TRAVEL

Three Re­lais & Châteaux prop­er­ties in Sri Lanka and six days in which to lux­u­ri­ate in them. It’s a tough one, but alice franklin reck­ons she’s up to the chal­lenge

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Three lux­ury hide­aways in Sri Lanka

YOU’RE EN­SCONCED IN a wicker arm­chair on a tiled ve­randa over­look­ing a charm­ing gar­den framed by lush green moun­tains; be­hind you, a bun­ga­low houses six ca­pa­cious guest rooms, re­plete with open fires, roll-top baths and four­poster beds. Or, per­haps you’re nes­tled in your very own lux­ury “tent”, on whose roof mon­keys dance in the late af­ter­noon and, if you’re lucky, a wild ele­phant passes by as you sip on a cock­tail in the pool that en­cir­cles an open-air bar. Yet again, you might be in a vast and el­e­gant suite set above the In­dian Ocean, choos­ing be­tween an hour in your very own sauna, a dip in your semi-pri­vate pool or a cook­ing class with the res­i­dent head chef.

Th­ese three sce­nar­ios aren’t sim­ply the dreamed-up ad­ver­tise­ment for a premier stay in Sri Lanka, they’re very real (but no less mag­i­cal) op­tions from the folks at Re­lais & Châteaux. Each res­i­dence – re­spec­tively, Cey­lon Tea Trails, Wild Coast Tented Lodge and Cape Weligama – of­fers a unique stay in a dif­fer­ent part of the coun­try’s un­du­lat­ing south­ern re­gion.

Sur­rounded by the warm cur­rents of the In­dian Ocean and sand­wiched be­tween the Bay of Ben­gal and the Ara­bian Sea, Sri Lanka is a small pear-shape jewel off the coast of south­ern In­dia. The coun­try has suf­fered from a tur­bu­lent re­cent his­tory and the re­ver­ber­a­tions of civil con­flict are still felt to­day, yet in the last few years it’s been re­cast as one of South Asia’s hottest des­ti­na­tions. In light of this new-found in­ter­est, ex­clu­sive prop­er­ties have be­gun to spring up, each one de­signed to show­case the in­cred­i­ble di­ver­sity of Sri Lanka’s land­scape and its rich cul­tural his­tory.

The three Re­lais & Châteaux res­i­dences do just that, and over the course of six days I was priv­i­leged enough to ex­pe­ri­ence each of them

– cour­tesy of Re­splen­dent Cey­lon and the travel ex­perts at lux­ury tour op­er­a­tor Lightfoot Travel – as I made my way from the Cey­lon tea re­gion, bor­der­ing Sri Lanka’s Cen­tral High­lands World Her­itage site, to Yala Na­tional Park on the south­east coast, and fi­nally west­ward to Weligama.

Tea is one of the coun­try’s big­gest ex­ports, and time spent in the cen­tral mas­sif and south­ern foothills al­lows you to ex­plore the ter­rain that en­ables its pro­duc­tion. Cey­lon Tea Trails is a per­fect base. The first stop on my visit, the prop­erty is made up of five in­di­vid­ual bun­ga­lows set at dif­fer­ent lo­ca­tions within the ter­raced land­scape. Orig­i­nally the home to tea planters and their fam­i­lies, th­ese au­then­tic, colo­nial-style dwellings have been ren­o­vated to re­veal even more of their orig­i­nal charm.

In Tientsin, the bun­ga­low I called home for two nights, you re­ally do feel trans­ported to an­other world – in my case, it seemed I’d wan­dered into a Dorset manor that had been picked up and flown 5,500 miles be­fore be­ing dropped into the heart of Sri Lanka. A hearth filled with crack­ling, spit­ting fire was the fo­cal point of an el­e­gantly ap­pointed draw­ing room (bar trol­ley in­cluded), while bells next to the grand beds in each room (mine was more like a suite, thanks to a separate sit­ting room com­plete with a writ­ing desk, fire­place and var­i­ous an­tique eques­trian pic­tures hung on the walls) al­low you to ring for a cup of tea to be de­liv­ered to your bed­side each morn­ing.

There’s no din­ing menu. In­stead, the res­i­dent chef shares his rec­om­men­da­tions, and your meals – three, four or five cour­ses – are served at what­ever time is con­ve­nient for you. And you’ll have to choose that time care­fully, as with a clay ten­nis court and out­door pool on site, as well as myr­iad lo­cal ac­tiv­i­ties to pick from – in­clud­ing hik­ing, bik­ing and tea tours – there’s no shortage of op­por­tu­ni­ties to lose your­self in the re­gion’s lush land­scape.

Although our stay was in­ter­rupted by a duo of af­ter­noon mon­soons – three hours of omi­nous thun­der and spec­tac­u­lar rain­fall – it was no easy feat to say good­bye to Cey­lon Tea Trails, but the Wild Coast Tented Lodge beck­oned. For the most scenic way to travel, head to Hat­ton sta­tion and hop on board a train to Ella. Dan­gle your legs from the open doors be­tween car­riages and marvel at the sight of cloud-kissed moun­tains that fall away to re­veal deep val­leys be­low.

An al­most full day of travel later (trip­ping be­tween prop­er­ties does re­quire some stamina through sheer time spent on the road) and you leave be­hind green plan­ta­tions for dusty roads and open bush. Thanks to the un­fenced perime­ter at Wild Coast Tented Lodge, a wel­come here is as likely to come from a wild boar or chat­ter­ing mon­key as from one of the res­i­dent nat­u­ral­ist guides or re­cep­tion staff. And it’s pre­cisely this wilder­ness ex­pe­ri­ence that makes a two-night stay so unique.

“Tents” of stretched can­vas serve as lux­u­ri­ous self-con­tained homes, ex­ud­ing a hand­some ex­plorer feel thanks to the warm tan leather up­hol­stery, rugged car­pets and free-stand­ing cop­per tub in the cen­tre of each bath­room. You’d be for­given for spend­ing your stay drift­ing around the com­plex (though at night you’ll need to call for an es­cort as there are a few an­i­mals you’d rather not en­counter on your own when pop­ping over for din­ner), vis­it­ing the spa or pick­ing up a book at the li­brary to read bar-side, but you’d only be do­ing your­self a dis­ser­vice.

An early morn­ing sa­fari in nearby Yala Na­tional Park is a must. Leop­ards, sloth bears and wild ele­phants call the plains home, and it’s al­most im­pos­si­ble to re­sist the al­lure of see­ing th­ese ar­rest­ing crea­tures in their nat­u­ral habi­tat. Sight­ings done, shower off the morn­ing’s dust and spend the af­ter­noon ex­plor­ing the sand dunes beyond the beach, be­fore feast­ing on a se­lec­tion of de­li­cious Sri Lankan food in the open-walled restau­rant come evening. Or, for some­thing truly mem­o­rable, opt to dine ocean­side with a spe­cial bar­be­cue on the sand­banks.

Be­fore too long, it’s time to get back on the road for my fi­nal stop. Cape Weligama is a quiet re­sort that teeters on cliffs over­look­ing the ocean. Ev­ery corner of the prop­erty in­vites you out­doors, from the (not-so) se­cret look­out spots dot­ted about, to the semi-pri­vate pools shared be­tween each trio of over­sized suites. Space may be a lux­ury back home in the city, but here at Cape Weligama, big is most cer­tainly bet­ter, and you’ll find your­self lost in the wel­com­ing ex­panse of your im­mac­u­late room.

It’s a bou­tique ho­tel de­signed for rest and re­lax­ation. While away the hours on your pri­vate ter­race – per­haps with one of the many pea­cocks that roam the gar­dens as com­pany – or lounge be­side the cres­cent in­fin­ity pool set on the high­est point of the com­plex. And when you’re done there, maybe a one-to-one cook­ing demonstration, a surf les­son or a day trip to Galle takes your fancy. It’s a buildy­our-own itin­er­ary with end­less cus­tomis­able op­tions – the true def­i­ni­tion of lux­ury.

Three very dif­fer­ent Re­lais & Châteaux prop­er­ties. So, which should you mark as un­miss­able on your visit to beau­ti­ful Sri Lanka? While each of­fers a unique taste of the is­land – green moun­tain, vi­brant sa­fari or ma­jes­tic ocean – it’s the stun­ning Cey­lon Tea Trails that steals the show for me. Pad through your bun­ga­low bare­foot, step out of your room straight into the arms of the Bo­gawan­ta­lawa val­ley and al­low your­self to lose track of time with a sip of freshly brewed tea that takes on new mean­ing as you gaze over the lands where the leaves in your pot were plucked, per­haps only a few days ear­lier.

EACH RES­I­DENCE OF­FERS A UNIQUE TASTE OF THE IS­LAND – GREEN MOUN­TAIN, VI­BRANT SA­FARI OR MA­JES­TIC OCEAN

CASTLEREAGH LAKE IN SRI LANKA’S SOUTH­ERN HILL COUN­TRY

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