Bursting through the cloud cover above the teardrop-shaped island of Sri Lanka we’re greeted with a landscape of verdant green, where tangled jungle butts up against long stretches of untouched coastline bashed by the incessant momentum of ocean waves. We touch down in Colombo during the worst cyclone to hit the country for many years, yet this tropical downpour marks a refreshing change from the desert climate of the UAE we’ve become accustomed too. As tuk-tuks weave between heavy traffic, Buddhist stupas and waterlogged roads it feels a world away from the ‘bubble’ we’re used to.
Ravaged by the devastating tsunami of December 2004 and a civil war that ended in 2009, Sri Lanka has undergone a successful process of re-invention into a world-class tourist destination. An intriguing land of temples, beaches and unexplored national parks. Team Out & About teamed up with Resplendent Ceylon and Dilmah Tea for a five-day multi-stop adventure to explore this eye in a sapphire sea.
Our first stop are Sri Lanka’s central highlands affectionately referred to as ‘tea country.’ We board a small amphibian aircraft from Colombo’s domestic terminal which once formed the part of the original route between London and Sydney. Traveling skywards away from the capital we head inland towards the conical shaped topography of Adams Peak, before landing on the emerald coloured waters of Castlereigh Lake. The seaplane journey with Cinnamon Air (approximately $600 one way) provides a memorable 25-minute experience, combining a spectacular vantage point and the excitement of landing on water, a sensible option when compared to a four-hour journey by road.
Described as ‘the benchmark for boutique’ our first stop is Tea Trails, the worlds first tea bungalow resort which offers five beautifully restored planters bungalows in distinct colonial style. Ascending the gentle hillside away from the lake, we pass eucalyptus trees and dancing butterflies as the early morning mist dissipates over a tranquil infinity style swimming pool. Manicured gardens surround the impeccable bungalows complete with sarong-clad private butlers on hand to take care of your every need. It’s a more personalised service style than we’re used too but one that’s always paired with a friendly smile and the assurance that nothing’s too much trouble. Soaking up the tranquillity of the mountain air and a back-to-nature approach, Tea Trails is more than just a boutique resort.
Each of the five bungalows can be found scattered around the waters edge, but many kilometres apart, providing the opportunity for cultural immersion with a distinct luxury touch. Each bungalow has been immaculately restored, with specially curated furniture harking back to the colonial summerhouses. Tientsin may be the most grandiose due to spacious outside terraces, while Dunkeld presents a honeymooners delight with an outside jacuzzi, but the old world feel of Norwood had us instantly charmed. Surrounded by tranquil gardens and the maze of tea plantations rising above, our stay at Norwood Bungalow offered an all-inclusive experience with a difference. A four poster bed and free standing bath tub take centre stage across the six bedrooms, all of which share communal living and dining areas and a large outdoor pool flanked by bamboo.
Taking to the tea trails themselves is an enchanting experience as dirt paths meander through the tea plants seemingly unsure of the final destination. This is all part of the fun as we encounter school children in perfectly pressed uniforms and tea pluckers in bright coloured saris. Lost in the encroaching cloud cover amongst crumbling churchyards and nothing but the calls of nature, it’s a soul awakening experience and one that’s further enhanced by the properties lack of television. Instead, we seek solace in fireside tales and the crackle of vinyl on an antique gramophone.
With 2% of Sri Lanka’s landmass covered in tea plants, we learn more about the process during an early morning visit to the Dunkeld Tea Factory, owned and operated by Dilmah who pioneered the concept of single origin tea in 1988 before branching out into the world of hospitality with Resplendent Ceylon. Offering the luxury hotel experience with a humanitarian objective, 10% of the companies profits going into the MJF Foundation, a support centre for underprivileged children in Colombo.
Tea is understandably the inspiration behind the tea trails experience with a tea inspired dinner menu designed by Australian celebrity chef Peter Kuruvita. Think vanilla tea infused mushroom soup, Moroccan mint tea encrusted lamb and tea-centric cocktails (don’t miss the Dilmah Dream). It doesn’t stop there though, with bath products containing tea sitting beside tea infused massage oils (massages are undertaken within the comfort of the rooms by mobile therapists). Our stay in Tea Trails also introduces us to the novel concept of ‘bed tea’ with cups of freshly brewed tea brought to the room as part of the morning wake-up call.
After two days, we leave behind the mesmerising lake dotted with islands. Dark granite boulders permeate through the vibrant green tea plantations as we follow the mountainous paths carved out by cascading waterfalls. Skirt along escarpments our destination is the Wild Coast Tented Lodge on Sri Lanka’s South Eastern Coast, a five-hour journey by road traversing mountains and floodwaters as we journey to the coast like some long forgotten tributary. Our journey is broken by a brief stop at the Udawalawe Elephant Transit Home supported by the MJF and Born Free Foundation and an opportunity to watch the feeding of orphaned elephants,
Wild Coast Tented Lodge:
The Wild Coast Tented Lodge situated on the fringes of Yala National Park feels remote. An arid landscape with the odd flourish of green vegetation. Wiry trees with twisted bows provide shelter for roaming jackals, while crocodiles peer ferociously beneath flood waters. Beaten by waves and lashed by the wind, the coastline is as rugged and wild as the name would suggest. On an isolated stretch of sand and accessed via a 2 km track of red earth lies Resplendent Ceylon’s latest venture into the hospitality sector, the Wold Coast Tented Lodge, a haven in the wilderness.
The immediate appeal of the domed architecture fashioned from bamboo components and mirroring the rocky outcrops of the landscape is swiftly revoked by warning signs alerting us to the dangers of roaming leopards and the instruction not to venture outside after nightfall (unless accompanied by a member of hotel staff). After seeing the rooms, or more accurately, the cocoons it’s unlikely you’d want to leave anyway, for they’re the epitome of luxury. 28 cocoons are clustered in small groups around watering holes to resemble the pattern of a leopard paw if viewed from above.
Designed by Nomadic resorts, natural materials have been selected to integrate seamlessly into the environment with bamboo and shingle imported from Thailand and the outer membrane of the cocoons brought from France. It feels as though no expense has been spared in bringing a unique sense of luxury into the wild. The rooms represent safari chic and feature wooden chests, thick carpets, copper pipe work, heavy drapes, and a copper bath that feels almost regal. Each cocoon is slightly raised off the ground like a mini treehouse and large portholes are positioned to take advantage of the landscape and passing wildlife.
The bark of a samba deer in the middle of the night signals leopards may be close by and the sound of creatures scuttling beneath our tented paradise brings some unease to this dubious city-dweller. Breakfast brings stories of elephants roaming into the restaurant late at night and with the current making it too dangerous to enter the sea, a brisk swim in the salt water pool enlivens our senses for the trip into Yala.
Yala National Park is home to the world’s highest concentration of leopards per square meter and the worn track beats our bodies into numb awareness but it’s all worth it for the briefest glimpse of a leopard perched high on a protruding rock amongst crumbling stupas, like a forgotten king surveying his lands.
Only a four-hour flight from the GCC Sri Lanka marks a land of encroaching nature located South East of mainland India. Resplendent Ceylon also offers the tropical beach experience at Cape Weligama and a forthcoming resort in the cultural heartland of Sigiriya. The company is paving the way for sustainable luxury tourism in Sri Lanka, it may currently be a niche market, with the majority of Sri Lanka’s tourists looking to beach flop in all-inclusive resorts on the east coast. But for the luxury market and those looking to explore Sri Lanka’s history and cultural traditions, Resplendent Ceylon provides an entirely new experience, one with a conscientious strategy and a humanitarian heart,
This article originally appeared in the January 2018 issue of FACT Magazine.
We were invited to stay at Tea Trails and Wild Coast Tented Lodge. All views are our own and photographs are © Out & About UAE.