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Packaged pleasures in Sri Lanka and the Maldives

Driving towards the setting sun some hours later brought us to the coast and my chosen resort of Club Bentota, which I hoped would prove to be a restful break after the quite frenetic pace of the past few days.

Prior research had prepared me for what was entailed in actually getting to the hotel as maps had shown that it was sited on a spit of land with a wide river on one side and the ocean on the other. We bid Raja goodbye with grateful thanks for his constant flow of knowledge, skilful use of the van’s horn! (he appreciated that friendly jibe) and his success in keeping us happy throughout the tour. He reversed and drove off, the horn blaring, one hand waving from the open window and the last glimpse was of his white teeth framed in a genuine smile as the vehicle turned left and disappeared.

We’d flown on a jet-plane, travelled well over a hundred miles by minibus…now it was the turn of a boat crew to ferry us and some ten other expectant tourists across the half-mile wide river to be met by yet more smiling faces, those of the resort’s welcoming party.

Club Bentota is an all-inclusive hotel set in acres of carefully kept grounds and aimed mostly at an adult clientele. There are various classes of accommodation including single-story bungalows. I’d booked these, which turned-out to be a good choice as they were well equipped, spacious and sporting a secluded balcony large enough for times of quiet conversations with friends, when reflecting on experiences so far.

Although this is a large resort with hundreds of guests, there are enough facilities and activities to ensure an absence of queues. Food, as in most all-inclusive resorts is buffet-style with sufficient variation to satisfy the palettes of the many nationalities, which favour this popular hotel. Cordon-bleu it is not but we didn’t choose the Sri Lankan equivalent of the Savoy to unwind either.

An evening boat trip inland along the river should not be missed. Within a half-hour of leaving the jetty, the small powerboat is steered into the mangroves, which line the banks. Engine off, we pull and push against the overhanging branches in silence listening to the mimicry of mynah birds and searching for a glimpse of the highly coloured parrots. Reminiscent of Humphry Bogart and The African Queen, we finally re-emerged onto the vast expanse of this majestic river, wiping sweat from our brows, secretly relieved, sub-consciously savouring one of the cocktails, which would be (freely) available on our return.

Four days here ‘charged the batteries’ enough for the next stage of the adventure…the Maldives. Not very welcome was the 1.30am departure from the hotel for the near three-hour drive north to Colombo airport to arrive at the mandatory three-hour pre-boarding time of the Sri Lankan Airlines flight to Male, the capital of the Maldives, where the only international airport is sited.

A little over an hour’s flight on which a continental breakfast was served saw us touching-down on a runway, the end of which seems only yards from the ocean. Expectations suffered a degree of dampening and tempers began to fray as, after joining a snaking queue of disembarking passengers from many different airlines, that queue barely moved forward. Just why some immigration officials seem to take morose pleasure in witnessing ever-increasing lines of people just itching to spend their American dollars (the favoured currency of the Maldives and in which all resorts price their wares) has always been a mystery to me.

Having visited the archipelago many times before and suffered similar waits, I had hoped that some high-ranking official would have sensed the frustration and put into practice a more common sense system, which would speed-up the whole process and give excited and anxious passengers a far better welcome. After all, tourism is a mainstay of Maldivian economy.

Finally through without so much of a smile when our passports were handed back, we were greeted by the tour operator’s representative who soon had us organised to board what turned out to be the most impressive (and amazingly fast) sea passage to the coral island of Meerufenfushi. Its triple hull and two massive outboard engines thrust it and some fifty passengers across the azure-coloured ocean. Like a millpond ahead and abeam and a foaming, frothing turbulence of white crests astern, the craft rose like some untamed animal with only what seemed like its propellers glued to the sea.

We were treated to sights of flying fish skittering across the surface on either side and a trio of dolphins eager to prove their mastery of the environment to us delighted spectators before finally deciding that this man-made contraption was no match for them and so veered-off to play alone.

On the horizon ahead a darkened blob broke the line, which soon became clearer to prove that palm trees really do grow on tiny coral atolls only a few feet above the waterline. Once disembarked and into the thatched-roofed reception area, the resort’s management (Austrian) immediately proved who actually paid their salaries…US! Ice-cool drinks appeared like magic, waiters hovered with towels, porters stood on the wings as the clerical staff (with a slickness that should be imitated at Male airport), produced the keys for the pre-booked accommodation. The waiting porters commandeered them and when we identified our luggage (by now unloaded from the boat and lined-up a few feet away) put it on a soft-wheeled cart and led the way.

We had opted to stay in one of the beachside bungalows; each set among the palms and only yards from the ocean, reached over soft, white powdery sand. Once again we had chosen well. The air-conditioning controls worked exactly as they should and all the fixtures and fittings were in perfect order. The half-in half-out bathroom was a delightful touch. Totally private, yet one could have a shower whilst admiring the myriad of stars overhead (just turn off the light). I had never seen the Milky Way so clearly before!

The head chef happened to be Swiss, with a team of many nationalities under his control. For such a large resort the food was amazingly good. Again buffet style but with many ‘add-ons’ not usually found. Excellent freshly made breads were available at every meal, arrays of scrumptious desserts lay on starched, white cloths waiting to tempt anyone who felt the need to try after such earlier delicacies as local tropical fish, mouth-watering soups and curries to suit every palette.

As is usual at most Maldives resorts, drinks both non-alcoholic and otherwise were expensive. Being a Muslim country, the importation of alcohol is prohibited by visitors but each resort island is licensed to sell such…at a price! The average for a small beer anywhere is around $4, with spirits much higher than that. Even a bottle of mineral water can set you back three or more dollars. My advice! Do your homework before choosing where to stay and on what board terms as such costs do certainly add-up and unless you have configured these extras beforehand an invoice total on the day of departure can come as a shock.

The dive school here is extremely professional and multi-lingual. All the equipment is in pristine condition and thoroughly inspected before use. Whilst conducting interviews with varying members of the team of diving instructors, I took the opportunity to witness the scrupulous attention to detail as guests were kitted-out for their particular level of diving skill.

With no house reef, Meerufenfushi has to rely upon the skippers of dhonis (the standard Maldivian mode of sea travel) to take diving parties to suitable reefs, many of which are a number of miles away.

It was this absence of a close to shore house reef that proved to be the biggest disappointment for us and many others, who merely wished to snorkel in safe waters to admire the scenery beneath the surface. The only alternative was to join a party of like-minded folk (which we did), pay $6 each, board a dhoni and be taken to the nearest (about one mile) coral area where fish and invertebrates could be seen after jumping off the gunwales, a leap of some six feet. If the wind was even moderate, which it was on our chosen day, the waves at this location made snorkelling hard going indeed and the majority of swimmers made a quick return to the boat, dissatisfied and, if the truth were admitted, not a little scared.

This then was the downside of the resort if you had come prepared to enjoy safe snorkelling, all the more reason to search the published material about the various resorts before booking to ensure that your ‘week in paradise’ lives up to expectations.

I know of only one publication which describes in full and honest detail the amenities of every island resort and which is crammed full of details. Information as to the number of guestrooms, relative density of them in regards to the size of the island, even down to the price of drinks.  Its title is ‘Resorts of the Maldives’ by Adrian Neville. For anyone contemplating a holiday there, it should be compulsory reading.

Ignoring the lack of good snorkelling, the resort boasts many other facilities like tennis courts, a golf driving range, bicycle hire, indoor game rooms and spa treatments. Again, most are charged for, so beware!

Despite all I have said, some of which may seem negative, Meerufenfushi enjoys a repeat client ratio envied by many other islands. The management must be getting most things right for such universal approval.

Seven days here did fly by. There was time to relax, laze in the shallow lagoon or lull the senses by swinging gently in a hammock under the palm trees trying to read the latest ‘blockbuster’ or concentrate on creative writing but failing as ones eyes refused to focus for long enough. And so before dawn, we along with a couple of dozen other reluctant passengers, boarded yet another speeding craft, which took us back to Male, negotiating the harbour entrance as the sun poked its head over the city’s white-painted buildings, turning them a soft pink.

Colombo awaited exploration and the plan was to base ourselves once more at Mount Lavinia and make daily sorties into the city. Suitcases were emptied, clothing sorted, swimsuits only required for the welcoming pool on the hotel terrace after hours of saturating our senses among the throngs of people, which populated this crowded metropolis.

No one can capture the soul of such a place in a matter of a few days. Around every corner of the city’s central area the melange changes. Tall skyscrapers jostle for space with façades of a bygone era. Businessmen carrying briefcases and wearing smart suits walk purposely along the crowded pavements, most of which must have benefited from repairs a century ago. The widely used form of transport – tuktuk taxis (Colombo’s answer to London’s black cab but with no reverse and only three wheels) miraculously squeeze through spaces in the perpetual traffic to the utter amazement of any European brave enough to hail one, duck beneath the canopy and tell its driver the intended destination.

Shopping here, like many other places in this part of the world can either be a frustrating experience for those lacking in patience or an entertaining battle of wills as prices are banded to and fro like Ping-Pong balls. What does it matter if it takes 15 minutes to buy a fake Rolex for a few rupees or that desired £5 souvenir? Just go with the flow and enjoy the banter.

As for eating establishments, visitors are spoilt for choice. Whether it’s gourmet food you’re after or the delights of local recipes, Colombo has it…in spades!  I’ve always been an advocate of the old adage ‘when in Rome’ etc and so seek-out establishments where local people fill most tables. Doing so has never failed to produce the very best a city has to offer.

Guide books list the many places of interest for visitors, whether it be an afternoon at the zoo or a trip inside the new Trade Centre skyscrapers, two identical towers that dominate the skyline. Take your pick. Wherever you choose you are certain to be welcomed with smiles…Sri Lankans just can’t help it.

Recently there has been a resurgence of fighting between the Tamil Tiger group and government forces with bombings undertaken by both sides. Questions of safety have to be calculated when planning to visit countries with a history of unrest – it would be foolish not to. However, to put matters into perspective, compare how many people have been killed by terrorism in England (many hundred and thousands injured) yet, to the best of my knowledge, not one single tourist to Sri Lanka has suffered either.

Would I go to that country again? Yes, most certainly. On this tour we merely ‘scratched the surface’ of what delights can be found. There are game reserves to be experienced, mountains to climb, white-water rafting to be thrilled by, temples to see and the eighth wonder of the world; Sigiriya Lions Rock awaits your effort to climb its many steps. World heritage sites like the ancient cities of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa are there to be explored – the choice is up to you.

So, after twenty-one days the airport beckoned once more and a full-laden aircraft lifted off the runway to carry us back to UK.

At the beginning of this piece I asked a question about the popularity of Sri Lanka and the Maldives with British tourists and what, if anything had affected numbers. The answer is mixed. Some resorts are back to average room occupancy while others are as low as 15%. Some country’s governments like France for instance, positively discourage their nationals from visiting the first, which, in my opinion is quite absurd but a fact nevertheless.

The Tsunami effects have mostly been rectified and strenuous efforts have been made to ensure that demanded facilities are back to normal. I found that many have improved them to an even higher standard than before and await the confidence of British tourists to return. Time will tell but I feel that it will take a concerted effort by all concerned in the travel industry to recognise the progress that has been made and actively promote the benefits and delights that await the traveller.

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