Sri Lanka may be a touch rough by international tourism standards, but that's entirely its charm. As an emerging destination, this South Asian island nation of 21 million off the south coast of India may not always have sophisticated options, but what's here is shared with pride. And there's much to share— spectacular encounters with nature, ancient wonders, exotic animals, flavourful food, white sand beaches and a lighthearted approach to life that world roamers will want to bring home.
We jostle and joke on our luxurious wheels in the dusty heat - I choose the black bull Porsche; no air conditioning - passing spring-green swaths of rice, sleepy country puppies and women working fields. We disembark at a waterway and glide on wood catamarans through channels thick with water hyacinths which our oarsmen fashion into jaunty hats. We go aground for fresh-from-the-tree young coconut juice from a local's jungle compound. We end our journey with a feast prepared by village woman Chandrawathi Menike: reed baskets of pumpkin, okra, purple long bean and lentil curries with spicy fried sea sprats, wing bean and manioc salads and coconut pampadams. She shows us how to eat with our fingers in the Sri Lankan way, mixing tastes, making a mess and loving it. "Ayboyan," we say, bowing in the national greeting, pressing palms to hearts in thanks as we go.
Sri Lanka, if not exactly undiscovered, still feels unspoiled. Once off limits due to twin traumas of civil war and tsunami, the country achieved peace with the Tamil Tigers in 2009, and coastal tourism infrastructure has been restored. Those looking for a balance of rustic and revelatory are taking note: the country was Lonely Planet’s top travel destination in 2013, and while some might see Sri Lanka as India with training wheels, they would be wrong. It's entirely its own — unique as the blue sapphires buried in its earth.
I'm here with G Adventures, a Canadian travel company which takes 150,000 travellers on 650+ unique trips each year in over 100 countries, working with on-the-ground guides to grow local tourism economies. The sustainable tourism outfit has seen a three-fold boost in sales of Sri Lankan expeditions in the past year, and offers catamaran cruises that hop eastern and southern beaches past pods of blue whales, plus land treks and tours. I'm eager to discern the draw: you don't travel this far for pretty scenery.
High in the misted mountains of Nuwara Eliya, tea-terraced hillsides make a lattice of the land. These cool, remote highlands are the birthplace of single estate Ceylon tea - harvested by hand and cured on site as it has been since English colonizers brought the crop in 1849. British influences are everywhere: from names of famous plantations - Inverness, Labookellie, Hellbodde - to Victorian gardens at the Grand Hotel, a former governor's colonial mansion. Have high tea in the garden where a butler pours amber OPA - the highest A grade of orange pekoe whole tea — served in china cups with crumpets and clotted cream, then go sip it at the source.
Our guide at the Blue Field Tea Estate (est. 1921), is Madhiwadhini Shanmugasundharam, Here on Mount Harrow, she explains, the best teas are grown 4,000 meters above sea level: tea has terroir. The industry employs 10 per cent of the country and tea's the top export. Each woman working the fields harvests 20 kilograms per day, plucking just the tenderest tips.
Somewhere up here — maybe it's the altitude, the live-in-the-moment Sinhalese attitude or just incense in the air - I start to unwind. To be here, a dot at the end of India, adrift in a delightfully idiosyncratic country, is a meditation of sorts. The culture is just so full of exuberance and joy.
Here, tuk tuks play Fur Elise and sport stickers reading: "Love is beautiful life." Garbage trucks play "It's a small world" to reverse. Shrines to the elephant god Ganesh surprise on street corners; serene Buddha statues meditate on medians. Peacocks in full fan wander highway shoulders, common as crows. (Signs say: Danger, Peacocks Ahead.) Trees heave with coconuts and jackfruits the size of car tires. Police stations bear flower boxes. Ads for high-octane tutoring — including, improbably, Daycare Elocution — are more common than graffiti. You can't help but smile here. It's all delightful.
Sri Lanka, in short, is a sensory playground, and more than just sights. The scents are irresistible — jasmine and sandalwood, frangipani and lotus flower oils. Fruit stands blow away with bounty: rambutan, mangosteen, wood apples. Meals are a melting pot of South Asian morsels: fried ash plantains snake gourds, jackfruit curry and eggplant brinjal. For dessert there's buffalo curd yogurt with treacle and grilled pineapple. To drink: astringent Ceylon tea with jaggery palm sugar, sweet lassis, ginger beer and Lion lager
I'm here on a G Adventures National Geographic Journeys trip, a boutique itinerary of unique nature experiences and insights from our veteran guide, Samantha Jayathilakam, whose jaunty laugh acts as a beacon on excursions. He leads us on a 10-day circuit starting in Colombo, the busy harbour capital where colonial architecture, skyscrapers and temples converge, on to Anuradhapura, a UNESCO World Heritage site where monkeys roam 4th century BC temples.
In Dambulla we take in the 7th century cave temples frescoed with Buddhist art, and to the awe-inspiring Sigiriya rock fortress where 1,200 steps into the sky takes you to ancient ruins. Mid-island we hit Matale, the nation's spice basket, where at Ranweli Spice Garden, master herbalist Upali Lenedora points out the cardamom, vanilla pods, peppercorns, cloves and cinnamon bark Sri Lanka is famous for.
From there to Kandy, town of a dozen hills, home to the Temple of the Tooth, a key Buddhist site, and Kandy Lake Club, where artists perform traditional dance like the mayura natuma (peacock dance) and firewalkers waltz on smoking ash. We find time for more tea at Sthree Craft Shop and Cafe, a G for Good project providing jobs for women and youth with disabilities. We don't leave before wandering the Royal Botanical Gardens of Peradeniya with its 4,000 plant species and exquisite orchid collection that includes pink pearl Foxtail orchids and a near-extinct Holy Ghost orchid (Peristeria elata) blooming under the eye of a dedicated security guard. For an orchid lover, it's breathtaking, a moment of zen.
Still, the ecstatic experience for most who venture here is without a doubt elephants, so from tea on to trumpets. At the centre of the island, tourists flock to witness "The Gathering" – a herd of wild Asian elephants converging on an aquifer in Kaudulla National Park, a sanctuary home to 200 elephants, southeast of Anuradhapura. An estimated 6,000 elephants remain in Sri Lanka, and government is trying to protect wild herds. Kaudulla is far from the only park to see them - Udawalawe National Park to the south is houses several hundred in its 30,000 hectare preserve, as well as water buffalo, wild boar, Ceylon spotted deer, jackals and macaques.
Bouncing in a safari jeep on the parks rutted mud tracks, I close my eyes and just listen to the birds, feel the sun, wind, and smell of warm grass, in full Sri Lankan sensory mode. As I open my eyes as the underbrush breaks into a grassy plain filled with grazing elephants as far as I can see, wandering free. It's magic and moving, and watching them, I'm still in a moment of natural grace that feels like a meditation, a surprise Sri Lankan gift of bliss to bring home, and more than enough to make it a must-try destination.
Elaine O'Connor travelled as a guest of G Adventures and Turkish Airlines. Neither reviewed this article before publication. Read more travel tales at Elaineoconnor.ca or follow @elaine_oconnor.
IF YOU GO
G Adventures: Gadventures.com: offers 10 different trips to Sri Lanka, some with sailing adventures.
Turkish Airlines: Turkishairlines.com: flies to Colombo, Sri Lanka and 300 other destinations in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas.
Blue Field Tea Estate: Bluefieldteagardens.com: offers tea picking and processing tours as well as a cafe and tea shop.
Grand Hotel: Grandhotel.tangerinehotels.com: a luxe colonial hotel in the heart of tea country, offering elegant grounds, dining and high tea service.
Sthree Craft Shop and Cafe: Planeterra.org/what-we-do/our-projects/sthree-craft-shop-cafe: a G for Good partnership in Kandy offering Sri Lankan high tea and crafts.
Royal Botanical Gardens of Peradeniya: Srilanka.travel/botanical-gardens: is the country’s largest botanical gardens with 4,000 species of plants and exceptional orchids.
Eco Team Sri Lanka Safaris in Kaudulla National Park: Srilankaecotourism.com/kaudulla.htm: Safari company that does safari jeep tours of Kaudulla and other national parks.
Sigriya: Sigiriyatourism.com: is a heritage site dominated by a vast rock plateau that draws visitors from all over the world.