x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

A sip of Sri Lanka

Discover delicious teas, tropical landscapes and ruined cities in the country's rolling hills.

Tea plantations in Sri Lanka's golden valley. Kipat Wilson for The National
Tea plantations in Sri Lanka's golden valley. Kipat Wilson for The National

"Our guests from the Middle East like a strong tea," Andrew Taylor explains as he escorts my wife and I through the emerald-green hills of Bogawantalawa, otherwise known as Sri Lanka's "golden valley of tea".

Set 1,200 metres up in the hill country near Hatton, the enveloping landscape presents a fairy-tale scene of misty lakes, enchanting woods and flower-filled tropical gardens. Every available slope is striped with long, winding rows of luscious, green tea plants, while at carefully chosen spots palatial bungalows, originally built in the 1920s for estate managers, drink in the views. Now converted into small, well-appointed lodges by an enterprising company called Tea Trails, they offer visitors the chance to relax in a nostalgic world of scones, croquet and hot-water bottles slipped between the sheets. Each day starts with a cup of "bed tea" brought to your room, and later you can tour a working tea factory, follow well-marked walks through the plantations, soak in a detoxifying green tea bath - then dine on roast lamb with a crusting of Earl Grey.

Bearing the fine 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 trips round the local Norwood estate, where leaves plucked at 7.45am become tea for sale at 8am the next day, provide an absorbing introduction to a health-boosting beverage we all now take very much for granted. It is no exaggeration to say that joining it has changed the lives of both Mehra and myself. Now we only drink our tea black and sugarless, and made using leaves that been properly brewed in a pot with freshly boiled water. Milk? Ugh! Teabags? No, thanks. A nice cup of full-bodied, single region Meda Watte? Yes, please!

In every way, a trip into hill country is the high point of a holiday to Sri Lanka. After the end of its 25-year civil war in 2009, the country is now firmly back on the tourist map - and despite unseasonably heavy rains and flooding this year, everyone gives this laid-back island a rave review. One reason is its people, a commendably smiley and welcoming lot. Another is the miracle of their multi-faith society, which becomes most apparent when we drive around at night. Then, you see the extraordinary number of roadside shrines and churches that light up the darkness, beaming out their individual messages from a land of peacefully coexisting religions. Here's a smiling Buddha, there's an anguished Catholic saint. The green neon of a mosque shines beside the colourful statuary of a Hindu temple. To the traveller, it feels like you've got all the gods of the world's religions looking after you.

We need some protection because Sri Lanka's roads are mined with unexpected hazards. The customary way to get around is with a car and local driver, and our lives have been entrusted to the safe and cautious steering wheel of a gentleman called Basil.

"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?" Basil continues. "They can even can smell it inside the car."

Mehra and I hastily review what we had for breakfast. While she has been enjoying Sri Lankan classics such as string hoppers and curd with treacle, I've been healthily eating yoghurt and, er, fruit. Fortunately, our only wild animal encounter is with the monkeys who 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 also makes an excellent base for exploring what's known as the Cultural Triangle. These are Sri Lanka's northern plains, rich with historic royal sites that include the rocky citadel of Sigiriya, the ancient city of Anaradhapura and the former capital of Kandy.

We opt to visit Polonnaruwa, which flourished in the 12th century. Today, it is a remarkable ensemble of beautiful ruins that are 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 14 metres long. Unusually, the companion museum turns out to be excellent, with exquisite works of art, informative commentaries in English and thought-provoking 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 and rich history, there's also 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 although 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. Instead we head south for a thrill that is still new to Sri Lanka: whale watching. Every year from December to April, migrating pods of blue whales pass by its southern tip, and the best place to spot them is Mirissa.

"There's a 75 per cent chance you'll get a sighting" a local advises us, so it seems worth a try. Because the boats depart about 6.30am, it pays to stay somewhere close by, such as the reasonably priced rooms at Mirissa Hills, a stylish hotel set on a cinnamon plantation (where a museum dedicated to this lucrative spice will open this year).

The sea is discouragingly rough when we set off for a four-hour round-trip to the edge of the continental shelf - next stop, Antarctica! It's disappointing that the crew offer no information or insights into these great denizens of the deep, which can be up to 33 metres long, but thankfully we're in luck. Suddenly we see spouts of water shooting up from the waves and the skipper takes off on an exhilarating chase of a monstrous creature that tears along, huffing and puffing like a huge underwater steam train. For those of us who aren't seasick, it's a marvellous encounter.

Once safely back on terra firma, I suggest to Mehra that perhaps it's time to do some holiday activities that are safe and normal - you know, such as shopping, hanging out in arty cafes and enjoying the fresh fish and spicy curries Sri Lanka is renowned for. Fortunately, all this can be found just a half-hour drive west in the cultured, traffic-free environs of Galle Fort, a Unesco World Heritage Site. Built by the Dutch in the 1660s, its massive stone ramparts are so formidable they withstood the terror of the 2004 tsunami. Inside, the atmosphere is relaxed and inviting - even though its picturesque streets are now sprinkled with boutique hotels and chi chi shops, there is 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 still rich with colonial memories. There's a sleepy library that's been around since 1832 and imposing mustard-coloured warehouses that were once stacked high with cinnamon, while the old racecourse is now Galle's international cricket ground. At lunchtime, immaculately uniformed schoolgirls from Southlands College, established in 1885, gather under the 180-year-old rain trees that stand outside 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 (custard) with coconut ice cream. Add to this complimentary yoga and a top-class spa, and a stay here engenders such a sense of well-being there is a serious danger you will wander off and spend a reckless amount of money in the nearby 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 can go home without: precious stones.

"Come on in, we love the rain," a shopkeeper tells me 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 Mehra decides this is an ideal time to whip out the credit card and buy some gorgeous moonstone jewellery. By contrast, my souvenir from our holiday is a cloth for the kitchen that bears a mantra I just couldn't resist. It says "Keep calm and make tea" - and after discovering the joys of Sri Lanka, I'm doing just that.

If you go

The flight

Return flights on Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) from Abu Dhabi to Colombo cost from Dh1,315, including taxes

The hotels

A double “luxury” room at Tea Trails (www.teatrails.com) costs from US$482 (Dh1,770) per night, based on a minimum two-night stay, full board. A suite at Heritance Kandalama (www.heritancehotels.com) costs from $254 (Dh933) per night, full board. Double rooms at Amangalla (www.amanresorts.com) in Galle cost from $498 (Dh1,829) per night. Prices include taxes

The tour

Ampersand Travel (www.ampersandtravel.com) arranges tailor-made packages. For April departures, a nine-night tour of Bogawantalawa, Polonnaruwa, Mirissa, Galle and Colombo costs from US$1,935 (Dh7,109) per person, with a private car and driver, accommodation with breakfast and entrance to sites and museums. For more information, visit www.srilankatourism.org