Stylist contributor Mandie Gower tours tea fields and spots leopards surrounded by Sri Lanka’s vibrant beauty.
I wouldn’t usually advise lurching from an 11-hour night flight into a five-hour train ride and calling it a holiday. Not when there’s a string of world-renowned beaches just an hour from the airport. Yet, when it comes to landing in Sri Lanka, I will. And then some.
For one, this island has so many adventures to offer that you won’t want to waste a minute. The train journey itself will be one of the most memorable things you experience here. We’re travelling inland from Colombo, aboard a hulking old brute of a train, clattering up to the cooler climes of the hill country (averages of 20 degrees versus 27 degrees on the beaches), where Sri Lanka’s most famous export, tea, has been grown since colonial times. It’s a breathtaking journey from any seat, but book the First Class Observation Saloon (£3.50 one-way), and you’ll watch it all through huge double windows akin to a boutique cinema screen. Mesmerising scenes fall away behind us; children splash in cobalt lakes, saffron-robed monks make offerings, and even the guard is a delight in a pristine white uniform straight out of a Poirot film.
Most tourists disembark at temple-heavy Kandy, but we continue to hang our heads out the windows like deliriously happy dogs until Hatton. Now high in hill country, surrounded by emerald green tea bushes in neat rows, it takes a jeep transfer (£35) to cover the final winding 13 miles to our hotel, Camellia Hills.
The trade-off, of course, is the panoramic views. A contemporary take on a colonial plantation bungalow, Camellia hovers above the vast Castelreagh reservoir like a five star drone. Everything, from our four poster bed to the infinity pool, is expertly angled to celebrate the twinkling turquoise water and the lush pine forest it reflects.
With only five bedrooms (and a tendency for warm chocolate chip cookies to appear at just the right moment) the vibe is more dream home than hotel (it’s also a sister property to the award-winning Fort Bazaar in Galle). There is a butler, but there’s also a help-yourself-drinks trolley and exactly the right ratio of cocktail chairs to squishy sofas. If Big Little Lies’ Celeste had a Sri Lankan holiday home, it would be this.
Activity-wise, we immerse ourselves in the landscape. Hiking along tea trails, we pass crumbling headstones of plantation owners. On a tour of the nearby Norwood Tea Factory, we learn it’s women who pick the leaves – between 16kg and 60kg each – for about £5 a day. “Of course, the men do the hard work in the factory,” says our guide. I splutter out my tea.
The food is delicious – lucky, as it’s the same for lunch and dinner, but the chef will happily knock up something special for you. We’re still reminiscing about the glorious pea and cashew curry. Cashmere blankets hang on our chairs (it can drop to 9 degrees at night), and in bed later, I discover a cheeky hot water bottle has been slipped between the sheets.
The tranquillity here is almost hypnotic, but after a few days, adventure beckons. A six-hour jeep ride later we’re in Yala on the rugged east coast. This is arguably the premier wildlife spotting destination in Sri Lanka, with leopards, elephants, crocodiles, and endangered sloth bears all calling the vast Yala National Park home. Wondering why it didn’t come up on your honeymoon search? Well, until Wild Coast Tented Lodge recently moved in, it’s largely been a luxury hotel-free zone. You stay in a ‘cocoon’ (think love-child of safari tent and igloo), complete with copper bath, Sonos deck and on-site spa, but the true USP is that animals are free to roam here. In fact, with a watering hole next to every cocoon, they’re practically encouraged. We exchange pleasantries with wild boars on the way to breakfast and listen wide-eyed to stories of a leopard that spent three days on a rock near reception just before we arrived. I don’t usually yell, ‘Good luck!’ when my husband goes to get suncream, but here it feels totally appropriate.
For more thrills, a daily safari drive is included in your stay. Seeing a towering tusker elephant block the path of our jeep, then stampede towards us as our driver desperately tries to find reverse, is no doubt the most thrilling experience I’ll ever have at 7.30am on a Wednesday. The next day, we hold our breath as a leopard emerges languidly from the bush, then slinks off with all the sass and insouciance of a catwalk model. Save some photo space for the little guys too, like the exuberant mongoose and (my favourites) the painted storks with their chic pink and black plumes.
Back at camp, pioneer-era vibes pervade, albeit with a modern twist. Copper pipes are fashioned into Pinterest-worthy wash stands and your eco-angst is accounted for, too, as solar power provides 50% of the energy. Next month, an innovative leopard conservation project begins, and food waste is turned into biogas. That’s if you even create any – the crowd-pleaser of a menu in the open-sided restaurant (all the better for watching passing elephants) features huge hoppers, fragrant fish curries and a chocolate tasting plate that could scoop the MasterChef crown.
After a few days in Yala, we spend a blissful week beach-hopping along the south coast all the way back to Colombo. And yes, it’s as beautiful as they say. But, we realise, like all those excellent curries, it is the combination of ingredients that gives Sri Lanka such a unique flavour. Anyone for seconds? You bet.
Rooms for two at Camellia Hills start from £338 including full board and a tour of the tea factory; visit teardrop-hotels.com. Cocoons at Wild Coast Tented Lodge start from £339 per person per night, including full board and a daily game drive; visit resplendentceylon.com.
Images: Courtesy of Camellia Hills