A SRI LANKAN TRI­FECTA

A THREEIN-ONE TRIP COM­BIN­ING SOUTH-COAST IN­DUL­GENCE WITH A STAY IN SRI LANKA’S COOL TEA HILLS AND THE UN­TAMED AL­LURE OF A SA­FARI LODGE STRIKES A PER­FECT BAL­ANCE BE­TWEEN SEREN­ITY AND AD­VEN­TURE.

DestinAsian - - FEATURES - By Christopher P. Hill

A three-in-one trip com­bin­ing south-coast in­dul­gence with a stay in Sri Lanka’s cool tea hills and the un­tamed al­lure of a sa­fari lodge strikes a per­fect bal­ance be­tween seren­ity and ad­ven­ture.

AN

ACRID COCK­TAIL of sweat, urine, and what smelled like over­ripe durian washed over us like one of the In­dian Ocean break­ers we could hear rum­bling in the dis­tance.

“Ah, we are lucky, this ele­phant is in musth,” said John Wil­son, our en­thu­si­as­tic young guide on this af­ter­noon’s game drive in the coastal fringes of Yala Na­tional Park. “That smell is pure testos­terone—he’s in his prime and ready to mate.”

The pachy­derm in ques­tion was a funky 40-year-old bull standing up­wind from our sa­fari ve­hi­cle in the shade of a wild tamarind tree. John, a Sri Lankan half that age who speaks with a posh ac­cent picked up from his school days in Eng­land, ex­plained that musth is the an­nual mat­ing pe­riod when adult male ele­phants’ testos­terone jumps to 60 times nor­mal lev­els, seeping out from glands be­hind their eyes and spik­ing their urine with ex­tra pun­gency. Our ele­phant, his cheeks moist with dark se­cre­tions, his hind legs stained shame­lessly with pee, ap­peared to be in a hor­mone-in­duced trance; not for noth­ing was the word musth de­rived from the old Per­sian for “in­tox­i­cated.” Fi­nally, catch­ing the scent of three fe­males at a nearby wala (wa­ter hole), the big fel­low lum­bered off across the scrubby plain, a las­civ­i­ous twin­kle in his eye.

This un­ex­pected en­counter oc­curred mid­way through a six-night trip or­ga­nized by Re­splen­dent Cey­lon, the hos­pi­tal­ity arm of Dilmah Tea, Sri Lanka’s premier tea brand. Run by Ma­lik Fer­nando, whose fa­ther, Mer­rill, founded Dilmah in 1988, the com­pany made its first foray into the hotel busi­ness 13 years ago with the de­but of Cey­lon Tea Trails, a quar­tet of lux­u­ri­ously re­fur­bished colo­nial-era tea planter’s bun­ga­lows in the high­lands of Bo­gawan­ta­lawa Val­ley. Un­for­tu­nately, that was soon fol­lowed by the col­lapse of the 2002–05 cease­fire in Sri Lanka’s civil war, which raged on for an­other four years. “It was a real strug­gle,” Fer­nando told me over the phone from Colombo. “We had great feed­back but not enough guests; we only just man­aged to keep our heads above wa­ter.”

How times have changed. These days, you’re ad­vised to book well in advance to se­cure a room at Cey­lon Tea Trails; de­mand is such that a fifth bun­ga­low was added to the port­fo­lio in 2016 (the same year, in­ci­den­tally, that saw tourism arrivals to Sri Lanka top two mil­lion for the first time ever). By then Fer­nando had al­ready opened a luxe, pur­pose-built re­sort called Cape Weligama on the south coast and be­gun work on Wild Coast Tented Lodge, which opened last Novem­ber on the edge of Yala.

Each is a des­ti­na­tion in its own right; they also hap­pen to be the only Re­lais & Châteaux prop­er­ties in Sri Lanka. But taken to­gether, they’re a tri­fecta of sorts that al­lows you to ex­pe­ri­ence three very dif­fer­ent sides of the is­land on a cir­cuit that Re­splen­dent Cey­lon catchily mar­kets as “Tea, Sea, and Sa­fari.” Guests can also take com­fort in the knowl­edge that the com­pany chan­nels 10 per­cent of its prof­its into the Fer­nando fam­ily’s MJF Char­i­ta­ble Foun­da­tion and Dilmah Con­ser­va­tion, ini­tia­tives that sup­port dozens of com­mu­nity and con­ser­va­tion projects across Sri Lanka. I booked a spot as soon as I could.

HEAD TO THE HILLS

First up on the itin­er­ary was Tientsin Bun­ga­low. Built in 1888, this is the largest and old­est of Cey­lon Tea Trails’ five former planter’s res­i­dences. It’s also the most re­mote, nes­tled amid un­du­lat­ing tea hills about half an hour’s drive be­yond the eastern end of the Castlereagh Reser­voir, around which the other bun­ga­lows are sit­u­ated. How long it must have taken those early planters to reach these hills I can only imag­ine; our drive from Colombo stretched out for five hours, though away from the coast, the scenery be­came in­creas­ingly pleas­ant. As the grade steep­ened, palms and bam­boo gave way to stands of tow­er­ing al­bizia and fra­grant cin­na­mon trees. Above the 800-me­ter mark, all was lush and green and dewy; a sign­post out­side the mar­ket vil­lage of Watawala laid claim to the high­est rain­fall in the

country. At Kithul­gala, we stopped to stretch our legs at a sprawl­ing old rest house above the Ke­lani River, just down­stream from where David Lean shot the cli­mac­tic scenes in his 1957 clas­sic The Bridge on

the River Kwai.

Fi­nally, and with some re­lief, we pulled into Tientsin Bun­ga­low. Ex­ten­sively ren­o­vated last year, it’s ut­terly charm­ing, with colon­naded veran­das, orig­i­nal pine floors and teak trim, and six high­ceilinged suites fit­ted with fire­places, four-poster beds, and claw­foot tubs. (I also found earplugs on my bed­side table, to be used should the Hindu tem­ple in the vil­lage be­low be­come too clam­orous. It didn’t.)

Each room bears the name of a dif­fer­ent Scot­tish planter who once lived here—Moir, Fraser, Meares—and is hung with sepia-toned pho­tos and printed en­grav­ings de­pict­ing scenes from the days of Bri­tish rule. Given the colo­nial vibe, I’d half ex­pected to be shar­ing the place with a bunch of old Bri­tons with a taste for Raj-era relics. In­stead, my fel­low guests in­cluded two young fam­i­lies and a hon­ey­moon­ing cou­ple from Italy, whom I got to know over pre-din­ner drinks in the bun­ga­low’s cozy sit­ting room. The Ital­ians had just come back from a daytrip to Kandy; one of the dads was plan­ning a night climb up Adam’s Peak, the country’s holi­est moun­tain. As for me, I was con­tent to spend my short stay here read­ing a book around the pool, wan­der­ing the sur­round­ing tea fields, and ad­mir­ing Tientsin’s ex­ten­sive gar­dens, which brim with amaryl­lis, heli­co­nia, morn­ing glory, and be­go­nias. And eat­ing. The cool air at 1,400 me­ters above sea level gave me a keen ap­petite, and I de­voured ev­ery dish put in front of me—one night, a suc­cu­lent pork cut­let with or­ange sauce and cous­cous; an­other, a se­lec­tion of vivid Sri Lankan cur­ries.

As the weather was fine, all meals—in­clud­ing af­ter­noon tea—were served al­fresco on the bun­ga­low’s checker-tiled front ter­race, which looks out to a lawn stud­ded by a wil­lowy bot­tle­brush tree. It’s a fine van­tage point from which to sur­vey the bar­bets, bul­buls, bab­blers, and other birds that flit about the prop­erty. But it’s the crows you have to look out for—one had the au­dac­ity to steal a crois­sant right off my break­fast table (not that I can blame him: the pas­tries were de­li­cious).

INTO THE WILD

Sa­fari-wise, I hadn’t ex­pected much from the wilds of Sri Lanka’s south­east, or at least noth­ing to com­pare with my ex­pe­ri­ences in South Africa and Zam­bia. But Yala Na­tional Park de­liv­ered a sur­pris­ing wealth of fauna—and an equally un­ex­pected sur­feit of sa­fari ve­hi­cles.

A wildlife sanc­tu­ary since the turn of the last cen­tury, Yala is the sec­ond largest of Sri Lanka’s na­tional parks, en­com­pass­ing nearly a thou­sand square kilo­me­ters of mon­soon forests, grassy plains, and coastal wet­lands. It is home to ele­phants, sloth bears, wild wa­ter buf­falo, and the high­est den­sity of leop­ards any­where in the world. Ease of ac­cess from the tourist beaches of the south coast also means it’s the most vis­ited park in the country, and the last few years have seen a mush­room­ing of sa­fari re­sorts around its south­west­ern fringes. The lat­est—and smartest—is Wild Coast Tented Lodge, which opened last Novem­ber above a boul­der-strewn shore­line in Yala’s buf­fer zone.

It’s an en­tirely dif­fer­ent beast than Re­splen­dent Cey­lon’s tea bun­ga­lows. Some four hours or so after leav­ing Tientsin, I was led into a big domed restau­rant pav­il­ion made of bam­boo lat­tice­work sheathed in re­claimed teak shin­gles. Arched open­ings framed views of the In­dian Ocean; an ad­ja­cent dome housed a quartz-grav­elfloored bar. Equally oth­er­worldly yet or­ganic was my tent for the next two nights: one of 28 “co­coon” suites ar­ranged in clus­ters around wa­ter holes. Shaped vaguely like a plump cater­pil­lar and cov­ered in a taut, high-ceilinged mem­brane of white PVC, it was roomy and rest­ful, ap­pointed with hand-wo­ven rugs, cam­paign fur­ni­ture, a free­stand­ing cop­per bath­tub, and a won­der­fully com­fort­able gauze-draped bed. Judg­ing from the port­hole win­dows and brass fit­tings and ex­posed cop­per pip­ing, one sus­pects Cap­tain Nemo might have had a hand in the de­sign too.

The lodge’s main at­trac­tion, of course, is the wildlife, and you don’t have to even leave the grounds to see some. Wild Coast, I was told point­edly at re­cep­tion, is an open prop­erty, mean­ing there are no gates or fences to stop an­i­mals from wan­der­ing through. This also means guests are dis­cour­aged from walk­ing its paths at night with­out an es­cort, and from leav­ing their doors open lest their suite be ran­sacked by a pack of lan­gur mon­keys. Ele­phants have been spot­ted drink­ing from swim­ming pools; I woke one morn­ing to the sound of wild boars snuf­fling around the wa­ter hole out­side my tent.

But this is noth­ing com­pared to what awaits you in Yala. Head­ing out with four other guests on the af­ter­noon of my ar­rival, we en­coun­tered not only the bull ele­phant in musth, but also herds of axis deer, mon­gooses and macaques, troops of lan­gurs, plenty of birdlife—bee eaters, painted storks, Sri Lankan jun­gle­fowl (the na­tional bird), Mal­abar pied horn­bills—and a three-me­ter-long mug­ger croc­o­dile sun­ning him­self by the edge of a marsh. John, our guide, cheer­ily dis­coursed on the mat­ing habits and be­hav­iors of each creature we saw with en­cy­clo­pe­dic de­tail. Less cheer­ily, he de­cried the “jeep jams” that oc­cur as a re­sult of too many ve­hi­cles (as many as 600 a day) be­ing al­lowed into the park. “Some days, it can be bumper-to-bumper for a kilome­ter to see one an­i­mal,” John said. “It’s just not sus­tain­able.”

The an­i­mal ev­ery­one wants to see is the leop­ard, Sri Lanka’s apex preda­tor. They’re elu­sive, but this sec­tion of Yala, with its open savanna and patchy de­cid­u­ous for­est, is con­sid­ered the best place in the country to ob­serve them.

Sure enough, a call came in over the ra­dio and the driver slammed his foot on the gas pedal. A leop­ard had been spot­ted. Join­ing a con­voy of a dozen other ve­hi­cles, we sped off down the track, kick­ing up clouds of red dust in our wake. But to no avail: the big cat had dis­ap­peared into the bush by the time we ar­rived. I had to con­tent

my­self with the sight of his fresh paw prints in the mud.

We were back early the next morn­ing to try our luck again. This time, John promised to take us far­ther north and away from the crowds to where he hoped we might en­counter an­other of the park’s trea­sures: a tusker. While Yala is home to up­wards of 300 ele­phants, only 10 have tusks, so the chances of see­ing one are slim. We came across a tusker half an hour after pass­ing through the park gate.

John was thrilled. “This is Ge­munu! We call him the ‘Clown Prince of Yala’ be­cause of all his an­tics. He’s re­ally the most charis­matic tusker in the park, and prob­a­bly the most doc­u­mented ele­phant on the is­land.” Alas, Ge­munu’s charisma didn’t spare him from an at­tack by a larger tusker ear­lier this year. He sur­vived the bat­tle, but lost a tusk in the process, leav­ing him with a lop­sided appearance. Still, he was a ma­jes­tic beast.

And while leop­ards con­tin­ued to elude us, we did get to watch an equally elu­sive sloth bear mosey through the un­der­brush to­ward us. It wasn’t long be­fore a bunch of other sa­fari jeeps showed up, but be­fore they did, for a cou­ple pre­cious min­utes, we had him all to our­selves.

SEA­SIDE SEREN­ITY

From Wild Coast, the drive west to Cape Weligama took about two and half hours—by the stan­dards of my trans­fers thus far, a mere blink of the eye.

It’s a beau­ti­ful re­sort and a fit­ting crescendo to the trip, spread across a slop­ing, palm-strewn head­land that rises 40 me­ters above the In­dian Ocean. Ar­ranged around shared swim­ming pools in clus­ters of two or three, the terra-cot­ta­roofed vil­las here sport a crisp mod-Asian look cour­tesy of Thai ar­chi­tect Lek Bun­nag. I was told they are the largest ac­com­mo­da­tions in the country, and I don’t doubt it: my bath­room alone must have been 50 square me­ters, com­plete with a walkin shower that con­verted to a steam room.

I con­tem­plated stay­ing put and or­der­ing room ser­vice for the du­ra­tion of my stay, but there were too many dis­trac­tions. One was the re­sort’s main pool, a pic­turesque cres­cent of wa­ter at the tip of the head­land where you could get your money’s worth just star­ing out at Weligama Bay. An­other was the Ocean Ter­race restau­rant, with its tow­er­ing wooden pil­lars and amethyst-hued walls and supremely fresh seafood—think jack­fish tacos, cin­na­mon wood–smoked tuna, and a phe­nom­e­nal seafood plat­ter that has been known to lure day-trip­pers from Colombo.

Cape Weligama is also home to a well-equipped ac­tiv­i­ties cen­ter. Man­aged by lo­cal out­fit­ter Border­lands, it of­fers whale watch­ing and sea kayak­ing when the sea­son is right. When the wa­ter’s too rough, you can ex­plore nearby vil­lages by bike or, as I did, pad­dle a kayak down a lily pad–fringed river in the com­pany of mon­i­tor lizards and gray herons.

With Sri Lanka firmly on the road to re­cov­ery, Fer­nando is push­ing ahead with plans to grow Re­splen­dent Cey­lon’s foot­print. The next re­sort in his port­fo­lio will open in late 2020 near Si­giriya, a fifth­cen­tury rock fortress in the heart of the so-called Cultural Tri­an­gle of an­cient Bud­dhist and Hindu ru­ins. I’m guess­ing the ex­panded cir­cuit will be called “Tea, Sea, Sa­fari, and An­tiq­uity.” And yes, I’ll be book­ing a spot as soon as I can.

Left: Cooling off in the cres­centshaped Moon Pool at Cape Weligama. Op­po­site: In­side a sa­fari-chic Co­coon suite at Wild Coast Tented Lodge.

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