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
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