|A Gathering of Advisors: The group enjoys afternoon tea at Amangalla in Galle.|
It’s always interesting when you’re with a group of good friends, all of whom happen to be in the travel industry and the topic of “where next?” comes up. Is there a destination out there where none of us has ever been and where each of us would like to go? Somewhere slightly under the radar, but one that would be interesting and would provide the level of deluxe we all enjoy and appreciate. And Sri Lanka kept coming up in the conversation. It took us 18 months from the time we started kicking around the idea to the time we all landed in Colombo, the bustling capital, but oh boy, was it worth the wait.
Because Sri Lanka was a country that none of us knew well, a country in fact few of us had even sold, we put our itinerary and our trust in the hands of Rebecca Recommends (President Rebecca Slater can be contacted at [email protected]) and Ventours. And we were well rewarded with a trip full of good friends and good memories and one that, once we returned home, we were excited to share with our clients.
|Jean Pickard shares a moment with a Ventours International Guide.|
In looking at a map, one finds this small teardrop of a country, often called “The Pearl of the Indian Ocean” tucked in just under India. Consequently, assumptions are made that it’s just a smaller version of its neighbor or perhaps it’s “India Lite.” And while they inevitably share similar characteristics, Sri Lanka, once known as Ceylon, is not a slightly different version of any country — it is, proudly, its own country.
For 26 years, Sri Lanka was pretty much off limits to all but the most intrepid travelers. A civil war kept the country divided and the tourists at bay. But once the war ended in 2009, it began, happily, to open itself to the world. These are kind and gentle people, with a genuine warmth and a quick smile and while they will talk of the war, they would much rather share with you their ancient history and their progressive future. They really want you to enjoy their country.
Sri Lanka is home to eight UNESCO World Heritage sites — an impressive number for such a small country. One of the most important is Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka’s first capital which was founded in the 5th century B.C. It grew, however, in importance in the 3rd century B.C. when Sanghamitta, the founder of an order of Buddhist nuns, brought to Anuradhapura a sapling from the Bo tree in India (under which Buddha gained enlightenment). The Sri Maha Bodhi is still alive and is widely considered to be the oldest documented tree in the world.
|Raju Sing, one of the owners of Ventours International, with members of the Sri Lankan Air Force.|
Anuradhapura was a huge complex, the entire area covered 256 square miles and was surrounded by four walls, each of them 16 miles long. The capital existed for 1,300 years until it was sacked one too many times and began to decline in importance. Only a tiny part of the ancient city has been unearthed and it is replete with Dagoba (or Stupas) still standing from as early as the 2nd century B.C. Our guide told us it would take “two weeks and a bicycle” to see the site well but our morning visit was enough for us to understand the size and awe of it.
From the really ancient to the more modestly ancient, our next stop was Kandy, the heart of Sri Lankan arts and handicrafts. While Kandy has a beautiful lake and a wondrous Royal Botanic Gardens, it is best known for its Dalada Maligawa, otherwise known as the Temple of the Tooth Relic of the Buddha. It is a highly sacred temple and we were extremely privileged, particularly as non-Buddhists, to have a private viewing of the relic which is encased in seven caskets, the last of which is pure gold and encrusted with jewels.
Sri Lanka is a country of contrasts. It offers the ancient — like the site of Dambulla, an isolated rock mass where King Valagam Bahu took refuge in the 1st century B.C. and which later became a temple. It consists of five caves, all filled with Buddhist statues (and a couple of Hindu deities, too) and the ceilings of which are covered with frescos, some over 2,000 years old, with colors so bright you would believe they had been restored just last year. It offers the modern — like the sexy beach towns of Negembo, close to Colombo, and Trincomalee, on the opposite, or eastern, coast. It offers nature in abundance, wild like the Yala National Park, which contains the largest density of leopards in the world, or serene like the Sinharaja Forest Reserve, a rainforest that is home to over 500 species of indigenous flowering plants. This land of contrasts offers reminders that nature can be gentle, like the baby elephants in the Pinnawala orphanage or savage, like the devastation from the tsunami of 2004 that can still be seen along the coast road.
We saw this jewel of a country (it is known for sapphires, you know.) in the most amazing way, with incredible inside access, all thanks to Ventours. We found ourselves on balconies reserved for kings and on a private tour of the estate of Geoffrey Bawa, a Sri Lankan architect who was a friend of Adrian Zecha and who was the inspiration behind the Aman design. We delighted in staying among the tea plants in cottages that were once the homes of the tea plantation managers at a Relais & Châteaux property called, appropriately enough, Tea Trails, and enjoyed the LEED certified luxury of a Small Luxury Hotel called Ulagalla. But the coolest thing we did was to fly a Sri Lankan Air Force helicopter across the middle of the country — from the cool rains of the tea highlands to the old walled city of Galle on the coast. I have to say, it helps when your DMC knows an Air Force helicopter pilot.