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Sri Lanka: Pearl of the Indian Ocean

As Sri Lanka celebrates its 70th year of independence, it’s the perfect time for an exotic escape

(Photo: Sebastian Posingis)
(Photo: Sebastian Posingis)

Our first Shabbat as husband and wife was always going to be memorable. But lighting the candles among tea plantations in Sri Lanka is something I’ll never forget.

After making a quiet Kiddush, we sat down to dinner on the terrace of our room at Ceylon Tea Trails in Hatton, looking down from our 1,250 metre high viewpoint across the rolling hills and rows of tea bushes. It seemed right that this special moment should take place during our favourite stop of our honeymoon on this fascinating island.

It’s an exciting time to visit Sri Lanka, currently celebrating its 70th year of independence, with our trip taking us from the beach and colonial style of Galle to the hills and Unesco World Heritage site of Sigiriya.

Despite comparisons to its neighbour India — it’s often described as a more sanitised version — the island, predominantly Buddhist, with smaller Hindu, Muslim and Christian populations, has its own unique charms.

Our first stop of Galle has its own colourful history, belonging to the Dutch, the Portuguese and the British over the years. Famous for its historic fort, amazingly everything inside the original walls survived the 2004 tsunami unscathed.

Taking a guided tour, it reminded me of the Old City of Jerusalem, with shmutter sellers aplenty.

At the palatial surroundings of our resort just outside town, Cape Weligama, it was all about some serious R&R. Wine and chocolate cake awaited our arrival, along with a sunken tub in the vast bathroom, before seizing the chance to wallow in the pool, drink cocktails in the bar and look in wonder at the starry skies.

Then on from the coast to the hills. While the people are charming, the culture welcoming, I soon discovered the roads are treacherous.

It takes only minutes upon landing to realise that the concept of staying in lanes is non-existent, and overtaking is done entirely at whim, often swerving to make way for an animal. Drives are long too: each seemed to be exactly four hours, no matter where we went.

Happily Ceylon Tea Trails was the perfect place to unwind. The hotel’s five bungalows each have four to six bedrooms, offering a real private home experience complete with board games, little nooks and crannies, roaring log fires and help yourself drinks.

Our bungalow, Dunkeld, had excellent butler service and a fabulous Jacuzzi and infinity pool overlooking a gorgeous lake.

(Photo: Golec)
(Photo: Golec)

As well as welcoming our first newlywed Shabbat, the rest of our time at Ceylon Tea Trails was spent going for walks and cycle rides in the hills, passing small villages with little shops, temples and local children.

We were huffing and puffing but they’re used to a four-hour daily round trip to school, where the only English words they seem to have learnt are “water” and “toffee”, said beseechingly.

We took a tour of the old tea factory, watching huge machines come to life while being shown how tea is made, from picking the buds to it ending up in teacups. Afternoon tea, unsurprisingly, is a big deal in Sri Lanka: Ceylon Tea Trails’ offering includes ginger cake, biscuits, homemade scones and pot after pot of several varieties of tea.

Food in Sri Lanka is excellent throughout. Breakfast in the hotels is generally Western, with extensive options ranging from granola and eggs to fresh juices and cheese. As for curry: despite rarely eating it in London, by day three of the holiday, Mark (my brand new husband!) and I were scoffing it twice daily.

Once, Mark tried a local breakfast, which was a step too far for me, but when it came to lunch and dinner, I didn’t hold back.

Sri Lankan curry consists of lots of little bowls of beautifully served but utterly unidentifiable meats and vegetables, from jackfruit and green beans to chutneys and lentil daal. It’s largely vegetarian-friendly, but with chicken looking suspiciously similar to mango, we had to be careful not to inadvertently break Kashrut rules.

Not only are the portions wonderfully, Jewish-style vast, we found that the staff expected us to request free refills too, which, along with a new taste for poppadoms, is why getting into my wedding dress is but a distant memory.

The mixture of exotic and luxury is what makes Sri Lanka perfect for anyone who wants variety from their holiday. We saw a local dance show and gem shop, to learn about the Sri Lankan industry of cultivating and selling gems such as amethysts and sapphires.

Another wonderful afternoon was spent in a herbal garden where a guide showed us round the natural offerings, from vanilla pods and cinnamon bark to plants he swore got rid of fat and removed unwanted hair. An interactive, informative experience, it ended with us spending a happy hour paying far too much for our purchases in the attached shop.

Then time for adventure at Sigiriya, the site of a fifth century palace. We climbed the famed Sigiriya Rock, also known as Lion Rock because of the huge stone lion that used to guard the entrance to the palace built at the rock’s 600ft peak.

It’s a sweaty climb up, but worth it to discover ancient frescoes and old caves along the way and the foundations of the royal palace, water tanks and wonderful views at the summit.

We also visited the 8,889-hectare Minneriya National Park, where we were thrilled to see more than 100 elephants peacefully roaming.

Our base here, Water Gardens, was beautiful and unique — built on a former paddy field, it still resembles one, and has rooms set amid water, lots of land and winding lantern-lit pathways. We had a private plunge pool on our deck and a separate lounge room where we had dinner one night.

Even if you’re not treating yourself quite as much as honeymooners, it is hard not to feel truly lucky to discover this special place.

Sri Lanka offers so much that it can’t be covered in one holiday — Yala National Park, with its leopards and sloth bears, sounded wonderful but we simply couldn’t fit them in. For these, and the curries, I know we’ll be back.

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