Eight friends living across three continents, 33 years of friendship, all turning 50 and one goal of spending a holiday together. Much discussion over location and logistics- babysitters, husband sitters and finances and finally we agreed on 8 days in Sri Lanka.
The brief was 7 to 10 days with a budget of $5000 each and a destination that was fair on everyone with travel time. We had five years to suggest ideas, fight over ideas, plan and book. A daunting planning task that was eventually narrowed down to a country which none of the well-travelled crew had been to before. Sri Lanka.
Before making the final decision it is fair to say that we noted in the press, that this little gem of a country was becoming ‘ on trend’ for the world traveller. Though roughly the size of Tasmania our research told us transport is not always easy and we had to accept that we could not do it all. So,with the assistance of the Exotic Lanka Holiday tour company and the wonderful Damitha, we came up with the following itinerary for 8 days in Sri Lanka with friends.
Although arriving at different times, we met in Colombo on the roof bar at our hotel, Cinnamon Red. A stunning reunion setting for us with a 360 degree view of Colombo and a horizon pool. We madly caught up over pre-dinner gin before heading out to the Ministry of Crab in the Old Dutch fort by the sea. The Ministry of Crab is the creation of two professional Sri Lankan cricketers and an award winning restaurateur who had the goal of profiling Sri Lankan crab and to stem the tides of exports of this excellent seafood to more lucrative markets. After feasting on excellent pepper and chilli crab downed in a manner of style with a good wine list, we headed home via tuk- tuk in an amazing race type exercise where we urged our jolly driver home. Suggested in jest, the driver took up the challenge and we flew through the streets of Colombo at alarming speed. A few nightcaps drinks at the roof top bar before a well needed rest.
Check rates at Cinnamon Red HERE
The next morning an excellent buffet breakfast introduced us all to fresh fruit with curd and treacle and egg hoppers and dosa with sambal. A glorious way to start the day , it is fair to say we keep to these choices for the rest of the trip.
Our wonderful driver Saliya ( Sally) picked us up from the hotel for the next part of the trip. Sally was with us through the course of the week, not only as driver of the van but as tour guide, shopping guide and great source of background of Sri Lanka and the complexities of its people’s history. He also quickly became our friend and a source of great comfort.
After driving through the back streets of Colombo we ended up heading east towards the tea plantations of the hill country on the way toward Kandy. A difficult drive and although only 164 kilometres it did take us six hours with a break along the way to rest by the River Kelani (setting of the movie “Bridge of the river Kwai”). Very few of us escaped the day without feeling car sick and if this is something that affects you being stocked up with drugs is essential. Stopping at this oasis downing ginger beer certainly helped.
Along the way we saw many interesting sights driving through various villages. It was a Sunday so there were a number of religious events occurring including the very interesting hanging man festival. This a celebration of Thaipusam , a Hindu festival celebrated by the Tamil community in Sri Lanka, India, Singapore and Mauritius. Devotees pay their respects to the Lord Muruga, son of Shiva, by hanging from hooks pierced in their skins. This extreme show of devotion is usually to say thank you for a miraculous blessing that has occurred to the individual or their family.
Before our final destination, we stopped at Pedro tea plantation. Pedro tea is certified organic and has been in operation for decades. In fact, the existing factory was declared open in 1954 by the Duke of Edinburgh and the tea served at Queen Elizabeth’s 60th anniversary celebration was from a plot planted by the Duke at this time.
None of us had every thought about how tea was processed and we had a tour of the factory that was surprisingly informative and entertaining.
After a refreshing cup of Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe tea, it was a short journey to our hotel, the Jetwing St Andrews at Nuwara Eliya. On the outskirts of the town overlooking a golf course and with a fascinating history as a colonial private home, Scottish Club and army hospital the original house is now part of the Jetwing group of hotels.
After some more refreshing gin on the terrace , we enjoyed a lovely buffet dinner with multiple offerings of Sri Lankan cuisine with other western options. If curry is not your thing, it is fair to say Sri Lanka will cater for all tastes but once you have had Sri Lankan curry it is hard to stay away from this choice in the country where the people cook it the best (more on cuisine later).
A nightcap (gin again) back in our rooms for a solid night’s sleep after a rough day of driving. The serene atmosphere and cooler temperatures of the mountains made for excellent sleeping conditions.
Check availability of St.Andrews HERE
Not needing to leave for the next leg of our adventure until 11.30am , we spent the morning taking time over breakfast and enjoying the majestic hotel and gardens. From here we were dropped off at the local train station to start our descent towards the coast line by passenger train from Nuwara Eliya to Ella. The train journey provided a few hours of relaxation where we will able to take in more of the scenery which ranged from tea plantations, to waterfalls and mountain vistas and through jungles of monkey filled trees.
Upon arrival, we stopped at a mountainside café to take in the vista and some Lion Beer. Lion Beer is Sri Lanka owned and manufactured and it is a refreshing mid-strength beer. We also got to meet our first mongoose, who took a very proprietary stance next to our table, waiting to be fed no doubt.
The rest of the day was spent heading towards Yala National Park on the coast and our accommodation at Cinnamon Wild.
Our hotel was five minutes away from Yala National Park but sat on a very large water hole filled with water buffalo, fish, birds and some very active crocodiles which a staff member pointed out to us upon check in. There was a rule that we needed escorting from our cabins to reception and the bar and dining area but through lack of staff to do this in a timely manner and our impatience to get to the rooftop bar for yet more gin, we did often decide to run the gauntlet! After our drinks we headed for another excellent buffet dinner before setting back to our cabins early in preparation for our sunrise safari.
Up at 5am to meet our jeep drivers to take us through Yala national Park . Famous for sloth bears and leopards, we saw neither although I do have a photo of big cat paw prints along the side of the road. I think it is fair to say that the approximately 25 – 35 leopards would have headed off for their morning nap by the time the 50 or so jeeps headed into the park at around 7am, but despite this disappointment it was a truly beautiful park and we did get to see a myriad of animals including elephants and crocodiles.
If you love bird watching (as much as our lovely driver Sally did) you will be spectacularly rewarded. One of our party even keep referring to the experience as the Yala bird sanctuary. Home to over 215 bird species, six are endemic to Sri Lanka. They are Sri Lanka grey hornbill, Sri Lanka junglefowl, Sri Lanka wood pigeon, crimson-fronted barbet, black-capped bulbul, and brown-capped babbler. I am not sure we saw all but the guides are very excited to point out the various birds and they were omnipresent.
After a few hours on bumpy roads in jeeps it was great to get back to the resort for late breakfast, lovely pots of tea and a refreshing swim in the pool overlooking the wildlife filled water hole.
Packing up again it was time to head for our villa, Claughton House in Dickwella on the southern coast where we were booked for the next four nights.
Day Four to Day Seven
A big sigh of relief as we finally reached our beach abode, where we could unpack our bathers and our duty-free grog and start to relax. After the plane, train and automobiles of the last four days, this part of our trip could not come soon enough and the place and the staff were everything we could have hoped for – it was a big warm Sri Lankan hug.
Firstly the house. Designed by Geoffrey Bawa, Sri Lanka’ most acknowledged architect, it was upgraded when bought by an American financier in 2009 and the results are spectacular. It is Bawa’s nod to his training in Scandinavian design and his admiration of Frank Lloyd Wright but the design and concrete formwork are very much about his aim to blend the inside with the outside. There are many private areas to get away to and take in the peace and the view but also many spaces to share as a group and entertain.
The staff were equally as welcoming. Managed by the wonderful Ajith who oversaw the kitchen, the house team of Madushanka, Rumesh, Ishara and Gothami quickly made us feel like family and were there quietly in the background ready to pounce on whatever request we came up with. From pool side barbecues to laundry requests to massages to helping us source all Dikwella’s chardonnay and rose supplies (yep we bought the town clean out!). Most notably helping the group source saris for a dress up dinner and then kindly, the local ladies helped us get dressed for a special 50th birthday dinner on our second night there. They could not stop laughing at our antics and our inability to get into the sari’s but we all got dressed in the end for one of the best banquet feasts you could ask . We dined on amazing canapes through to magical prawn and fish curries and wonderful desserts, all cooked in house. The next day was spent recovering by the pool and an energetic yoga class held in the grounds in the early morning on a platform overlooking the sea.
On our last day in Dikwella, we managed to venture further afield and take in a cooking school and visit to Galle Fort. The cooking school is based at Unawatana, just outside of Galle and run by the irrepressible Karuna.
We met her on the street and took tuk tuks to the Galle vege and seafood markets to procure supplies. With others joining in ( two other Australians and three French tourists) we decided what we were going to cook and brought accordingly. The prize was the yellow fin tuna for approximately $7. 00 a kg for fish curry.
We headed back to Unawatana for our cooking lessons in a tiny kitchen which was quite hot and humid but Kuruna kept us on track preparing our meals, chopping and pummelling everything from scratch and even making our own coconut cream and milk. A few hours later we sat down to well-earned lunch of fish curry, eggplant pickle, pumpkin curry and various other vegetable side dishes. Was a wonderful meal and the fact we were so hands on made it more satisfying in the end.
From here we headed over to Galle Fort for some gem shopping. There are gem outlets everywhere is Sri Lanka but with limited time, we took the advice from the Luxe Guide to Sri Lanka and headed straight to Ibrahim Jewellers. With one of the best collection of sapphires in Sri Lanka, this treasure trove provided plenty of other options as well. I treated myself to a 3.7 carat aquamarine but there are all sorts of stones in an array of settings. While they have quality gems set in quality metals, what they do lack is originality so you find yourself looking at many designs which are familiar to customers of Cartier, Bulgari and Canturi.
There is lots of great shopping in Galle but many of the outlets are also in Colombo.
After this exhausting day, we headed over to hotel spa at Jetwing Lighthouse for a relaxing massage which was one of the best of the week. Feeling recovered after this and a very necessary rain shower we headed to the ocean side bar for excellent martinis and mojitos watching the sunset. The perfect way to end a hectic day.
It was time to say goodbye to our ‘family’ at Claughton House and head back to Colombo. A difficult goodbye to the warmth of not only the staff but the amazing ambience of the house and its breathtaking views.
There is a tollway between the southern beaches and Colombo which means it was a very serene drive mainly through jungle on the way back to the capital and the time went very quickly in our airconditioned sedan. We checked into the Galle Face hotel, once known as the best hotel east of the Suez. It overlooks the Galle Face Green and the ocean. Built in 1864, it started its journey as a hotel in 1894 and has been through several expansions and refurbishments which are continuing to this day.
check rates and availability for Galle Face Hotel HERE
After some quick refreshments at the Veranda Bar we decided to spend out last few hours in Colombo shopping.
We headed straight for Barefoot in Galle Road to experience the wonderful vision of Barbara Sasoni, a Sri Lankan artist who has created a retail empire around brilliantly hued hand loomed fabrics. The fabrics are all made by local artists and there is hand loom operated on site. There is a spectacular array of homewares and crafts to sift through but also a gallery, bookstore and lovely courtyard café.
Our next stop was Paradise Road Gallery Shop which was a similar concept but with more earthy type homewares and a range of ceramics and metallic and paper products as well as an excellent café.
These two shops were all we had time for so we quickly took our purchases back to the hotel for a swim and a sundowner watching our last sunset over the Indian Ocean. Just as the sun set, the resident piper accompanied the ceremonial lowering of the country’s flag which occurs every evening in front of the guests as they have their evening drinks.
For our last meal, we headed to the Hilton to try the banquet at Curry Leaf but decided we were not that hungry so instead ate al a carte at Spices, the international restaurant on the ground floor which overlooks water features and gardens. Although you would not travel out of your way to find this, the food and service was very good and I had an excellent Rose to finish our trip.
We left with heavy hearts early the next morning in the dark for our trip back to Australia. It is fair to say that although busy we did only scratch the surface of this fascinating county and did not do it justice. One month would be a better timeframe to see the whole of the island, spending time with its warm and resilient people.
8 days in Sri Lanka however did give eight women turning fifty a week of memories which will last the rest of their lives.
- Most of the party flew from Australia via Singapore on either Singapore Airlines or Qantas and then Sri Lankan Airline from Singapore to Colombo.
- Most of the party had a myriad of vaccinations- I had none ( as have had many in the past) but packed Bushman’s Repellent and drank bottled water. As we stayed in 5 star most of the time I brushed my teeth in local water but most was rain water and filtered. No-one got sick except for the car sickness.
- 280,000 people died in the Tsunami basically in an area the size of the Sydney. I personally believe for those left behind it is still a period of recovery and probably something they don’t like to reflect on too much. In the South, they are predominantly Buddhist and quite easy going but it is good to remember to be respectful in dress particularly around their temples.