SriLanka, Pearl of the Indian Ocean -- Asadullah Baig

SriLanka, Pearl of the Indian Ocean -- Asadullah Baig
"Once a year, go some place you have never been before"--Dalai Lama
So SriLanka it was.
After some fantastic reviews that we got from friends, my family and I decided to take a short vacation to SriLanka this time. 

We had heard so much about SriLankan beaches, they being among the top 20 beaches of the world, that we just had to go see it for ourselves. It would be an understatement to say that the country is  known (just) for its idyllic beaches. It has so much more to offer, for all kinds of travellers: honeymooners, families with kids, trekkers and hikers, those looking for water sports and adventures, and also those looking for a spiritual experience in the land of the Buddha. In short, it’s your perfect destination, whether you are a group of friends looking for some adventure or just a quiet romantic getaway.

With just a two and a half hour flight from Mumbai to Colombo, it didn’t feel far at all. We had planned to avoid the hustle bustle of the city and, instead, make the most of our days amongst the hills and the beaches.

After spending the night in Colombo, we started for the hilly town of Nuwara Eliya the next morning. We had decided to take the train route, and had booked the Expo Rail Carriage (a privately run carriage attached to the main train going to Badulla). Although a tad expensive, you get reserved AC seats, with an observatory car attached to this carriage. This six-hour journey is certainly one of the most scenic rail journeys in Asia. After three hours of leaving Colombo, you can choose to sit in the observatory car, and watch and snap the picturesque views of hills and valleys, while the train meanders through the numerous tunnels amidst lush greenery, tea plantations and waterfalls. A photographer’s delight! 
Nuwara Eliya is a hill-station in the heart of SriLanka’s tea country, situated at about 2,000 m above sea level, with tea plantations spread all around. It is a quintessential English town and much like most of India’s hill cities, and was discovered by the British. Needless to say, we spotted quite a few hotels and private properties which reminded us of British architecture.
The temperature at 14° Celsius, makes it the coldest part of tropical SriLanka, and makes it one of the most loved tourist destinations. 

There is a beautiful Indian restaurant near The Grand Hotel in Nuwara, called the Grand Indian. It prides itself on being the best restaurant in Nuwara, and we found it to be worthy of the honour.
The next day we spent exploring the region, with a boat-ride in the lovely Lake Gregory, named after its founder. The cottages and the hotels on the lake front were beautiful. The guide then took us to the Bluefield Tea Gardens which are located a few miles away from Nuwara. Here, we were shown around the tea factory and explained the growing and processing of one of world’s most satisfying beverages. This was followed by a free cuppa, at their restaurant, and we ended up buying different varieties of tea at the local shop.
As the day passed, we took our little moments halting to click pictures by the scenic mountain valleys, tea plantations and roadside waterfalls. On our way back to our hotel, we stopped to have a delicious SriLankan buffet lunch, while enjoying the valley views from one of the roadway restaurants. 
The SriLankans, like much of South India, are mostly rice eaters. It’s no wonder that you see so many electronic stores selling rice cookers. They normally eat Coconut Roti (flat pancakes, a South Asian staple) as breakfast dishes. Their curries are full of flavour and aromatic, with a generous amount of coconut and spices. 

Our next destination was a town called Hikkaduwa in the Southern Province, Galle District. Having returned to Colombo from Nuwara, we took a tuk tuk (three-wheeler) to the Fort Station, to catch the 10.30 train to Matara, the following day. This train comprised only 2nd class and 3rd class seating carriages which, unfortunately, cannot be reserved. After a few minutes of the train leaving the Colombo Fort station, we realised that this is going to be a coastal train ride. The train actually runs parallel to the Indian Ocean, for almost its journey.
Hikkaduwa is a coastal town that attracts surfers from around the world due to the high waves, which makes swimming a bit difficult. This is one of the coastal towns that were destroyed by the Tsunami, in 2004. Here, we stayed at Hikks Villa, a bungalow with its own access to the beach. 

The property is located at about 3 kms away from the main Hikkaduwa beach, and, as such, the place was quite serene and private. In-house dining was available, and in spite of the best beach restaurants located near the Hikkaduwa beach, we stuck to home cooked food at the property. The balcony on the first floor, adjoining the bedrooms, allowed us commanding views of the ocean. In the evenings, it was very common to see cricket being played on the beach. SriLankans, like we Indians, simply  love cricket.
The next day, we arranged for a tour to visit the fort city of Galle 25 kms further south. The Galle Fort, a UNESCO Heritage site, was built by the Portuguese, and fortified by the Dutch. The views of the ocean, from various parts of the fort are mesmerising and remind one of the Sinquerim and Chapora forts in Goa. Here, you will come across a lot of pricey souvenir shops as the area is ‘touristy’.  The beautiful Galle Cricket Stadium, located near the fort, is also a must-see. The stadium is flanked by the Indian Ocean on its two sides. Here, we sipped the juice of King Coconut, a delicacy.
Sanath, our tour guide, who happened to be an under 16 SriLankan batting coach, also showed us a place from where you could see a match being played in the Galle stadium, without having to buy a ticket!  Also, from our conversations, we came to know that star cricketers, like Lasith Malinga, Aravinda de Silva and Mahela Jayawardene, all belonged to this very coastal district.

Our next stop was a Turtle Hatchery farm, on the outskirts of Hikkaduwa. This endangered reptile, (or is it an amphibian?) is protected by the locals, and you will find a lot of Turtle Conservation programmes in the country, many of which are also aided by tourists. A briefing at this farm introduced us to the four different varieties of turtles, of which the Olive Ridley was the most common in SriLanka.
We also visited the Tsunami museum on the way back to our hotel, which is reminiscent of the terrible tragedy that affected this beautiful isle, in 2004. It is a small community museum which pays tribute to the helpers and volunteers who helped the region get back to its feet after wide-spread devastation. This was a humbling experience.  

As the final day of our trip ended, we headed back to the hotel to wrap up our stuff.

Some of the  places of interests that we missed out on include Unawatuna beach, Dolphin & Whale watching at Mirissa Beach, Pinnawala for Elephant rides, Kandy and Trincomalee on the east coast. There is so much more to be seen and experienced in this beautiful country, that at the end of it, we felt that six days were just not enough. 

All through our stay in SriLanka, the warmth and friendliness of the SriLankan people touched us, and we felt that this Pearl in the Indian Ocean is definitely calling us back for more.

Asadullah Baig is a qualified ACCA and is currently employed in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.…
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