TURN OVER A NEW LEAF

Find out why Sri Lanka is be­com­ing ev­ery­one’s cup of tea

The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) - Escape - - COVER STORY - MAL CHENU

Vene­tian ad­ven­turer Marco Polo de­scribed Sri Lanka as “the finest is­land of its size in all the world”. Sure, that was in the 13th cen­tury and young Marco hadn’t seen Tas­ma­nia but the myr­iad won­ders of this trop­i­cal nou­veau-par­adise are as var­ied and ex­otic as the scents in the spice gar­dens of Matale and Ke­galle. In short, Sri Lanka is a pot­pourri of un­pre­dictable plea­sures.

Once a fly­over lo­ca­tion, es­chewed by trav­ellers for years be­cause of civil war, Sri Lanka is fast emerg­ing from its tra­vails, post­ing sharp rises in tourism since the 26-year con­flict ended in 2009. And Aus­tralians are catch­ing on, find­ing Sri Lanka is so much more than the place where our tea comes from and our crick­eters are bam­boo­zled by mys­ti­cal slow bowl­ing.

Sri Lanka is a mix of nat­u­ral and cul­tural mar­vels, pris­tine beaches, mil­len­nia-old her­itage sites, mul­ti­cul­tural fes­ti­vals and colour­ful re­li­gious cel­e­bra­tions. Tea plan­ta­tions glis­ten in the sun af­ter a shower and the food is en­livened by lib­eral sprin­klings of car­damom, nut­meg, mace, pep­pers and turmeric. Plus ele­phants and leop­ards and sloth bears, oh my!

As Kathy Mil­lett of Trav­elMan­agers puts it: “Sri Lanka gently un­folds its trea­sures from hill sta­tions to sandy beaches in a quiet, unas­sum­ing man­ner. It’s easy to get around, the food is glo­ri­ous and the scenery spec­tac­u­lar. Eas­ily ac­cessed from Aus­tralia, Sri Lanka is great value for money and the lo­cals are de­lighted to wel­come you.”

HIS­TORY AND CUL­TURE

Sri Lanka’s cul­tural his­tory ex­tends back 3000 years and the coun­try is a her­itage trea­sure trove, es­pe­cially around the sa­cred cities of Anu­rad­ha­pura and Polon­naruwa. One of Sri Lanka’s most ex­tra­or­di­nary sites is Si­giriya – aka Lion Rock – an an­cient rock fortress near Dam­bulla. Dom­i­nated by a rock col­umn that tow­ers 200m above the sur­round­ing jun­gle, the site also boasts unique fres­coes, in­scrip­tions and po­ems dat­ing from the eighth cen­tury and a highly pol­ished white plas­ter “mir­ror wall”. The nearby Dam­bulla cave tem­ple com­plex holds about 150 Bud­dha stat­ues and paint­ings, and swal­lows swoop at the en­trance at dusk.

“Si­giriya is a UNESCO World Her­itage site fea­tur­ing ex­ten­sive gar­dens, foun­tains and lakes and is con­sid­ered to be the old­est land­scaped gar­den in the world,” says Al­i­son Mead, gen­eral man­ager, Col­lette Aus­tralia. “Trav­ellers can as­cend the peak and ex­plore the ru­ins of this an­cient city.”

From Jaffna in the north to the for­ti­fied city of Galle in the south, you’ll find be­jew­elled tem­ples and colo­nial forts to ex­plore. Lucy Jack­son, a di­rec­tor at Light­foot Travel, rec­om­mends a tour of Galle Fort (ask for a guide called Shan­jei) as well as check­ing out the lesser-known and In­dian-in­flu­enced far north, where colour­ful saris and Hindu tem­ples rep­re­sent the re­gion’s unique char­ac­ter. “Head north (on the new train) to the un­charted ter­ri­to­ries of Jaffna. Wan­der the Por­tuguese-built fort, visit Delft Is­land and ex­plore some of the old­est shrines in Sri Lanka,” sug­gests Lucy.

NA­TURE

Sri Lanka is an is­land of tremen­dous topo­graph­i­cal diver­sity, from the beaches, wet­lands and rivers to the cool air, tow­er­ing wa­ter­falls and lush, green tea fields in the misty cen­tral high­lands and north cen­tral Val­ley of the Kings.

Ele­phants are syn­ony­mous with Sri Lanka, and it is pos­si­ble to in­ter­act with them eth­i­cally. Al­i­son Mead rec­om­mends a trip to the Pin­nawala Ele­phant Or­phan­age.

“At Pin­nawala, guests can im­merse them­selves in the iconic wildlife of Sri Lanka. The or­phan­age cares for aban­doned and wounded ele­phants of all ages and guests can ob­serve the spe­cial in­ter­ac­tion with their han­dlers,” she says.

You’ll also find the gen­tle gi­ants en masse – and lots more wildlife – in the coun­try’s 17 na­tional parks with ecosys­tems rang­ing from moist mon­soon forests to fresh­wa­ter and marine wet­lands, sa­van­nah coun­try and high­lands.

The best time to visit is when the wa­ter lev­els are low, which brings the an­i­mals into the open. In the east of the coun­try, this is gen­er­ally between Fe­bru­ary and July, and in the west, May to Oc­to­ber.

Take a jeep sa­fari at Min­ner­iya Na­tional Park in the north cen­tral plains and see ele­phants, frogs, but­ter­flies and birds, in­clud­ing thou­sands of cor­morants div­ing for fish. Yala Na­tional Park, where the jun­gle meets the ocean on the south­east coast, was a hunt­ing ground dur­ing Bri­tish rule and is now home to herds of ele­phants, leop­ards, buf­falo, deer, croc­o­diles and sloth bears. And a new luxe glamping ac­com­mo­da­tion, Wild Coast Tented Lodge, a sa­fari camp of co­coon-style suites, opened in Novem­ber.

BEACHES

Well-known for its pure strips of white sand, warm, clear wa­ter and palm trees, Sri Lanka also has the per­fect weather for a beach hol­i­day. If it’s rain­ing on one coast, it’s prob­a­bly sunny on the other (See How’s The Weather?).

From re­laxed and sparse to cel­e­bra­tory and fun, there’s a beach for all tastes and ev­ery wa­ter sport, in­clud­ing wind­surf­ing, kayak­ing, yacht­ing, wa­ter ski­ing, snorkelling, scuba, and es­pe­cially surf­ing.

The south­ern and south­west­ern beaches are the most pop­u­lar. Unawatuna and Mirissa are ideal for swim­ming and snorkelling, while scuba en­thu­si­asts should head to Hikkaduwa and its co­ral sanc­tu­ary just off­shore. Surfers will love the waves at Mirissa and Weligama. The south­west is also where you’ll find most of the re­sorts and the chic ho­tels. TripAd­viser rat­ings sug­gest you can’t go wrong at Cin­na­mon Grand Colombo in the cap­i­tal, The Blue Wa­ter in Wad­duwa, Club Ho­tel Dol­phin in Waikkal and Avani Ben­tota Re­sort & Spa.

If you pre­fer “undis­cov­ered” and rus­tic, the east coast beaches at Up­pu­veli, Nilaveli, Pasiku­dah and Arugam Bay are per­fect for lovers of long right-han­ders, gnarly hol­low tubes and fresh seafood.

TEA TIME

Many of the fra­grant tea plan­ta­tions still col­lect and pack­age tea us­ing tra­di­tional 19th cen­tury meth­ods. The train from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya (the “Lit­tle Eng­land” of Cey­lon) passes through spec­tac­u­lar hill coun­try past wa­ter­falls and deep green plan­ta­tions.

A more vig­or­ous ex­plo­ration of this area be­gins at the Kithal Ella sta­tion, where a two-hour trek up Ella Rock is re­warded with misty views of the rugged moun­tains. Also

SRI LANKA GENTLY UN­FOLDS ITS TREA­SURES FROM HILL STA­TIONS TO SANDY BEACHES

rec­om­mended is the guided tour of Pe­dro Tea Es­tate in Kan­dap­ola and a round of golf at Nuwara Eliya Golf Club. For top-end ac­com­mo­da­tion in the tea coun­try, check out the colo­nial-style Tho­ta­la­gala in Ha­putale and Cey­lon Tea Trails, a bou­tique lux­ury bun­ga­low get­away near Hat­ton.

Lucy Jack­son says tak­ing the sea­plane from Colombo to Cey­lon Tea Trails is the per­fect way to start your hol­i­day.

HOW TO GET AROUND

So­nia Pilovska, head of tours, Lux­ury Es­capes, says the nar­row roads and conges­tion can be a chal­lenge for those used to Aus­tralian con­di­tions and things like road rules.

“If you’re trav­el­ling just a short dis­tance, the ubiq­ui­tous mo­torised tuk­tuks are fun and, for longer trips, book a coach or pri­vate driver,” says So­nia. “We’re see­ing more trav­ellers choos­ing small group tours to en­joy the com­fort of a pri­vate ve­hi­cle and the know-how of lo­cal guides who can of­fer ex­pe­ri­ences you couldn’t have on your own.”

Sri Lankan Air­lines now op­er­ates di­rect flights from Mel­bourne, mak­ing it eas­ier than ever for Aussies to get there.

HOW’S THE WEATHER?

Sri Lanka is blessed with dual mon­soon winds that en­sure su­perb con­di­tions some­where on the is­land through­out the year.

“Sri Lanka has a bliss­ful trop­i­cal cli­mate. It’s var­ied, so you can go from sun­bathing in the south­ern beaches to the cool breezes of the Hill Coun­try on the same hol­i­day,” says Lucy Jack­son.

“There are two dis­tinct mon­soon sea­sons and the main south­west­ern mon­soon brings rain to the pop­u­lar south­west between May and Septem­ber. In short, the best time to visit the west and south coasts and hill coun­try is from De­cem­ber to March, while the best weather on the east coast is from April/May to Septem­ber.”

WHO GOES THERE?

Trav­elMan­agers’ Kathy Mil­lett rec­om­mends To­tal Hol­i­days for their lo­cal con­tacts and up-to-date knowl­edge. They have op­tions from seven to 14 days, in a small group or by pri­vate car with an English-speak­ing driver and ex­pe­ri­enced tour guide. TRAV­ELMAN­AGERS.COM.AU; TOTALHOLIDAYOPTIONS.COM.AU/COUN­TRIES/SRI-LANKA/

Light­foot Travel of­fers 10 Sri Lankan itin­er­ar­ies. Most cover the main at­trac­tions but pro­vide a dif­fer­ent em­pha­sis: hon­ey­moon, beaches, fam­ily-friendly, wildlife, her­itage, cul­tural and “un­touched north”. LIGHTFOOTTRAVEL.COM/DES­TI­NA­TIONS/SRILANKA/

Scenic’s Ul­ti­mate Sri Lanka is a 14-day lux­ury tour from Ne­gombo to Colombo, tak­ing in beaches, colo­nial sites, cen­tral high­lands, tea plan­ta­tions and a Madu River cruise. This in­sight is de­signed around bou­tique, her­itage and cul­tural style ho­tels and ex­pe­ri­ences for groups of up to 16. From $12,890 a per­son. SCENIC.COM.AU/TOUR/UL­TI­MATE-SRILANKA/6805

Col­lette’s 13-day Ex­plor­ing Sri Lanka is so pop­u­lar it has sold out for 2018. The tour in­cludes a cruise on the Ma­haweli River, a visit to Bandu Wi­je­sooriya School of Danc­ing, Sri Lankan mask mak­ing, cul­tural shows and a visit to the wildlife sanc­tu­ary at Min­ner­iya Na­tional Park. GOCOLLETTE.COM/EN/TOURS/ASIA/SRI-LANKA/ EX­PLOR­ING-SRI-LANKA

Trafal­gar’s nine-day Won­ders of Sri Lanka en­com­passes the im­por­tant sites with em­pha­sis on the spicy cui­sine and hos­pi­tal­ity of the Sri Lankan peo­ple. A fea­ture of Trafal­gar’s tours is its sig­na­ture “Be My Guest” din­ing. On this trip you’ll sit down to lunch with Ganga Akka, a mother of two who lives in a small tra­di­tional 1950s house in the vil­lage of Katu­gas­tota near Kandy. Have a chat as Ganga pre­pares cur­ries, rice dishes and sam­bols com­bined with colour­ful and fiery hot spices to com­ple­ment the flavour and add medic­i­nal value. From $3175 a per­son. TRAFAL­GAR.COM/AUS/DES­TI­NA­TIONS/ASIA /SRI-LANKA

APT is launch­ing a 13-day tour this month. The Spirit of Sri Lanka tours will run from Septem­ber 2019 to March 2020 and will take in six World Her­itage listed sites, the Min­ner­iya and Yala Na­tional Parks and din­ing ex­pe­ri­ences at the Min­istry of Crab res­tau­rant, owned by for­mer crick­eters Ma­hela Jayawar­dene and Ku­mar San­gakkara, a cave din­ner at Her­i­tance Kan­dalama and a Rail­way Car­riage Din­ner at Her­i­tance Tea Fac­tory. From $8995 a per­son. APTOURING.COM.AU/

PIC­TURES: ISTOCK

The is­land par­adise has end­less beaches to ex­plore, co­ral reefs, tea plan­ta­tion tours and fas­ci­nat­ing ar­chi­tec­ture.

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