Winter Sun with Personality

20th April 2018

If you’re planning ahead for a holiday somewhere warm and wonderful as the end of this year tips into the beginning of the next, Jennifer Lipman suggests a little island in the Indian Ocean…

The thing to appreciate about Sri Lanka is that, while it’s not very big, every journey is of epic proportions. A few kilometres might not sound like much, but on the country’s crowded roads – where tuk tuks weave between trucks and aggressive overtaking is practically mandatory – it can take several hours.

Travel time aside, however, Sri Lanka has innumerable charms, from the obvious – sea, sand and surf – to the more original. Less than a decade after its bloody civil war ended, the country, with its tropical temperatures and attractions of all types, is fast becoming a must-go destination for everyone from families to hardened backpackers. After a few days there, it isn’t hard to see why.

You fly into Colombo, a sprawling, overcrowded metropolis (Sri Lanka fits a population of 22 million into a land mass no bigger than Ireland), so immediately head further afield. Hire a driver for some or all your trip (it can cost as little as £50 a day and is about the only way to get around) and simply get going.

For a winter sun route (Sri Lanka’s climate is seasonal, so you’d follow a different itinerary if you visited in the summer), go north and kick things off in Sigiriya, where luxury hotels set in bountiful jungle clamour for attention. If you can stretch to it, stay in the ravishing Jetwing Vil Uyana, which sits upon its own nature reserve and has a resident crocodile who pokes his head up while we enjoy a scenic cocktail.

A day is all you need; get up with the sun to climb the awe-inspiring Lion Rock, an ancient fortress hemmed by claw-like feet, once used as a Buddhist monastery. 660 feet high, on a clear day it grants breathtaking views across the region. Ignore offers of a guide as it’s a set route, although the steep ascent requires a certain level of fitness.

From there, head a few miles down the road to the Dambulla Cave Temple, and marvel at this World Heritage Site; a complex featuring statues and mosaics of the Buddha dating back to the first century BCE. As an example of early interior design, it’s enormously impressive, and the walk up the mountainside to reach it is pleasant and picturesque.

Sigiriya is a couple of hours from Kandy, a route punctuated by spice farms just off the main road. Ask your driver to stop at one; we visit a relatively unassuming example where a medical student teaches us about the ayurvedic properties of numerous plants and herbs, then inevitably tries to sell us the remedies.

Kandy, built around a lake and sprawling high into the hills, was once an ancient capital and is today home to the Temple of the Tooth Relic and the impressive Peradeniya Botanical Gardens, modelled after Kew and the most beautiful setting for a morning walk. The city is bursting with hotels but choose carefully, as you’ll most likely be eating where you’re sleeping. Dining out is not a Sri Lankan habit; away from the main hotspots you’re unlikely to happen upon a cute café or eatery, although local cuisine – dishes such as curry or hoppers (a version of a pancake) – is everywhere, while the fresh fruit is as promising as you’d expect.

One place it’s worth going for a drink or dinner is Helga’s Folly, an anomaly of colour and art nestled in the Kandayan mountains. Home of Sri Lankan socialite Helga de Silva, mother in-law to the late socialite Isabella Blow, it’s like no place I’ve ever been; think the Addams Family meets a psychedelic trip. The walls are littered with paintings both good and dreadful, while skeletons and year-round Christmas lights jostle for space with family photographs from the colonial era, and guests walk around in a bemused trance, trying to figure the whole thing out. Past visitors have included Vivien Leigh and Gregory Peck, while the Stereophonics wrote a song inspired by it.

Kandy is also the stepping off point to tea country; Ceylon Tea was first produced in 1867 by Scottish planter, then brought to the masses by canny retailer Thomas Lipton. A surprisingly enlightening museum will get you up to speed with the history of a crop that is now part of the country’s fabric, but if you have more time you can visit and even stay at one of region’s many working plantations.

Also worth a stopover – for a night as you head south – is the curiosity that is Nuwara Eliya. Once the society spot for the colonial British, with the Grand Hotel its crowning glory, you can still get a very English afternoon tea served on the lawn there, although the establishment is a little faded. While Nuwara Eliya’s time has long passed, it still bears traces of its former life. Walking around you will see British village-style architecture, a pony club, red post boxes and street names like Edinburgh; it has the feel of a Wild West ghost town, transplanted to the Cotswolds.

Also nearby is Ella, a hole-in-the-mountainside that has become a backpacker Mecca, with cheap-as-chips guesthouses and funky cafes offering weary travellers home comforts. For many, the appeal of this part of Sri Lanka is Adam’s Peak, a daunting mountain climb and pilgrimage point – usually undertaken for sunrise – the summit of which is a rock formation said variously to be the footprint of Adam, Buddha or Shiva. We opt for the milder walk up Little Adam’s Peak, just outside Ella, which takes only an hour but still boasts astonishing views of tea country and beyond.

As you climb down the mountains, head to the south, to a safari at Yala National Park, where you’ll get your fill of elephants, leopards and other native wildlife, and where there are plenty of luxury glamping options (or, equally, hotels) from which to choose. Keep going from there and you’ll hit Sri Lanka’s southern coast, home of the beaches, palm trees and golden sands that we all associate with that part of the world.

Mirissa – a tiny coastal village around two and a half hours from Yala – is worth a flying visit as the jumping off point for the dozens of whale-watching boats that depart there daily at 6am. First offered as an attraction about a decade ago, this is now a crowded trade and not all boats (or captains) are equal in the capacity to spot the majestic blue whales, dolphins and other notable wildlife bathing in the Laccadive Sea, or indeed in their compassion for those creatures. Book online in advance and secure a place with Raja & the Whales, a professional outfit who more than deliver (and offer one of my more memorable culinary experiences: omelettes flawlessly cooked and served while the ship is rocking precariously from side to side).

Then it’s on to Galle, Sri Lanka’s signature coastal hub (well-known for its stilt fishermen), with its glorious 17th century Dutch fort, home to a plethora of chi chi boutiques and classy restaurants. Spend a few hours walking the ramparts and taking in sights such as the clock tower, the lighthouse, or the nifty sewerage system. Then while away the afternoon with lunch in the shaded courtyard of the Heritage Cafe (some of the best hummus I’ve ever tasted), or an ice cream at Isle of Gelato. Come gin o’ clock, however, you might have to leave the fort; it’s largely dry and tends to have quietened down by 9pm anyway.

Avoid staying too far down the coast in crowded Umawatuna and either sleep inside the fort walls (pricier, but worth it for ease) or at one of the hotels just a few minutes’ drive away; the new Amari is reasonably priced with an enormous pool, rooftop bar and private beach. Take the time to visit Jungle Beach, a secret slip of paradise that involves a dubious trek down from an out-of-the-way road, but is well worth it.

Galle is just two hours from the airport, making it the perfect place to close off your holiday. Of course, Sri Lanka is well located for combining with other destinations; the Maldives, say, or India’s lush Kerala state – but if this is your only stop and you’re after winter sun with personality, you won’t be disappointed.

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