Jenny Handley visited the teardrop island, formerly Ceylon, and experienced the diverse delights of safari and sea, local life and luxury
Jenny Handley explores this Indian Ocean jewel
Climbing into our airport shuttle, my friend asked the driver, “Do drivers use their hooters much here?” Seconds later her answer was a cacophony of hooting as we wound our way through the crowded streets of Colombo, capital of Sri Lanka. We quickly realised that a drive anywhere can take hours as the single roads (no freeways), are frequented by buses, taxis, bikes and tuk-tuks carrying cargo that ranges from chickens to children.
Formerly Ceylon, Sri Lanka, with a population of 21,2 million, is situated in the Indian Ocean south-east of India. It gained independence from Britain in 1948, changing its name when it became a republic in 1972.
After a chaotic afternoon in bustling Pettah Market where the locals shop, we relaxed with sundowners at the
Galle Face Hotel, overlooking the Indian Ocean. We then enjoyed the first of many spicy, local meals, crab curry, at a restaurant in the restored Dutch Hospital.
The next morning, we took a seaplane trip to Weerawila – three stops with breathtaking views that included tea plantations and towns, coast and cotton wool clouds, and a sign of imminent change – a highway under construction.
Our safari at the unique Wild
Coast Tented Lodge, one of three
Relais & Châteaux properties on the island, started with a welcome from the monkeys, who followed us to our exquisitely appointed tent, complete with copper bath. Set on the rugged coastline adjacent to Yala National
Park, it’s the perfect place to enjoy both beach and bundu. Afternoon game drives revealed prolific birdlife and sightings of leopard and elephant, for which the park is known. It was surreal to see water buffalo grazing against the backdrop of the ocean.
After a five-star dinner of delicious local curries, we were urged to request an escort to see us safely back to our tent. We woke to the sounds of early morning bird calls, followed by a traditional breakfast of egg hoppers (fermented rice and coconut f lour pancakes) before a three-hour drive to begin our sea adventure.
Surfers were waxing their boards as the sun came up at Weligama Bay Resort reminding us that this is rated one of the top surfing destinations. Here, fishing boats were hauled in by loudly chanting fishermen, who sell their catch at a small market nearby.
We indulged in a traditional Ayurvedic massage before tuk-tukking up the hill to Cape Weligama Resort for a cookery course. Charismatic sous chef Vinnol Wickramasinghe showed us how to make local curries that cleared our sinuses.
After sundowners overlooking the bay, we dined at Ocean Terrace, where the chef ’s signature dish, barramundi, was all we could manage.
A visit to the colonial city of
Galle took more than the promised 45 minutes in a tuk-tuk as we stopped along the way to photograph stilt fishermen. Galle is made up of the old Dutch quarter in the 18th-century fort, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and a new town built after the 2004 tsunami.
Exploring the ramparts where locals stroll and f ly kites was exhausting in the midday heat, so we took refuge in some of the delightful cafés and restaurants. Lighthouse Street, which has a perfect view of the Point Utrecht Bastion Lighthouse, is filled with boutiques, galleries and restaurants.
Our tuk-tuk driver insisted on driving us past the Galle International Cricket Stadium while reeling off a list of our famous cricketers, past and present. Mention cricket to most male Sri Lankans, and their eyes light up!
We ventured into the local market
to stock up on spices, tea and spoons crafted out of coconuts. At dinner on the cliffs at Chef Akkila’s Kitchen, we feasted on indigenous dishes such as massaman curry and spicy prawns.
No sooner had we relaxed into the coastal atmosphere, it was time to venture north to the tea town of Ella in the hills. Most of the accommodation here is rustic. Home stays are the norm – many offering spectacular mountain views. From ours, we could see two famous sites, Little Adam’s Peak and
Each foray into the town involved a short yet steep 10-minute walk. Ella is best explored on foot and in tuk-tuks. We took a ride to Nine Arches Bridge, an engineering marvel built nearly
100 years ago and where the last part of the journey is a walk through cool, dense jungle. By chance we were there for the 3.30pm train sighting. Taking our place alongside many others holding their phones and cameras, we clicked furiously when the train shot past.
We grabbed a tuk-tuk to transport us to Little Adam’s Peak, 1 041m above sea level. It was worth the hour-long walk to the top, where the views of greenery formed by tea plantations and jungle are spectacular.
We got up early to experience the sunrise behind Ella Rock then headed into town for the Ella garden spice tour. After a refreshing cup of Dilmah ginger, lemon and honey tea, we returned to the mountains to visit a tea plantation.
Tea is harvested all year, and mainly picked by women, leaving men to do the back-breaking tasks. Only the top leaves provide quality, and the slender, middle bud between the top two leaves makes the highly desired white tea, also known as silver or gold tea because of its value.
Then it was time for a final breakfast of egg hoppers to provide stamina for the hike up to Ella Rock along train tracks, past simple houses in the village, to the waterfall for the last rocky climb to the top. We enjoyed stupendous views of the mountains and plantations before a horn-tooting six-hour drive back to the airport.
Nine Arches Bridge
Fruit for sale on a corner in Ella.
Tuk-tuks in the capital, Colombo.
Fishing boats at Weligama.
Choose a fresh fish and have it cooked for you.
Cocoon at the Wild Coast Tented Lodge.
The ramparts and lighthouse at Galle.
Barramundi at the Wild Coast Tented Lodge.
Yala National Park