With its striking landscapes and rich traditions, Sri Lanka is a destination full of wonder. But it’s the people who make the journey, discovers Nicola McClean.
Carefully placing one foot after another, hands gripping the steel railing, my mother and I climb up the ladder-steep steps. “We’re here,” our guide, Prasanna, finally announces. We are standing on top of Sigiriya, a fortified city and the ruins of King Kashyapa’s seven-storey palace.
From the 200-metre-high rock plateau, we have sweeping views of Dambulla below and the neighbouring sacred site Pidurangala in front. The bricks of the fortress remnants take me back to our drive through the neighbourhood, where a local man was making bricks using fire. The same traditional method would have helped construct the King’s grand castle almost 16 centuries ago.
The merging of old and new defines our seven-day trip around Sri Lanka, the small teardrop-shaped island nation south of India, and Beyond Dream Travels adds welcome luxuries to an authentic journey.
In the footsteps of locals
“This is for you … for your hair,” our bullock driver says as he plucks the coral-red hibiscus flower from its tree. We walk along the dusty trail where we meet his two bullocks: one trained, one wild. Harnessed to our traditional cart, the wild bullock takes charge, bolting us through the rice paddies before slowing down long enough for us to meet a softly spoken village woman.
We are invited into her open-walled kitchen where she greets us with traditional sweets and shows us the hand mechanics involved in transforming rice from the surrounding paddies into the product we know and love. It’s a crucial job – there are more than 200 varieties of rice in Sri Lanka.
Her farmer husband then takes us on a lake tour, a beautiful setting with Sigiriya sitting proudly in the distance. Stopping the catamaran by hundreds of lotuses, the farmer climbs out of the boat and searches the plants for the perfect leaf. He returns to craft an explorer’s hat for each of us. The Sri Lankans certainly speak the language of giving.
After the tragic Easter bombings, which killed 259 people, tourism in Sri Lanka suffered dramatically. It is now back on the road to recovery and has cracked down on security. The effort shows; we feel completely safe throughout our travels and the locals couldn’t be more hospitable.
“We are always smiling and very happy, even if we have nothing,” Prasanna explains, adding that when tragedy strikes, locals jump into action. “People will invite you into their home, give a cup of tea and comfort you that everything will be OK.”
Our car is brought to a halt as a large tusked elephant crosses the road. Hundreds of elephants can be spotted on safari drives in Sri Lanka’s forests, yet these unexpected moments are heartwarming. We continue driving, stopping at one of many stalls selling rambutans for a taste of the sweet and sour fruit, before arriving at the charming Ranweli Spice Garden.
Ayurveda has been the prime healing method among the Sri Lankan people since it was handed over, along with Buddhism, from North India in the third century BC, but has become so much more than a medicinal practice. In Sri Lanka, Ayurveda is a way of life.
On a tour through ‘the garden of life’, we learn about the holistic healing properties of various plants, including coffea arabica, a remedy for loss of concentration, depression and fatigue; ginger, for nausea; and turmeric, an anticarcinogenic that helps with respiration issues and digestive healing. When it comes to the post-tour therapeutic massage, we happily oblige.
As an island nation, the Buddhist lunar calendar is particularly significant in Sri Lanka and the full moon is cause for a monthly celebration known as Poya Day. Vesak Day is the most noteworthy, usually celebrated in April and marking the birth, enlightenment and death of Buddha. Our journey coincides with Esala Poya, which we celebrate in the bustling lakeside town of Kandy.
Chanting, firecrackers and cultural performances colour the streets as we make our way to the Temple of the Tooth. Dressed in white, we filter through three security checks before entering the sacred temple. Worshippers gather inside bearing food as a gift to the Buddha, while thousands of eyes skim over personal wishes tied to a sacred tree. It is believed the more eyes that read the messages, the more likely they are to come true.
Traditionally, elephants in bright attire have been the main attraction, but times are changing and animal welfare is a recent – and growing – consideration.
From Kandy, we trail behind a ute and notice locals playing a game of cards in the tray. Following the narrow road and clinging tightly to the edge of the cliff, it’s an exhilarating and beautiful drive broken up with stops at scenic waterfalls.
When we arrive at the Damro Tea plantation, we spot a woman picking leaves from the gardens. Inside, we are guided through the factory, learning about the production process and tea potency (the finer the leaves, the stronger the result) before finishing in the dining area to sample the finest black tea. Ginger biscuits – a Sri Lankan delicacy – and sweeping views of the tea gardens complete the idyllic picture.
A place to rest
During our tour, we stay with Jetwing Hotels, its properties offering a unique and wholly Sri Lankan experience. Around 85 per cent of staff members are locals, and while this is said to enrich nearby communities, it is an enriching experience for guests, too.
Jetwing Beach, Negombo; Jetwing Lake, Dambulla; and Jetwing Lighthouse, Galle all have a commitment to the environment and sustainability, but the standout is Jetwing Kaduruketha, Wellawaya.
Our butler personalises a property tour through the rice paddies and lakes, arranges an incredible floating pool breakfast – a must-try for your tastebuds and Instagram feed – and complimentary massages. We stay in lavish, spacious villas that open to sweeping mountain views and rice paddies, and we soon feel right at home.
This is a hallmark of our journey. Sri Lanka is an abundantly beautiful country from the food, history and culture right down to the ginger biscuits. Yet its true warmth lies in the way this country makes you feel. Entirely welcome.
Beyond Dream Travels are Sri Lankan destination specialists with 40 years of experience. Their extensive knowledge of the island means they have insider knowledge on the must-see places and activities to make your visit truly memorable. They can organise everything from flights with SriLankan Airlines to dinners in local villages.
SriLankan Airlines flies direct from Melbourne to Colombo.
This article originally appeared in volume 35 Signature Luxury Travel & Style magazine. To subscribe to the latest issue, click here.