Jenny Handley visited the teardrop island, formerly Ceylon, and experienced the diverse delights of safari and sea, local life and luxury
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Climbing into our airport shuttle, my friend asked the driver, “Do drivers use their hooters much here?” Seconds later her answer was a cacophony of hooting as we wound our way through the crowded streets of Colombo, capital of Sri Lanka.
After a chaotic afternoon in bustling Pettah Market, we relaxed with sundowners at the Galle Face Hotel, overlooking the Indian Ocean.
The next morning, we took a seaplane trip to Weerawila – three stops with breathtaking views that included tea plantations and towns, coast and cotton wool clouds, and a sign of imminent change – a highway under construction.
Our safari at the unique Wild Coast Tented Lodge, one of three Relais & Châteaux properties on the island, started with a welcome from the monkeys, who followed us to our exquisitely appointed tent. Set on the rugged coastline adjacent to Yala National Park, it’s the perfect place to enjoy both beach and bundu. Afternoon game drives revealed prolific birdlife and sightings of leopard and elephant, for which the park is known. It was surreal to see water buffalo grazing against the backdrop of the ocean.
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After a five-star dinner of delicious local curries, we were urged to request an escort to see us safely back to our tent. We woke to the sounds of early morning bird calls, followed by a traditional breakfast of egg hoppers (fermented rice and coconut flour pancakes).
We returned to the colonial city of Galle which is made up of the old Dutch quarter in the 18th-century fort, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and a new town built after the 2004 tsunami.
Exploring the ramparts where locals stroll and fly kites was exhausting in the midday heat, so we took refuge in some of the delightful cafés and restaurants. Lighthouse Street, which has a perfect view of the Point Utrecht Bastion Lighthouse, is filled with boutiques, galleries and restaurants.
We had just relaxed into the coastal atmosphere, when it was time to venture north to the tea town of Ella in the hills. Most of the accommodation here is rustic. Home stays are the norm – many offering spectacular mountain views. From ours, we could see two famous sites, Little Adam’s Peak and Ella Rock.
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Each foray into the town involved a short yet steep 10-minute walk. Ella is best explored on foot and in tuk-tuks. We took a ride to Nine Arches Bridge, an engineering marvel built nearly 100 years ago and where the last part of the journey is a walk through cool, dense jungle. By chance we were there for the 3.30pm train sighting. Taking our place alongside many others holding their phones and cameras, we clicked furiously when the train shot past.
We grabbed a tuk-tuk to transport us to Little Adam’s Peak, 1 041m above sea level. It was worth the hour-long walk to the top, where the views of greenery formed by tea plantations and jungle are spectacular.
We got up early to experience the sunrise behind Ella Rock then headed into town for the Ella garden spice tour. After a refreshing cup of Dilmah ginger, lemon and honey tea, we returned to the mountains to visit a tea plantation.
Tea is harvested all year. Only the top leaves provide quality, and the slender, middle bud between the top two leaves makes the highly desired white tea, also known as silver or gold tea because of its value.
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Then it was time for a final breakfast of egg hoppers to provide stamina for the hike up to Ella Rock along train tracks, past simple houses in the village, to the waterfall for the last rocky climb to the top. We enjoyed stupendous views of the mountains and plantations before a horn-tooting six-hour drive back to the airport.
JENNY’S SRI LANKA TRAVEL TIPS
GOOD TO KNOW: There is a 17% tourist levy on purchases in stores, and in most restaurants a 10% service gratuity is included. Very few restaurants have wine – grab a beer or cocktail instead – or take your own.
MUST-SEE SIGHT: The stilt fishermen at Weligama and Ella Rock are unique and memorable.
ITEMS TO PACK: Temperatures vary drastically. It’s hot at the coast where you’ll need sunblock and a hat, but cold inland where a warm jacket may be needed.
FAVOURITE BITE: Egg hoppers for breakfast.
PLANNING YOUR TRIP TO SRI LANKA
GETTING THERE: Emirates flies to Colombo via Dubai.
GETTING ABOUT: Driving is tedious and roads difficult to navigate, so if hiring a car, hire a driver too. Local buses and trains are cheap, but not always reliable.
CURRENCY: The currency is the Sri Lankan Rupee. ZAR1: LKR13. A curry and rice meal for two costs as little as LKR1 800 (about R160).
VISAS: South Africans need a visa to visit Sri Lanka. Apply and pay online atat eta.gov.lk/slvisa and then collect it at the airport on arrival.
USEFUL WEBSITES Resplendent Ceylon offers a selection of sea, tea and safari packages at resplendentceylon.com; Weligama Bay Resort weligamabayresort.com and The Miracle Island transfers themiracleisland.com