From mist-covered tea plantations to wildlife-strewn national parks, Lizzie Pook gets to grips with Sri Lanka on a whistle-stop tour…
I arrive at Colombo’s historic Galle Face hotel just as a raging cyclone is rolling in. Thunder rumbles from all around like the earth’s throaty growl, while the mackerel-coloured ocean churns and roils like a Jacuzzi. Inside my room, rain hammers through the antique window-frames and pools on the mahogany floors, collecting in murky puddles that I frantically mop at with piles of fluffy hotel-room towels.
It’s really rather dramatic. But a bit of wet weather never kept me indoors. So I head out – raincoat and oversized hotel umbrella in-hand – to my dinner spot for the night. The Ministry of Crab, built into the nooks and crannies of The Old Colombo Dutch Hospital, serves up sweet, fleshy Sri Lankan crabmeat to Colombo’s hippest locals. The food here is excellent – we get stuck into a banquet of tender pepper and chili garlic crab, and a sweet-with-a-kick prawn curry – but it’s my dinner companion who’s really captured my attention.
I’m sat opposite Malik J Fernando, the second-generation owner of Dilmah Tea. If tea is king in Sri Lanka – and it is, with the crop covering two per cent of the whole country – then Dilmah is the king of kings. Malik’s father was one of the first people to trade in the produce in Sri Lanka and now, as well as overseeing the brand and the MJF foundation – a collection of education and training centres for underprivileged children – Malik is also in charge of three of Sri Lanka’s most exclusive properties under the Resplendent Ceylon umbrella. A trip between Ceylon Tea Trails, the cliff-top Cape Weligama hotel in the south and the recently-opened Wild Coast Tented Lodge in Yala National Park, he says, gives you an excellent taste of exactly what Sri Lanka has to offer: tea, sea and safari. I, about to embark on my very own Resplendent Ceylon circuit, will be exploring exactly these three things on my journey.
The dapper suit-wearing captain of our seaplane is flying barefoot. We’re travelling from Colombo to the picturesque Castlereagh Lake in Sri Lanka’s central highlands, around which perch the historic Ceylon Tea Trails Bungalows. Lovingly restored out of the 200-year-old bungalows that once housed the estate’s tea pickers, these sprawling properties are now the perfect luxury boltholes from which to wend your way through lush green, tea country.
On our journey in, our tiny plane flies high over flocks of cranes, sultry mangrove forests, cinematic waterfalls and patchworks of farmlands, before landing smoothly on the glittering moss-green lake. Norwood Bungalow, just 20 minutes from the jetty and our home for the next two days, is surrounded by rolling hills, snaking tea trails and golden puffs of teak forest. The historical rooms come with four-poster beds and palatial bathrooms and each of the collection’s four bungalows grows a different estate of tea, depending on the plants that surround it.
I spend my mornings swimming laps in the fresh hilltop pool as rainbow-coloured birds dive-bomb the water for tiny bugs. After that, I feel like I’ve earned my breakfast of milk rice and hoppers (a Sri Lankan street food made from fermented rice, coconut batter and eggs). Dinner comes guilt-free too after I expend serious energy kayaking across the lake, hiking the surrounding trails (while keeping an eye out for leeches) and treading the boards of the nearby leopard conservation station and on-site tea factory. Our bungalow’s chef, Chamina, cooks up a superb tea-soaked feast – poached prawns in sencha lemon, French vanilla-flavoured mushroom soup, Moroccan mint-tea crusted lamb and earl grey panna cotta, all washed down with cognac and cinnamon tea cocktails.
At night I watch from the verandah as the mist slowly rolls in, until the mountaintops are covered in clouds the colour of bruises, spilling forth a mighty rain storm that sends birds clattering to the trees.
Where the wild things are
It’s a bumpy six-hour drive south west to Yala National Park. But luckily, this is no ordinary road trip. The morning mist clings to the lush green valleys, while schoolchildren pick their way through the trails in their royal blue shorts, smart shirts and tiny ties. We pass little churches dotted around the hillsides, driving through busy local villages festooned with bright yellow banners.
But as soon as we enter National Park territory, the schoolchildren are replaced by wild animals. Resplendent peafowl stick out like sore thumbs in the dusty bush (as if their sole purpose is to be decorative). Alarmed-looking monkeys with bushy eyebrows pluck leaves from trees. Beautiful painted storks stand proud in fields dotted with stark white cattle egrets and wallowing water buffalo.
The Wild Coast Tented Lodge is a design-lover’s oasis. Just a stone’s throw from the ocean, the camp is centered around a vast bamboo dome lobby with fine shingle floor (plus a whole tree casually suspended from the roof as a sort of ‘objet d’art’). Finishing touches come in the form of geometric copper lights, rough boulder sculptures and huge termite mounds. There are six clusters of cocoon-like rooms, each group surrounding its very own watering hole, which draws in nocturnal animals like civets and even leopards to feed when the sun goes down (they once had a bull elephant wandering the open-air restaurant).
Steampunk-style tented rooms come with four-poster beds, exposed copper pipes, opulent jewel-toned rugs and a huge copper bath-tub (shipped in from South Africa) that you can wallow in until the light fades and the toads outside start up their throaty chorus.
The main draw here, however, is Yala itself, which has the highest concentration of leopards per square mile than anywhere else on the planet. So we’re up before the sun each day to make the most of our safari drives. And while we might be keeping quiet in the hopes of spotting a rare sloth bear or elusive leopard, the animals have other ideas. It is a riot of noise. Screaming shrike birds, white bellied sea eagles, peacocks, hornbills, kingfishers and flame-backed woodpeckers all trill their chorus as we amble slowly along. Bull-bulls, tailor birds, sunbirds and hooded doves whoop, coo and screech their presence.
With the smell of jasmine in the warm air we pass monitor lizards sprawled on rocks. Spotting bear prints and leopard prints in the mud, puffs of lime and lemon emigrant butterflies everywhere, murky lagoons presided over by brahmen kites and half-submerged crocs, herds of elephants with babies suckling and trees decorated with grey langur monkeys – their tails hanging down like long creeping vines.
Suddenly, a Samba deer gives off an alarm call, and all animals freeze in their position. Is there a leopard in town? We wait, breath held until from behind the colossal granite boulders in front of our truck we hear the low rumble of a mating pair of leopards. It’s only later that afternoon, as the sun sinks into the horizon, that we see one of the majestic creatures head-on, standing tall atop of a huge rock. As the sunset sends amber shafts of light spilling across the land, it moves off, lazily climbing a nearby tree and settling on a branch, its huge swollen belly, ripe from a recent feed, hanging heavy beneath it.
The sea, the sea
Our last stop is Weligama, just minutes from Mirissa harbour on Sri Lanka’s southernmost tip – a place filled with painted boats in primary colours, local stilt fishermen, adventurous surfers looking for the perfect wave and Indian Ocean views for as far as the eye can see.
Our base is the ruggedly romantic Cape Weligama resort, where the secluded villa residences come with private verandas, bathrooms the size of small counties and beds so large you could get lost in them (I also appear to have a resident peacock outside mine, and am woken each morning by it tapping boisteriously on the window with its beak).
By day we ride bikes through the cinnamon plantations and rice paddies, or take boats out to sea to observe dinosaur-like blue whales. At night we eat smoked beetroot and feta salad, seafood bisque and barramundi under the stars, surrounded by tiki torches, dancing fireflies and the roar of the sea in our ears.
It’s barefoot luxury of the best sort. And really, that is what Sri Lanka is all about – a wildly beautiful place where you can feel the sand between your toes, the scent of jasmine in the air and the taste of hundreds of years of history in a teacup, all in one trip.
Cox & Kings (coxandkings.co.uk) offer a 7-night trip to Sri Lanka from £2,865 per person including international flights with Sri Lankan airlines, private transfers, all meals at Ceylon Tea Trails and breakfast daily elsewhere. Accommodation is based on 2 nights at Ceylon Tea Trails, 2 nights at Wild Coast Tented Lodge and 3 nights at Cape Weligama. Sea plane transfers with Cinnamon Air start from £250 from Colombo to Tea Trails, Tea Trails to Wild Coast Tented Lodge.