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The Telegraph
| Sunday, May 12, 2013 |
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In search of serendipity

Sri Lanka is the perfect destination for travellers who choose nature's bounty over urban attractions, says Arnab Nandy

  • A lone stream winds through the picturesque Horton Plains National Park

It was a delightful but almost surreal experience. There I was tucking into breakfast in a cold misty hill station and then I hopped into a bus and, a few hours later, was having lunch by a warm, sunny beach.

That's the fun of being in Sri Lanka, the Isle of Serendipity, which despite its small size, has plenty to offer. And, during my one-week stay I made sure I got a taste of just about everything the island can serve up.

Colombo is a two-hour taxi ride from Bandaranaike International Airport. An important tip: you can't exchange Indian currency at the airport (although all foreign exchange agencies in the city will do it). So, make sure to carry enough foreign currency to get from the airport to the city.

Dinner that night was at a popular restaurant, Green Cabin. The fare included hoppers (appams in India), puttu, which are cylindrical servings of steamed rice flour and coconut, and katta sambol, a dish made by grinding together dried fish, onion and chillies.

To me, Colombo seemed like just another big city. So, I headed off the next day, ticking off one place after another, as I went, on my list of Sri Lanka's scenic treasures.

The first stop was Nuwara Eliya, in the country's Central Province, with a stopover in Kandy. My train chugged into Kandy shortly after 2pm and I had just enough time to visit The Temple of the Tooth, which houses a tooth relic of the Buddha. Women are not allowed to enter the temple in shorts or sleeveless tops. So, don't be surprised if you see women tourists with bed sheets wrapped around them.

  • The train journey from Nanu Onya to Ella cuts through lush tea plantations and dense forests.

My bus for Nuwara Eliya hit the road at 5pm. The city makes for the perfect base to visit the Horton Plains National Park, which was also a key spot on my itinerary.

The three-hour ride left me motion sick what with the winding mountain roads coupled with the loud music playing in the bus. As we neared Nuwara Eliya, it began to get cold and I was shivering even with a jacket on when I got off at the bus station.

After a quick dinner, I booked an autorickshaw (locally known as a tuktuk) to take me to Horton Plains, 32km away, the next day.

  • Catch your breath by a gushing waterfall on your trek up to Ella Rock

Horton Plains is a picturesque expanse of montane grassland and cloud forest (a feature typical in tropical zones where you have fog and low clouds) with a stream cutting through it. Situated at an altitude of 2,100m-2,300m, it's rich in biodiversity and you'll see a large variety of birds and, if you're lucky, some animals too. There's a 9km circular nature trail that touches several points including World's End and Baker's Falls.

World's End boasts a sheer 870m drop from where, on a clear day, you can see straight up to the Indian Ocean if you get there early. I reached shortly after 9am, by which time it was too cloudy. On the way back, I stopped at Lake Gregory, where you can go on boat rides or rent bicycles if you don't feel like going on the water.

That evening, I took a train from Nanu Oya, the station closest to Nuwara Eliya, to Ella. I'd heard this was among the most picturesque train rides in the country and it was true. The locomotive chugs through lush tea plantations and beautiful forests that will keep you hanging out of the window for most of the journey.

  • Windmills stand out against clear blue skies and are a recurring sight as you drive from Horton Plains National Park to Nuwara Eliya.

On board, I chatted with the locals who shared their coffee and biscuits with me. A local friend of mine had told me that Sri Lanka was very similar to India, only the people were warmer. I now had first-hand experience of this.

The highlight of my stay in Ella was the trek to Ella Rock, the peak of a nearby mountain. The best way to get there is to walk for over an hour along the train track, take a left, and walk for an hour-and-a-half more to the top. The final climb is quite steep, but I reached the top feeling very chuffed with myself.

In Ella, you must eat at the small family-run restaurant called Banana Leaf. Their eggplant moju is a must-have. And do stop for a drink at the Dream Caf for the great ambience.

I'd planned to go to Weligama, in the Southern Province, to check out the stilt fishermen. But when I got there, I realised no one fishes that way anymore. So, instead, I headed for the touristy Mirissa beach to snorkel. I ventured about a hundred metres into the sea to the coral reef on a narrow local boat called orwa, and explored underwater for around an hour. You can also go whale watching from Mirissa if money is no constraint.

  • A lone stream winds through the picturesque Horton Plains National Park map by Nilratan Maity.Not to scale.

I had another go at snorkelling at Hikkaduwa, also in the Southern Province. And this was the high point of my entire trip. I heard that a marine turtle had strayed into the snorkelling area so I went to check it out. And boy, it was huge! And it didn't seem to mind when I reached out and touched it as I swam by its side.

Hikkaduwa is known as a party place, but since it was pre-tourist season not much was happening. So, I spent all my time and money eating instead! I'll never forget the calamari dishes I had there.

From Hikkaduwa, I took a train back to Colombo and, as I sat at the airport, I realised I had spent almost all my money on eating and had stuffed myself with seafood. But given a chance, I was ready to head back and do it all over again.

TRAVEL LOG

Getting there: SriLankan Airlines, Jet Airways and Air India have
several flights between Colombo and Chennai.
Staying there: Heaven Seven in
Nuwara Eliya, Ravana Heights in Ella and Asian Jewel Boutique Hotel in Hikkaduwa are good options.