Luxurious boutique lodgings that echo Sri Lanka’s colonial past provide blissful bases from which to explore the country’s rich history, culture and wildlife, writes Howard Shaw.
A journey from the tea plantations of Hill Country through wildlife-rich national parks to the coast and Colombo
Tendrils of mist cling to the tea-shrouded mountains of Sri Lanka’s Hill Country. It is four o’clock, time for tea and cake on the stone-paved verandah of Ashburnham Estate, the erstwhile homestead of this working plantation. Today it is a six-bedroom boutique hotel that invites guests to relive the refinement of a bygone era. As we nibble on scones with cream and sip on tea grown on the estate, we imagine what life might have been like for the Englishman who came to seek his fortune here in the 1930s. Ashburnham Estate provides a fascinating glimpse into this life of privilege, from its airy interiors to its cooking classes.
On a tour of the tea plantation, we see how the leaves are gathered by hand to ensure the highest quality. We also pay a visit to the tea factory down the road to learn about the next stage in the process: drying and fermentation.
Historic wonders of Kandy
Ashburnham Estate, just over an hour outside Kandy, makes a perfect base to explore the Central Highlands region. Kandy is a beautiful city with a lake at its heart, home to the Sacred Temple of the Tooth. We pause at the 16th-century temple during a downpour, adding our humble offering of flowers to Buddha.
When the weather clears, we take a day trip out to Sigiriya, the World Heritage-listed remains of an ancient civilisation marked by a rock fortress that rises 200 metres above the surrounding rainforest.
Climbing Sigiriya is not for the fainthearted, taking about two-and-a-half hours to reach the top via staircases embedded into the rock face.
Frescos once covered the entirety of the western and northern rock faces, and their beauty has been recorded in graffiti dating back to the seventh century on the Mirror Wall.
While staying near Kandy, we also pay a visit to the Golden Temple of Dambulla, a sacred cave monastery known for its 150-plus Buddha statues and murals spread across five caves.
Railway through the clouds
Throughout our journey, we are accompanied by Ethan, our driver from Ceylon Escapes, but we decide to abandon him briefly for a train journey said to rival the Trans-Siberian in its beauty. There are many places to embark and disembark during the six-hour journey between Kandy and Ella, so we choose to start at the quaint town of Nuwara Eliya, known as Little England for its nostalgic features, such as a red post box.
Bookings in the air-conditioned firstclass carriage open 30 days before departure and sell out quickly. To make matters more difficult, you need either a local phone number or to go to the ticket counter in person to book. Ethan manages to secure us secondclass tickets with seats, allowing us to enjoy the popular journey in comfort.
Once we set off from Nuwara, we see why this route has been named one of the world’s most scenic train journeys. The views of the mountains are spectacular, and we pass waterfalls, rice paddies and lush tea plantations as we climb the hills before descending into Ella three-and-a-half hours later.
Wildlife on the doorstep
No visit to Sri Lanka would be complete without venturing out in search of wildlife. When we visit, the nation’s most popular national park, Yala, is closed for the leopard-breeding season (early September to late October), but a drive through nearby Lunugamvehera National Park brings us face to face with elephants, water buffalo, crocodiles, monitor lizards, monkeys and peacocks.
We also spot a wild boar and a mongoose on the 1.5-kilometre-long unsealed driveway into Jetwing Yala. The five-star resort, set among the sand dunes of the southern coast, offers an ideal location for exploring the surrounding national parks, with a dip in the infinity pool and a massage ritual a must after a morning of game drives.
A coastal journey
From Yala, our travels take us along the southwest coast, skirting beautiful beaches and charming villages. We pause for two nights at Anantara Peace Haven Tangalle Resort – a tranquil place to wander the gardens, linger beside the pool and learn to catch a break with Tropicsurf – before continuing on to the old Dutch port of Galle. The 17th-century fort is a must-see, filled with stories of Sri Lanka’s complex colonial history. The town itself has an exotic feel, with lanes lined with boutiques, cafes and mansions converted into hotels and museums.
In Kalutara, a city where the Kalu Ganga River meets the Indian Ocean, we discover a peaceful tropical escape. This estuary produces beautiful sunsets, which we admire from the poolside bar of Anantara Kalutara Resort, a retreat that completes one of the final projects undertaken by Sri Lanka’s preeminent architect, Geoffrey Bawa, before his passing. Visitors can visit his nearby country estate, Lunuganga, and spend a few hours strolling the terraced gardens.
Our trip is bookended by historic Colombo, a fascinating mix of cosmopolitan chaos and colonial heritage, including the beautifully restored Galle Face Hotel. Built in 1864, it recalls the grandeur of the 19th century, complete with croquet, afternoon tea on the verandah and a collection of Heritage Suites where the hotel’s most illustrious guests — authors, statesmen and royalty among them — once resided. A stay here makes you feel not only a part of Sri Lanka’s living history but also of the country’s exciting future.