Sights, Stupas and Safaris: My Sublime Sri Lankan Experience


The Capital Connection — 1 October

Stepping out of the air-conditioned terminal of Colombo Airport and out into the welcoming mid-autumn air of Sri Lanka’s commercial capital city, I felt unequivocally weightless. I’d chosen Sri Lanka for a reprieve from the ensuing European cold and its proximity to the Maldives (for which I was later bound), but also for the country’s strong cultural and traditional roots — values I wanted to escape to in a world galloping ever forward towards an increasingly technological future.

As I entered the transfer vehicle, the sharp-dressed driver holding the car door ajar for me — who had greeted me inside at the baggage claim — asked if I’d ever visited Sri Lanka before. I said I had, but only for a couple of nights several years ago on a business trip, and that this time I was venturing much further than the city.

“Ah,” he said, catching my eye in the rear-view mirror as we pulled away from the curb, “then you’re in for a treat.” And he was absolutely right.

After about an hour of taking in the beautiful Sri Lankan views from the backseat, we arrived at The Residence by Uga Escapes, where I’d be spending the night before making the short trip to Sigiriya in the morning. The hotel was uniquely grand: a Victorian townhouse built in the nineteenth century by a wealthy barrister, complete with a fine dining restaurant, bar and views onto shimmering skyscrapers from the in-ground swimming pool.

With not much point in unpacking I headed to the restaurant, and after some delicious gourmet lobster ravioli and white wine, I called it a night.


Water Garden — 2 October

After breakfast at the hotel, it was back to Colombo Airport for a private flight to Sigiriya, an ancient, UNESCO-listed heritage site in the heart of the country. I’d be spending three nights at the Water Garden Sigiriya, which has a prime view of the chief attraction: an ancient rock fortress once used as a royal palace.

The half-hour flight was over in a flash, and as the verdant countryside became a blur of green and brown beyond the window of the transfer car, I felt my body heave a relaxed sigh, exhaling any remaining stresses of the outside world.

The resort certainly lived up to its name: expansive, winding tributaries and lush greenery bordered the villas, with lanterns illuminating the way around secret gardens tucked away around the complex. It was just after lunchtime when I arrived, and with temperatures climbing, I opted for a dip in the private plunge pool to cool off and take in the tranquility of the unbridled, 360-degree beauty.

With dinner and breakfast included in my stay, the natural next stop was to sample the cuisine. The dishes, all made using local organic local ingredients, were impeccably presented. Following the feast, I capped off the night with a tropical cocktail at the resort’s Twin Level Bar, dozing off to the panoramic views of the rolling countryside.

Burials, Buddhas and Bears — 3 October

After a breakfast of muesli and yoghurt topped with fresh tropical fruit, I headed off an hour east to the city of Polonnaruwa for a tour of its historic ruins. Constructed in the 12th century, my guide took me through beautifully intricate architecture within the group of ruins known as the “Quadrangle”, explaining the religious significance of the scattered shrines, statues and dome-shaped stupas (burial structures used in Buddhism). 

Of particular note was the Vatadage, a circular structure within the Quadrangle believed to have been built to house the relic of the tooth of the Buddha. With the number of wild macaques running about the place, it’s no surprise that the sacred tooth was no longer there.

As the sun passed its peak in the cloudless sky above, we pushed on towards Minneriya National Park, the country’s premier safari boasting the largest elephant gathering in the world — over 300 at a time! Besides the big trunked creatures, we were treated to sights of deer, buffalo, mongoose and even the adorable sloth bears, all from the comfort of the jeep.

With the rain starting to drizzle on the car’s canopy right at the conclusion of the tour, a packed day of sightseeing was wrapped up. Back at the hotel, I scarcely made it through another divine dinner before my eyes decided to draw the shades almost of their own accord.

The 660-foot Lion — 4 October

As much as I would’ve loved to have stayed in bed till noon, I elected to take the opportunity to climb the Sigiriya Rock Fortress, the giant formation which, for the last couple of nights, had watched over me from beyond my window.

Built in the 5th century, the fortress originally resembled a gigantic lion. In truth, not much of the leonine facade remains — just the front paws at the base of the fortress, where we began our ascent. The site exhibited well-preserved frescoes of Sinhalese maidens, a rock palace at the summit and the famous mirror wall, a 100-metre stone wall said to have once been so highly polished that you could see your reflection as you walked by.

The gardens of the fortress are among the oldest in the world, with terraces and limestone staircases flanking the path leading to the lion-pawed entrance. To further protect the illegitimate King Kashyapa from invasion at the time of the site’s construction, a moat was built that encircles the fortress which. For the record, it didn’t work. The king’s brother, who was the rightful heir, eventually retook the throne some 18 years later by overthrowing the fortress.

With around 750 steps leading to the 660-foot summit, the entire ascent and descent took a little over 3 hours at a comfortable pace, with time to soak in the incredible views from the top. After all that walking, it was time to head back, cool off and enjoy my last night in the villa with a local dish and a few well-earned drinks.


High Socie-tea — 5 October

A hearty bacon and egg breakfast with a side of fresh juice brought a close to my time at Sigiriya. I was bound for the tea capital of the country, Hatton, and after a 90-minute drive to Anuradhapura and a 40-minute private seaplane trip, I was there by early afternoon.

I was staying at the Castlereagh Bungalow Garden Suite within the Ceylon Tea Trails residence, which comprises a handful of restored planter’s bungalows. Built in 1925 and set just over 4000 feet above sea level, the view of the tea fields below and surrounding mountains was truly breathtaking. The revitalising smell of tea permeated throughout the suite as I unpacked the essentials, the multifaceted scents of different tea varieties trickling in through the windows as I cracked them open.

After spending much of the day sitting down in transit, I was anxious to stretch my legs and explore the area. I learnt from the butler that I could take in the scenery along the mountain slopes via bike, which were at the guests’ disposal in every bungalow. For longer rides, it was recommended to take a resident tour guide along, but I wasn’t planning to be gone too long as the clouds were starting to gather, so I decided to venture out on my own.

It was hard to keep my eyes on the path when the gorgeous scenery in my peripheral vision screamed for attention. Having ridden for a little under an hour, I stopped at a particularly stunning spot and watched the rain in the distance envelop a valley below. I figured that, if I turned back now, I had enough time to make my descent before the clouds made their way to me.

On my return to the bungalow, I replaced the rain beginning to fall outside for a revitalizing walk-in rain shower. With all meals and drinks included in the nightly rate, I headed to pre-dinner cocktails and joined the party of a charming British couple and their three-year-old daughter, who had invited me over after noticing my accent as I ordered a drink. The four-course gourmet dinner was enjoyed in their company (which, after skipping lunch, was exactly what I needed), and as the sounds of clanging cutlery and convivial conversation evaporated into the night, I thought of nothing but the brilliance of the moment.

Bed Tea, Bath & Beyond — 6 October

My day started with ‘Bed Tea’, served by my butler as a pleasant wake-up call, after which he customarily drew me a bath. Today was all about tea, though I quickly discovered that the food was taken as seriously as the tea here. 

The restaurant offered full English or Sri Lankan breakfast, so endeavouring to experience the full range of the country’s flavours, I opted for the latter. A mouth-watering assortment was laid before me: chicken curry, dahl (lentil curry), egg hoppers (savoury pancakes with a fried egg in the centre), pol sambol (a condiment made from grated coconut and chilli) and roti (flatbread) to mop it all up with.

I’d arranged with my last night’s dinner company to go on the guided Tea Experience tour together, only a short 10-minute trip from the Castlereagh Bungalow. Starting at 10:30am and finishing up around midday, the resident Tea Planter took us through the tea manufacturing process, how different tea flavours are created and how the early colonial settlers lived. Some of the methodology and machinery used to make the tea are over a century old, which just goes to show how things used to be built to last.

Following an afternoon cream tea back at the residence consisting of scones, clotted cream, jams, cakes and sandwiches (and tea, of course), I met up with the family again for a game of croquet in the brick-flanked gardens. Sipping on a Pimms No 1 in those moments when the playing mallet rested at my side, the afternoon turned to dusk in the blink of an eye.

A Kayak and Arrack — 7 October

After my Bed Tea and bath (I was getting dangerously used to this already), I went on a brief walk around the grounds before another filling breakfast. The day’s main activity was a toss up between white water rafting and kayaking. The former involved a 90-minute drive, which swayed my decision in favour of kayaking on the much closer Castlereagh Lake, visible from the bungalow.

Having paddled for a good hour or so, I pulled up at the shore, rays of sunshine piercing the early afternoon clouds as I disembarked. Before I’d left on my solo journey around the lake, I’d asked for a gourmet packed lunch to take with me (in lieu of the 3-course lunch or Sri Lankan rice and curry) to enjoy at a spot just like this. Absolute bliss.

With my muscles and joints well-used, it was only natural that I take advantage of the Tea Trails Signature Massage. To my welcome surprise, the masseuse came straight to my door and set the table up in the comfort of my suite. Talk about room service!

It was my final night at the enchanting residence, and after another evening spent in great company, I bid goodbye to the new friends I’d made with a refreshing Ceylon Arrack (a spirit made from the sap of the coconut flower) and ginger beer. Cheers!

Yala National Park

Seafood under the Stars — 8 October

The last Bed Tea, bath and breakfast went all too quickly. It was time to make my way to the iconic Yala National Park, first by a half-hour trip by seaplane and then about an hour by car. Here, I swapped the colonial bungalows for the luxurious Chena Huts by Uga Escapes, which blended a hut-like exterior with a modern, island-inspired interior.

The huts were unbelievably tranquil; birds sang their songs from up in the tropical trees, accompanied by the soft hum of various insects, and with only fourteen cabins on the seven-acre property, it felt as if you were completely alone. The day wasn’t overly hot, but after all the baths in Hatton, I thought I’d take a dip in the plunge pool, which was built into the outdoor deck of my hut and naturally private, courtesy of the surrounding foliage.

Having skipped lunch (again), the first sign of twilight beckoned me towards The Basses restaurant, which took the meaning of ‘al fresco’ to a whole new level. I was given the option to have my seafood platter under the stars or by the beach beside a bonfire, ultimately choosing to feel the sand under my feet. Stunning views of the inky ocean accompanied my meal as the moon ascended, its pale light dissolving in the gently crashing waves.

Whales on the Water — 9 October

Following breakfast the next morning, I embarked on a whale-and-dolphin watching expedition departing from Mirissa organised at the reception, which involved a 2.5-hour drive from the hut. Despite the drive, it was well worth it.

According to the guide, it was a little early in the season to spot our prime sightseeing target — the blue whale — but not impossible. Not long after pulling away from the shore, we could already see dolphins jumping not far from the boat. A promising sign, apparently.

It was only as we were heading back that we were lucky enough to sneak a glimpse of a big blue behemoth leaping in the distance, around a kilometre or so away. Even from that distance, the imposing size of the mammal was clearly visible, so it was with a little sigh of relief that we returned to shore without the boat tipping from any further encounters.

Night Mode — 10 October

Whale watching the day before had left me exhausted, so I spent most of the day on the sun lounge on the deck of my hut with a book, occasionally dipping my toes in the cool water. I did leave the hut to have the included lunch since I wouldn’t be there for dinner, as I’d booked in an evening game drive.

As dusk rolled around, I climbed into the back of the safari jeep to see what nocturnal creatures we could spy waking up around Yala National Park. The park is home to the highest density of leopard population in the world, so no prizes for guessing which animal stole the show.

Through the use of infrared and night-vision goggles, which not only helped us see significantly more detail but also helped limit the amount of artificial light the animals were exposed to, we observed the big cats in their natural habitat. We were even lucky enough to see the predators in action as one leopard slinked its way up a tree and plucked a bird from its nest. Not for the faint-hearted, but a remarkable demonstration of nature in action.

Colombo (again)

Square One — 11 October

After breakfast, it was back to where it all started: Colombo. On arrival, the staff at the hotel where I’d stayed on my first night in Sri Lanka greeted me with familiarity, as if I’d never left.

Having spent the last nine days in such remote parts of the country, I decided to explore a bit of the city. It felt strange to be among the skyscrapers and bustling streets again. In truth, it felt like significantly more time had passed, given everything I’d done and everywhere I’d been.

Tomorrow I’d be leaving Sri Lanka to spend the second half of my trip in the Maldives — probably more relaxing, but definitely less fascinating. The trip so far was better than I could’ve hoped for. The rich history, vibrant culture, welcoming people and spectacular wildlife had all been a joy to experience, and I hoped to be back one day to visit the parts of the country I hadn’t been able to squeeze in this time around.

The Maldives 

Island Time — 12 October–22 October

My flight to the Maldives awaited, so it was back to the familiar terminals of Colombo Airport following one last Sri Lankan breakfast. After arriving in the island’s capital, Malé, I was transported by seaplane to the One&Only Reethi Ran Resort, which sprawls across its very own island. 

The water villa in which I was staying oozed class: high ceilings, an oversized bathtub and a huge deck complete with a couple of hammocks — perfect for sunbathing over the crystal-clear lagoon. I had timed my visit with a few colleagues, who had also chosen to vacation on the island, so it was a nice change of pace to see some familiar faces.

The next ten days blurred into one another, a leisurely combination of relaxation and light activities. And believe me when I say there was no shortage of things to do: twelve beaches, eight restaurants, a dive and watersports centre, sun spa, beach club, climbing wall, golf simulator, artists’ studio, luxury boutique, library and two tennis courts dotted the island — and I’m sure I’ve missed at least a thing or two.

On the second-last day of my stay I think it was, as I was dozing off in the hammock that had become my cocoon for the day, I spied two bright-beaked birds wrestling for a worm, one of which was slightly bigger than the other. My mind drifted to King Kashyapa and his brother, vying for the throne on that great big lion rock, and I wondered whether Sri Lanka would’ve been much different today had things gone the other way.

I’d never know which of the birds won the tussle for the worm, for I was quickly swayed to sleep, and soon enough I was right where my mind had left off: atop an armoured elephant, spear in hand, charging into the thick of battle.

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