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Should you go to Sri Lanka?

Sri Lanka hides in plain sight.

It is right next to us—only an hour from Chennai and a bit more from Mumbai, but Indians don’t necessarily regard it as a desirable holiday destination. They will go to the Maldives, which is next door. But Lanka will rarely feature in their travel plans.


Some of this is Sri Lanka’s own fault. Way back in the mid-1990s, I was part of a delegation of journos, travel agents, bureaucrats, and the like invited by the Lankan government to visit the country. We went all over (but not the North) and were feted by ministers and officials who told us how Indians did not need visas to visit Lanka and how great the facilities were. At that stage, Lanka was ahead of India when it came to hotels for group tourism and the beaches were lovely.


   It was not hard to see why they wanted Indian tourists. Lankan tourism was based on groups from Europe who had cancelled all their bookings because of the civil war and the terrorism it led to. Indians were invited to fill the empty rooms.


   But, once there was a lull in the civil war, they stopped courting Indians, re-introduced visas and looked West again. This was a mistake because Indians tend to be loyal to their holiday destinations (ask the Thais) and as Subhash Goyal of STIC, a member of our delegation, told the bemused Lankan tourism minister, “even if there is danger, Indians will treat it as adventure tourism and still come.”


   In the years that followed, India’s own tourism infrastructure developed, Indian tourists discovered the Far East and fewer of us even considered Lanka as a destination. This was fine with the Lankans. The Civil War ended, Western tourists flooded in and they didn’t need Indians.


   But, of course, the pandemic has changed everything. Like the Maldives which suddenly loves Indian tourists, Lanka is now actively courting us again. This makes sense for both countries. Even when the Lankans were not so keen on us, I went back twice because I think it is a terrific destination. And it is not expensive: flights are affordable, hotels are cheaper than in India and the country is still just as lovely as it has always been.


   I went again last month, and after a night halt at the Taj Lanka in Colombo, headed straight for Hatton and Ceylon tea country. (A five-hour drive but you can take a helicopter or a seaplane.)


   Indian hill stations have been destroyed by over-development. If you go to Darjeeling or Ooty now, you will wonder what the fuss was ever about. But the Lankans have looked after their hill stations and they are mostly unspoilt, lovely and very clean.


   In tea country, I stayed at Ceylon Tea Trails. This is an innovation by the far sighted and well-travelled Malik Fernando of Dilmah, the only major tea brand to emerge from the Third World.


   In the old Raj days, the British planters built large bungalows for themselves in the tea gardens, often with huge lawns and magnificent views of the hills. Fernando had the idea of converting the bungalows into small hotel-type spaces.


   He started with Castlereagh, which may still be the loveliest of the lot, and then converted four other bungalows in the area. The whole complex is now marketed as Ceylon Tea Trails.


"In Lanka, Dharshan is Manish Mehrotra and Paul Bocuse rolled into one, a national hero and an enormously influential chef."

   Castlereagh had five bedrooms, was charming and comfortable and had a staff of eight. Each morning the chef would ask what you wanted to eat, and in the evenings you sat in the living room and listened to music by the log fire and enjoyed the wine and spirits that were part of the package.


   I guess it may have been different if there were many other guests but we were the only guests in the bungalow, so, it was a holiday like no other I have had.


   During the day you took boat rides, went on picnics, went biking or (if you are like me) had lunch at the other Tea Trails bungalows. You only drank the tea that came from the garden at each place and you were welcome to tour the gardens, visit the tea factory etc.


   The tea country is to the North of Cape Weligama, one of Fernando’s other hotels which is in the southernmost part of the island. Lanka is small and it took less than an hour by seaplane from the lake adjoining Castlereagh to the Cape Weligama hotel, located on a cliff overlooking the beach. It is not far from the town of Galle and the hotel will arrange tours of Galle Fort and other scenic spots in the region.


   The architecture is stunning and there are 15 swimming pools, and a lovely spa staffed by a couple from Bali.


   The Fernando properties are members of Relais & Chateaux, the prestigious global network of independently-owned small hotels and restaurants. In my experience the Relais & Chateaux restaurants are great though the hotels are a bit hit and miss (my worst holiday was booked by Relais & Chateaux at the disgracefully bad Yeatman hotel in Porto). Fortunately the Sri Lanka hotels are terrific and a credit to Relais & Chateaux.


   When I first went to Colombo in 1976 as a teenager, the two top hotels were the Intercontinental and the Lanka Oberoi, both of which survive under different names today. But since the 1980s, whenever I have had a choice I have stayed at the Taj. The hotel has had its ups and downs, but like all good Taj properties, it can offer the warmth of home.


   Under the current General Manager, Pankaj Sampat, the consensus in Lanka is that it is better than it has ever been. It can be hard to run a hotel when tourists are scared away by bomb blasts and the Coronavirus but Sampat runs it to the standards that the Taj group was founded on with excellent food and warm service.


   Also in Colombo, Malik Fernando took us for lunch to Palmyrah, a restaurant that is not on the tourist trail but serves astonishingly good Tamil food from Jaffna in the North. It was easily the best Sri Lankan meal of the trip.


   If you ask anyone in Sri Lanka who the country’s great chefs are, they always start by saying ‘Dharshan Munidasa’ and then trail off into silence. In Lanka, Dharshan is Manish Mehrotra and Paul Bocuse rolled into one, a national hero and an enormously influential chef.


   He runs many restaurants but his flagship remains the original Ministry of Crab in Colombo. It is famous for its crabs; wild, I was assured though one of them, the Crabzilla, looked like it had escaped from Jurassic Park. I was lucky to go when Dharshan was in the restaurant and we had the most amazing meal with the aforementioned Crabzilla. Unlike most fish chefs, Dharshan is also a master of spicing. I reckon he should bottle his sauces and sell them.


   My favourite dish though was not the crab but the plump and fleshy local oysters which he served with an aged soya sauce.


   So should you go to Sri Lanka? Absolutely. But bear in mind that though Air-India has a well-run station and a great country manager in Sumathi Balaji, flight timings from Delhi can be awkward and Colombo airport is a hell-hole, worse even than Kolkata airport in the 1980s. If you are travelling with small children that should you give you pause.


   But otherwise, go. It is great value.



Posted On: 18 Dec 2021 11:00 AM
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