MY CUP OF TEA:
LETTER FROM SRI LANKA
to view photos from this trip, see:
Sri Lanka, the upside-down teardrop-shaped island paradise off the southeastern tip of India, used to be referred to as the Pearl of the Orient, and the name still applies. Breathtaking vistas, geology, vegetation and silhouettes, thrilling climate, uncrowded ancient sites in excellent preservation, legendary beaches, tea plantations, great wildlife watching and a congenial population define this underexplored destination. The country stills feels the pain of a tsunami, which ravaged the west coast four years ago. The Tamil rebellion in the north has passed, and people want to put behind them the memory of last year’s violent conclusion which cost 30-50,000 casualties, most of them civilian, A blatantly corrupt and dynastic government now keeps the country safe and pacified by placing armed military at regular intervals everywhere. Sri Lanka (population 20 million) today is a country struggling as it joins the emergent economies, with a mass of foreign investment and development flowing in, resulting in a concurrent resurgence in tourism. It will be a different place in 5 years, improved roads and access to remote spots, and many new resorts and luxurious lodgings with all the complications they will bring. Today the island retains many of the aspects that in days of yore would have been condescendingly referred to as Third World- but that is changing fast. A modern airport serves the capital city of Colombo (population 2 million), digital communications have penetrated the most isolated spots, and the traveler discovers a wealth of choice luxury lodgings. All that remains is a public information campaign (much like Morocco successfully conducted) to educate the local population on ways to welcome foreign guests. For the moment you will still be bothered by touts and aggressive tuk-tuk
drivers and it will get old. But not for long. Once prosperity trickles down there will be less sense of desperation from those whose lives intersect tourists. And once you get out of the big cities you will be constantly struck by the indescribable beauty of this legendary place.
The teardrop island runs north-south, rounded at the top, pointed at the bottom. At the center of the island you’ll find the cultural triangle, where cities, palace ruins, and ingenious water cachements, some dating back 2000 years, can be visited. The sun and humidity can be brutal- take a wide-brimmed hat, sunblock, drink plenty of water. Souvenir shopping near these monuments is the most reasonable you will find anywhere. Remember to bargain, as it is expected, aiming for about 40% of the first price quoted. Bear in mind these are very inexpensive local crafts, so haggling over pennies should be viewed as more a social interaction than a hardnosed business challenge. Small carved elephants, for example, which are priced at $9 in the Colombo airport gift shop, sell for a dollar or less next to the Polonnaruwa complex. I should have bought one for a multitude of reasons, among them supporting the local economy. The historic triangle has two famous Buddhas carved out of living stone, one standing figure outside Dambullah, one reclining figure at Polonnaruwa. Below the caves of Dambullah you will find an outstanding complex of old pagodas and monastery ruins. The caves themselves are said to be in bad repair, and of the 17th century. You could easily pass these up for other landmarks. You will want to climb the 1200 steps to the top of the limestone citadel named Sigiriya, past 5th century frescoes - astounding, rendered as masterfully as Italian Renaissance works executed eleven hundred years later - to the ruins of a king’s palace with a 360 degree view of plains and mountains. The feet of a huge masonry lion are only remnants of a colossal sculpture, but standing next to the elegant curved terra cotta paws you can imagine the mindblowing dimensions of the original towering edifice.
A herald of the extreme luxury about to be discovered in Sri Lanka is the newly-constructed Ulagalla Resort
, a 5-star 57-acre private compound with a dozen private ultra-posh villas, near to all cultural monuments, in the area called Thirapane. It has its own helipad, in case you prefer to avoid earthbound transport by auto. Once you’re within the manicured grounds the resort shuttles you around in quiet electric carts, and advises you not walk the grounds after dark- you never know what brand of animal life you might meet. These elevated modern chalets, each set on its own little hillock, are fully technologized, with iPod docking stations, computer-driven lighting and you can even monitor your own bill or browse the internet from the big screen satellite television. Elegant woods, all modern fittings, top-quality loose teas (never a tea bag!), private plunge pools and luxurious bathrooms complete the lodging package. There’s a classical graciousness at work here. From the delicious welcome beverage, a tea and fruit juice concoction delivered in a carved coconut cup, to the discreet attentiveness of Sumanaratna, the mullah dani, you will appreciate the fusion of traditional and modern styles. The resort is set up so that most of your dining is done in-villa, with meals delivered from a nearby satellite kitchen. The main house also features fine dining, from a beautifully restored terrace which overlooks the Olympic pool and domed luxury spa. Fully occupied, the property only sleeps 40 guests. At approximately $400 a night with all meals included, this property is a great value. It would be suitable for an intimate romantic getaway, honeymoon, wedding, family reunion, small business conference or as a welcome retreat to return to after a day’s bird-watching or trekking through ruins, The property has a full stable, housed under the largest solar roof in Sri Lanka. After your daily ride you could do no better than to sip at a glass of Mendes Blue Label arrack as you recline on the porch next to the utterly comfortable lounge area and watch the spectacular sunset illuminate the western sky.
Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka
Tel +94 025 7694036
The Heritance Kandalama
outside Dambullah offers another option with easy access to the cultural triangle. A massive property of 152 rooms tucked into the natural rock formations of a hillside, the facility was originally designed by the late Geoffrey Bawa. Bawa, Sri Lanka’s most famous architect, is a name you will hear often on your trip. The property exemplifies his use of indigenous materials, concrete, terrazzo, natural woods and traditional ceramics. There’s a sweeping white concrete wall at the reception, reminiscent of the mirror wall at Sigiriya, and exposed rock facing the broad stairways which link the hotel’s six levels. This kinky green modernist structure with its three pools is covered with trellises, overgrown by vines, and monkeys dangle along the exterior. Don’t leave your room door or windows open, unless you wish to risk theft or destruction by our mischievous simian cousins. The hotel has superb views and outstanding wildlife watching. Your correspondent saw enormous iguanas crossing the road, a mongoose, and many varieties of birds. Far off in the distance the rock citadel of Sigiriya projects out of the broad plains. It’s a bustling operation with a vast, loud dining room and overwhelming buffet, The hotel recites its green credentials proudly, though there are questionable details like plastic water bottles everywhere, and Lux soap in the showers, Rooms and baths are comfortable and modern, but don’t expect the truly personalized service of boutique luxury establishments. This is too large an operation for the guest experience to be more than comfortable-commodified. There’s a small business center and wi-fi, and they charge for everything.
PO Box 11
Dambulla, Sri Lanka
Tel +94 66 5555000
Kandy, historically the second capital of Sri Lanka, doesn’t have all that much to see. There’s a truly beautiful university campus, a fine botanical gardens, a well-known elephant orphanage featuring the largest captive herd in the world, and the famous Temple of the Tooth housing a famous Buddhist relic. You’ll need an insider to take you to some of the undiscovered artist ateliers there, but your regular guide doesn’t know them. There is, however, an opportunity to find some hand-made batik cloth. My guide took me to Gunatilake Batiks
, on the hillside overlooking the famous temple. First you walk through a very large store filled with commercial fashions and wall hangings, nothing remarkable and very much like you see everywhere else. The prices are competitive. Walk to the very end of the room, and ask to see the one-of-a-kind fabric remnants for sale. I bought two meters of traditional hand-painted cotton cloth for $30. Much of what you find in the store, however, is mass-produced, kitschy or unexceptional. On roads leading in and out of Kandy you can visit the equivalent of outlet stores for nearby spice plantations. Luckgrove Spices, Herbs & Indigenous Ayurvedic Medicine
, in the district called Matele, doesn’t look like much, but the top-quality products for sale are all-natural, fresh, mostly made in the ayurvedic style, and you can pick up small, packets of saffron, pepper, teas, herbs of superior quality, even potent vanilla extracts and essentials oils like frangipane, at a fraction of prices in the west. They pack quite nicely in your bag, and they are welcome gifts to friends back home.
173/A Rajapihilla (Upper Lake Drive)
Kandy, Sri Lanka
Tel 081 2223815
No. 28, Palapathwela
Matele, Sri Lanka
Tel +94 66 2225830
Outside the city of Kandy, high up in the hills, you can spend very comfortable nights at Ellerton Bungalow
. This veranda-clad house typifies the colonial residence, with traditional furnishings, four poster beds, modern bathrooms, and a familiar, homey ambience. Very accommodating team and an excellent kitchen. The no-pressure style of management perfectly fits the property. Set among jungle foliage, amid exotic animal sounds, on a background of verdant hills girdled in mist, you catch sight of brilliantly colored wild birds, lush flowers, impetuous monkeys, even wild boar. Ellerton’s six rooms are often booked by eco-tourists in their 40s-60s, families, or retired professionals, who stay an average of two nights. Think of the property as an island in the clouds, with refreshing rain every afternoon, secret gardens and seating areas, and a lovely small pool. This is another of those honeymoon places, where fantasy and the sense that you are far far away prevails.
Nawa Gurakelle, Doluwa
Gampola, Sri Lanka
Tel +94(0)81 241 5137
Nestled below the cultural triangle in the heart of the island you will find Tea Country, a landscape set in higher altitudes, with rippling rows of tea fields, paradisiacal, surreal, otherworldly. Narrow bumpy roads snake through the rolling hills, where women pick the delicate leaves, bright flashes of colorful clothing meandering among the iridescent green bushes. There’s a beauty and tranquility here, punctuated by the occasional white tea factory, where a scrupulous process of grading and drying precedes the trip to Colombo, where middle men send the island’s coveted riches around the world. Dilmah Teas, a respected producer whose sustainable and community-friendly values are respected internationally, has located and renovated five luxury bungalows set in idyllic corners of Tea Country. These isolated getaways are supremely comfortable- the Tientsin Bunglaow has a world-class chef, and tranquility that can’t be matched. Few experiences compare with a glass of crisp Sauvignon Blanc, taken on a tiled terrace, with a view of distant trees covered in saturated red and yellow blossoms as the clouds spill over distant peaks. The Tea Trails
experience is barely real: it is more like dreaming. These lodgings are in high demand, so reserve early.
Ceylon Tea Trails
46/38 Navam Mawatha
Colombo 2, Sri Lanka
+94 11 2303888
In search of pristine beaches and legendary surfing, you should head south through dream forests of huge bamboo, eucalyptus, and pines, like out of a sci-fi movie, descending to the coastal plains. Low ranging forests give way to palm groves, and as you reach the southern coast at dusk swarms of fruits bats take to the sky against a blazing background of clouds. Amanwella
, in an architectural hommage
to the legendary Bawa, has created a perfectly situated complex of 30 discreet villas overlooking a picture perfect stretch of unspoiled beach. Think swaying palms, turquoise sea, and the invigorating afternoon monsoon passing through. The villas are spacious, elegant and comfy, accented by a large wood bowl of bananas and mangoes with limes included. Each villa has a plunge pool, and the interiors are outfitted with granite, concrete and teak, perfectly blended. A magnificent view of palms and sea from the bathtub. I am a huge fan of the Aman brand. Wherever they place a resort they beautifully adopt the style of the locality, adding their signature touch for service. The restaurant is a marvel of glass, and a passage through which the tropical winds pass gently. You can exist on a diet of their seafood, which comes fresh daily from the fishermen who park their brightly colored boats among the palms on the beach below. People usually stay a week at a time at Amanwella. There are bird and elephant safaris nearby, if you need action, rock temples and turtle hatcheries, But I would rather visit the well-appointed library every day, grab a fanciful novel, and sit on my terrace and read for aimless hours listening to my worthy companions, the chirping geckos.
Bodhi Mawatha, Wella Wathuara
Godellawela, Tangalle, Sri Lanka
Tel +94 47 2241333
A 2-hour drive north along the west side of the teardrop takes you up the tsunami coast, where signs of devastation still can be seen, even four years later. So many lives were lost and so much property ruined that the local population has yet to forget- the landscape is dotted with monuments and memorials. But there is a rash of reconstruction along the way as huge new beachfront resorts are rising. There appear to be a number of smaller boutique hotels functioning as well, among all levels of lodging. Along these shores are some of Sri Lanka’s finest surfing beaches, a mecca of sorts. And the bustling route into Galle announces a regional hub of activity.
Not much has changed inside the battlements of the Galle Fort in the last 250 years. Once you pass through The New Gate you’ve time-traveled back to the colonial era. Fortunately, Aman has taken over management of the venerable New Oriental Hotel, cherishing the original ambiance of the place, and bringing up the property, now called Amangalla
, to the brand’s lofty standards. This is a superb place to situate as you explore the fort and its surroundings. Of the four excellent dining venues (the terrace, the dining room, poolside, room service) I kept finding myself on the terrace, sipping a drink, eating my lunch, taking afternoon tea, doing nothing as I watched the world go by. This should not in any way demean the en-suite breakfast which was splendid, beautifully presented, brilliant tastes, and delivered at the exact moment requested. Dinner in the dining room was wonderful, worthy of a visiting nabob and featured a fly-through by a bat, a poignant reminder of how little we interact with naturalistic world in the west. Try the seer fish curry if it’s on the menu. The afternoon tea taken on the terrace can’t be beat for $15, a huge meal that lasts for hours. The hotel also features a world-class spa with modernist hydrotherapy pools and calming décor, well-deserved on your odyssey. You will find no more welcome sight than this hotel at the end of a grueling day of tourism. The team at this property deliver outstanding service with a gracious attitude. With my 2 meters of batik tucked under my arm, on the referral of the Amangalla concierge I rode a tuk-tuk into town to Samee Tailors
, facing the old vegetable market. I brought along a shirt which fit me well, and Samee stitched a copy with the batik cloth, overnight, for $4.50, delivered to the hotel, a small indulgence and a unique memory.
10 Church Street
Fort, Galle, Sri Lanka
Tel +94 91 2233388
No. 32, Green Market
Oroppuwatta, Galle, Sri Lanka
Tel +94 072 6362525
On a walk through the gently sloping streets of Galle Fort I stumbled upon Olanda International,
a repurposed warehouse filled with everything crazy, old and new you can imagine: armoires, doors, furniture, china, rickshaws, junk, vintage signs. This place is worth a wander just for the weird, vast, wonderful array of things. They’ll ship anywhere. Along Hospital Road I popped into Orchid House
, a very well-arranged store with high standards. There you can find local clothing designs, teas, spices, ceramics, postcards, and the owner has a nicer selection of semiprecious stones. I’d feel more confident buying from him than the gem merchants around the block. I took a very agreeable tea break up on the roof of Mama’s Guest House
on Leyn Baan Street. It’s cheap, rudimentary and the people are nice. You get a breezy view of the lighthouse, the white tower of the local mosque, and a panorama of the Arabian Sea over red-tiled rooftops. Galle also has several small museums. The Museum of Marine Archaeology
housed in a heritage building across from Amangalla is of interest more for the building than the exhibits. Nearby, I was able to eavesdrop on a divorce hearing in progress down in Court Square
, another unexpected bit of local reality which proved fascinating. Teams of lawyers faced each other across a long table and uniformed men hovered in doorways ready to testify.
30, Leyn Baan Street
Fort, Galle, Sri Lanka
Tel +94 0912234398
/ Yameen Hussein
28A Hospital Street
Fort, Galle, Sri Lanka
Tel +94 91 7429090
Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital city and most probably your port of entry and exit, has a limited menu of attractions. There’s a famous Buddhist temple with an elephant munching palm fronds, an old quarter in deteriorated condition, ummmm, and not a lot more. Alcohol has a 400% tax, so beer is a cheaper option than wine or spirits. For eating, there’s a great down-and-dirty seafood place on the south side of town, called Beach Wadi.
Your table is literally on the sand facing the waves, the bill of fare is fresh, the grilling is super, and the people are extremely nice. There’s also the upscale Gallery Restaurant
in the impressive former office space of Geoffrey Bawa, boasting a very fine kitchen, European prices. They have a nice seating area where people sip cocktails all afternoon and work on their laptops. A cool little gift shop. There’s also the family-friendly Park Street Restaurant
which has European style dishes at reasonable prices, and entertainment some evenings. You can find western-style lodgings in monolithic hotels like the Cinnamon Grand and the Radisson, both close to the Galle Face promenade, where the rich colonials used to parade in their finery. Now it’s a sparse oceanfront place often crowded with locals, and there are some very funny public signs with wacky admonitions. Business is done down at the Galle Face Hotel
, a former colonial jewel now in need of an angel. It’s an interesting old place with more character than most, and a bustling lunch and dinner business as well as a popular Sunday brunch. You could spend a couple nights in the old wing, in a spartan room with amazing wood floors, and get a feel for the rhythms of the city. But there are only two real reasons to be in Colombo: to be in transit, or to do business. Otherwise, head for the wild as fast as you can.
Galle Face Hotel
2, Galle Road
Colombo 3, Sri Lanka
Tel 11 2541010
Like most emerging economies, travel from point-to-point in Sri Lanka is hard, and selecting the best itinerary and lodging requires specialist knowledge. Sri Lanka in Style
– who your correspondent worked with- has a dedicated staff of experts with contacts throughout the isle. They put together a terrific itinerary for me for an 11-day visit. Don’t try and assemble a trip without this kind of help. Talk to the professionals, and it will ease your journey.
Sri Lanka In Style
+94 11 2396666