Rather seriously excited actually! Am off to the island paradise of Sri Lanka on an ‘educational’ to experience two Saga Travellers World holidays rolled into one. For “educational” do not read holiday, this is where we get to experience what Saga customers experience – speeded up! An intense taster if you like.
Only two things concern me; the heat – am a woman of a certain age subject to ‘power surges’ – and the possibility of bugs – can still scream like a girl if cornered.
We fly with Emirates, very smooth. Am offered enough liquid refreshment to satiate an alcoholic. A two-hour stopover in Dubai is phenomenal – no time to get hot as we are whisked into the air conditioned terminal; a cocktail of nationalities mixed together in an upmarket shopping paradise.
Land in Sri Lanka around 8am – it’s four-and-a-half hours ahead of GMT. In arrivals we are greeted by our tour manager –men and women alike are garlanded with sweet-smelling frangipani flowers.
The heat is phenomenal, but I am not suffering, despite the fact that we are travelling at the hottest time of year. We are whisked into or air-conditioned minibus and head into the capital Colombo. Am not tired, but thoroughly overexcited – everything is different; the lush übergreen scenery, and the stupa, temples and Buddhas everywhere.
We have arrived at Vesak – Buddha’s birthday – tissue paper lanterns, and flags hang everywhere and the holiday atmosphere is palpable. We tour Colombo – more on cultural Sri Lanka in part two of my diary, then head out to the Suriya Resort in Waikal, which lies beside the sea and a lagoon.
Again we are garlanded with frangipani, given a refreshing fruit juice, and light a candle in a special Sri Lankan welcome – this is to become familiar over the week, it is pure joy to be welcomed so warmly, am quite put out on my return home that my husband fails to produce a similar floral tribute!
Our room is blissful and overlooks the pool. The exotic birdsong is entrancing, a constant reminder that I am not at home. We swim, stroll on the beach, pant in the shade and drink gallons of soft drink, before dinner.
Dinner last night and breakfast were superb. There is western food on offer, but I am thrilled with my Sri Lankan fare, a curry – not too spicy – eaten under the moonlight. I start the day with fresh fruit followed by an omelette. Despite being offered buffets fit for a prince, I return home weighing less – and that’s all down to the healthy diet.
Our first stop is at the Kaffir Village. Who knew you could get so much rhythm out of a couple of coconuts, a pair of spoons and a glass bottle and a coin? Adore the dancing! See my first cashew in its shell – always thought they were expensive – cannot believe how cheap they are, for cashews are fiendish to harvest!
Drive to Wilpattu for a safari – here be leopards! We miss them by a minute, but I am not disappointed. I see a basking crocodile, a turtle crossing the dust road, peacocks, buffalo, an eagle eating a snake, monkeys and delicate spotted axis deer. I love every second!
We spend the night at Ulagalla Resort, this is how I imagine royalty live. Simply a paradise. Garlanded, and after a drink of King Coconut in its shell, we are transported by buggy to our elegant rooms. Shallow I know, but the private plunge pool is what I love the most! We have a sumptuous five-course dinner by flaming torchlight, cocktails! This is the life!
Breakfast in the open air restaurant is heavenly, views over the swimming pool and paddy fields, birds and butterflies flutter around and we see monkeys and peacocks! Am pleased to note that the heat is not bothering me at all – in fact everyone else is borrowing my fan – and despite our rural locations, have not seen a single scary bug.
Stop at the Cinnamon Lodge for two nights. The rooms are lovely and are scattered through grounds where monkeys play, and chipmunks skitter. Am thrilled to see my first Gecko in the bathroom – it clicks at me in a friendly manner – yet another friendly greeting in this amazing country.
Back in the 5th century, King Kassapa I was casting around for a site for his new fortified palace. He had the bright idea to build it atop a towering, 180-metre granite column. with a bird’s-eye-view of the plateau below! A massive lion was carved high into the rock – the mouth forming the palace entrance, hence its moniker of Sigiriya – Lion Rock in Sinhalese. And, if that wasn’t enough of a challenge, Kassapa had the walls of the rock face daubed with risqué frescoes.
This rock, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is Sri Lankas’ most visited tourist attraction, and a daunting sight as you approach. But climbing it does not, as feared, require ropes and crampons, or even any ungainly scrambling, though it does give the heart and lungs a good workout!
One ascends via vertiginous, and apparently never-ending flights of stairs. These are cut in stone at the lower levels, but as you ascend they are replaced by metal stairs clamped to the rock face. I puff and pant my way past the remaining murals – sadly, Buddhist monks took great exception to them and censoriously erased all but the most inaccessible.
An early start is advisable for this trip to avoid the worst of the heat. I am pleased to report that I maintained the honour of the Saga generation and made it to the top – the views are phenomenal!
Later in the day I stroll amongst the ruins of Polonnaruwa, a 12th-century garden city – much less physically exacting. This archaeological treasure trove is packed with carved stone temples, stupa and the rock temple of Gal Vihara, where humungous granite images of Buddha serenely survey a landscape populated by slack-jawed tourists, meditative pilgrims, and irreverent monkeys.
Back at the Cinnamon Lodge I indulge in a Balinese massage in the spa. I may have dreamt that my diminutive masseuse walked on my back in her bare feet – never thought a massage could be so good – am floating!
En route to Kandy we stop off at Dambulla to see cave temples that date back to the 1st century BC. More stairs to climb, but after Sigiriya this is a walk in the park. Monkeys relieve pilgrims of their lotus flower offerings in snatch and grab raids – and proceed to consume them with relish.
Shoeless I pad into the five cave temples – the walls and ceilings are smothered in exquisite frescoes, and the interior decorated with a positive ‘wisdom of Buddhas’, as well as statues of the Hindu Gods Vishnu and Ganesh.
Pause for lunch at the Matale Spice Garden. Here they grow all manner of different spices and explain their medicinal and culinary uses. Sample a delicious spice and vanilla tea, vow to drink it at home. Some of our group have a leg massage to ease their aching limbs – after the ministrations of my masseuse yesterday I, in contrast, am skipping around like a spring lamb! It’s tempting to raid the shop for all manner of teas, lotions, and potions, I stock up on vanilla, nutmeg and cinnamon.
In Kandy we tour the Royal Botanical Gardens of Peradeniya. Like royalty I am ushered into a buggy and transported around in stately fashion – enjoying the gentle breeze, I resist the temptation to wave. Admire avenues of palm trees, orchids, the cannonball tree with it’s giant blooms and weighty black fruit, and the ethereal gnarled and twisted roots of Sri Lankan trees.
This evening we are treated to a performance of the Kandy dance – a blazing, glittering, whirling and athletic spectacle.
We stayed overnight at the Cinnamon Citadel, a peaceful oasis where I force down a cocktail or two.
This morning we are whisked to The Temple of the Tooth, home to a relic of one of Buddha’s gnashers, a sacred dental trinket. The décor is colourful and opulent. A constantly moving sea of people, all clad in white and clutching lotus blossom offerings, come to watch the rituals, to meditate and pray. The flower seller’s stalls are a joy to behold.
Head out to the hills, where the climate, humidity and high rainfall is perfect for the production of quality tea. The plant was introduced by a Brit in the mid-nineteenth century and, today, tea production dominates the area. The landscape though is unchanged – undulating hills decorated with neat lines of evergreen Camellia sinensis. that swathe patchwork terraces.
Make a stop at a plantation to learn about the grading and manufacturing processes that create the perfect cuppa.
I pass the night in the Grand Hotel in Nuwara Eliya, a bastion of colonial elegance. It is ringed by laundered gardens where plants from across the seasons all bloom simultaneously, it’s like a film set.
This morning we take a tour of Nuwara Eliya, which has been dubbed ‘Little England’ – not much looks familiar to me. The covered market is a joy, birds filch supper from sacks of grain, fruit and veg is artfully displayed, and the retail combinations are perhaps not what we are used to. The scenery is glorious, the hills are wreathed in cloud, and the lake beckons you to glide across it in one of the swan boats.
In the pouring rain we follow winding roads back to the East coast for our final night in this spectacular country. The Cinnamon Bey sits beachside, I go swimming in the rain in the pool.
I’ve stayed up far too late for a woman with an early-morning flight home. But Sri Lanka is like that, it’s so gorgeous, seductive, warm and welcoming, that I want to make the most of every last precious moment.