Saturday, May 8, 2010

Sri Lanka Tourism - Pack your trunk for a Sri Lankan paradise

By Emily Nash 8/05/2010

EMILY NASH has a relaxing break in Sri Lanka

Gliding down the Benthara river it’s hard to believe you are in a country ravaged by 25 years of civil war.

As you sit back and watch monitor lizards snaking through the water and electric-blue kingfishers darting between the mangroves, Sri Lanka seems every bit the perfect tropical paradise.

We touched down in Col­­ombo hours after the government declared victory in its violent struggle against the Tamil Tigers and were greeted by jubilation and dancing in the streets.

And it soon became clear we were witnessing an amazing moment in the country’s turbulent history as beaming people, waving national flags, lined the road to nearby Negombo.

After a stop for tea (the national product) and cake at luxury boutique hotel The Wallawwa, it was a four-hour drive until we checked into the Cinnamon Lodge in Habarana. Sur­­rounded by three nature reserves, the hotel has a stunning pool, spa and 27 acres of woodland.

Next morning, we walked to the nearby village of Hiriwaduna. Along the way, our guide pointed out butterflies, dragonflies, rare birds and exotic flowers including the curiously named Touch-me-not plant, which closes up if you touch it. The next leg of the journey was by dugout catamaran across a vast rainwater tank to a forest clearing for a picnic breakfast and coconut as we watched farmers armed with rifles keep a treetop vigil for greedy elephants invading their fields.

To complete the unusual commute, we climbed on to a buffalo cart for a bumpy but fun ride out of the forest and back to the comfort of a tarmac road.

Habarana makes a great base for exploring the country’s cultural triangle, which links the ancient cities of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa to Sigiriya, a breathtaking fifth-century fortress perched atop a 600ft rock. Any traces of my hangover (too many cocktails the night before) were soon sweated out as we dodged hornets and snake charmers to climb Lion’s Rock – dubbed the Eighth Wonder of the World by locals.

Luckily, there is a good excuse to stop along the way – the rockface is dotted with amazing frescoes of buxom “heavenly maidens”. The topless women in the paintings are said to be wives of King Kasyapa, who had his palace built on the summit – complete with throne room and swimming pool – after murdering his own father to claim the crown!

After a marathon slog up the 1,202 steps to the top we were treated to an incredible view of his water gardens below and to the south, the start of Sri Lanka’s hill country and famous tea plantations peeping through the mist.

A short drive from Sigiriya through paddy fields took us to lunch at Vil Uyana, a cluster of classy bungalows with stone baths, ­hot-tubs and private plunge pools in lush surroundings.

After the morning’s exertion and an amazing lunch of traditional curries, it was all too tempting to crash out in the resort spa. But instead we piled into Jeeps for a sundown safari in Minneriya Sanctuary – home to eagles, jackals, deer and peacocks.

The highlight was getting near a herd of 300 elephants, which cross the parkland every evening for a drink in the reservoir. A few hours gazing at them was the perfect end to a packed day.

Our next stop was Dambulla, home to the Golden Temple, a Unesco World Heritage site and a short climb takes you to the Cave Temples carved into a 160m high rockface.

There are 153 statues of the Buddha and 2,100 square metres of murals in the five caverns but younger visitors might be more entertained by the Temple Troops – an army of monkeys roaming around the rocks in search of snacks from tourists.Having whetted our cultural appetites, we stopped off to sample some of Sri Lanka’s homegrown secrets at the Luckgrove Spice Garden at Matale, on the road to Kandy.

We saw aloe vera, vanilla, cocoa, cinnamon, nutmeg growing and had a quick lesson in Ayurvedic medicine and how to cook a Sri Lankan curry from scratch.

We also learned how to make moisturiser from sandalwood oil, jojoba and aloe vera. An invigorating massage and a delicious curry lunch later and it was time to go south to Kandy.

Unfortunately, rain stopped our play poolside at the Chaaya Citadel hotel, which overlooks the Mahaweli River and the jungle beyond. But we took in a clearer view of the mountain kingdom from the glass-fronted penthouse at Theva Residency, a boutique hotel on a peak above the city.

Over a fantastic meal, well-travelled host Dhee Amer­­esekere told us all about the Kandy Esala Perahera, the annual 10-day festival in honour of the Hindu god Skanda – the perfect excuse for a return trip. Another of Kandy’s major attractions is the Temple of the Tooth, an elaborate complex built round a relic said to be one of the Buddha’s teeth. Legend has it that the fragment was brought to Sri Lanka hidden in the hair of an Indian princess and it is now considered one of the most sacred pilgrimage ­destinations for Buddhists.
Our next stop was the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage, a short drive from Kandy. It was founded to care for baby elephants abandoned in the jungle or orphaned. Now home to 75 animals, it also runs a breeding programme. Visitors can wander right up to the animals and see the calves being bottle-fed milk in the mornings. Later the elephants are herded 400 metres down to the river for bathtime – like something out of The Jungle Book.

Although the coastal road reveals faint scars from the 2004 tsunami, Sri Lanka’s tourist resorts have bounced back from the tragedy.

Hollywood’s finest Halle Berry and X Files star Gillian Anderson have taken the boat down the Benthara River to River House, one of the newest boutique hotels.

With the end of the country’s devastating civil war, tourism workers are confident that the once-troubled northern tip of the island will soon be a top destination for travellers. And with Colombo just an hour-long hop from the honeymooners’ paradise of the Maldives, there’s the added incentive of stopping off for a spot of once-in-a-lifetime luxury.

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