Sri Lanka is a perfect little world unto itself, replete with rivers and mountains, a constellation of historic sites, spectacular Buddhist temples, forests teeming with wildlife, endless beaches, cricket pitches, rice paddies, fruit orchards and plantations of tea, cardamom, cinnamon. The strong and spectacular Lankan cultural canvas has been layered over time with brushstrokes by the people of India, Portugal, The Netherlands and Britain.
In the primarily Buddhist nation, poya days, or full-moon days are celebrated with an additional day-off each month. Often these holidays combine with the weekend and the Lankan folks avidly explore different parts of their country, admitting that they are “truly spoilt for choice.”
As the civil war-memories fade, the Singhalese and Tamils assert that they’re Sri Lankan first, and the once-shattered island nation of twenty-two million is fast repairing and regaining its lustre.
The traditional Kandyan sari, known as the osari, is just like the Indian sari, but draped completely differently, with a frill of folds at the waist. Coming from India, to me, the osari became a metaphor for the similar, yet fascinatingly different Singhalese culture that awaited discovery.
We explored Colombo, admiring the lion sculptures at Independence Square, the colonial style Independence Arcade, wandering through the leafy suburbs with exquisite homes, taking in the giant statues of Buddha at Gangarama temple, sipping golden king-coconuts from street stalls and falling for a creamy breakfast staple- buffalo curd with fish-tail palm treacle. The legendary style of architect Geoffrey Bawa (1919-2003), known as Tropical Modernism, continues to be revered and emulated, and we couldn’t help being enchanted by his own house at 11, Bagatelle Road, which embraces breeze, light and foliage with many clever flourishes. Gallery Café, a popular restaurant serving excellent local and international fare remains steeped in charm; it once housed Bawa’s architectural practice.
TEA ESTATES IN THE HILL COUNTRY
A six-hour drive east of Colombo brought us to the lush, gently undulating, tea estates swathed in green. It was a world unto itself; peaceful, uncluttered and silent with clean air, cooler temperatures and millions of of camellia sinensis, the carefully pruned, tea plants that hug the contours of the hills. A company called Ceylon Tea Trails leases and lets rooms in a handful of stately colonial bungalows embedded in the emerald thickets surrounding Castlereagh Lake. Exploring the spectacularly landscaped plantation around Norwood bungalow, we came across amiable Tamil women delicately nipping off the tops — two leaves and a bud — from the waist-high bushes, with their nimble fingers. Later, at the tea-factory I learned that black, green and white tea all come from the same leaves. To make black tea, the leaves are withered and fermented. For green tea, they’re not fermented and white tea consists of the prized bud only.
At the tea gardens we went on long, exploratory treks on the smaller paths, stopping for lunch at other bungalows, enjoying a myriad dishes that combine to make the Lankan curry and rice. The relaxed, somnolent tempo here allowed us to decompress, dream, and soak in the mist-laden vistas.
A Dutch-era relic, and the darling of foreigners who have bought many a home here, the Galle Fort area basks in the Indian Ocean in Lanka’s southwest tip, encircled by thick walls. Quaint and chic at the same time, the small hamlet can be navigated entirely on foot in a couple of hours. A handful of bungalows-turned boutique hotels have become the social-hubs with the most popular bars and restaurants. Uncovering the historic sites, frangipani-laden homes, vibrant shops and cafes felt very special. In fact, the entire Lanka experience was more fabulous than I had imagined. It was nothing short of serendipitous. Not surprisingly, the word comes from a former name of the island, Serendip.
BEST TIME TO GO: December to March
STAY AT - Tintagel, a boutique hotel in a colonial-style villa in a leafy residential neighbourhood. 65, Rosemead Place, Colombo 7 www.tintagelcolombo.com
+94 11 460 2060, Galle Face Hotel, a sprawling, colonial-era hotel with gardens facing the oceanfront, famed for its splendid afternoon-tea spread. Number 11, a Geoffrey Bawa Trust house, a single guest suite can be rented at the architect’s own home. 11, Bagatelle Road, Colombo 3. Reservation via Leopold@eureka.1k +94 11 433 7335/ 11 258 9212
EAT AT - The Gallery Café, a Paradise Road restaurant, for the best of traditional Lankan and western cuisine in what was once Geoffrey Bawa’s office space. 2 Alfred House road, Colombo 3 +94 11 2556564
Ministry of Crab at Old Dutch Hospital is a local favourite fresh seafood restaurant.
SHOP- Paradise Road, for attractive housewares and decorative objects. 213, Dharmapala Mawatha Colombo 7. +94 11 2686043
PR (Paradise Road), a concept store with chic clothing, footwear and accessories for men and women at 41 Horton Place, Colombo 7.
Saskia Fernando Gallery showcases Contemporary Art at 41 Horton place, Colombo 7
Odel is a popular department store carrying local and international brands
Barefoot, carries colourful home wares, linens and clothes, books etc. The restaurant is vibrant and popular
GUIDE IN COLOMBO- Colombo City Walks offers the best guides. email@example.com
Mr. Mark Miusioun is an independent guide. + 94 (0) 773 866328
AT THE TEA ESTATES
STAY AT: CEYLON TEA TRAILS’ 5 ELEGANT BUNGALOWS
Norwood Bungalow- spacious, elegant, at a height, with sweeping views of tea gardens.
Tientsin Bungalow- known for its beautiful garden, it is the highest one.
Dunkeld- newly refurbished, with beautiful views of Castlereagh Lake.
Castlereagh – Low and next to the Castlereagh Lake, the cottages are covered with flowers.
Summerville Bungalow- smaller than the others, it is on the lake.
Seaplanes from Colombo can land on the lake for quick access to the estates.
www.resplendentceylon.com/tea trails Phone- +94 (0) 11 774 5730
This group manages a clutch of delightful, small bungalows in the hill country. Dikoya Bungalow is especially charming. Manager Roshan Ratwatya 94 777 371 808
www.mandirabungalows.com +94 115 289 574
CAMPION ESTATE, BOGAWANTALAWA
The Northcove Cabanas, in the lower hills are small hideaways located amid stunning scenery.
IN GALLE, STAY AT-
Inside Fort Galle, stay at
Galle Fort Hotel. A centrally located, charming, popular and vibrant small hotel in a townhouse with a leafy courtyard and swimming pool.
Fort Bazaar, is a stylish, newly renovated small hotel next to Galle Fort Hotel. It has an air-conditioned bar and restaurant that serves international cuisine. www.teardrop-hotels.com
Amangala- A charm-infused Aman resort next to the Dutch Church and Galle Museum. Surprisingly, it lacks air-conditioned sitting and dining areas.
The Fort Printer’s Hotel This 12 room hotel colonial style and Lankan charm, and has a great restaurant. 39 Pedlar St, +94 91 224 7976 www.thefortprinters.com.
Fort Aleza-A popular courtyard restaurant draws attention to this small hotel. Church Cross Street, Fort Galle. +94 (0) 912 233 415
Near Fort Galle, stay at-
-The Owl and the Pussycat, a design-infused, trendy and uplifting 17-bedroom boutique hotel, with skilled local and international chefs and ocean-view frontage. 20 minutes drive from Fort Galle. No 788, Matara Road, Thalpe, Galle. www.otphotel.com. +94 (0) 91 2283844
-Mosvold Villa 38, Matara Road, Welhengoda, Ahangama. www.mosvoldvillas.com +94 (0) 91 228 2942
Last House, a hideaway on the South Coast, with the ocean beyond its garden wall, was the last house built by Geoffrey Bawa. This hard to find retreat is a colourful expression of the architect’s style. www.thelasthouse.com +94 47 492 0262. Manager Ananda Ranasinghe +94 77 353 0654
GALLE- EAT AND DRINK-
The Tuna and the Crab – fresh seafood at the Old Dutch Hospital, Galle Fort 091 309 7497 firstname.lastname@example.org
The restaurants at Galle fort Hotel, Fort Aleza and The Fort Printer’s Hotel.
Withered Leaves Tea and Spices Company has en excellent selection of teas, at the Old Dutch Hospital, Galle fort. 94(0) 91 2231848. www.witheredleaves.com
Tallentire House- for cushions, tablemats and fabrics in the most beautiful prints.
63, Pedlar Street.
FORT GALLE EXPLORE-
All Saints Church, Dutch Reform Church, Maritime Museum, The Old Dutch Hospital, The Lighthouse, Meeran Jumma Mosque, Flag Rock and Sri Sudharmalaya temple are all within easy walking distance of each other inside Fort Galle.
DRIVER/GUIDE- Knowledgeable and keen to showcase his country, Rajith Dini Mudiyanselaga can drive you all over the country +94 77 077 9584102 email@example.com. Ground Agent- Royal Holidays.
For Yala National Park, see Sri Lanka’s Amazing Wilderness piece.