Fall in love with Sri Lanka

Discover the best things to see and do on the island renowned for its tea and spices.

By Sarah-Kate Lynch
This independent island at the bottom of India – famous for its tea and spices – is definitely on my bucket list.
Three for tea
Sri Lanka used to be called Ceylon, so it’s no surprise that tea plays a major role in its current tourism boom. My friend Clare has stayed at Tea Trails in the highlands three times and here’s why we all should go – you sleep in a colonial planter’s bungalow and your personal butler brings your choice of early morning cuppa, opens your curtains and draws your bath.
There’s even a tea planter in residence – a descendent of the man who first brought tea to Ceylon – who takes guests to a tea factory and hosts a tea tasting, not unlike a wine tasting. High teas are to die for, as is the curry feast, so I am told, not to mention the tea-inspired cocktails.
Bowled over
Another pal of mine, Mary Taylor, runs Food Matters tours to Sri Lanka. Her most recent one included a visit to the previously war-torn Jaffa region and the Dilmah funded school for orphaned children. Mary took cricket gear donated by an Auckland club and everyone ended up playing – cricket’s certainly in the blood in these parts!
Mr Dilmah (real name Merrill Fernando) is well known to us for his tea, but Mary has long been a fan of his active charity work. He just turned 85 and has promised his sons Dilhan and Malik – that’s where “Dilmah” comes from – that he will only work eight hours a day from now on. Truly inspirational.
Shop, shop, shop
Colombo is the main city and good for shopping. Clare loves the big department store O’Dell’s and Lanka Hands, which supports local craft. But there are bargains to be found in less salubrious surroundings too – she bought clay cooking pots at $1 a pop from a roadside stall.
The southern city of Galle, with its old city fort that’s been recognised by UNESCO as a world heritage site, is also known for its jewellery stores, but you need to do some research before you buy. Clare bought an emerald that turned out to cost the same at home. However, a friend of hers designed and had made a pair of pearl earrings that by all accounts are quite spectacular.
Where to go
If you’re an architectural nut, you might want to check out one of the hotels designed by the late Geoffrey Bawa, Sri Lanka’s most famous architect and the father of “tropical modernism”. His old office has even been turned into The Gallery Café, which is one of Colombo’s most popular restaurants.
Or you could visit an elephant orphanage, climb to a rock palace, cycle around historic sites or visit the hill country town of Nuwara Eliya, otherwise known as Little England. All that and there’s great snorkelling on the coast to boot.
How to get there
Sri Lanka’s about three-and-a-half hours from Singapore, Kuala Lumpur or Bangkok, so you can play the airline specials off against each other to get there from New Zealand.
Another Sri Lanka regular advises that you check the connection times as they can be early – a 2am arrival anyone? She also recommends that when you get there, you hire a car and driver. Sri Lanka is on the cusp of a big boom and driving can have its challenges, so air-conditioning and someone who knows how to avoid the roadworks might be worth their weight in gold. Let’s all go there!

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