Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Strolling in Sri Lanka: Part -1

The Galle Face Hotel from The Taj Samudra.

Gurmeet with Asoka our guide and the trusty steed!.
The snooze induced by the background drone of the jet engines is interrupted by the ‘fasten seat belts’ announcement. A flash of calm seas from the window, the flare out, a thump and reverse thrusters go on, the slow taxi to the terminal, you step off the aircraft to be greeted by the humid warm air faintly smelling of the ocean and copra. One has arrived in Sri Lanka. Immigration and customs formalities are mercifully short and one steps out to be met by Asoka, our driver  and guide for the duration of our trip.

Center Court, Galle Sea Face. 
Colombo. The bustling, colourful, friendly city, as seen through the windows of our slowly moving car, seems to be bursting at the seams with people and with horrendous traffic. There are oases of quiet, however, especially around the Galle Sea Face and other up-market residential areas.
Pretty maids all in a row at Taj Samudra!.

We arrive at our hotel, warm and friendly smiles and we move up to our room. A double take! Is this the Taj?? The room is down at heel and tatty!. This actually being the Taj, smiles and apologies all around and we are upgraded to a ‘renovated’ floor. Much better, but the room is still old fashioned and requires a facelift.   

The Taj meeting facilities and Galle Promenade.

The long civil war with consequent drop in business has resulted in most of the up-market hotels becoming a little run down as managements cut down on upkeep and renovation expenses. The traveler will probably find that many of the pricier hotels are not very good value and are a little outdated.  With the economy and business picking up, most properties are now slowly renovating. 

Sri Lanka known as Lanka, Serendib, Taprobane, and Ceylon  during various times in its history, is a beautiful tropical island nation, located just off the southern tip of India. Its ancient history is connected to that of south India. It was an important center of Buddhism, with the ancient ‘Temple of the Tooth’ in Kandy still regarded as one of the most important Buddhist holy shrines.
Street food stalls on the Galle promenade.

Located on one of the main sea routes connecting Europe and the Far East, Sri Lanka came under the sway of European colonial powers, the earliest being the Portuguese followed by the Dutch and finally the English. This admixing of Asian and European cultures has resulted in Sri Lanka having a unique tolerant and progressive aspect to its way of life where various religious are welcomed and exist in harmony.

Foreign Tourists once again visiting World Heritage sites!.
The country has great tourism potential and offers the visitor a wide spectrum of choices from pristine beaches, tropical rain forests, ancient monuments and archeological sites, high mountain vistas and scenic tea gardens as well as bird and game sanctuaries. This juxtaposition of great attractions, all within easy reach, resulted in a tourism boom to the country. Unfortunately, however, a prolonged civil war led to a precipitous drop in tourism. Since the end of the civil war, Sri Lanka has once again found a place in the international tourists’ itinerary.
The Old Parliament House Galle Sea Face. 

The, author, revisited Sri Lanka after a gap of five years and found that the people were as friendly as ever and tourism activity in the country was spooling up with a new sense of confidence.
The Sea Side Bar at the Galle Face Hotel.

Baloon Seller on Galle Green.
Foreign Tourists at Cave Temples

The Galle Sea Face with its vast green, surrounded by elegant buildings, is a favoured strolling and play area for Colombo residents.
At one end stands the elegant, colonial Galle Face Hotel, at the other, is the old Ceylon Continental. The one and a half kilometer long Sea Face is a bustling hubbub of families out to have a good time and vendors doing brisk business in the evening. 
The Sea side bar at the Galle Face Hotel is the perfect place to settle down for a cold beer or tall drink after a brisk walk along the promenade. 

High Tea by the Sea!.
This hotel also offers a very popular ‘High Tea’ everyday, a must for any visitor wanting to get acquainted with the quaint English system of taking Tea in the evening, a meal featuring sandwiches, scones, cakes, cold-cuts, salads etc. accompanied of course by  steaming Tea. The author committed the solecism of absent mindedly asking for ‘Darjeeling’,  forgetting that Sri Lanka also has its own ‘High Grown’ tea.
Buddha Painting at Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara. 
There are a few places in Colombo that are worth a visit, the most notable of them being the National Museum, Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara, Wolvendaal Church, and some Hindu Temples. That apart, most tourists shop for clothes and fabrics in Pettah Bazar or at high end malls like Odell. Porcelain in Sri Lanka is of excellent quality and Noritake and Dunkotuwa brands are world famous. The factory outlets for these firms in Colombo, offer nice designs at prices unmatched anywhere else. No wonder that the luggage of most Indians leaving Colombo features a box of ‘Naari Taake’. 
Sri Lankans having fun at Negombo Beach!. 

Beach Scene. 

There are many beaches around Colombo with Negombo, Mount Lavinia, Kalutara, Beruwela, and Bentota being the easiest to access.
Sailing into a new dawn!.

These are popular with locals and foreign tourists alike, with local Sri Lankans outnumbering tourists at the nearest ones.

The Serene Kalutara Beach. 
These beaches are great for a relaxed holiday, though it must be said that there are other beaches, further away from Colombo, that are prettier, more serene and offering other activities like diving on coral formations.
Owner & Chef of Oyster Restaurant. Great Food!.  

An Elegant Home to Stay In!. 
Stay, food and beverage prices in Sri Lanka are generally reasonable and outside of five star hotels, the tourists would consider them a bargain. 

Good Street Food on the Beach!.  
What Bar?? 
A wide variety of stay options are available to the traveler, and many Sri Lankans are opening out their homes and offering home stays, which are great way for a traveler to get to know the country and its people. There are many restaurants around the beaches, some of which are run by owner chefs. These offer the tourists fresh sea food and other delicacies at prices that are good value for money. Street food is invariably good and fresh. Egg hoppers especially are very good.

Comfortable and Clean Road Side Restaurant. 
Its time for the author to take the road out from Colombo and follow in the footsteps of Samuel Baker, towards the mountains and tea gardens of Nuwara Eliya. 

On the Road in Sri Lanka. 
Driving in Sri Lanka is generally relaxed as the roads, even the main highways, are quite narrow and the traffic volume is high. As Sri Lankan drivers are generally polite and follow rules to a large extent, average speeds are low and the traveller should allow plenty of time to reach his destination. There are nice, clean roadside restaurants where one can halt for a pit stop and a refreshing beverage.
The Road to Nuwara Eliya. 
Gurmeet and Asoka Tea Tasting.

The views along the road from Colombo to Nuwara Eliya are quite stunning, especially in the hill country. The road passes through villages and small towns offering an unending kaleidoscope of day to day life. Wooded Hills, Burbling Streams, Tea Gardens and lovely Vistas are a part of the landscape. Many Tea Gardens offer facilities for Tea tasting in relaxed settings. One can also purchase fresh Teas. 

The Tea Factory Hotel, Nuwara Eliya.
Trout Stream and Tea Bushes.  

Tea Garden, Nuwara Eliya.

Nuwara Eliya is a lovely hill town, with some beautiful colonial buildings, at an average altitude of 6,000 feet. The best Tea in Sri Lanka is grown around these hills. The area is also famous for growing European and English vegetables, a rarity in tropical Sri Lanka. Some of the old Tea factories have been converted into lovely heritage hotels. The streams in the area are famous for trout fishing. There are game sanctuaries nearby which are great for viewing leopards and a wide variety of birds. 

Homes and Tea Gardens on Hills.

The Hills are beautiful and seductive, and the weather is great, but alas! Its time now to move on to the holy city of Kandy and from there on to other parts of Sri Lanka, but that is another story, which shall follow .....

An Elephant's Salute!.