Tea for two in Sri Lanka, the emerald isle with the sunshine coast
Sleeping in the back of a Sri Lankan taxi is no easy task. Buses roar into view, their smiling drivers beeping blithely. Bicycles ignore cars brushing their backsides, pedestrians saunter across the road and dogs lie in the middle.
A bus aptly emblazoned with, 'Jesus save us' passes within a whisker. But the hair-raising driving is not the only reason to stay awake.
The ever-changing scenery provides more thrill than fear, from congested Kandy with its temples, great white Buddha and daring tuktuks, to the textured tea plantations in the Bogawantalawa Valley, a quilted landscape with sheer drops, lush vegetation and barrow loads of king coconuts.
Exotic: The beach at Unawatuna, near Galle, Ski Lanka
I was last in Sri Lanka in 2002 with my friend Jess, who was studying in Kandy. We surfed in Arugam Bay, cycled the ancient city of Polonnaruwa, took long bus journeys and drank lots of milky tea (a 'hug in a mug'). The people and the place left an impression.
The civil war, which has blighted the country for 27 years, ended in May this year. And Sri Lanka is welcoming tourists with open arms. Areas previously off limits, such as the Yala National Park and parts of the north-east, are open to visitors. No one is more relieved than the Sri Lankans.
They are natural hosts, inviting travellers into their homes for tea or even a traditionally cooked curry - a marathon that will leave you full for days.
Now seemed the perfect time to return. I had only one request - no buses. Equipped with our driver, Leyton, we found ourselves on the coast road from Colombo Airport to Galle, 100 miles south.
The tsunami is evident here and gaping spaces yawn where there were once houses. Boys play cricket on the beaches, the road is lined with fish stalls and palm trees patterned with ropes for the toddy tappers who walk between them collecting the heady sap.
After six hours, we reach the sanctuary of Galle Fort. It is quiet and heavy with the heat. Built by the Dutch in the 17th century, the second country to make claims in Sri Lanka after the Portuguese, the fort is filled with crumbling colonial architecture.
Passengers arriving by steamer in the 19th century stayed in the luxurious New Oriental Hotel, now the swish Amangalla, and we do the same. We even eat Sri Lankan curry from the hotel's original plates.
The fort is equally sleepy by day and we languidly dip into the Dutch Reform Church, National Museum and Pedlar's Street CafÈ for cold ginger beer. The National Museum houses a private collection, including Arabic hooka pipes, Coronation tea cups and a bottle of Jubilee brew in honour of Queen Victoria.
Walking the walls, we are surprised to see umbrellas popping up in every nook, their shady screens only half concealing giggling young couples. But the heat is too much for us. We seek refuge in the Amangalla's pool and cooling contemporary spa.
Picturesque: A tea plantation in the hills of Matale Region, Sri Lana
Tea is as much a pastime for Sri Lankan's as it is for the British, who introduced it to the country in 1867 and started the love affair that continues today. Here, leaves are the thing and there's a tea for every occasion.
We head inland from the southwest coast into verdant scenery. Expats came here to recuperate, as the air is cool and the climate reminiscent of home. The roads and railway line are full of schoolchildren in their crisp white uniforms. A Buddhist monk radiates colour beneath a yellow umbrella.
We are staying in Tea Trails' Castlereagh Bungalow, formerly a tea planter's home, in the Bogawantalawa Valley. Tea is a theme. We are woken with a morning brew, spoilt with scones in the afternoon and there's a tea leaf on our pillows at turndown.
Negotiating the plantations is best done on foot, so that's what we do. Save for the white dots of tea pickers, the landscape is green velvet. The pickers are Tamils, brought to Sri Lanka from India to work on the plantations. They live in small communities made up of tiny, sparsely furnished houses. They are some of the friendliest, most smiley people we meet.
We complete the trail by rickety bike. Thank goodness it's the downhill part. We come to a squeaky stop at an Anglican church where the caretaker tells me proudly that the services are still held in English from a Bible donated in 1879.
After the peace of the hills, Kandy, the second largest city in Sri Lanka and our next stop, is a polluted mayhem. But an interesting city to dip into.
It houses one of the most significant relics in Sri Lanka, Buddha's tooth. This is enshrined at the Temple of the Tooth next to Kandy lake and here you can learn about Buddha's birth, enlightenment and death. It's a place of pilgrimage. And while we're there, thousands arrive dressed in white, armed with lotus flowers, to view the tooth, which is on display for ten days.
Mothers bring their babies to be blessed and children are rapt by the stuffed Raja Tuska, the longserving elephant who worked at the temple for 50 years. Raja is a national treasure and still keeps a grim eye over proceedings from his glass cabinet.
Respite is not easy to come by in Kandy, but iced tea in the Mlesna tea shop on Delada Vidya provides relief and the Bahirawakanda Buddha overlooking the city is worth the trek. He's under scaffolding when we visit, and after being blessed by a monk, we can't say no to donating towards his refurbishment.
From here, it's a short drive from Kandy to Colombo and our base for two days is the chic Park Street Hotel. My favourite shopping haunts, Barefoot Bookshop for woven fabric and Paradise Road for hand-thrown pottery are reassuringly busy.
The National Museum, only a short walk from our hotel, has been newly refurbished. It guides you through Sri Lanka's extraordinary ancient cities, Anuradhapura, Sigiriya, Polonnaruwa and Kandy, detailing the mechanics of their water systems and displaying such treasures as the intricately carved ivory combs given to brides for fertility.
Everyone speaks hopefully about tourists making the trip to this most lovely teardropshaped island. I hope so, too. On our return flight, one of the air stewards laments the lack of visitors and asks us to spread the word about the joys of Sri Lanka. Consider it done.
Kuoni (01306 747008 or www.kuoni.co.uk) offers ten nights on a tailor-made holiday to Sri Lanka, staying one night in Colombo, two nights at the Cinnamon Lodge in Habarana, one night at Earls Regency in Kandy, two nights at the Ceylon Tea Trails in Nuwara Eliya District, two nights at Amangalla in Galle and two nights at The Beach in Negombo, including flights with Sri Lankan Airlines from Heathrow with a private car and driver in resort. Prices for 2010 from £1572 per person based on two sharing.
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