Johnny Morris, The Daily Telegraph, March 14, 2013
'Look, a crocodile!' exclaims a German passenger, pointing at a prehistoric creature swimming across the palm-fringed Mawella Lagoon. The uniformed guard joins her on the jetty and reassures us that it is just a monitor lizard. I’m sure I have read somewhere that these giant reptiles – second in size only to the Komodo dragon – eat baby crocodiles for breakfast, but I decide not to mention this. People are usually a bit jumpy before a flight.
Welcome to Dikwella jetty airport, close to Tangalle on the sandy southern coast of Sri Lanka . The check-in is at Lloyd’s Lagoon Side, a tin-roofed restaurant where scales are borrowed from the kitchen to weigh your luggage. Kumara, the smiling waiter, asks the important pre-flight questions: “Tea? Coffee? Milk and sugar?” No queues, no security scans, no stress – just three fellow passengers and myself sitting under the shade of the large-leafed kottamba tree, waiting for our seaplane to buzz into view. If only flying from Heathrow were this easy – bar the carnivorous lizards, of course.
Thirty-five minutes later, we are touching down on the Kelani River in the suburbs of the capital, Colombo, beside a Buddhist temple. Dozens of life-sized statues seem to be praying for our safety as we disembark and prepare to hit the hellish city traffic. Already, the Air Taxi we arrived on – a 15-seater Twin Otter floatplane – is spinning its propellors and waterskiing down the river towards its next ascent.
The plane is operated by the state-owned SriLankan Airlines, and was relaunched two years ago to help kick-start the island’s internal aviation scene after the end of the brutal civil war in 2009. It is a pioneer service with a style that is part international carrier, part Indiana Jones and part village bus. On board, the only in-flight entertainment is the spectacular views of the green island below. The cabin is as noisy as a wonky spin-dryer and temperatures veer from chilly at 8,000ft to boiling hot on the ground. I loved every non-digital, screw-shaking second.
As you descend into Colombo in the Air Taxi, what catches the eye is the massive construction work on the new Chinese-funded ring road. When the circuit is completed later this year, it will link with the new Southern Expressway to Galle and Matara, further reducing journey times to the touristic south. Domestic air travel in Sri Lanka is following a similar plan of shifting visitors far from the congested hub of Colombo. The first section of a brand-new international airport in Hambantota, in the south-east, is due to open this year and scheduled flights to the troubled north have resumed.
All good stuff, but the really exciting news for aviation romantics is the launch this month of the fragrantly titled Cinnamon Air, a new domestic carrier using small amphibious planes – nine-seater Cessnas with pontoons and wheels – scheduled to connect with international flights. If all goes to plan, Cinnamon will be running daily flights to embrace the east coast beaches of Trincomalee and the world heritage site of Sigiriya, and offering access to the wilds of Yala National Park. A serious rival to the Air Taxi, Cinnamon will open up a whole new network of casual, Dikwella-style airports and jungle jetties for travellers to explore.
Back on the ground, Lakmini, my driver, is reflecting on more traditional ways of touring the country. “In Sri Lanka, distances are short but journeys are long,” he sighs, as we overtake another tuk-tuk on yet another bend twisting through the hills. Higher up, the topography opens to reveal an even green carpet of manicured tea bushes punctuated by mimosa shrubs, eucalyptus trees and occasional clusters of Tamil tea-pluckers in their colourful saris. The landscape has a unified beauty and resembles one big topiary garden. It is, in fact, a working crop established by British planters in the mid-19th century, when millions of tea bushes replaced the original coffee crop. These picturesque hills have been producing a good proportion of the world’s finest tea ever since.
I’ve enjoyed a perfect travel day, getting to this green heaven via another quick flight in the Air Taxi from the capital to Kandy, followed by a charming chug through palms and pines in the observation carriage of the local diesel train. Lakmini has had a tougher time of it, with a hard four-hour drive from Colombo to pick me up at the local railway station of Hatton. Ten miles further on, as we arrive at my accommodation on the Tea Trails estate, we agree to update his well-worn saying: “In Sri Lanka, distances are short but journeys are… a complete delight if you travel like Tintin, not a frustrated Jeremy Clarkson.”
Ceylon Tea Trails is described as “the world’s first tea bungalow resort” and Norwood Bungalow, where I will be staying, apparently “abounds in Fifties character”. Neither phrase whets my appetite or prepares me for this excellent new concept in luxury travel. Accommodation is in four renovated tea-planters’ bungalows dotted around the 1,000-acre estate, each with four to six rooms and discreetly attentive staff and chefs. Each has its own colonial style, with period furnishing and exotic English gardens combining giant bamboo stands with croquet lawns, swimming pools and incredible vistas of the surrounding Bogowantalawa Valley. The bungalows are linked by scenic paths, and I discover the genius of the place when I take an eight-mile hike, past traditional villages, small Hindu temples and a maze of laurel-green tea bushes, from Norwood to the lakeside bungalow of Castlereagh, where I have booked a table for lunch (guests can eat at any of the bungalows).
The Bogowantalawa Valley by Ceylon Tea Trails. Image: Ceylon Tea Trails
The estate lies at an altitude roughly equivalent to the top of Ben Nevis, so it is temperate and breezy, but the tropical sun can still be punishing. After my hot hike, the gardens of Castlereagh appear before me like a scene from a Noël Coward play. Smartly dressed honeymooners loll about on lawn armchairs, sipping spritzers and weighing up the merits of mint-crusted lamb (delicious) or tarragon-infused chicken (divine) for lunch. Chaminda, the charming manager, ignores my dusty trainers as he greets me as though I’m an Olympic champion, offers me a huge towel and suggests a dip in the lap pool followed by an ice-cold local beer. “Will you be staying for high tea after lunch, Mr Morris?” If all of Castlereagh’s five rooms had not been occupied, I would have stayed the night. I settle for lunch and a round of croquet, but before that I need to visit a significant spot for the future of flying in Sri Lanka.
With my trousers tucked into my socks to avoid leeches, I paddle in a dugout canoe with a fisherman to the middle of Castlereagh lake. The view up the valley is reminiscent of Loch Lomond as the dark waters mirror the mists creeping over the conifer uplands. Hopefully the Scottish weather won’t descend too far into the valley this month, because this watery spot is set to be the landing site for a newly commissioned flight bringing guests from the south to the Central Highlands. The launch of the chartered service, run by the civil aviation experts Simplifly, will link the regal experience of the Tea Trails with the lavish villas and luxury hotels around Galle and beyond. The flying experience is designed to match the quality of the destination, too. If the Air Taxi is the nostalgic Indiana Jones way to fly, the new four-seater Cessna, with air conditioning, elegant livery and touchscreen controls, is pure James Bond.
As new highways roll out over Sri Lanka, and as more roadside restaurants and cheap hotels are built on the linear routes to paradise, the floatplane services should become even more attractive for visitors. Who wouldn’t want to skip the complications of Colombo for a direct hop into a jungle resort, or avoid the irritation of being stuck in traffic when there are dreamy beaches and tea hills to enjoy? Yet there is more to the aerial experience than speed and convenience. Flying low in the tropical sky, these hard-working planes allow us to appreciate the natural beauty of this gem-green island. Look down and enjoy the views of virgin forest and palm – but just watch out for monitor lizards when you land.
Experience Travel Group arranges tailor-made tours of Sri Lanka. A similar seven-night itinerary to the above, with three nights at Ceylon Tea Trails (all-inclusive) and three nights on the south coast, starts at £2,540 per person, based on two sharing. The price includes return flight with SriLankan Airlines, two seaplane journeys, private car and driver.
At the Amangalla hotel. Image: Scott A Woodward