Kathy Batchford, from our head office, travelled to Sri Lanka for six nights with Walker Tours. Here are her thoughts on this fantastic experience…
Destination: Sri Lanka
Operator/Host: Walkers Tours
(Hotel names/Ship name): Jetwing Beach hotel, Chaaya Citadel hotel, Chaaya Blu hotel, Chaaya Village, Mount Lavinia Hotel.
Airline: Sri Lankan Air Lines
Duration: 6 nights
On arrival at the Bandaranaike International airport, we were met and greeted by our representative Kamal, from Walkers Tours, before transferring on our comfy air-conditioned coach to Jetwing Beach Hotel, Negombo. We were greeted by lovely staff with cold drinks and cold towels as it was 28 degrees even at 2.45am!
The rooms were very spacious and had huge bathrooms, beds and balconies. We had a leisurely breakfast & enjoyed the facilities of the hotel before leaving after lunch for a tour of the beautiful fishing village of Negombo. Sometimes known as “Little Rome”, due to the profusion of Christian Churches, Negombo has now grown to a major beach resort on the west coast, north of Colombo and 15 minutes from the International Airport. The wide sandy beaches and safe for sea bathing and are major attractions, as is the fish market where feverous trading of a variety of fish, prawns and crabs takes place each morning (except Sunday when the fishing craft return to shore).
Traditional large-sailed outrigger canoes are a wonderful sight in this village, which was once a trading port for the Portuguese and Dutch. Other attractions are the Old Dutch fort gate, built in 1672 and now part of the prison, and the Dutch Canal which was then a supply route for the Dutch administration.
In the early evening, we arrived at Club Dolphin Hotel for inspection & use of hotel facilities for the rest of the day. We had a nice, if rather dated, room which overlooked a swimming pool that is apparently the largest in Asia! You couldn’t fault the public areas; they were very clean, airy and modern. We ended the day with a special dinner in the air-conditioned Waves Restaurant and were made to feel very welcome.
The next day, after an early but very nice breakfast, we travelled to Kandy.We first went to the Walkers Tours offices first in Colombo to meet our guides, but no one had realised that there was a War Hero’s Day taking place and the traffic in Colombo was awful. It ended up taking us two and half hours to get there. Walkers Tours are the operators that Virgin Holidays use in Sri Lanka and their offices are in a large Colonial type building, the staff seemed very efficient and friendly.
We then left for the highlight of our day – Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage!
This loving sanctuary is set amongst the verdant hills of Kegalle and is a unique orphanage where the tiny tots weigh 60 kg or more. This is the world’s first and only elephant orphanage established to feed, nurse and house young elephants that have been lost or abandoned by their mothers. Other occupants are elephants displaced from their natural environment by development projects or those found wounded.
Visitors can see the baby elephants being fed milk from gigantic feeding bottles or bathed in the river which flows nearby – an unforgettable sight! The orphanage was established in 1975 by the Wildlife Department and National Zoological gardens which subsequently led to a breeding programme, through which more than twenty-five elephants have been born since 1984. We stayed for an hour watching the Elephants play and feed – it was truly magical and I took loads of photos on a day that I’ll never forget.
Tea And Temples
After lunch at Pinnalanda Restaurant, from which we had wonderful views of the Elephants, we proceeded to the hill capital of Sri Lanka – Kandy. En-route, we had a quick stop off at Geragama Estate Tea Factory where we were shown from start to finish how tea leaves and tea bags are produced; I’ll never take a tea bag for granted again! The people work so hard in those factories and were kind enough to let us taste the fruits of their labours. Needless to say, it was delicious.
We then went on to the Cultural Show in Kandy where we saw a variety of different cultural dances performed in front of us. Each dance had a different meaning and was set to the beating of drums. The last dance was a shocker as it involved two fire-eaters whilst men walking on hot embers were fanned towards the audience – a bit scary!
By this time it was getting dark and so we proceeded on to the sacred Temple of the Tooth Relic.
The temple is the most important place for the present Buddhists because it is the final resting place of the sacred tooth relic of Buddha, known as “Sri Dalada Maligawa.” It is famous for its carvings and the beautiful art that is unique to Sri Lanka. The most important part of the Dalada Maligawa is the octagon (Pathirppuwa). Thousands of people line up each day to get a glimpse of its majesty.
Kandy is one of the most beautiful cities in Sri Lanka. With its picturesque lake built by the last king, its hills surrounding the city, its Devales (the oldest, Natha Devale, belonging to the 14th century) and the palace of the last king of Kandy, presently the districts courts and the archaeological museum, there was so much rich culture and history in one small area. The village is also the focal point for Buddhist cultural affairs with meditation centres and Buddhist publication societies situated throughout.
We eventually arrived at our hotel for the night, the Chaaya Citadel Hotel, at 6:30pm.Another great welcome was bestowed upon us and the cold drinks and cold towels were such a nice touch as it had been such a very long day for all of us.
Our room was superb and had a wonderful River View. That evening we had a cocktail and canapés reception before having a hosted dinner in the large restaurant and retreating to the comfort of our beds.
After another early breakfast, we transferred to Trincomalee. Along the way, we stopped at Luckgrove Spice and Herb Garden which was such an interesting place. We learnt about herbal remedies for all sorts of ailments and also had a neck and shoulder massage – which was amazing.
Next stop was the very impressive Rock Fortress of Sigiriya. This UNESCO World Heritage Site, a spectacular rock which rising proudly out of the ground, is one of Sri Lanka’s major attractions.
The most impressive facets of the unique complex are the Water Gardens, the Frescoes of beautiful maidens, the Mirror Wall with ancient graffiti, the Lion platform, and the Summit of 1.6 hectares; an area which was completely covered by buildings during the period of Sigiriya’s glory. Built by King Kashyapa (477-495 A.D), the “Lion Rock”, as it is sometimes known, is a citadel of unusual beauty rising 200m from the scrub jungle. The rock was the innermost stronghold of the 70-hectare fortified town and the base is ringed by a moat, rampart, and extensive gardens.
The world-renowned frescoes (originally 500, of which only 19 remain today), which are in a sheltered pocket of the rock approached by a spiral stairway, are painted in earth pigments on plaster. The old stairway to the top led through the mouth of a crouching lion but today only the huge paws remain; giving an indication of the massive proportions of the head. The remains of this handsome royal citadel are on the summit and several caves for meditation, audience platforms and baths complete the unique site.
The jungle around Sigiriya is very dense and we even saw monkeys and monitor lizards during our walk through it. The moat around the rock has crocodiles in it which made it all the more surprising to see boys swimming in the same water! I took loads of photos as the views from the top of this rock were amazing – it was also 40 degrees that day and I felt proud that I’d achieved it – phew!
After the climb, we went to the Sigiriya Hotel where we had lunch and a hotel inspection. They had to sound scare blasts during lunch as large monkeys were roaming in the trees above the restaurant – this hotel really is in the middle of nowhere, but an ideal stop if people want to see and climb Sigiriya.
We then continued for a three hour drive through jungle and on to Trincomalee. Here we saw wild elephants, monkeys, monitor lizards, water buffalo and many species of beautiful bird. The roads were awful in places, with no lighting, and we saw some very poor housing along the way – but still people waved and smiled and seemed as happy as all the Sri Lankans we encountered during our trip.
At 7.30pm, we eventually arrived at Chaaya Blu Hotel, Trincomalee. We were again greeted with welcome drinks and cold towels and our rooms were lovely with a real beach feel to them. They were very bright and airy, although we did have to ask a member of staff to clean behind the headboard as there were dead bugs. Apart from that, the hotel was lovely. We had a nice welcome meal in the open air restaurant, which had fans and nets to keep monkeys and birds out, and met a PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) Diver who said, during the winter, there are great diving opportunities and even whale watching in the area.
A Beach With British Connections
We were able to spend the next day at our leisure in Trincomalee. Trincomalee is the region’s largest city and stands on an isthmus with two deep bays and a fine natural Inner Harbour to the west.
The beach attracted the attention of European colonial powers in the 17th century; changing hands repeatedly between the Portuguese, the Dutch, the French and the British in a series of sideshows to the European wars of the 17th and 18th centuries, before finally falling to a British fleet in 1795. It remained one of the British Empire’s most important ports in Asia, and from 1941-45 was the headquarters of the Allied Southeast Asia commander, Lord Louis Mountbatten.
Other distinguished British military men to have visited this part of the world include Sir Arthur Wellesley (later the Duke of Wellington), who was nursed back to health here in 1799 when he caught a fever whilst campaigning against the French and their allies in southern India. In the middle of the Inner Harbour, connected to the isthmus by a narrow causeway, is Powder Island, once a gunpowder magazine for the Royal Navy, but now occupied by the Sri Lankan defence force.
Part of the group decided to do a trip to Fort Frederick, The Hindu Temple and The Harbour of Trincomalee. Kamal, our rep, was very knowledgeable about the fort and religions in Sri Lanka, and so it was interesting to listen to his stories. It was a long walk up to the fort and very hot – 36 degrees but we covered our shoulders and legs in respect for the Temple.
There were lots of visiting schoolchildren who loved having their pictures taken with us and we took a Tuk Tuk, or Tri-Shaw, back down to meet our coach, which was fun. After lunch, we swam in the Indian Ocean before a huge rain storm, lasting just 15 minutes, came and went again like it had never happened. We collected shells and then had a hosted cocktails and canapés dinner before retiring.
The next morning we left at 8am for Habaranaand checked into the Chaaya Village. We had a quick look at our room, which was quite dark, rustic but pleasant, and then explored the hotel and some of the grounds which were set in 12 acres with a nearby lake. It had huge beds of lotus flowers and lily pads and looked beautiful. My colleague, Nicola, was scared as a huge lizard walked right in front of us – it was about 4 feet long! We climbed a tree house to reach a lookout which enabled you to spot herons, kingfishers, eagles etc; it was amazing.
We then left the hotel and went to a t-shirt factory, before arriving atVil Uyanafor inspection & lunch. At the Jetwing Vil Uyana, the accommodation consists mainly of bungalows that overlook the water and are very secluded. Apparently, celebrities stay here because it is so remote and exclusive – you can fly a family of four for £1500.00 in a helicopter to here from Colombo – I would recommend this if not it’s a 5-hour road transfer!
After lunch, we left for an exciting 4 wheel drive elephant safari at Mineriya National Park. The park covers an area of 8,889 hectares, which includes wetlands which have international importance as well as many animal and plant species that can be found in the dry zone. Wild elephants, amphibians, about 160 species of local and immigrant birds, 25 reptile species, 26 fish species and more than 78 butterfly species have been found in this area. You can also find bamboo trees which are rare in other parks nestling amongst the rest of the flora and fauna.
It was a great safari which lasted for some time. We saw wild elephants in family groups, large tortoises, eagles, water buffalo, and plenty more besides. It was a wonderful experience and again I took lots of photos! Sadly, the end of the trip was marred slightly when all three jeep drivers decided they would dabble in marijuana, but Linda and Natalie, the Virgin Reps, dealt with it very professionally once we returned to our hotel.
We then freshened up for the evening, before strolling across to the adjoining Cinnamon Lodge, Habarana for inspection & dinner. This hotel was amazing and I would’ve loved to have been staying there. A wonderful day ended with a wonderful cocktail reception and dinner.
Just One More Thing…
Our final full day in Sri Lanka started with yet another early breakfast as we had to leave at 7.15am for a 5-hour drive to Colombo, the commercial capital of Sri Lanka.
We stopped along the way for coffee and postcards – the traffic was awful getting into Colombo again and we travelling through monsoon type rains before arriving at The Cinnamon Grand Hotel at 1.30pm. We had a wonderful lunch at this beautiful hotel and then enjoyed a short shopping tour of Colombo.
Colombo has long been the traditional gateway to the Orient. It is the largest city in the country and is situated on the west coast; drawing together all the cultures, religions and influences of foreign lands into a potpourri of sounds, smells and a kaleidoscope of colour. Early settlers from Britain, The Netherlands, Portugal and the Arabian countries have left their mark in the form of churches and monuments, names and religions, costumes and food and smatterings of languages which have been absorbed into the modern day speech of Sri Lankans.
Today, Colombo is a fascinating city; a happy blend of east & west, past & present, with a charm of its own. It’s a little-known fact that the city has a superb range of high-quality restaurants which serve food from all over the world, as well as having some of the best shopping opportunities in Asia. The main seaport of Sri Lanka is in Colombo & adjoining it, is Pettah, a local bazaar & trading area.
We arrived at the famous Mount Lavinia Hotel at 6pm. This stunning hotel was badly damaged by the Tsunami of 2004 but it, along with the beach which experienced a fair amount of erosion, has been lovingly restored. As usual, we were greeted with drinks and cold towels (it had been another very long day) and we watched as three weddings took place in such a beautiful setting. Our room was in the upgraded section with wonderful ocean views, although at this time of the year you cannot swim in the sea because it is too rough. A beautiful sunset seemed to bring the day to a fitting close.
We had a lovely farewell dinner on the beach with the managers of the hotel and Walkers Tours – it was truly memorable. We were all given a china elephant as a memento and Linda and Natalie made some fun awards (I was the David Bailey of the trip!).
It was sad to say goodbye to Kamal our Tour Guide, Douglas our helper and Comagay our excellent Driver, as we awoke early the next morning but we had to catch our 8am flight; bringing what was an amazing trip to its end.
A few facts about Sri Lanka as told by our guide Kamal:
To finish I would like to thank Louise, Nicola and my colleagues at The Ipswich Shop for making it possible for me to go.
Also, I’d like to thank Linda, Natalie and Kamal from Virgin Holidays for making this trip so memorable.
I had a great time!
Must see? The Elephant Orphanage
Must do? A 4-wheel safari
Must try? Koththu Roti