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HindustanTimes Sat,19 Apr 2014

Travel diary: Exploring Sri Lanka

Shruti Menon   September 13, 2012
First Published: 13:07 IST(13/9/2012) | Last Updated: 18:19 IST(13/9/2012)

On my fifth wedding anniversary I wanted our trip to be extra special so my husband and I decided to take a vacation to ‘The Pearl of the Indian Ocean’ – Sri Lanka. I had heard that Sri Lanka is just like being in Kerala but this didn't dampen my enthusiasm to explore it myself. We took the Sri Lankan airlines as it was one of the few direct flights available.   

After an hour’s drive from the Bandaranaike International Airport, we reached the highly recommended Hilton Colombo at around midnight. What wasn't apparent during our midnight arrival and was only revealed as we woke up the next day was that our room had a magnificent view of the Indian Ocean.
 
Day 1

The moment I woke up, I was excited to check out the buffet breakfast of this lavish five star property, I had heard so much about. It was a huge restaurant with variety of options. From South Indian to sea food to Sri Lankan cuisine, it had all. After a heavy breakfast, we decided to explore the city a bit. Since our package included taxi services, we weren't burdened by having to find one. Taxis are pretty cheap in Colombo but if you are looking for the cheapest mode of transportation, you can avail the services of a tuk-tuk better known as an auto-rickshaw in India.

I had done some research before coming and so I knew House of Fashion was a good and cheap place to shop. The moment I stepped inside, I was surprised to see this huge five-floor mall full of shoppers, perhaps because it was a weekend. We were a bit intimidated by the crowds so we decided to just buy some of Sri Lanka's famous Ceylon tea and headed off to Odel (the first department store in Sri Lanka). From clothes to jewellery to shoes, Odel has everything to make a shopper happy. It is more upmarket than the previously mentioned House of Fashion but worth every penny mentioned on the price tag. By the time we were done wutg shopping and eating, it was late in the evening and we headed out to Mt Lavinia beach to watch the sunset, just eight miles from the city of Colombo. The golden beaches of Mt Lavinia are one of the loveliest locations in the city. A must visit in Colombo.

Since we were out the whole day, we decided to have dinner at the Hilton itself. There was live music in the restaurants. The hotel has about nine restaurants all with different cuisines. There was Emperors Wok, Ginza Hohsen (Japanese), Il Ponte (Italian) etc. I was of course hunting for something interesting and different and then I saw the Curry Leaf's authentic Sri Lankan buffet. We tried almost every single dish that was laid down at the buffet table starting with the Sri Lankan fish fry, Kottu (a mixed traditional dish made with bread, egg and meat), dhaal with coconut, spicy chicken curry and much more. 

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Day 2  

Next morning we checked out of the hotel and took a two-hour drives to Bentota (62 kms from Colombo), a resort town located on the southern tip of the Galle district of the southern province. On the way to Bentota, I realised it just looked similar  to Kumarakom  in Kerala,  another vacation spot I had visited a few years ago. It was simply a small town populated mostly by hotels, resorts, eateries and other tourism related venues. We were booked to stay at the Vivanta by Taj, one of the most beautiful resorts I have seen. The manager at the hotel was kind enough to give us a sea-facing room since it was off season and there weren’t many occupants.

Bentota is supposedly quite famous for Ayurvedic massages and other treatments and I had a lot of time to kill on our first day there and we didn’t want to go out to explore. So I thought of getting a nice Ayurvedic massage at our resort itself. The rates at the Spa were quite reasonable so I enjoyed a nice relaxing foot massage.

Day 3

If adventure is your cup of tea, then Bentota is the place for you. Being near the coast gives you opportunity to enjoy many water sport activities. After a sumptuous South-Indian/Continental buffet breakfast, we went to check out what water sport activities were available. I had gone scuba-diving and had banana boat rides before so I wasn’t quite interested in doing it again. I was keen on Para-sailing but I was quite dismayed to find that the government had passed some new regulations that prevented Para-sailing as an option. The only option left was tube riding and we were surprised to discover that it was a honking load of fun.

The next destination was a nearby spice garden. Even Sri Lanka, like Kerala, is a land of spices. Ceylon Cinnamon or True Cinnamon is native to Sri Lanka. Apart from that, Sri Lanka also offers the highest grades of cloves and pepper as well. These spices are used in a range of perfumes, soaps and other cosmetics, aromatherapy essential oils and Ayurveda toothpaste based on 24 herbs and spices. After our little tour at the spice garden, we headed for a boat ride along the Madu River.

Madu lagoon is a wide and a beautiful water body that lies in the wet zone of Sri Lanka with a high bio-diversity. The wetland of the Madu River holds a mangrove spread of close to 61 hectares. Madu has high ecological, biological and aesthetic significance, being home to 303 species of plants belonging to 95 families and to 248 species of vertebrate animals. There are 64 islands in and around Madu River. Maa Duwa, Mahala Duwa and Galman Duwa are the main human settlement islands. We visited the islet known as Koth Duwa which is home to an ancient Buddhist temple that dates back to the days of Sinhala kings of Lanka. August being monsoon time, we got to enjoy few spells of rain, in between our one-hour boat ride.  The enchanting landscapes all along the river will leave you breathless.

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On the way back to hotel, we stopped at the gem museum. Sri Lanka is affectionately known as Ratna-Dweepa which means Gem Island. They have some of the best sapphires, topazes, amethysts, and other precious as well as semi-precious gems in the world. When I saw the blue sapphire, my eyes just popped out and I was tempted to buy one. Since it was pretty expensive, I convinced my husband to get me the blue topaz instead. I returned to the hotel with a huge smile on my face.

Day 4

One of my friends suggested Galle and Hikkaduwa as must-visit locales and so we decided to check it out. Galle is about 54kms from Bentota and is situated on the south-western tip of Sri Lanka. It took us about an hour to reach Galle. The moment I stepped out of the car, it felt like I had been transported to the Dutch colonial era. Galle is a sizeable city, by Sri Lankan standards, and has a population of 91,000, majority of whom are of Sinhalese ethnicity.

We headed to the Galle Fort which was built by the Dutch in the year 1663. The 36-hectare Fort is the best example of a fortified city built by Europeans in south and Southeast Asia, showing the interaction between European architectural styles and south Asian traditions. It was a huge fort and the weather was just perfect so we walked around, clicking pictures, enjoying the view of the sea. Just ten minutes from the fort was the National Maritime Museum. The museum suffered flood damage from the 2004 Tsunami. Before the Tsunami of December 2004, this museum specialised in the fauna and flora of the sea. The pieces comprised of underwater artefacts and scaled-down models of whales and fish. Adjacent to the museum was a small Dutch reformist church. Its floor was paved with gravestones from the old Dutch cemetery. The organ from 1760 still sits in the building and the impressive pulpit, made from calamander wood from Malaysia, is an interesting piece.

By the time we finished with our little tour at Galle, we were famished and so thought of grabbing a bite in nearby Hikkaduwa. We had heard that Hikkaduwa was famous for its clean beaches and amazing sea food restaurants. After having lunch at the Refresh restaurant by the beach, we headed back to the hotel in Bentota. Before I brought down the curtain on my vacation, I thought of spending some time enjoying the view of the beach from my balcony, sipping tea, looking at the sunset, telling myself that I would be back again..

Trivia:

Best time to go: Climate is fairly temperate throughout the year but avoid May-August or October-January, as this is the time for heavy rain.

Get around: Rickshaw (tuk-tuk) is most convenient. Always negotiate and agree on a price before you take a trip. Taxis are also a good mode of transportation and safer as well.

Must see: Mt. Lavinia at sunset

Where to stay: You will find a lot of budget hotels in Colombo but since Colombo is quite affordable, enjoy the luxury of good five star hotels/resorts like the Hilton.

Must eat/drink: Don’t miss out on the Sri Lankan chicken curry and dhaal. Sea food is also a must try. You will see King Coconut water in abundance.

What to buy: Sri Lanka is the best place to shop at affordable prices. Sri Lankan tea and precious/semi-precious stones are a must buy.

Shruti Menon, a freelance feature writer based in Delhi, is fond of travelling. She loves meeting new people and during her leisure time, surfs the internet on destinations that are untouched by tourists.


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