With ancient ruins, blustery mountain ranges, fertile valleys, mist-wreathed tea plantations and idyllic palm fringed beaches, Sri Lanka is ravishingly beautiful. Take it all in on a road trip around the tear-shaped island.
The late Arthur C Clarke, futurist and author of 2001: A Space Odyssey once described Sri Lanka as a small universe, with “as many variations of colour, scenery and climate as some countries a dozen times its size”. Clarke’s adopted home- just 225 kilometres across its widest point- does indeed offer an almost cosmic diversity of attractions, from cloistered temples and ancient ruins, to blustery mountain ranges, fertile valleys and mist-wreathed tea plantations. It also offers some of the most adorable and affordable hotels in Asia.
The best way to appreciate Sri Lanka’s treasures is by car. Together with my trusty companion, Ewout, I set out on a five day tour of the country’s central highlands and southern shores.
We farewell a wet and stormy Colombo and follow the narrow road that leads upland to Kandy. It took the British colonialists eleven years to build this stretch of road- which winds up through pineapple estates and cashew plantations with nuts the size of small plums which you can purchase from vendors by the side of the road. While Sri Lanka inheritaed some descent infrastructure from the British, it soon becomes clear that these roads weren’t part of the legacy; despite being only 115 kilometres long, the journey takes us more than four hours.
Kandy is the capital of the last Sinhalese kingdom that fell to the British in the early 1800’s. These days the bustling little city is best known for the Temple of the Sacred Tooth (Dalada Maligawa), a lake side prayer hall that is supposedly home to one of Buddha’s pearly white teeth. We make our way through a security frisking and wander inside, but don’t linger for the daily procession which allows visitors a momentary glimpse of the holy incisor. Kandy is home to one of Sri Lanka’s finest hotels and after a rough ride today, I am keen to check-in. Originally built in 1804 as a walauwa, or manor house, the Kandy House offers nine cosy rooms all with four poster beds and concrete baths opening onto a central courtyard seemingly purpose built for sipping gin and tonics. While Kandy is humid enough to warrant it, we relish in the fact there is no air conditioning- although ill happily do without the squeaky antique fan or mosquitoes that managed to sneak through the netting.
An early start the next morning sees us driving north along the A9 to Sri Lanka’s so-called Cultural Triangle. The A9 is a main highway, but even at this hour the road is jammed with buses, trucks, sleeping dogs and fearless children. It proves tiresome to navigate, so we veer right at Dambulla onto an empty-but even smaller country lane.
A broad baize of rice fields unfolds before us, intercepted the odd farming village with splays of bright pink hibiscus and mango trees laden with blushing fruit. Then, just as we start praising ourselves for choosing the shortcut route, we run into an army check-point, not far from the ancient Sinhalese city of Polunnaruwa. Despite the island’s ongoing civil war, this is the only time I see a military presence outside of Colombo airport. The soldiers check through our bags, made a joke about the weather and then gave us directions to Polunnaruwa, where we spend an hour rummaging through the weathered remains of palaces, temples and a 14-meter reclining Buddha.
We spend the night at Vil Uyana, a former rice farm that is now a sanctuary for monitor lizards and birds (resident naturalist Chandra Jayawardena spotted 53 different bird species on his first day). We drop our bags and watch a peacock fanning his ornate feathers next to our duplex cottage, one of twenty five spread across the resort’s ten hectares of reclaimed paddy.
Taking a cue from our feathery friends that the early bird catches the first worm, the next morning we rise early to climb Sigiriya, a rock fortress dating back to the fifth century. Nobody is quite sure what it served as- perhaps a Royal picnic ground or a meditation space- but with extensive gardens, extraordinarily beautiful cave paintings of half-naked maidens (which the guards will happily show you) this is the most mesmerising attraction in the country. This is particularly true at 7-30 am with a light mist lifting off the artificial ponds and not another tourist in sight.
Happily energised after the morning’s exercise, we get back on the road, heading south around the outskirts of Kandy and into the heart of Sri Lanka’s tea country. Hugging to the sides of a soaring mountain range blanketed with manicured rows of verdant tea plants, this is one of South Asia’s most spectacular drives. The tea estates are finished for the day and the toddy shops lining the road are full with workers. We stop to sample the brew- in this case, slightly fermented coconut milk – much to the amusement of the workers, who whip out their camera phones.
Dubbed “Little England” for its drizzly grey climate, Nuwara Eliya was once the favourite stomping ground for English socialites and Scottish tea planters during the Raj. These days it’s filled with merry makers from Colombo relishing in the chilly air. We check into Warwick Gardens, built by a Scottish estate manager in the late 1890’s and recently reopened after a full restoration. There are only four rooms, each with original furniture, Persian carpets, open fires and claw-foot tubs. Guests share the dining room and a lounge stocked with some overpriced wine. But this is Nuwara Eliya, so we jump back in the car and head to the Hill Club, a half timbered mansion perched on the rise above town.
Founded more than 130 years ago, the club retains an air of elitism; locals and women were allowed entry until 1970. I’d like to stay for dinner- a spectacular affair with grouchy silver-service staff, starched white table cloths and rack of lamb with Yorkshire pudding- but in jeans and a woollen sweater I am not “dressed appropriately for the occasion”. Instead Ewout and I head to St. Andrews, a hotel built in the same era, for a tipple, before zooming back to Warwick Gardens for a superb Sri Lankan feast- a real treat as most hotels here seem hell bent on serving bland European dishes.
The road down to the south coast skirts roly-poly hills, gushing waterfalls and sheer mountain drops- offering some dramatic scenery. Distances can be deceiving and although it only looks to be a couple of hundred kilometres between Nuwara Eliya and our next destination, Tangalle, the trip takes most of the day. At the end of it, The Last House- renowned Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa’s last residential project- is the perfect antidote to all the bends.
Facing a lonely stretch of beach, the two storey villa is designed to catch the breeze from every one of its terracotta stained rooms- all with chunky timber furniture and antique art pieces. There is a pool out the back, a library chock-a-block with novels and architecture books and resident cook-cum-manager, Ananda Ranasinghe, to cook anything you want to eat.
On Boxing Day 2004 the scene wasn’t so idyllic, as this stretch of coastline was ravaged by the Asian tsunami. Ranasinghe tells us stories of the wave, which, towering as high as the palm trees, hit while he was preparing breakfast for a house full of guests. Noticing the tide had receded unusually far, Ranasinghe sensed danger and ushered his guests upstairs. They all survived and the solidly built villa received minimal damage. But the building shells littering the coastal road from Tangalle all the way to the fortified Dutch town of Galle are a reminder of those less fortunate. Repotts vary, but its estimated that 40,000 Sri Lankans lost their lives during the tragic event.
Built by the Dutch during their tumultuous rein over Sri Lanka’s southern coastline, Galle is in the midst of a renaissance. Karl Steinberg, the genial Australian owner of the Galle Fort Hotel tells me that five years ago many Sri Lankan’s wouldn’t deign to visit the narrow lanes of the walled prescient, thinking it old and decrepit; even tour buses would drive through without stopping. Now thanks to people Steinberg, as well as a raft of new boutiques and gentrification projects, Galle Fort has some of the most expensive real estate in the country.
Being primarily residential- and predominately Muslim- Galle Fort has no bars, or even restaurants for that matter, outside of the fancy hotels. Instead, party goers head to the nearby backpacker beaches of Unuwatuna and Hikkaduwa. But even there things don’t reach a higher tempo than beers and Bob Marley on the beach.
From Galle it’s a straight (if congested) sprint up the coast to Colombo, past Hikkaduwa, the resorts of Bentota and onto the sprawling metropolis and seat of government. It would be nice to stop along the way, but the Tintagel- a new hotel named after a Cornish castle- has just opened and a room there has my name on it.
Kandy House: Doubles from US$130; +94 81 4921394; www.thekandyhouse.com
Vil Uyana: Villas from $400; +94 60 2532284; www.jetwing.com
Warwick Gardens: Double rooms from $221; +94 060 2532284; www.jetwing.com
The Last House: Doubles from $185; +94 81 4921394
The Galle Fort Hotel: Doubles from $160; +94 91 2232870; www.galleforthotel.com
The Tintagel: Doubles from $200; +94 114602122; www.tintagelcolombo.com