THE SPICE OF LIFE Whale-watch­ing and warm wel­comes in Sri Lanka

From the days when cin­na­mon was syn­ony­mous with Cey­lon, to the colour­ful charms of con­tem­po­rary Sri Lanka, this teardrop-shaped is­land in the In­dian Ocean has en­ticed trav­ellers for cen­turies.

Town & Country (UK) - - CONTENTS - By Anna Mur­phy

Iwanted to feel I had trav­elled far, far away; I needed a rest and to feel re­stored rather than chal­lenged. I knew Sri Lanka would fit the bill. That this is­land should be re­ferred to as ‘In­dia Lite’ is, to my mind, su­perla­tive praise. It pro­vides much of the same sen­sory over­load and here, too, life is lived in Tech­ni­color. The food is de­li­cious and given fab­u­lous new di­men­sions, cour­tesy of the spices that prompted first the Por­tuguese, then the Dutch, then the Bri­tish to in­vade. In Run­ning in the Fam­ily, Michael On­daatje’s at­mo­spheric me­moir of his Sri Lankan fam­ily, he re­counts how, ‘when ships were still ap­proach­ing, ten miles out at sea, cap­tains would spill cin­na­mon onto the deck and in­vite pas­sen­gers… to smell Cey­lon be­fore the is­land even came into view’.

Yet in Sri Lanka there is none of the stress that is an in­evitable part of the In­dia ex­pe­ri­ence. I adore In­dia and have been there many times, but some­times I just can’t quite face it. In con­trast to the on­slaught that now rep­re­sents a visit to, say, Kochi in Ker­ala, let me con­jure for you a wan­der around the his­toric cen­tre of Galle Fort, a Un­esco World Her­itage site on Sri Lanka’s south coast.

Here is one of the most pic­turesque places you will ever visit, yet you will be left alone, ut­terly undis­turbed, un-touted. The only voice call­ing out in the street will be the veg­etable-cart man, with his pen­du­lous snake gourds, count­less dif­fer­ent aubergines and moun­tains of toma­toes, or per­haps the fish ven­dor, cy­cling past with a set of scales and an an­te­dilu­vian cool box strapped to the back of his bike. You might see an el­derly lady col­lect­ing white tem­ple flow­ers


from the trees at the side of the road in or­der to make an of­fer­ing, or wit­ness a group of young men play­ing warp­speed cricket in a square, us­ing a bin as im­promptu stumps. (But linger here at your peril, be­cause even the am­a­teurs in this cricket-ob­sessed land are ter­ri­fy­ingly good, and the ball goes ev­ery­where, fast.)

Be­yond the walls of Galle Fort is a sprawl­ing, modern city, but in­side, real life hasn’t been dis­placed by or, worse still, theme-parked for the tourists. I al­most have to force a chatty old man in an an­tiques shop to sell me a piece of china, a lo­cal vari­a­tion on the theme of Blue Wil­low that is black with a schooner at its cen­tre, just one of the man­i­fes­ta­tions of the charm­ing cul­tural med­ley that en­sued from its his­tory as one of the most im­por­tant ports in Asia.

Yes, there are more vis­i­tors to Galle Fort now than when I first came, but many of them are Sri Lankans, as ex­cited as the Western­ers to gather on the ram­parts in the early evening and watch the sun go down while the sea froths dra­mat­i­cally be­low. And the old town’s ar­chi­tec­tural gal­li­maufry re­mains not only ex­tant, but im­proved, with once-for­lorn struc­tures now newly wa­ter­tight, and some show­ing signs of the more sen­si­tive va­ri­ety of ex­pat up­grade.

The grid of streets is lined with 18th- and 19th-cen­tury ve­ran­dah houses with deep pan­tiled roofs, along­side art deco master­pieces that look like land­locked, Lil­liputian ocean lin­ers. There are also nu­mer­ous cool-but-his­toric ho­tel op­tions, such as the Fort Bazaar, with its kook­ily tiled floors and airy in­ner court­yard.

A short drive in­land to the low-coun­try tea plan­ta­tions, and you come to Ka­handa Kanda, one of the ear­li­est of the is­land’s bou­tique ho­tels. It is dec­o­rated in shades in­spired by the robes of Sri Lankan monks, topped off with Ba­li­nese de­sign flour­ishes, and bears wit­ness to the Bri­tish owner Ge­orge Cooper’s pre­vi­ous life as an in­te­rior de­signer.

Spend a day or two in the planter’s chair on your spa­cious bal­cony and you will find your­self be­gin­ning to tell the time by what you see and hear in the beau­ti­ful land­scape laid out be­neath you. First thing in the morn­ing is when the tea-pick­ers are out, pluck­ing at the rows of tea bushes be­fore the day gets too hot, and you can see wildlife such as white-bot­tomed mon­keys, par­rots, pea­cocks and golden ori­oles. Later, there might be a short, sharp rain­fall that leaves the scenery look­ing shiny and new, as if freshly pol­ished. The only thing that dis­turbs the peace are the tintins, a cross be­tween a squir­rel and a chip­munk, which oc­ca­sion­ally hot-shoe-shuf­fle across the roof wear­ing what sounds like clogs.

The most stren­u­ous ac­tiv­ity for me dur­ing my time at Ka­handa Kanda was cy­cling through the sur­round­ing coun­try­side with a guide from a com­pany called Idle Bikes. I saw so much in a mere two hours, in­clud­ing six king­fish­ers perched in a row on a tele­phone wire, and vast wa­ter buf­falo graz­ing in the paddy fields. We passed crum­bling ro­coco bun­ga­lows from the days of the Em­pire adorned with stucco flow­ers, and shops sell­ing stacks of ter­ra­cotta pots and mul­ti­coloured rugs that the lo­cals put out­side their front doors.

Back on the road, you’ll come across Cooper’s hip new six-bed­roomed guest-house KK Beach, which opened at the end of 2016, be­fore reach­ing Cape Weligama, a lux­u­ri­ous ho­tel where each pri­vate bun­ga­low shares a pool with only one or two oth­ers. A big draw of both prop­er­ties is that you can ac­tu­ally swim in the sea. While the Sri Lankan coast­line is breath­tak­ingly beau­ti­ful, its wa­ters can be rough; but not at Cape Weligama, where you can also en­joy gar­dens filled with vi­o­let jacaranda, yel­low ole­an­der, red gin­ger, and white and blue sky vines.

One more rea­son to stay here is to go whale-watch­ing on a boat straight from the ho­tel. Af­ter a cou­ple of hours at sea I find my­self face-to-face with two blue whales, swim­ming near the sur­face and trum­pet­ing through their blow­holes, be­fore they flick their tails and de­scend into the depths be­low. The cap­tain tells us that we have 10 min­utes to wait be­fore they are back, and amaz­ingly he is right. It has been an­other mag­i­cal day on the is­land On­daatje calls ‘a pen­dant off the ear of In­dia’. Truly, a jewel in­deed. The Ul­ti­mate Travel Com­pany (020 3051 8098; www.theul­ti­mate­trav­el­com­ of­fers a 12-night stay in Sri Lanka, from £2,790 a per­son, in­clud­ing stays at Fort Bazaar, Ka­handa Kanda and Cape Weligama (+94 11 774 5730;­splen­dentcey­, plus Sri­lankan Air­lines flights from Heathrow and pri­vate trans­fers.


from top: galle light­house. be­side the sea at galle fort. a court­yard at fort bazaar

be­low: tea plan­ta­tions in the hills. above: the pool and a villa (right) at ka­handa kanda

cape weligama

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