SRI LANKA

The Pearl of the In­dian Ocean may be small, but Cathy Wagstaff knows Sri Lanka is set to be a lead­ing des­ti­na­tion for Aus­tralian trav­ellers

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Colours whirl by as our tuk­tuk skil­fully weaves through the traf­fic of Colombo. We glimpse stores sell­ing spices and over­flow­ing with saris as we honk our way through the streets be­fore the tiny ve­hi­cle shud­ders to a stop be­side a lake, the Bud­dhist tem­ple of Seema Malaka hov­er­ing above the wa­ter. In an in­stant, the chaos gives way to calm.

It’s taken me a few years to get to the hotspot of Sri Lanka, and while it’s only day one, I’m al­ready falling for the charms of this teardrop-shaped is­land.

The Pearl of the In­dian Ocean may be small, but the ex­pe­ri­ences it of­fers trav­ellers are di­verse. Beyond the fre­netic city, with its fresh seafood and blos­som­ing air of cos­mopoli­tanism, there are beaches to the south that lure surfers, jun­gles that de­light those in search of wildlife, riches of Bud­dhism in Kandy and Hin­duism in Jaffna, his­toric ruins in Si­giriya, colo­nial rem­nants in Galle and end­less tea-blan­keted moun­tains in the Cen­tral High­lands. And ev­ery­where you go, your greet­ing of “Ayubowan” or “Vanakkam” (in Sin­hala and Tamil re­spec­tively) will be met with the smiles and grace of a truly hos­pitable peo­ple.

There was once a time when trav­ellers skipped Colombo al­to­gether, but this has changed in re­cent years. The ar­rival of a 541-room Shangri-La Ho­tel in Novem­ber 2017 de­liv­ered an un­prece­dented level of lux­ury to the cap­i­tal. We in­dulge in after­noon tea in the Sap­phyr Lounge; seek re­ju­ve­na­tion at CHI, The Spa; and feast on hop­pers and kottu with Sri Lankan chef Dhar­shan Mu­nidasa at his restau­rant, Kaema Su­tra, one of five din­ing venues in the ho­tel.

Seren­ity in the moun­tains We leave the city one morn­ing, bound for Cey­lon Tea Trails, an ex­clu­sive tea es­tate re­sort amid the un­du­lat­ing for­est of Hill Coun­try. We wave at fam­i­lies along­side us on mo­tor­bikes and urge our driver, Sri­lal from Sri Lanka In Style, to pull over so we can sam­ple the wares of road­side fruit stalls. Ta­bles over­flow with man­goes, pineap­ples and huge jack­fruit. Colossal bunches of ba­nanas hang from the ceil­ing, rang­ing from un­ripe greens to the rosy hue of the rath ke­hel with its sharp but sweet flesh.

At the end of the four-hour road trip, we emerge amid mist-cov­ered moun­tains at Cey­lon Tea Trails, the first Re­lais & Châteaux prop­erty in the

coun­try. The re­sort stretches across 800 hectares of a work­ing tea plan­ta­tion, with five his­toric planters’ bun­ga­lows dot­ted across the land­scape.

From the Dunkeld Bun­ga­low, we have a view across the in­fin­ity pool to the glis­ten­ing lake be­low. We are sur­rounded by tea-cov­ered hills, ideal – we are told dur­ing our tour of the nearby Dunkeld Tea Fac­tory – for pro­duc­ing the del­i­cate ‘high growns’ that are so cov­eted by con­nois­seurs of Cey­lon tea.

In our daily chef con­sul­ta­tions, we opt for fra­grant cur­ries at al­most ev­ery op­por­tu­nity: for break­fast in the sum­mer house, served on a crisp white table­cloth in the English gar­dens for lunch and laid out in end­less sil­ver dishes for din­ner.

Cey­lon Tea Trails was the first prop­erty in the Re­splen­dent Cey­lon col­lec­tion, the hos­pi­tal­ity arm of Dilmah Tea. The re­treat has since been joined by a sa­fari ex­pe­ri­ence at Wild Coast Tented Lodge and a multi-award-win­ning beach­front re­sort at Cape Weligama.

On the leop­ard trail

A half-hour sea­plane flight de­liv­ers us from the Cen­tral High­lands to the edge of Yala Na­tional Park on the south­east coast. This 130,000-hectare scrub­land is home to the high­est den­sity of leopards in the world, as well as ele­phants, sloth bears, buf­falo, mon­gooses and an as­ton­ish­ing ar­ray of birdlife.

Wild Coast Tented Lodge is one of the clos­est re­sorts to the park, spoil­ing us with a pool over­look­ing the boul­der-strewn beach and colo­nial ex­pe­di­tion-chic Co­coons with four­poster beds and cop­per bath­tubs.

Wildlife is the at­trac­tion here. The fully in­clu­sive tar­iff in­cludes a daily game drive into Yala (or a nearby na­tional park dur­ing its an­nual clo­sure). We’re told April is a rare time of year to spot leopards, but as it’s my birthday, we’re de­ter­mined to be the ex­cep­tion. Twice in one day, we climb into the sa­fari ve­hi­cle and make the four-hour journey through the park, cam­eras at the ready.

Our first drive sees us en­coun­ter­ing mon­gooses, buf­falo and ele­phants, in­clud­ing Ge­munu, known for help­ing him­self to trav­ellers’ bags. No leop­ard.

A birthday pic­nic in Wild Coast’s gar­dens for­ti­fies us be­fore we set out again. As the light is dy­ing, we spot him: a mag­nif­i­cent leop­ard drink­ing at a waterhole.

We con­tinue east along the coast to Weligama Bay, where dol­phins and whales frolic in the wa­ters and surfers carve through the waves. Cape Weligama oc­cu­pies a spec­tac­u­lar clifftop lo­ca­tion, 40 me­tres above the ocean, with 39 rooms and vil­las.

We linger be­side the 60-me­tre cres­cent pool and de­bate whether to ven­ture out on the re­sort’s cata­ma­ran or cy­cle past cin­na­mon plan­ta­tions in the hin­ter­land.

As the sun sinks into the ocean on our last night, we sip cock­tails at the Cape Colony Club, feel­ing as if Sri Lanka has truly de­served its place on the wish lists of all dis­cern­ing trav­ellers.

10 09 Ex­pe­di­tion-chic in­te­ri­ors at Wild Coast © Tim Evan-Cook 10 The bam­boo ex­te­rior of Wild Coast © No­madic Re­sorts. Images 01, 05 & 07–10 cour­tesy Re­splen­dent Cey­lon

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