster, king-size bed, a freestanding and handmade copper bathtub and outdoor viewing deck for prime wildlife and birdlife views (four very special cocoons offer a private swimming pool).

First up, a culinary experience hosted by the lodge’s Head Chef to introduce us to the key components of Sri Lankan cuisine. This fun, hands-on session taught us about the island’s favorite ingredients, spice combinations and techniques, plus the curries were some of my favorite on the trip. That evening we enjoyed a convivial dinner sharing stories under the light-stained sky of a full moon.

A sunrise beach walk with one of the naturalists started the next morning, before heading into the jungle – our destination was Block V of Yala National Park, about an hour and a half’s drive from the lodge (depending on the season one visits, varying “blocks” of the national park are open to visitors). Arriving in Block V, we were told that this area of the park is typically less crowded than others, yet it offers equal if not more abundant game viewing. The ecology here is lusher and boasts a road network that exposes visitors to riverine forests with dark and mysterious canopies, open areas and grasslands, all surrounding a vast irrigation reservoir. We walked in the company of a park official and heard an interesting narrative on the art of tracking – interpreting animal behavior and stories by examining their spoor (footprints or droppings). During an afternoon game drive, we learned more about the nuances of the area’s wildlife, from the tiniest of critters to the larger and more elusive felines and pachyderms.

To the Cape

From Wild Coast Lodge, we drove three hours along the stunning coastline to Cape Weligama, a hilltop resort with 270-degree panoramic views of the Indian Ocean. The resort is designed to emulate a typical Sri Lankan village with its individual villas, restaurants and bars all in local style. After dreamy treatments at the Sanctuary Spa, we were wined and dined at Tableau, a meal organized by the resort’s Experience Curator. A five-course dinner, prepared by the Cape’s top chef, was served in a private dining room, where a large U-shaped table allowed all diners a front-row view of the chef’s cooking and presentation.

One of our group’s favorite excursions was to Top House, a beautiful working cinnamon estate on 25 acres producing true Ceylon Cinnamon, and very close to Cape Weligama. We learned about the spice’s history and witnessed first-hand the planting, harvesting, peeling and preparation of quills, as well as the distillation of fine cinnamon oil using age-old techniques refined by modern technology. The farming process is eco-friendly and perfectly self-sustaining, with every part of the plant used or recycled, leading to a completely natural and health-giving product. Owner Rupert and his wife joined us for a cup of tea after sharing with us the estates steeply sloped growing fields, houses where the hard work takes place and their own gorgeous home that sits atop a hill overlooking the jungle and Indian Ocean.

The second part of our immersive Sri Lankan day found us at the ancient trading post of Galle, said to be the famous Tarshish of the Bible. This award-winning World Heritage fortified township was an essential port of call for Chinese, Persian, Arab and Indian traders. Marco Polo landed here in 1299 AD, followed by the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British. Today, government offices remain in use and the community bustles with daily life – a living, breathing town, hidden within the fortified walls of an ancient, maritime citadel.

Our host – a fifth-generation descendant of one of the first gem dealers in Galle Fort – led us on foot through the fort, overflowing with landmarks, past the Dutch church, the governor’s house, the spice warehouses, the court square, the Kacheri or Town Hall, the lighthouse and the ramparts. Streets lead to cricket fields and a variety of exclusive boutique shops to explore. We bumped into actual village residents, with whom our host could interact, and met a couple of the shyer residents (definitely something that simply wouldn’t happen on a more commercial tour).

Walking the ramparts at sunset was magical, watching the light softening over the ocean, and feeling a part of the local community, all the while soaking up the vibe of a historical community that is constantly evolving. Thus ended our Sri Lankan adventure, yet as sad as we were to say goodbye, it is with excitement that we share the allure and authenticity of this special nation with you. Rebecca was fortunate enough to travel with a fine group of travel advisors in the capable hands of Ventours and Resplendent Ceylon.

When the participants were asked to share their lessons learned and highlights of the trip, we heard these glowing responses:

“The diversity of activities, the diversity of accommodations, the geography of Sri Lanka and the amazing food!”

“Sri Lanka is a land like no other and a country of happy people! The people we met during our travel were so wonderful, and eager to share their small but beautiful country with us. This journey had a very personal effect on me, and after visiting Sri Lanka, my new motto in life is: If you want to be happy – be!”

“Sri Lanka is not third world. Low income is not relative to pride. The people of Sri Lanka are truly interested and sincere in being helpful. There are so many various ways to travel between the different destinations (seaplane, train, plane, vehicle …).

“The quality of Walter’s guiding and the consistency of the support team. If there were glitches, it was not a part of my reality. That’s the sign of a very good operator. Also, the uniqueness and genuineness of some of the experiences: Cinnamon Farm at Cape Weligama, stop at the spice garden, adventure of the elephant washing.”

“A few personal favorites: our farmers’ lunch at the Priyamali Gedara, climbing Sigiriya World Heritage site, staying at Tea Trails, the Cape Cinnamon experience at Top House and a guided mountain bike tour from Cape Weligama.”