To celebrate British Airways’ new route to Sri Lanka from Gatwick Airport Theo Cronin experiences the highlights of the Taste of Ceylon package – a perfect romantic paradise and a must for anyone planning their honeymoon.
A white egret stands aloft a water buffalo’s back, its feet spread steadying itself against the beast of burden’s sway as it trawls a plough through the paddy field.
The bird darts from its perch to prize a critter disturbed from the syrupy mud, and then the view is gone, replaced by more rich vegetation as we drive on, further and higher into the mountainous interior.
Our guide for the tour is Ashraff, or Ash for short, and he regales us with fascinating facts about Sri Lanka and its wildlife.
There are 426 different species of birds on the island which hangs like a tear drop from the southern tip of India. Eagles and kites abound, with wild boar, crocodiles and leopards still roaming vast rural swathes of the country.
We had spent the morning marvelling at elephants at Pinnawela, an orphanage and reserve for the animals 55 miles from
Colombo and the first stop on the Taste of Ceylon tour.
Twice a day dozens of the docile giants are herded into a river to bathe, affording visitors the chance of taking remarkable pictures of them splashing in the shallow rapids, against a wonderful backdrop rich in greenery, palms and mountains.
As the tour continues through different villages dedicated to the sale of pineapples, cashew nuts or rattan, we learn there are four ethnic groups which make up the population, meaning Sri Lankans enjoy 144 holidays a year.
No wonder they’re always smiling I think, reflecting on the ease with which everyone I look at breaks into a welcoming grin.
We pass under the umbrella like canopies of enormous acacia trees lining the road, planted by the British with tremendous foresight some 200 years ago, no doubt desperate for shade.
The coach pulls into a temple complex and dominating the skyline is the awesome sight of Sirigiya, the Fortress in the Sky.
The World Heritage Site is one of the most iconic symbols of Sri Lanka, but tourist numbers are sparse, and the 1,500 year old ruins retain much of their myth and magic, unspoilt by the commercial trappings so common at other heritage sites around the world.
We climb more than 1,000 steps hewn into the granite edifice and en route are rewarded by the most incredible and
vibrantly coloured ancient frescoes of half naked women – most likely concubines to the prince who gloried in his sky fortress.
From the top, a 360 degree view of luscious rain forest lets the imagination run wild, marvelling at what it would have been like to be master of all you survey from your sixth century rock throne 600 feet high.
Back down to earth, we depart for Amaya Lake at Dambulla, the first of a series of stunning hotels that match in quality and refinement what the country effortlessly oozed in beauty and culture.
Musicians sound our arrival and the aspect of the resort aside a vast lake is simply jaw-dropping. I enjoy a cocktail in the pool to ease the day’s exertion and become enchanted by the dance of two dragonflies – yet another reminder of the rich diversity of life ever-present on the tropical isle.
The Dambulla region is famed for its vast isolated rock mass 500 feet high with extensive cave complex.
The tour encompasses this area, as well as another World Heritage Site, Polnnaruwa, and Minneriya National Park, renowned for its herds of wild elephants.
However, we were heading for Kandy, the last stronghold of the Sinhalese Kings during the Portugese, Dutch and British rule, and again a World Heritage Site, and one of the most sacred for Buddhists – home to the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic of Lord Buddha, where a fragment of his tooth is preciously guarded.
On the approach tea plantations, their product being one of the country’s largest exports, become more prevalent, carpeting the hills as we climb further into the mountains which surround the holy city on all sides.
Steeped in history, Kandy affords visitors the chance to walk the streets of a city far less manic than the tuk-tuk crazed Colombo.
Kandy is a city of craftsmen and in its back streets can be found all manner of sights and wonders that intrigue and tempt the rupees from my pockets – value for money guaranteed with good-humoured haggling.
Another chance to spend my money comes later when our tour stops at the Ranweli Spice Gardens.
There are 32 different spices grown in Sri Lanka assures Ash, a fact confirmed by our Ayurvedic expert in traditional medicine who educates us on the usage of a plethora of berries, barks, flowers and roots.
Many are familiar, but to see nutmeg, vanilla, cumin, cloves and cinnamon in their natural setting is a revelation.
I stock up for my kitchen, determined to try and reproduce once back home some of the amazing flavours we were enjoying each time we stopped to eat.
The country is also world famous for gem stones, especially sapphires, but also rubies, topaz and amethyst.
We visit a mining company where the precious minerals are cut and polished which proves enlightening, if not a little daunting when it comes to price – even if they are a fraction of the going rate in Europe.
Sri Lanka has so much to offer the interested traveller, it is easy to forget it also boasts some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, such as Bentota Beach.
BA Holidays offers visitors the chance to extend their stay in Sri Lanka amidst the opulence and luxury of the newly
redeveloped five-star Vivanta by Taj resort. Set above a tropical sandy shoreline extending as far as the eye can see,
Vivanta, at Bentots, is the very essence of Sri Lankan elegance with an understated design extensively teased with teak lending the property a superior sense of calm and relaxation.
The service is immaculate, the food impeccable, and any length of stay would be the perfect finale to A Taste of Ceylon tour, taking in so many of the sights, senses and wonders of Sri Lanka.
I regret that we only experienced the highlights, flitting like butterflies from one marvel to the next, each time stopping just long enough to sip the nectar from the heady cocktail that is Sri Lanka. I will return.
This is the first tour to be sold by BA holidays, and is offered in partnership
with award-winning Jetwing Travels Ltd.
The nine night Taste of Ceylon tour and stay package includes a six night
tour plus a three night stay at the 5* Vivanta by Taj, Bentota in Sri Lanka
from £1,799 per person, based on two people sharing, for travel in
September. The price includes return British Airways flights from Gatwick
and half-board accommodation on the tour and on a bed and breakfast
basis at Vivanta by Taj, Bentota. Visit ba.com/srilanka or call 0844 4930758
September 14, 2013 Travel and Lifestyle