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.

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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.

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