x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Sri Lanka so much easier with guide

Travelling around Sri Lanka isn't as easy as you might think, so call in the experts.

A wetland in Yala National Park, Sri Lanka.
A wetland in Yala National Park, Sri Lanka.

It's when you get to the "hiring a driver" part of planning a trip that you start to realise your holiday in Sri Lanka isn't going to be quite as straightforward as you imagined.

"Be warned it does take an age to get anywhere," a friend advised when I said I wanted to drive around the island (island? Read country - the size of Ireland) in a week. "Few signs are in English. You really can't drive quickly on the roads, so getting to Anuradaphura may take a while. All the expat types we met in Kalapitiya had booked drivers through agencies on the internet because I think it's cheaper than transfers."

Clearly, despite the new road from Colombo to Galle, Sri Lankan roads hadn't improved much since my first visit 10 years ago. I decided to contact the experts: Experience Travel Sri Lanka, a UK-based travel company. Within hours of getting in touch, a more realistic tour of the greenest and most scenic part of the country, the south, was put together. With eight days, we'd stick to the historic fort town of Galle, the wild coast of Tangalle, exotic Yala National Park and the green hill country in the south-central area.

Our Etihad flight arrives at 5am; bleary-eyed at Bandaranaike International Airport, we're glad that our pre-appointed driver, Chandi, is waiting. Slipping past the crowds of touts, we jump into the back seat of our air-conditioned Toyota saloon and are on our way. Sort of: rush hour is in full swing and it is a nauseating stop-start through traffic-choked streets full of images of the president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, grinning like a pop star.

Finally, we reach the pristine new toll road. We doze, waking intermittently to the electric green flash of rice fields all around. We reach the coast of Galle - struck by the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004 but now as calm and quiet as a mill pond - in time for breakfast. The coast here is still low key, without the back-to-back development seen in and around nearby Unawatuna. I'm already beginning to decompress.

The Galle cricket ground, just outside the old town, is full of England cricket fans - never a pretty sight. Yet we walk the thick fort walls and admire the rugged coastline before collapsing over coffee in the library of the Amangalla hotel, Aman Resorts' first Sri Lankan property. Old books by the English writer Leonard Woolf, a colonial administrator in Sri Lanka at the start of the 20th century, and newer ones featuring the work of native architect Geoffrey Bawa, were among the fascinating reads on display. This old Dutch town would be lovely without the crowds, we think, and carry on east along the coast.

A narrow, scenic road hugs the shoreline, punctuated by small villages smothered in coconut palms. We pass the tiny Taprobane, known locally as Galduwa Rock Island. Privately owned and built on in the 1920s by Count De Mauny-Talvande, a French gentleman of leisure, it's now available to rent.

We keep going east until we reach the Amanwella. Our car slips down off the two-lane coast road through a forest to the resort, a temple of tropical modernism that's spectacular in a minimalist sort of way. Chandi drops us at the far eastern-inspired entrance, all tiled roof, wooden posts and air, and we're taken to our suite to check in. The resort's calming, Bawa-inspired architecture has used local materials to create a cutting-edge hideaway. There are 30 separate large suites, which are more like villas, all surrounded by greenery and facing the sea and the resort's own rugged beach.

As you'd expect for US$550 (Dh2,020) a night, you can't see or hear any roads or ugliness. Even the gardeners stop work and greet you (subtly, of course). I love the sound of the sea, the fresh air and the huge beds: it's the perfect place to escape to and collapse in when you haven't slept for 36 hours. We run down to the beach and throw ourselves into the crashing waves, swimming and bodyboarding until sunset. I drink fresh coconut water and lie back, inhaling the salty air and feeling rejuvenated by the sound of the sea and nothing else.

At breakfast I eat fish curry and string hoppers - a protein, carb and spice hit that kick-starts the day. The food prices here are about 10 times what you'd pay in a local cafe, though without the flies and with a better view. We check out and drive east for several hours, straight past the ancestral home of the president in Tangalle and around a huge construction site for Sri Lanka's new port to the gateway of Yala National Park.

We're met by Mark Forbes, a Sri Lankan partner in the company Kulu Safaris, which operates a tented camp at a scenic site deep in ancient forest and beside a river, and game drives around the national park.

Originally a game sanctuary opened in 1900, Yala became a national park in 1938. A small museum documents the park's fascinating history, including the gruesome boasts from colonial hunters, one of whom, named as "Major Rogers", killed 1,500 elephants in four years.

Arriving at camp, we're given a refreshing drink and our bags are carried to our tent: spotless, with a comfortable bed and crisp bedding, and miraculously free of insects. After a delicious lunch of cuttlefish curry and rice, Forbes takes us on our first game drive in a large but noisy Toyota Land Cruiser built for game viewing. Only a small portion of the park's total area is open to visitors, yet it's a big enough area for a two-day trip. Yala is home to the world's largest concentration of leopards and, while there's no guarantee of seeing any, Forbes seems confident.

We see water buffalo and elephants straight away but, having been on African safaris, I'm more interested in the bird life that thrives in the park's wetlands - there are more than 200 species here. We see everything from delicate bee-eaters to giant storks, pelicans and sea eagles. I also love the park's geography: wide plains with giant granite, gneiss and migmatite inselbergs rising prehistorically from the earth, thick jungle, beaches and murky swamps. Just after sunset we hear a leopard has been spotted and race to the scene. A single specimen is lying in the middle of the road but we can't get close enough to see it properly. It's hardly dramatic but I'm secretly pleased that all the guides seem to be adhering to strict rules about distance.

Back at camp, we're served a three-course dinner by candlelight and are in bed by 10pm, enjoying the darkness from the security of our beds.

The next day we head north to Bandarawela, a hill town at 1,230 metres. We're to stay at the Adelphi, an Art Deco villa owned by ex-antiques dealers Rodney Arnoldi and Eric Gunawardena, who already own and operate the very attractive and successful Dutch House. The single-storey 1920s bungalow is set in a garden at the top of a steep private drive.

After a good night's sleep, we drive through mist and tea estates and walk to Lipton's Seat, from where the tea planter Thomas Lipton enjoyed surveying his estate. It's a scenic walk up, but the summit is covered in mist. I love the drive along toy-town roads lined with drystone walls the most, rocky crags and coniferous trees looming above us.

Chandi drops us at Haputale train station just in time to catch a local train to Ella - because it's a scenic route, it's packed with tourists. The Victorian train station is uncannily British, with still-in-use rotary dial telephones, log books and platforms filled with hanging baskets. The train winds its way around hills, through tea plantations and across iron bridges to the pretty town.

The last stop on our trip is Kitulgala, Sri Lanka's adventure sports capital, located in a protected rainforest on the Kelani River.

It's a gorgeous drive there from Bandarawela through the mountains of Nuwara Eliya, and with all the twisting and turning and a constant stream of scooters and vehicles to contend with, we're again pleased to have a driver to allow us to concentrate on the scenery. Not only is Chandi deft at the wheel, but his conversation isn't overwhelming - rather than be subjected to a barrage of information, he's succinct and to the point.

We're staying at Borderlands, a riverside campsite run by Wade, a Canadian, and his Nepalese wife, Laxmi. It's late afternoon and we swim in the river just as a downpour starts, but it's been a long drive so we revel in it. The view across to the Kelani River Valley Reserve is beautiful and reminds me of Laos. After a delicious dinner we head wearily to bed, but, damp and wheezing, find this isn't quite the "luxury" camping described on the website.

Tired and insect-bitten, we nevertheless enjoy the next day's rafting and canyoning with the camp's head guide, Kosala. We also take ourselves on a self-guided hike through Makandawa rainforest.

And it's with the sound of the rain and the sight of the forest that we return home - not only with a new appreciation for the dry desert but also with a desire to return to that wilderness.

IF YOU GO

The flight

Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) flies from Abu Dhabi to Colombo in four hours from Dh1,300 return, including taxes

The hotel

Double rooms at Amanwella (www.amanresorts.com/amanwella; 00 94 777 743500) cost from US$550 (Dh2,000) per night
The trip A seven-night trip with Experience Sri Lanka (www.experiencesrilanka.com; 00 44 207 924 7133), with two nights at Amanwella, a one-night luxury camping safari with Kulu Safaris, two nights at the Adelphi in Bandarawela and two nights at Borderlands in Kitulgala, costs from £1,524 (Dh8,780) per person, including ground transport and some meals, based on two sharing