Sri Lanka is paradise. A kaleidoscopic experience of vivid intensity, where colourful sights and brash sounds intermingle with confusions of aromatic spices, friendly smiling faces, cultures that reflect peace and tolerance, and religions that promote total harmony. Lifting the veil on this magical island reveals a country where ancient customs and traditions blend perfectly with modern life. For many centuries past travellers to Sri Lanka have enjoyed its tranquil hospitality, its spellbinding history and its outright friendliness. Today nothing has changed and its traditional welcome, ‘Ayubowan’ - may you live long - is extended to each and every visitor.
Colombo, invariably the first port of call of travellers, is a city proud of its mixed heritage. Colonial Dutch, Portuguese and British architecture, in the presence of the old town hall, parliament house, churches, cathedrals, tree-lined avenues, parks, railway station and government buildings, stand cheek-by-jowl with ultra-modern office blocks and five star hotels. Reflecting a more traditional way of life an eclectic intermingling of Hindu and Buddhist temples, spice bazaars, bustling street markets, gemstone, ceramic and batik stalls all add taste and flavour to this most vibrant of cities.
Snapshots of its colonial history are to be found everywhere; still in use the red pillar-boxes erected during the days of the British Raj, but more unusual to the foreign eye is the ubiquitous, omnipresent tuk-tuk, a motorised three-wheel vehicle. A cheap and noisy way to travel it is an experience to be tried, but perhaps only once.
Top quality hotels, of which there are many, add to the creature comforts of Sri Lanka. In Colombo the Oberoi, Hilton and Taj Samudra offer clients a world of serene grandeur and pure luxury, but for many people the Mount Lavinia Hotel, where guests are greeted by white uniformed solar topee’d doormen, is the most romantic. Once the residence of Sir Thomas Maitland, a British governor in colonial days, the hotel is named after a local dancing girl with whom he fell in love and who later became known as Lady Lavinia. This is one reason why the hotel is reputed to be the most idyllic in Sri Lanka and, because of its association with Lavinia, is a favourite venue for weddings and honeymooners.
Marriage ceremonies are conducted at many of the first class beach hotels that front the Indian Ocean on the south-western corner of the island. Along the palm fringed ribbon of white coral sand between Colombo and the world heritage site walled city of Galle, the Neptune - Beruwela, the Taj Exotica - Bentota, and the Triton Hotel at Ahungalla each provide exclusive romantic wedding packages. Elephants, colourfully robed and strewn with flowers, accompanied by traditional dancers and drummers, provide local colour at the ceremony during which, if she so wishes, the bride can add to the occasion by dressing in a traditional Sri Lankan saree. Here everlasting memories are created on the beaches of Serendipity*.
Sri Lanka’s beaches extend for over a 1000 miles around its coastline. Warm shallow waters, deep natural harbours, and still lagoons with underwater coral gardens are ideal for wind-surfing, water-skiing, wave boarding, canoeing, sailing, snorkelling, deep sea diving, exploring offshore wrecks, water polo and sea fishing.
The beach holiday is just one sparkling facet of the many wonders that constitute Sri Lanka. Up-country, in cooler climes, exotic wildlife, fascinating flora, ancient temples, rock fortresses and the many sacred relics that dominate the culture and history of Sri Lanka awaits the visitor, but to many travellers discovering the intricacies of the famous Ceylon Tea industry is a fascinating challenge.
Orange Pekoe, Silver Tips, Earl Grey, English Afternoon, and Green Tea with Jasmine flowers are typical of the choice selections of Ceylon Tea that are grown and processed in the cool, hilly regions of Nuwara-Eliya, Kandy, Udapussellawa, Uva, and Dambulla. In a fragrantly aromatic atmosphere, visitors can absorb themselves in the practicalities of tea processing, a skill seemingly unchanged for 150 years. Here they can follow the arrival of the tender freshly picked tea leaves, and view the various stages of preparation to final grading, weighing and packaging prior to export worldwide.
Especially recommended is a stay at the Tea Factory, which stands some 6,800 feet above sea level, just six degrees from the equator, in the lush green misty mountains of Kandapola. Built in the days of British Raj as a factory for tea processing, it has been sympathetically converted into a five star hotel so that much of its original style and machinery remains. Its reception area is where the factory’s leaf drying process was carried out, the tea packing room is now the hotel bar and the grading and sifting area is the restaurant and as can be imagined the views from the Tea Factory are breathtaking.
Important to Sri Lanka is the protection of its natural environment. Although visitors are encouraged to explore its Sinharaja rain forests, which is the sanctuary for over 170 varieties of exotic orchid, and Horton Plains - the only habitat in the world for certain species of fauna and flora - the government rightly insists on maintaining a definitive line between tourism and its very fragile eco-system.
In national parks such as Yala, Wilpattu and Inginiyagala, where leopard, elephant, monkey, deer, boar and bear roam free, conservation and safety is a priority, and visitors are taken by covered vehicle on safari to observe the wildlife. Arguably that most impressive of all beasts, the elephant, can still be seen wandering around in sizeable herds.
A project that enables the visitor to get close to nature without compromise is the Kandalama Hotel, the first building of its type in Asia to be awarded Green Globe 21 certification. Located on the border of a vast primeval forest its design gives centre stage to nature. Rocks, caves and even cascades of rain water add charm to its corridors, and forest trees brush against galleries and room windows, while flowering woodland creepers curtain balconies and the roofs are terraces of wild grass.
Just two hours by coach from Colombo is the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage where over 60 elephants displaced from the wild are cared for in their natural habitat. Elephant watchers can observe these magnificent creatures at close quarters, see them bathing in the river, and enjoy the sight of baby orphans being fed by hand. Without doubt a visit to Pinnawela is the highlight of their visit to Sri Lanka for many people.
Kandy is thought by many to be Sri Lanka’s most beautiful city. Situated centrally in temperate hill country it is the last capital of the Sinhala kings and is dominated by the Dalada Maligawa – the temple of the Sacred Tooth relic, where, it is said, Lord Buddha’s tooth is kept. For horticulturists the Royal Botanic Gardens in Peradeniya (close to Kandy) is a must, its vast acreage of carefully tended tropical trees, shrubs and flowers are undeniable magnetic attractions. For ten days each year Kandy is the setting for the festival of the August Moon. “Flaming torches blaze a trail for the glittering procession. Trumpets, conches, oboes and drums beat out a ritual rhythm for the dancers and rank upon rank of elephants – bedecked with golden caparisons – precede the lofted Sacred Casket, as late into the night the holiest of festivals is transformed into an unforgettable spectacle,” comments a local tourist brochure.
Also not to be missed is the ancient city of Anuradhapura. Founded in the fifth century BC, it is venerated as Sri Lanka’s Buddhist capital. Fifteen minutes away is Mihintale the mountain monastery connected with Arahat Malinda who introduced Buddhism to Sri Lanka. Whether you travel north, south, east or west historical Sri Lanka can always be relied on to surprise and excite.
One of Sri Lanka’s most ancient and revered historical sites is Sigiriya, a massive 200-metre high rock fortress constructed in the fifth century AD. On its flat summit the ruins of moats, gateways, pavilions, a palace and pleasure gardens, that took seven years to build, still remain. On the rock face, the celebrated Sigiriya Maiden frescoes attract thousands of admirers each year.
The island is a fascinatingly beautiful experience. With its colourful mixture of ancient religions and cultures, friendly smiling faces, and a range of activities that embrace almost every taste imaginable Sri Lanka, the emerald pearl set in the Indian Ocean, is the tropical meeting place of old and new. Mass tourism has still yet to make its mark on Sri Lanka, and perhaps it never will, but for those people who do make the effort to visit this most fascinating country they will be well rewarded.
*Sri Lanka is often referred to as the land of Serendipity, derived from the Persian fairytale of the three princes of Serendip who had a wonderful talent for making fortunate discoveries by accident.