Way back in 1292, Marco Polo called Sri Lanka “the finest island in the world”. Mark Twain, some 600 years later, was moved to agree, though he put it slightly differently. “Dear me,” he wrote, “it is beautiful! And most sumptuously tropical, as to character of foliage and opulence of it.” Its miles of almost absurdly photogenic palm-fringed curving beaches, its picturesque tea plantations, its spices and its cut-price gems have all beckoned alluringly down the years, attracting a motley collection of adventurers, invaders, tourists and travellers, not forgetting eager seekers of eternal truths.
In recent years, though, it’s had a torrid time. What with the 2004 tsunami, which ravaged the south coast and killed thousands of its citizens, and the 25-year-long civil war that only ended in 2009, it was the kind of country that caused sensitive souls to shrink from wanting to witness its sorrows. But now there is peace tourists are coming back and some enchanting hotels are opening up, while some of the older ones are being dusted down and smartened up. On top of that, compared with most of Asia, Sri Lanka offers fantastic value for money.
Sri Lanka may be only a small island, roughly the size of Ireland, but it has been extraordinarily difficult to get around. Its stupendous mountains and hills, gorges and valleys mean the roads are long, curvy and crowded; but now, for those who are short of time, helicopters and small planes are making it easier to hop between the main tourist centres.
Sri Lanka, separated from India by a mere 30 miles, is much, much more than India “lite”. It doesn’t have India’s seductive mix of hectic glamour and edgy sleaze, the crowds, the litter and the profusion of beggars, but it has a history and distinctive charms all of its own. Wander round the country and there is an air of almost palpable tranquillity. Schoolchildren look shiningly clean in the national uniform of white dresses for girls and white trousers and shirts for the boys.
It’s a predominantly Buddhist country, and it shows: things of the spirit matter. Buddhism is taught in all the schools and every month at full moon there is a “Poya” day” so that devout Buddhists can go to temple. Here, Buddhism has taken on a peculiar Sri Lankan tinge, mixed in as it is with earlier folk beliefs and spirit cults. All around Buddhists and Muslims, Hindus and Christians, Tamils and Sinhalese, burghers and immigrants mingle in the towns and villages, the plantations and the cities. It’s as if the sign displayed in every one of the great Dambulla caves, “It is a good quality to respect all religion irrespective of the religion”, has been absorbed into the national psyche.
To understand Sri Lanka you must go first to what has come to be called The Cultural Triangle, almost in the centre of the country. Here, bounded roughly by Kandy, Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, are some of Asia’s most tremendous archaeological monuments. If you can’t face the four-or-so-hour drive from Colombo, you can now go by air taxi to Sigiriya, which is handy for them all. We, on the other hand, had the wonderful Hector (sorted for us by Ampersand Travel), who met us at the airport and drove us everywhere for the whole of our time there. He was tactful, always on time and, best of all, cultivated and knowledgeable about everything from the cricket scores to where to see the best buddhas.
Stay, as we did, at Kandalama, one of Sri Lanka’s most iconic hotels, designed by the great Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa in the mid-1990s. It isn’t perfect (it’s besieged by coach tours and needs to be more lovingly managed) but it is extraordinarily interesting. It appears to be hugely influenced by Bauhaus design, being all straight lines and lots of clear glass, and it exemplifies brilliantly Bawa’s skill in dissolving the barriers between inside and outside, of linking architecture and landscape. Built on a hillside, it’s scarcely visible from any distance, so skilfully does it blend into the surrounding jungle. From our balcony, we gazed out over what is unromantically called the “tank” (because it was man-made) but which we prefer to think of as a lake. Around the surrounding jungle, through the sumptuous vegetation, the dead trees and the islands in the lake flit a myriad birds; in the distance is the great rock of Sigiriya, half an hour or so away.
Kandalama is more than a hotel – it is an induction into the subtleties of Bawa’s pervasive influence. To Sri Lankans, his work has a meaning that goes far beyond any it might have to a foreigner. “It represents,” writes Barbara Sansoni in an essay on his work, “the distillation of centuries of shared experience, and links, at the highest level of achievement, its ancient architecture to that of the modern world.” Here at Kandalama you can feel it all around you; and from the hotel you can make sorties to some of Sri Lanka’s greatest sights. There’s Sigiriya, the “Lion Rock”, 370m high, with at its summit the remains of a royal complex built in the fifth century, now a Unesco World Heritage site. If the heat allows (go early in the morning or late in the afternoon, and it’s not for those with dickie hearts), climb to the top, take in the views, the foundations of the ruined palace, the frescoes; then move on to the great cave temples of Dambulla – five candlelit caves filled with innumerable Buddha statues, all masterpieces of Sinhalese Buddhist art, the most stupendous of which is the 15m-long Dying Buddha.
If you have time and a deep interest in Sinhalese archaeology, then both Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa are worth visiting, but many a visitor prefers to make it just to Polonnaruwa, the island’s medieval capital between the 11th and 13th centuries. Alongside another “tank” are well-preserved ruins of palaces, bathing pools, stupas (or dagobas, as they’re called in Sri Lanka) and some vast, exquisite rock sculptures of Buddha. Close by is Minneriya National Park, some 8,890 hectares of jungle, where herds of up 250 elephants can be seen feeding and bathing and you might catch sight of leopards, toque macaques or a sloth bear. It’s a tough call, though, because leaving out Anuradhapura means missing out on one of the largest, finest and best preserved Buddha statues on the island, the 13m-high Aukana (“Sun-eater”) Buddha, carved out of rock and believed to date from the fifth century, as well as the famous Sri Maha Bodhi, the oldest documented tree in the world (2,299 years old), believed to have been grown from a cutting of the Bo tree (in India) under which Buddha achieved enlightenment.
Visting Kandy is a must, too, for apart from anything else it was the last capital of the Sinhalese monarchy, which held out longest against successive waves of colonial invaders, only finally succumbing to the British in 1815. It’s a charming city, encircled by steep, lush hills, rock faces and torrential rivers, but it is most famous for the Temple of the Tooth, alleged to contain one of Buddha’s teeth, which was snatched from the flames of his funeral pyre. So potent is the mythology surrounding it that every year there’s a great festival of Esala Perahera when the tooth (these days a replica) is paraded around town in a huge procession of some 60 to 100 elephants.
Then it’s time for some cooling air, up in the hill stations. You need to see the beautiful tea plantations, which have so transformed the fortunes of the country, most particularly in and around Nuwara Eliya. We loved the Ellerton Bungalow, originally built to house the manager of a large tea estate over 100 years ago. It’s charmingly done, retaining an air of life in more leisured times, and with just six guest bedrooms, a lovely swimming pool and a garden filled with gorgeous plants and flowers, it makes a wonderful place to rest and read. Across the valley are stupendous views and up through the trees comes the gentle sounds of Buddhist chanting night and morning. Alternatively, near to Kotmale, there is Mas Villa – the home of one of Sri Lanka’s most distinguished political families, the Dissanayakes – which has a beautiful setting overlooking a lake (ask for the suite on the top floor – it has stunning views), though when we stayed new management was just beginning to pull it together on the food and service front.
Up in the hills near the buzzy little town of Bandarawela is another charming refuge – the Dutch House, built in 18th-century Cape Dutch style from scratch by Rodney Arnoldi and Eric Gunawardena, two retired antiques dealers from Britain. The house is furnished charmingly with antiques, there’s an indoor swimming pool and a cinema. Although it sleeps six there are no mixed bookings, so if you’re just a couple you get it to yourself, and the staff look after you with devoted love and care – lemon drizzle cake for tea, Sri Lankan delicacies for dinner, breakfasts on the veranda surrounded by bougainvillea, plumbago, lilies and roses. Bandarawela is said to have the best climate in Sri Lanka and it’s where Leonard Woolf, in the early 1900s, came to recuperate from the typhoid that nearly killed him.
And then you need to head down towards the coast. Stay in one of Sri Lanka’s most glorious hotels, Kahanda Kanda, close to Galle. Built by George Cooper, another expat Brit who fell in love with the country, it has a sensational setting carved out of almost pristine jungle. From the airy balcony of our pavilion (there are just five, all large and beautifully decorated) we looked right out over the jungle and a vibrant village below. There’s an infinity pool to cool off in, lovely Sri Lankan food (giant prawns straight from the sea) and lots of local life to explore. From there we ventured into Galle, walked around the ramparts and the walled city, and had lunch in the airy dining room of the Amangalla hotel.
From there to Villa Bentota, close to Bentota’s legendary beach (you have to cross the garden and a railway line). It’s another of Bawa’s hotels, all airy courtyards and interesting vistas, but it’s been done up by Shanth Fernando, Sri Lanka’s equivalent of Terence Conran and owner of Paradise Road, Colombo’s most sought-after interior design shop. The interiors are cool and sophisticated; the beach, though you need to be wary of the currents, is long and clean and curvy, and to swim in a sea in perfect temperatures is, to we sun-starved Northerners, a very particular form of bliss.
And so to Colombo. There’s some interesting shopping to do (Barefoot is a must – a wonderful mix of books, bright cottons, arts and crafts, clothes and food), the historic merchant town to visit, old colonial buildings to view. The best hotel is Tintagel, once home to two prime ministers and a president of Sri Lanka. In a leafy part of town, it’s been done up in a highly sophisticated way by Fernando. It has just 10 suites, attentive service and – a treat in such a small urban hotel – a pool.
This, of course, is just a fraction of all there is to see and do. There are other gorgeous hotels to stay at (in particular we loved the look of The Sun House and the Amangalla in Galle), the game parks to explore and many more buddhas, temples and dagobas to view. Sri Lanka repays time and trouble and we’ll have to be back. We just need to make sure we get Hector.