Sri Lanka: Temples and tea leaves

Nigel Tisdall is charmed by Sri Lanka’s landscape and religious shrines. But what really gets him going is a nice cuppa.

(By Nigel Tisdall) — “Some of these bushes are over 130 years old,” Andrew Taylor explains as he escorts my wife and me through the emerald hills of Bogawantalawa, otherwise known as Sri Lanka’s “Golden Valley of Tea”. Set 4,000 feet up in the hill country near Hatton, the enveloping landscape presents a fairy-tale scene of misty lakes, tranquil woods and vividly coloured tropical gardens.

Every available slope is striped with long, winding rows of tea plants, while at carefully chosen spots former bungalows built in the Twenties for estate managers drink in the views. Now converted into well-appointed lodges, these elegant retreats offer visitors the chance to overnight in a nostalgic world of scones, croquet and hot-water bottles slipped between the sheets. Every day starts with a cup of “bed tea” brought to your room, and later you can tour a tea factory, follow well-signed walks through the plantations, soak in a detoxifying green tea bath – then dine on roast lamb with a crusting of Earl Grey.

Bearing the title of “Planter in Residence”, our guide is a genial descendant of James Taylor, the pioneering Scotsman who introduced commercial tea-growing to the island in 1867. His enthusiastic tours round the Norwood estate, where leaves plucked at 7.45am become tea for sale at 8am the next day, provide an absorbing introduction to a beverage we all take for granted. And they can be a life-changing experience – now I only drink my tea black and sugarless, and made using leaves properly brewed in a pot with freshly boiled water. Milk? Ugh! Tea bags? No thanks. A nice cup of full-bodied, single region Meda Watte? Yes please!

In every way, a trip into the hill country is the high point of a holiday to Sri Lanka. Following the ending of its 25-year civil war in 2009, the country is now back on the tourist map as a hot place for some winter sun. One reason – besides its beaches, cultural sights and warm climate – is its people. The Sri Lankans are a smiley, welcoming lot with a multi-faith society that is particularly apparent at night. Then you spy the many roadside shrines and churches that light up the darkness, beaming out their faithful messages. Here’s a smiling Buddha, there’s an anguished Catholic saint. The green neon of a mosque shines beside the crazy statuary of a Hindu temple. To the traveller, it feels like all the key gods of the world are looking after you.

And we need protection, because Sri Lanka’s roads are mined with hazards. The customary way to tour is with a car and driver, and our lives have been entrusted to the safe and cautious steering wheel of a gentleman called Hector. “We must watch out for wild elephants here,” he remarks nonchalantly as we head down a rough track near Dambulla. “Did you know those fellows love pineapple? They can even smell it inside the car.”

I hastily review what we had for breakfast. While my wife has been enjoying Sri Lankan classics such as string hoppers and curd with treacle, I’ve been healthily eating yogurt and, er, fruit … Fortunately, our only animal encounter is with the monkeys that swing by the bathroom window as we check into our room at the monumental Kandalama Hotel. Buried in the jungle, this designer masterpiece was completed in 1994 by Geoffrey Bawa, Sri Lanka’s most famous architect. Devotees trek here just to admire its strict geometrical lines and unadorned surfaces, but the hotel is also an excellent base for exploring what’s known as the Cultural Triangle.

These are Sri Lanka’s northern plains, bejewelled with historic royal sites that include the rocky citadel of Sigiriya, the ancient city of Anuradhapura, and the former capital of Kandy. We opt to visit Polonnaruwa, which flourished in the 12th century. Its ensemble of beautiful ruins is so extensive it’s best to drive around. The star attraction is Gal Vihara, a set of four massive granite Buddha statues of which the largest is 45ft long. Unusually, the companion museum turns out to be excellent, with exquisite works of art, informative commentaries in English and photographs of the unexcavated site, which lay buried in the jungle for seven centuries.

While you need to head inland to get a sense of Sri Lanka’s long, rich history, there’s a second story to be enjoyed around the coast where Portuguese, Dutch and British colonists came gnawing at the edges.

Tourism is most developed in the west and south, and while it’s tempting to head for the perfect white-sand beaches that fringe the east side of the island, these are best visited after the north-east monsoon that ends in March – and as yet there are few good places to stay.

So we head south to the traffic-free environs of Galle Fort, a World Heritage Site. Built by the Dutch in the 1660s, its massive ramparts are so formidable they withstood the 2004 tsunami. Inside, its streets are lined with boutique hotels and chichi shops, but there is still a thriving local community that has saved it from becoming a tourist ghetto.

Galle was the island’s principal harbour until Colombo overtook it, and it is scattered with colonial memories. There are imposing mustard-coloured warehouses once stacked high with cinnamon, and a sleepy library that was once the officers’ mess of the British Ceylon Rifles. The old racecourse is now the international cricket ground, and every lunchtime immaculately uniformed schoolgirls from Southlands College, established in 1885, gather under the 180-year-old rain trees beside what was once the prestigious New Oriental Hotel.

Today this has been restored as Amangalla, a grand hotel for our times with four-poster beds, a huge jade-green swimming pool and an airy restaurant serving delicious local dishes such as seafood white curry and watalappan with coconut ice cream. Add complimentary yoga and a top-class spa, and a stay here engenders such a sense of wellbeing there is a serious danger you will wander off and spend a reckless amount of money in one of Galle’s bijou shops.

And that’s not hard, given that they are filled with quirky antiques, handmade lace, richly coloured cottons and the one thing few travellers go home without – precious stones. “Come in, we love the rain,” a shop owner expounds when I step inside his glittering emporium holding a dripping umbrella. “It’s so very good for selling sapphires.”

In Sri Lanka they like to put a positive spin on everything, so perhaps it’s no surprise that the minute I pop out to take some photographs, my wife decides this is an ideal time to whip out the credit card and buy some gorgeous moonstone jewellery.

By contrast, my souvenir is a cloth for the kitchen that bears a mantra I can’t resist. “Keep Calm and Make Tea” it says – and after discovering the joys of Sri Lanka, I’m doing just that.

DID YOU KNOW?

“Orange Pekoe” tea has nothing to do with fruit – the name derives from the Dutch royal house of Orange-Nassau.

For all the travel details: telegraph.co.uk

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