It will take Sri Lanka some time to get back on its feet after a twenty-five-year-long civil war that ended as recently as 2009. But the Sri Lankans are already up and running, especially those who work in the hospitality industry. Tourism is on the rise and the locals are making the most of making visitors feel most welcome.
The welcome we received at our hotel in the island’s capital, Colombo, was a warm one, but the friendliness wasn’t there when we needed it. After we’d unpacked and settled into our room, we discovered the air conditioning was faulty. We were told it couldn’t be fixed and that we had to relocate to another floor. Afterwards, it was like moving a mountain to get the staff to help us move. Even though I liked the contemporary and witty décor as well as the pool area on the roof at Cinnamon Red, the food and customer service left much to be desired. So did Colombo.
The first thing I wanted to see in Colombo was the floating market in Pettah that opened with much fanfare and praise as recently as two months before we got there. It was appalling. The fountains that featured on all the websites apparently hadn’t worked for a while because the water was stagnating and in full bloom from green algae. The market is like a floating marina at a yacht club where linked walkways float on water like boats. In this case it’s shops that float on the water’s edge. The only boats I saw at the market that day were moored and looked like they hadn’t moved across water for some time and perhaps they don’t. An affectation? I think so. Boats, schmoats! The publicity also said locals loved to shop at the new market. Although it’s what the shops are full of the statement, in my opinion, is rubbish. Locals don’t buy tourist tat. The day we were there, one could shoot off a cannon and not hit anyone.
My visit to the Dilmah Tea House in the city for a tea sampling was also disappointing. When I got there, I was astonished to see eighteen varieties on show to taste. First in the line-up were Dilmah’s top-of-the-range white teas. After sipping a couple of the white teas, I stopped and commented that I expected the flavour to be more refined than black varieties. The staff agreed that it should be, but went on to say: “A new employee prepared the teas this morning that’s why some are over-brewed.” I then asked if they intended replacing the stewed batches. After realising that a slight shrug of the shoulders was the only response I was going to get, I gave up and turned away. What’s the point of having a tea tasting when the teas don’t taste like they should?
Although we hadn’t planned to stay there for long, we decided to turn our backs on Colombo too. The following day, we hired a car and headed south for a ten-day driving holiday.
The management and staff of the hotels and guesthouses we stayed in, unlike Cinnamon Red, went the ‘extra mile’ to make us feel at home. In my last blog, I raved about the superb food at the Pedlar 62 Guesthouse in Galle Fort and the Beach Lodge in Negombo. These two places, however, had more surprises in store.
At Pedlar 62, for instance, Kuldip and I slept in a four-poster bed with a mosquito net for the first time. It didn’t take long to discover, though, that the netting wasn’t solely to make the room look cute. Nevertheless, I loved being swaddled in the canopied and curtained bed; I felt like the gorgeous Meryl Streep in Out of Africa. And, my romantic Robert Redford never looked so good!
To our delight, we had a similar bed at the classy Richmond House boutique hotel in Kandy. Due to circumstances beyond our control, we arrived at the hotel one day early, unannounced. When we got there, the type of room we’d booked was unavailable. Our gracious hosts, however, upgraded us to the only room left; the Governor’s Suite or honeymoon suite, which Kuldip and I put to full use! The Hettiarachchi family is currently adding another room, the Queen’s Suite that I was fortunate to see in the making. It will be extraordinary when finished.
By following the footsteps of kings and queens, one will always end up in the prettiest places. Surrounded by mountains, the picture-postcard Kingdom of Kandy is the perfect paradigm. It’s the last capital of the Sinhala kings and therefore the best place to see and sense Sri Lanka’s culturally rich and noble past.
Buddhists and sightseers flock to the Dalada Maligawa, or Temple of the Tooth, that houses one of Buddha’s teeth that a prince and princess, as legend has it, fled India to preserve. Perched beside a man-made lake, the temple is not only a place of pilgrimage; it’s also of immense beauty.
Even though we knew about the temple’s dress code, i.e. no bare shoulders or legs, we ended up there on a day when Kuldip happened to be wearing shorts. All was not lost; I got to see my man in a makeshift maxi skirt. My bright fuchsia pink and orange scarf never looked so good! If one is caught short in shorts like Kuldip, there are plenty of sarong sellers around to help out.
Later that day at a cultural performance I saw more extraordinary men wearing extraordinary ‘Kandy’-coloured cozzies. The hour-long concert showcases indigenous music and dancing and begins daily at five o’clock in the afternoon. The spectacular dance and acrobatics we saw inside the auditorium were a great prologue to the al fresco fire walkers. The flickering fire, by the way, wasn’t the only thing that looked hot.
Before Kandy, we stopped off at Ratnapura. It’s where most of the precious and semi-precious stones are mined in Sri Lanka and a good place to begin my research into the country’s most luxurious export, sapphires. The City of Gems, however, is nothing more than a mining town. What happens to the rocks that come out of Ratnapura’s precious ground is best seen elsewhere.
The displays at jewellery shops in the refurbished Dutch Hospital in Galle Fort are as tempting as the ones we saw in Kandy and Colombo. However, I recommend plastic surgery before window-shopping for these gems of a different colour. That is, leave your credit card at home! Gems aside, historic Galle Fort is another Sri-Lankan must-see.
I loved sleeping in the canopied four posters in Galle Fort and Kandy, but our bed by the sea in Negombo was one of a kind. The Beach Lodge is owned and managed by an accomplished ventriloquist, puppeteer and magician who created our enchanting room. With a wave of his magic wand, Roy transformed room nine into a place Ulysses would love. The fantasy begins in the ensuite that features a striking blue and gold mermaid in a Statue of Liberty pose. But, as one might expect, she’s not a light fitting. Instead of a torch, Roy’s siren of the sea proudly holds the shower rose aloft.
The maritime theme flows, pun intended, from the bathroom into the boudoir where a restored catamaran in full sail rides the waves. (If painting the floor was hard, try painting this picture!) The “cat” a.k.a. bed has two configurations. All one has to do is release the mainsheet and drop the sail for a king size bed or leave it up for twin ones. Conversely, the mainsail can be easily re-hoisted should one of a twosome want to abandon ship! All I can say is that Roy’s boat bed puts a whole new slant on the nautical terms: between the sheets and to be three sheets to the wind!
Apparently Roys plans to let his creative juices loose in some of the other rooms too. I can’t wait to see what he does.
I didn’t go to Sri Lanka because I wanted to; I went there because I had to go somewhere nearby India to renew my three-month tourist visa. Since it was also Kuldip’s first time in Sri Lanka, we decided to have a look around while my visa was being processed.
My love of travel is inextricably linked to my love of history and culture. So, since I was in Sri Lanka, I was excited by the prospect of going where the best sapphires in the world are mined and to gaze at an unforgettable childhood image. After visiting a gem mine in Ratnapura, our next stop was tea country to experience what I consider quintessential Sri Lanka. Although I’d never planned to visit Sri Lanka, now that I was there I hankered to see sari-clad women with baskets on their backs harvesting tea on the rolling hills of old Ceylon. Alas, it wasn’t to be. The day before we planned to leave, Monsoon rains caused a landslide in the hill country. At the time, sixteen people had been killed, an estimated 200 were missing and countless homes lost. Even though the disaster wasn’t close to where we were going, we took heed of the government’s warning to steer clear of the area.
Apart from my romantic notions of sparkling cobalt-blue gems and tea that used to come from Ceylon, Sri Lanka lacks a draw card. Even though it has no iconic landmark or building to speak of, Sri Lanka, in my book, will always have room nine at the Beach Lodge.