There are few countries in the world that aren’t worth a revisit. Sri Lanka is not one of them, especially after gourmandising on single estate teas and blue swimming crabs.
Resplendent Ceylon, the hotel group owned by Dilmah Tea’s Fernando family, has strategic outposts placed in areas that show off the very best of Sri Lanka’s cultural and aesthetic diversity. It’s not every country where cool, tiered hills of tea plantations, a sultry safari and a coastal paradise are all a zip away from one another. The Peak joins luxury tour operator Lightfoot Travel for a preview.
Ceylon Tea Trails pegs itself as the world’s first tea bungalow resort, and it spans an impressive 810ha of tea country. Five bungalows and a private one-bedroom cottage (for a total of 26 suites and rooms), built between 1888 and 1950, make up the resort and are so generously spread out that it would take 30 minutes to drive between the two farthest ones.
As a rule, sprawling natural beauty demands to be enjoyed intimately – and Ceylon Tea Trails does offer guided walks in the mornings and evenings, and a tour of the nearby Dunkeld tea factory and tea fields. However, leaving the quiet comforts of the bungalows might prove a herculean task. All of them are colonial-styled, with the outer structures and facades remaining unchanged since they were erected, but the interiors carry a little personality from the decade each bungalow was inspired by. Summerville, for instance, with its location right on the banks of the Castlereagh Reservoir, is redolent of a country cottage, while the 128-year-old Norwood was refurbished with 1950s accents.
Whichever you choose (and you have the option of rotating among all six, if occupancy allows), each residence is fetchingly seasoned. Remember when ceilings were high and floorboards creaked and butlers would bring you bed tea in the mornings and gimlets in the evenings? When the sounds from a crackling fireplace would be interspersed with the occasional buzzing flicker of old lamps, and the light from which would be supplemented by the glow of fireflies in the garden? Probably not, which is why Ceylon Tea Trails is a salve for the 21st-century man.
Nothing here has the overly polished sheen of a mega chain hotel. Of course, there is no doubt that Ceylon Tea Trails is luxurious – all bungalows have their own pool, surrounded by bewitching English gardens that are paired with croquet lawns and wide verandahs. It’s just that the luxury here is from the old world. It takes time for your food to arrive. It takes time for your transport to trundle along the bumpy trails. In fact, time is so inconsequential here the rooms don’t even have clocks. This is the place to train one’s patience and be sumptuously rewarded for it.Without electronic distractions, you’ll come to derive pleasure from luxury that feels personal. There are no menus at meal times, as each bungalow’s chef will tailor dishes to the guests’ needs. When you sit on an armchair in the common lounge, it becomes your chair. When you sip on a gin and tonic, you almost believe you were the one who picked out the crystal. You are master of the mansion, and everyone working in it is happily maintaining the illusion.
After the verdant mountains and gentle breezes is an adventure that, while still deliciously remote, puts you closer to nature’s pulse. The Wild Coast Tented Lodge is located beachside on the fringes of Yala National Park, and has all the fixings of a luxury residence without taking away the wildness of its environs. Don’t be alarmed to find a boar at the reception or a troop of monkeys pattering across the top of your ‘cocoon’. Part of the lodge’s charm is its indigenous welcome wagon.
There are 28 tents in total, including four with private plunge pools and eight family-sized ones that come with smaller, adjacent onion-shaped “urchin” cocoons for children, so both parents and older kids can enjoy some privacy. If Ceylon Tea Trails sells colonial charm, the Wild Coast Tented Lodge evokes expedition-chic. Vaulted ceilings, freestanding copper bathtubs, four-poster beds, coffee machines and minibars hidden in large wooden chests, teak floors and canvas walls ending in double-height glass facades – even Hemingway would find it hard to answer the call of the wild from beyond this swaddle of amenities.
But it would be a waste not to embrace the outdoors. The resort offers safaris at Yala National Park, which is home to a diverse array of flora and fauna, including elephants, sloth bears and Sri Lankan leopards, not to mention dozens of species of birds and reptiles. But those who are spoiled by the convenience and accessibility of zoos will likely have trouble spotting anything that is camouflaged – and nearly everything is. Which is why the safari’s naturalist guides, loaded with information and gifted with eyes so sharp they could probably pick out a needle from a silver-coloured haystack, are a godsend.
Languishing beasts and curious furry neighbours aside, there’s plenty of nature to enjoy back at the resort as well. The open-air bar and restaurant, clad in bamboo on the inside and wrapped in tiles on the outside to resemble boulders, faces a large free-form swimming pool and the beach. Guests can enjoy sundowner cocktails on the sand, or even arrange for a barbecue on the rocks overlooking the Indian Ocean.
SWELL OF SUCCESS
Speaking of open water, Sri Lanka’s coasts are what tourists are flocking to in recent years. But forget about powdery, pearlescent beaches with crystal clear waters blanketing colourful reefs to snorkel over. The Maldives this is not. Sri Lanka’s beaches are not for the pampered, but for the bold. The sand here is golden and the untamed sea brings waves for those brave enough to ride them.
To anyone unfamiliar with Sri Lanka’s coastal charms, Cape Weligama offers the ultimate primer. Perched atop a cliff just south of Galle Fort on the country’s south coast, the 39-key resort overlooks the bay of Weligama, a known hotspot for blue whales, bryde’s whales, sperm whales, killer whales and pilot whales, and four kinds of dolphins, including bottlenose and spinner dolphins, from November to April.
The elegant 5ha property was designed by Thai architect Lek Bunnag, an old hand at waterfront palaces thanks to a portfolio that includes the Four Seasons Langkawi, Maia Seychelles, Pangkor Laut Resort and the Ritz-Carlton Phulay Bay. This also means Bunnag ’s style (all red-tiled roofs, wooden beams and generous sprinklings of swaying palm trees here) is familiar but functional. Complementing the relaxing landscape are interiors by JPA Design’s Singapore studio, themed around maritime influences, local fauna and, of course, Ceylon tea. The villas, which range from 130 to 310 sq m, are some of the largest in Sri Lanka.
Dining at the cliff-edge alfresco Ocean Terrace restaurant will give you the best view of the sea but, for unparalleled sunset scenery, have the restaurant arrange for the meal to be set up in one of the wayward pavilions near the cliffs. The food will still manage to steal focus for a while, since the resort’s easy access to fresh seafood means dishes here still carry the taste of the ocean, and are served in portions that can almost be considered gluttonous.
There are plenty of options to work off the extra calories. The resort’s dive centre provides Padi dive courses, surfing lessons, cruises, big game fishing and banana boating. Or make use of the Cybex-equipped gym before cooling off in the curved 60m Moon Pool. Galle Fort is just a 30-minute drive from the resort, and its streets have enough eclecticism to make Haji Lane look dull.
So there you have it: the multiple facets of an island country that has a whole lot more to offer than many once thought. Be sure to send us a postcard, or three.
Lightfoot Travel is a luxury tour operator specialising in tailor-made holidays around the world. Email [email protected] or visit www.lightfoottravel.com for more information