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Packaged pleasures in Sri Lanka and the Maldives

Two ‘Drops in the Ocean’ off the Indian coast are highlights of any traveller’s diary.

The larger one hangs precariously like a teardrop from the southern tip of India, oft called by poets and those in days past with literary imagination…Serendib, but called by its British colonial masters, Ceylon, before finally reverting to the Sinhalese name of Sri Lanka following the island’s independence.

A much tinier one, a mere ‘dot’ really, some five hundred miles south called Meerufenfushi, is one of the Maldives coral atolls barely above sea level that tantalises tourists to its white ‘talcum powder’ beaches and azure-blue lagoons.

Both were victims of the Tsunami that devastated the entire region on that fateful Boxing Day not very long ago.

Having visited many of those areas since, including southern India and western Thailand, to see at first-hand the aftermath of that ferocious wave and the efforts at reconstruction, I wanted to witness the effect it had on two of my favourite tropical destinations, Sri Lanka and the Maldives, two countries regularly featured in many major tour operators brochures as dual holiday escapes. I also wanted to know whether these once popular choices by British holidaymakers were still so and if not, what were the reasons?

Normally booking and confirming my air travel and accommodation independently, for this tour I strayed by utilising the services of two tour operators, setting between them the task of tailoring a specific itinerary for my party of four. A test really to compare prices and facilities offered (and actually delivered?) with my usual, personal, direct contact arrangements.

I chose Thomas Cook and Kuoni, mixing and matching venues, lengths of stay, room grades, board terms, airline carriers and flight timings. Quite an assignment but necessary if my purpose was to be fulfilled with the least hassle and the most beneficial effect. I’m happy to say that both companies almost scored a perfect maximum (only one lack of international communication caused a slight hiccup, which an encouraging pat on the back and a few smiles soon cured).

A detailed study/comparison as to their charges versus direct booking by myself, proved to be a pleasant surprise. Taking all into consideration, such as ground transfers and local representation by knowledgeable personnel, the cost variation was minimal, only amounting to a few pounds per person. The age of package deals seems not to be over yet!

As to the question often posed by holidaymakers and TV travel presenters alike…”Are package holidays good value for money in these days of the Internet?”  Yes and no would be my answer.

If a person is prepared to study a number of tour operator’s brochures carefully for the best match as to requirements, then take the time to visit their (normally) High Street shops and discuss in detail exactly what is wanted before finally negotiating a discount (most will agree!) then the end price could well prove to be favourable when compared with ‘going it alone’.

So, having done just that, I led my party aboard a Sri Lankan Airlines Airbus at Heathrow and the tour began.

Sri Lanka is indeed a country of contrasts. Always tropically hot of course but large enough to have distinct seasonal weather patterns as far as rainfall is concerned. Therefore, if a rain-free holiday is for you, merely scan the back pages of tour operator’s brochures and note which months fit your bill. I chose February and in the twenty days the tour lasted, we experienced just one evening of quite welcome, cooling rain.

Rather than generalise, I have decided to let this report run in the same order as the physical tour took us, relating the experiences and opinions as encountered.

I had chosen Sri Lankan Airlines as our carrier, as from past experience, they were hard to fault. But not this time! The Airbus seemed ‘tired’. Frayed carpets, leaking toilets, lack of vital amenities and even broken and quite dangerous seats were certainly not expected. Although the cabin crew was polite, efficient and pleasant, their manner could not outweigh the aircraft’s apparent lack of routine maintenance. That we landed almost two hours behind schedule did little to enhance the mood of passengers when added to the problems. Subsequent conversations with a number of them confirmed my own observations and more than one opined a decision not to fly with that airline again. A pity really as the country has (and still is) suffering from a distinct drop in tourism from European travellers.

Colombo airport is undergoing a major refurbishment (long overdue). Even so, passage though the usual systems proved to be painless and smooth and we were soon outside among the colourful throng of local folk and heading for our awaiting mini-van, which was to take us to our first hotel…Mount Lavinia, some 20 miles south.

The journey took almost two hours, our driver weaving his way through every type of moving obstacles imaginable, highly decorated and overloaded trucks belching clouds of diesel fumes, vans, cars, motorbikes with three (or more) up! cycles, pedestrians, cows, elephants, dogs, cats and potholes. The cacophony of noise was only outdone by our specially installed horn, one, as our driver explained, that was more essential than efficient brakes! We all believed him. Never mind Orlando theme parks, this experience never fails to thrill and pump adrenaline.

The white facade of the hotel was a welcome sight and visions of old colonial Britain merged with existing thoughts of a comfortable bed and a good night’s sleep after some eighteen hours of travel.

Mount Lavinia Hotel perches on a promontory, constantly washed by the breaking waves of the Indian Ocean. It’s favoured (and rightly so) by many tour operators as ‘a perfect first-night’ stay prior to any of the numerous island tours, which, after a lavish breakfast, start from there.

No roads in Sri Lanka can be classed as free flowing. European standards of surfaces are certainly not applicable here. Yet, our car journey from the west coast inland and upwards to the island’s highest region of Nuwara Eliya (literally meaning ‘City of Light’) went smoothly. It’s a small and delightfully pleasant town nestling atop a mountain some 6000 feet above sea level and crammed with interesting views and experiences.

Inside a cavernous building where tea is processed is another world indeed. Built by British in the Victorian era and clad with what looked like acres of corrugated tin sheets, nothing seemed to have changed since those days. Such buildings simply called tea factories straddle many hillsides. They are hubs nestling among vast swathes of tea shrubs, which deceive the eye into believing that entire mountains have been manicured. Tamil women with large sacks slung on their backs, held in place by a band of cloth stretching across their forehead, pick only the topmost, new, leaf-shoots and with unerring dexterity toss them over their shoulder and into the sack. Each leaf is precious – none ever seem to miss the target because their very livelihood depends on filling that sack as many times in eight hours as possible. Just how they can return a wave and beam tourists a wide smile during such backbreaking and finger aching work will remain a mystery to me.

Experienced guides, brim full of knowledge, lead the way through each tea-making process. Huge wood-fired boilers provide the necessary heat; ancient machinery constantly mills, spins, shakes and sorts the leaves into the required size and type. Nothing is hidden from visitors prying eyes, their camcorders zooming into every nook and cranny. Finally, the way out from the noisy and quite dusty environment leads to a haven of peace and tranquillity…the teashop. More smiles are encountered on the faces of the young women who, like something out of a Dickens novel, serve beautifully brewed tea in china pots into equally delicate cups on white cloth covered tables already laid with the necessary accoutrements. The perfect end to a most interesting visit.

Keeping to the Victorian genre, I had selected a hotel befitting its surroundings…the St. Andrews. Set in immaculate grounds where the flora is mostly verdant green, its old-world style is reminiscent of many English country hotels. Wood panelling is predominant, guest’s rooms are high-ceilinged and large, beds wonderfully comfortable and (if you must) the ubiquitous television set stands like some futuristic icon on a hand carved chest. The food here was of a standard not expected – akin to the very best cordon bleu. Not a single complaint could be heard from a room full of relaxed and satisfied diners.

The town itself is well worth exploring. Totally different to Colombo, narrow streets crammed with pavement shops, a bustling bus station next to a thriving market square laden with fresh produce. It is also worth noting that the region is famous for its vegetables, the growing skills of which were introduced there by the British a hundred years earlier and nurtured ever since. More evidence of the British influence is the magnificent eighteen-hole golf course, which, to the eye of yours truly (a non-golfer) would be given the thumbs-up by Tiger Woods.

Our tour schedule meant only one night here and so after breakfast and with many of the staff grouped at the hotel’s front entrance to bid us farewell, we boarded our minibus and set off for Kandy, once Sri Lanka’s capital city. Raja (our driver) was a mine of information, gave it freely and with considerable skill as we descended rapidly around corkscrew bends. At each thousand feet down towards sea level the scenery changed. Tea bushes faded from view to be replaced by conifers, which in turn gave way to the more usual tropical flora. Villages became more numerous (as did the population) when the terrain flattened and Kandy suddenly appeared as if it didn’t want to be found. The answer came when we were told that it was the only city in the world hidden by mountains on all sides.

At its heart is the man-made lake, basically rectangular in shape, around which many of the most interesting buildings and cultural centres lie. Tourists and droves of Sri Lankans queue patiently for a moment’s fleeting glance at the most precious and revered Buddhist item – his tooth! Hidden within a small box, which in turn is secreted in another and then five more, the fragment of worship is rarely revealed and only then to the land’s most senior monks.

However, the Temple of the Tooth itself is well worth a visit to witness the frenetic drumming by seemingly non-exhaustible musicians and the beautiful interior architecture, decoration and rows of exquisite Buddha statues.

Still in the culture mode we spent a most entertaining hour along with an audience of fifty or so Europeans, watching an indoor stage performance by Kandian dancers. They whirled like Dervishers, stamped their bare feet on the wooden floor and leapt in all directions to the beat of a quartet of drummers who, in a trance-like manner dictated the speed (and volume) of the show. All wore colourful and highly decorated costumes, bells on their feet and arms and most expressive make-up…and these were the men!

The mood changed to one of serenity when the women made their appearance. Demonstrating through the art of dance and exquisite hand movements, they took us into the world of rice picking and celebration of harvest to the accompaniment of a solo flute player…enchanting!

The whole show ended in spectacular fashion when everyone was ushered outside just as the sun dropped below the horizon and a bed of hot coal embers strewn on the ground became the main source of illumination. Fire-eaters blew streams of flame as they startled us and after a number of circuits (to exhibit their skill at close range?) they gave way to others, which seemed to be immune to walking bare-foot across the glowing coals to the amazement of us all. Each ‘pass’ became more adventurous as they responded to the applause and cries of wonder. None of us took umbrage as, when the show ended, two of the participants stood at the gate holding boxes labelled ‘tips’ and wearing smiles (and sweat) on their faces. As almost the last to leave, I was pleased to note that my contribution dropped onto a pretty healthy pile.

Our base in Kandy was the Topaz hotel; one well used by tourists and featured in many tour operators brochures. Perched atop one of the peaks surrounding the city, the spectacular view was certainly worth the torturous effort to cajole our minibus up and around the so-called ‘road’, which led to it. First gear was the order of the day as was a certain amount of holding ones breath until it managed to arrive at the hotel’s entrance. Climbing wasn’t over yet though – it was our turn to exercise leg muscles because the only way to the reception area was up – not a road but a flight what seemed never-ending steps.

‘Adequate’ was the only word that came to mind if I had to describe the hotel’s ambience, facilities and staff. Not a place to linger (except for a while to admire the views) but not a bad place to lay one’s head after a strenuous day full of interest and activity.

On the outskirts of the city are the botanical gardens. An early morning visit the next day was delightfully rewarding. Acres of painstakingly maintained vistas brought many exclamations of approval to our ears. Specimens were thoughtfully name-tagged and professionally sited by what must have been persons of knowledge and expert horticultural experience. The quiet serenity engulfed our senses as we wandered oblivious of time and life outside the ornate gates and when we entered the orchid house, yet another world was opened to us.

Vibrant colours, delicate scents, intricate shapes and wonderfully amazing species had been cleverly sited or hung and tied-to small living trees and allowed to follow their natural habits in a quite superb way. It was little wonder that their keeper (and no doubt lover) was anxious to impart his enthusiastic, encyclopaedic knowledge to anyone who would listen. All four of us did – with attentive ears and appreciative eyes.

The visit became a regular topic as we journeyed-on westwards to the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage. Began a number of years ago as a refuge for young elephants, which had, for whatever reason, lost their parents, the establishment thrived, initially on government and well-wishers grants and of latter times from the ever-increasing number of fascinated visitors who willingly pay to see them. The site itself is looking somewhat tired and scruffy and the number of elephants of all ages has reduced recently.

However, patience is rewarded handsomely when at nominated times of the day, the gates are opened and the entire herd crosses the busy road without a care in the world, makes its way down a narrow, souvenir-shop lined road to the river, followed by admiring onlookers.

What happens next is a magical time indeed.

Dozens of these highly intelligent animals trumpet their pleasure at the sight of the river, tread surprisingly delicately across the boulder-lined bank to part submerge themselves in its cooling embrace. Mahouts, ever so protective of their charges, scoop hands-full of water over their hides, rubbing vigorously at the now darkened skins wherever the elephant proffers a reachable surface. They roll in seeming ecstasy as camera-owners jostle for better close-up angles, especially to focus upon the babies, which nestle closely to their protective parents. Digital images must fill memory cards galore to be re-lived by their owners on return to homelands.

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