Lisa Young, with title “All smiles on the Teardrop isle”
Earlier this year British Airways’ only Sri Lankan Boeing 777 pilot landed one of the company’s jets in his home country for the first time in 15 years. Touching down in Colombo, the capital of the tear-shaped island off the southern tip of India, satisfied a life-long dream for Captain Kiran Mediwake. The airline’s absence in Sri Lanka was due to the armed conflict between the government and rebel group the Tamil Tigers, which destabilised the region from July 1983 until May 2009. The arrival of BA is further proof that the country is now open for business.
Business travelers; At the recently refurbished Kingsbury Hotel, I’m greeted with traditional orchid garlands. The minimalist lobby and bar provide relief from the humidity and heat outside. The bedrooms have great city and sea views, but it’s a corporate-style hotel probably best suited for business travellers. From the hotel, you can stroll along the iconic Galle Face Green, which stretches half a kilometre along the coast. Children fly kites, play cricket and ride on skinny ponies, while others paddle in the Indian Ocean.
To avoid haggling my fare to explore the city, I flag down one of the new metred tuk-tuks (a three-wheeler taxi). It’s the best way to get around town, but for longer journeys it’s worth splashing out on a private car and driver, which removes the stress of taking on the heavy traffic, death-wish drivers and kamikaze public buses that bully their way around the country, overtaking vehicles with just centimetres to spare.
Multi-ethnic and multi-religious: After one night in Colombo, I leave early morning and drive 115km to the hillside town of Kandy. Although Sri Lanka isn’t vast, road conditions are sometimes poor, making journey times longer than you might expect. Before getting to Kandy, it’s worth a slight detour to visit Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage near Kegalle town, where you’ll find over 80 Asian elephants. Pinnawala is notable for having the largest herd of captive elephants in the world. Sadly, a few animals are land mine victims and lost limbs during the conflict.
In Kandy, the Mahaweli Reach hotel has a beautiful pool and exotic gardens where you can have an outdoor lesson in the art of tea making. By Lake Kandy is the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, where one of the Buddha’s teeth is said to be encased within seven gold caskets.
Religion plays an important part in Sri Lankan life. A tour of the island reveals a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country, where Hindu and Buddhist temples rub shoulders with mosques and Christian churches.
In the south, people march to a different beat, and at a much slower pace. Small fishing villages dot the shore and sari-clad women in luminous pastel pinks and blues grace the white sand beaches.
Galle, located 119km from Colombo, is a highlight of the south. It has maintained its style from the period of the Dutch occupation, although the narrow streets within its ramparts now host designer hotels and small boutiques. I stay at the five-star Amangalla Hotel, located within the 17th-century fortress town of Galle, adjacent to the Old Dutch Reformed Church. The meticulously restored hotel is a must-see for those with an interest in colonial architecture. The oldest part of the hotel dates to 1684 and the complex was completed in 1715 for the Dutch governor and his staff. Dinner is at a Café, a friendly and popular Sri Lankan-style restaurant on Leyn Baan Street. It overlooks terracotta-tiled rooftops and the nearby lighthouse, which you can climb.
Local wildlife: Mirissa beach is a popular hangout, as are the beaches at Wijaya and Unawatuna, and Hikkaduwa (7km north of Galle) is popular for diving, snorkelling and surfing. Look out for the stilt fishermen along the south coast, fishing for herring and mackerel from spindly wooden poles planted in the coral reef.
For a taste of Sri Lanka’s lush colonial past outside of Galle, I went 7km inland to stay at Apa Villa Illuketia, a 200 year old plantation house that has been beautifully restored. The house, which can be rented entirely or by its individual six rooms, boasts tropical green gardens and is a regular highway for local wildlife. Unexpected breakfast visitors turn up in the form of a bandy-legged monitor lizard and a beautiful, gold mongoose, all under the watchful eye of a grey langur monkey.
Another stand-out dwelling is The Dutch House, which sits on a hill overlooking Galle. This house is a beautiful, three-bedroom restored merchant home, full of antiques and Sri Lankan memorabilia. All rooms open onto a pretty courtyard, where meals and afternoon tea are served.
After a few days in and around Galle, I depart the calm southern tip of the island and drive 40km north along the busy, picturesque, coastal Galle Road to Bentota. The large and contemporary Vivanta by Taj Resort hotel is a far cry from the boutique hotels but all the rooms have sweeping views of the ocean.
Whether you are looking for a luxury, white-sand beach holiday or a chance to get lost down cobbled streets or explore mangrove forests, there is something for you in Sri Lanka. Now the troubles of the recent past seem to be behind it, the number of visitors is rising exponentially. Take advantage of that new BA flight from London before everyone else does.