The recent end to the long civil war means that this spectacular island is becoming more and more popular with holiday makers and travellers. Beautiful scenery and jaw dropping wildlife await!
Arriving in Colombo, the country's capital, we were greeted by a wonderful waft of warm air and beam of sunshine as we walked off the plane. Looking around us we were greeted by the unfamiliar sights, sounds and smells that travellers revel in when visiting a new place. Soaking up the atmosphere we almost missed our guide and driver waiting for us to begin our island tour.
Our first stop was the jungle. It's a long drive from Colombo to Habarana. However, the scenery is fantastic. Teak and rubber plantations line the roads between towns and villages, each one different but all a contrast to what we are used to in the west.
One of the "must dos" that we discovered for these long car journeys was to stop at one of the road side sellers and buy a king coconut, mangoes or red bananas. Watching the seller expertly slice off the top of the coconut with a huge knife while he chats away makes you forget all the bureaucracy of western risk assessments and health and safety!
We found paradise
Upon arriving at Habarana we checked into our first hotel, Cinnamon Lodge Habarana. This is by far the best hotel that I have ever had the pleasure to stay in. Set amid beautiful grounds, we were 100 yards from a lake where sea eagles fished for their dinner, water monitors lazed upon the grassy banks and monkeys bounced from ground to tree, teaching their babies how to swing! Wildlife was in abundance, with countless birds, varieties of reptiles and grey and red monkeys all waiting to be discovered.
The rooms are large, clean and stylishly decorated. In addition, our room boy was excellent and very creative with fresh flowers and towel sculpture! Facilities include a very clean swimming pool, tree houses from which you can anonymously watch the birds and wildlife, tennis courts and the spa, to name the most obvious. Despite the fact that I am always eager to try new things and visit new places this hotel is a one off and definitely a place I will return to.
The position of the hotel meant safaris were just half an hour away. Deserted nature reserves meant that we could watch the herds of 50 or more elephants alone without the imposition of other jeeps dotted along the horizon. Eagles swooped above us and everywhere you looked it seemed that you could spot something new and exciting!
We spent three days in the jungle before moving up to Kandy, slightly cooler due to its higher position above sea level. Kandy is well positioned to enable tourists to visit the surrounding cave temples, and the elephant orphanage. The town is a hive of activity and surrounds an artificial lake built by a previous king. It is said by some that in the middle of the lake was an island which was the king's exclusive harem, to which he had underground passages from his nearby castle to allow easy access! Of course later in history, in true British style, when Sri Lanka became a colony the Brits had no use for such indulgence and turned the island into a munitions store.
We stayed at the Earl's Regency Hotel Kandy for two nights. The hotel again provided good food with a good bar and the room was clean and well kept, this time with a view of the surrounding hills. Facilities were similar to Habarana, a pool, spa, tennis courts and squash courts but the hotel lacked the personality of Cinnamon Lodge. The feeling was less homely and welcoming and once you were inside it would be difficult to tell if you were in Sri Lanka or New York. However a hotel is only a base and it performed that function excellently.
The cave temples are a site of religious importance both for Buddhists and the people of Sri Lanka. We wish, in retrospect, we could have had more knowledge of this significance prior to visiting, which would have helped us to put things into the perspective of those who obviously cherish it so greatly.
The elephant orphanage was a double edged sword for us. Seeing the babies feeding was lovely if you ignored the chains around their legs. One had to hope that these precautions were for the benefit of the paying public and not standard operations within the orphanage. Later we were able to enjoy lunch at a not so brilliant cafe (I had ant fried rice - I had not asked for the ants!) but we had the most spectacular view. The elephants had been brought down from the orphanage to the river to bathe and drink and in some cases play and fight! This was a spectacular sight and as they were free to plod around in their family units our faith was restored slightly in the work of the orphanage.
Nuwara Eliya and the tea plantations
From Kandy we proceeded to a tour of a tea plantation and our third hotel, the Tea Factory Hotel Nuwara Eliya. Converted from colonial times high up within the plantations, this lovingly restored building was a sight for sore eyes following the Earl's Regency. Due to our altitude there was cold wet British weather outside but inside gorgeous surroundings, friendly staff and the cheapest bar of the whole holiday! Sampling the local arrack was four dollars cheaper here than it was at the Earl's Regency! Dinner was lovely as we tried different local dishes to the sound of a talented saxophonist.
Unfortunately this was the last day of our tour and from here we proceeded on a long drive towards the coast to our hotel in Kani Lanka. The mountain scenery of the tree plantations was spectacular and helped ease the frustration of the seven hour drive.
Kani Lanka was OK. We had been spoilt along the tour and longed for the comfort and scenery of Habarana. The hotel the Kani Lanka Resort and Spa is probably one to miss. With over one hundred sun beds and only sixteen parasols it lacks in thought for its customers. If you are lucky enough to obtain a bed in some shade you will no doubt face your bed to look out over the sea (which you couldn't swim in while I was there due to undercurrents). This is not as idyllic as it sounds as between you and the sea is the beach, where groups of local touts hover at the hotel fence (feet away) to attract you for trips, tours and t-shirts. We booked this hotel because of the water sports and were gutted to find plastic kayaks and a lonely windsurf with a hole in it!
On the whole, however, Sri Lanka was an amazing place to visit. The political situation is changing and investment is apparent everywhere. The roads meant travelling around for us was time-consuming but work is already being done to improve this for future tourists. The locals can't compliment their government and armed forces enough and revel in their new found feelings of freedom and safety.
Prices will of course be set to rise and there is always a danger that with investment and tourism a certain charm may disappear. I would advise anyone to visit, perhaps sooner rather than later.