Little Sri Lanka is a land with a multitude of experiences and this is seen in three resorts that feel like luxurious mini-destinations.
The stylish, lakeside 11-suite Tri, where villas have living roofs, is the cutting edge of the new Sri Lankan hospitality, which is flourishing in a time of peace after the government vanquished the revolutionary Tamil Tigers in 2009, and after the 2004 tsunami.
The Tea Trails bungalows in the cool hill country evoke a vanished era of British tea planters, bed tea included. And the cliff-top Cape Weligama resort faces the dazzling Indian Ocean, the year-long habitat of blue whales.
Photo: Ceylon Tea Trails
In the hill country of Sri Lanka, travellers step back in time, savouring the imagined lifestyle of colonial English and Scottish tea planters.
Their colonial rituals are alive at the Ceylon Tea Trails hill resort, where bed tea is served as a gentle wake-up call for guests - and each day ends with drinks by the fireplace.
Bed tea? Soon after waking up, I tap the in-room buzzer and a houseboy arrives with a huge pot of the freshest tea. I take my milky brew to the bedroom window that frames a dewy private garden and think this is a transplanted England.
The Tea Trails resort (www.teatrails.com), where I spend two nostalgic days in a cool clime, sits within the Bogawantalawa Valley of the luxuriant central highlands. Tea Trails, now celebrating its 10th anniversary, is part of the Resplendent Ceylon collection of small luxury resorts owned by the family tea company Dilmah. Rates for an all-inclusive stay in a double room start at US$664 (S$945) a night, for a minimum of two nights.
Tea-inspired activities define our days. We walk or cycle among tea plantations that stretch below our bungalow and beyond.
Once, a surprise awaits our party of four when we saunter past emerald tea bushes to a hilltop. Our chef has prepared a table laden with cakes, scones and rhubarb jam infused with Earl Grey tea.
It is my first twilight tea, amid cobalt-tinged mountains, and this is happenstance as we have lingered too long on the way to this secret afternoon tea. Our Sri Lankan hosts do not hustle dawdlers and believe in letting the day glide by for guests.
Time is also suspended when we drive among the resort's quartet of bungalows, each with a different vista, to enjoy meals and cocktails with subtle notes of tea. My favourite is an oyster mushroom soup tinged with French vanilla tea.
Another indulgence is an in-room massage. I choose a red-tea massage oil and the soundscape of gentle rain and birdsong is perfect for an hour of escape at 1,250m above sea level.
The tea theme continues at night, when a sprig of tea is left on the pillow. The story of the camellia sinensis sprig is narrated each day during a tea tour at the Dunkeld Estate, where I am amazed by the dozens of intricate processes that go into an aromatic cuppa.
Photo: The Straits Times
The hard work ranges from hand-harvesting tender leaves to drying the product in an airy, intoxicatingly fragrant factory that still uses archaic technology that the British perfected.
Activities abound - ascending the 2,243m conical Adam's Peak, day-tripping to "hill capital" Kandy and trekking from bungalow to bungalow.
The resort is composed of four villas, each with four to six rooms decorated with period furniture. Every villa has its own chef, butler and sarong-clad houseboys or male domestic servants. A fifth bungalow will be launched this year, for a total of 26 rooms.
Connected by walking trails, these bungalows were built between 1888 and 1950, and each has a distinct character. Norwood Bungalow, where I am staying, for instance, has a 1950s atmosphere, while Summerville Bungalow has the air of an English cottage.
The newest, Dunkeld Bungalow, which we visit amid construction, is sumptuous with a bar, jacuzzi and neverending bathroom.
If life seems languorous here, the full story is more poignant. I step back in time again at the Christ Church Warleigh nearby.
While the old red tiles, chipped pews and faded Bible of the tiny stone church have a timeless appeal, it is also wistful to realise that some colonial planters died young in their 30s and 40s, possibly from ill health.
Looking at the tombstones, I know they may have enjoyed bed tea, but they also laboured to build Sri Lanka's mighty tea industry.
Photo: Tom Parker
At the southern tip of Sri Lanka, the cliff-top Cape Weligama resort rises above the dazzling Indian Ocean.
It is the secluded and pampered life at this 40-key haven, where personal butlers serve tea, arrange activities and smoothen the day for guests.
Nestled within walled gardens, or watta, are 40 villas and suites that range from 130 to 310 sq m. My villa feels indulgently oversized, especially the bathroom which has a steam room, freestanding bathtub, double sinks, walk-in wardrobe and space for a pop-up massage table.
Photo: Tom Parker
There is a private pool too, but I only glance at it as our two days at Cape Weligama (www.capeweligama.com), which opened in October 2014, are filled with whale-watching, ocean-dipping and cycling.
We spend a morning looking for blue whales, the world's largest mammals, which average 24 to 30m in length. Their tongues are "as heavy as elephants", as our activity guide puts it vividly.
These whales are also the loudest creatures on earth and their calls outdo a jet engine, says the World Wildlife Fund. In this part of Sri Lanka, the whales have apparently developed their own language.
Sightings are almost guaranteed, as the deep, krill-rich ocean here is their year-long habitat. Dolphins abound too.
Our speedboat, alongside 10 vessels of all sizes, line up dutifully to wait for the whales, then zip nearer each time an air-spout is spied, followed by a sleek grey-blue back.
The blue whales appear and disappear in a flash as the spotters and pilots on each boat try to discern their next move. I see the whales for a few seconds from time to time during our three hours on the restless ocean, and am predictably queasy despite popping a motion sickness pill earlier.
Soon, we rest on Mirissa Beach, which fronts the Indian Ocean. Though I can swim, the waves are powerful, so I stand waist-high in the water, admiring its blue beauty and catching the surf which propels me to shore.
Later, our lunch at the Zephyr Restaurant and Bar on the beach is a carefree couple of hours of Negombo crab curry, light conversation and sapphire sea.
In the late afternoon, there is a 14km bicycle tour that wends through small Buddhist and Muslim towns, where cheery children yell "Hi, bye!"
Gingerly, I whir past paddy fields, a pineapple jam factory, lake, cormorants, peacocks, stray puppies and, more alarmingly, all manner of vehicles, including pickups, tuk-tuks and bicycles, on narrow country roads.
The 90 minutes on wheels are a bit of a struggle, though also a pleasure in retrospect. Others on my bicycle tour are more relaxed.
Sporty guests can also learn to surf, scuba dive or kayak on a lake. The choice of private excursions include Uda Walawe and Yala national parks, where leopards and elephants roam, and the Unesco World Heritage Site of Galle Fort for a sense of history.
Rates for a double room start at US$442 (S$629) a night and include one daily activity and laundry.
In centuries past, the Venetian explorer Marco Polo and Buddhist monk Faxian sailed past this southern end of Sri Lanka, which is also known for its stilt fishermen. We catch glimpses of them, but do not stop as their actions are quite possibly staged for tourists.
I suppose pleasure is often staged to some degree and, most of the time, I think: "Why not?"
Our resort, owned by the Dilmah tea company, which channels a portion of its global revenue to uplift the poor, is designed a little like a Sri Lankan village with terracotta-tiled roofs.
While it may be a romanticised village, fusing tradition and luxury, it is a life of contentment and adventure. It is a combination that appeals, whether our executive chef is preparing medium-rare striploin ocean-side, or we are looking for the planet's behemoths at sea.
Photo: The Straits Times
A peacock struts across a living roof of verdant local grasses and creepers, atop a stylish villa next to mine at Tri resort. The 11-suite lakeside Tri, launched last month, represents the new Sri Lankan hospitality, which echoes the trend of small designer eco-resorts worldwide. This is a fresh current of owner-run boutique resorts that attracts travellers who are enticed by food, wellness and architecture in luxurious, private places.
There is a "hidden-ness" to chic retreats such as Tri ( www.trilanka.com), which is perched on a secluded, 3.5ha plot on the shores of Lake Koggala in southern Sri Lanka.
A dhoni - a small wooden vessel - gently transports our party of four over the country's largest lake to the resort.
Owner Robert Drummond, 49, an Oxford-schooled green warrior who cycles to the resort, welcomes us at lunch. Much like the resort, our lunch is contemporary with a Sri Lankan twist. Street food such as hoppers (crepes with crispy edges made from a batter of rice flour and coconut milk) are topped with beetroot curry or prawns netted from the lake.
Sushi is elegantly served with Sri Lankan herbs or barbecued green jackfruit; the soya sauce is picked up with a paintbrush.
I spend two nights at the resort and experience it as a restful mini-destination, designed to mirror nature's Golden Ratio spiral. This is seen in the whorls of nautilus shells, pine cones and galaxies.
At Tri, a cinnamon-clad Water Tower housing a water tank is the heart of the resort, and villas spiral out from it. Somehow, the aesthetics are subtly appealing as the spiral is so inherent in nature.
We walk up the tower in bare feet, enjoying the textures under our feet, and cool down on the rooftop with sundowners. My favourite is cold cinnamon tea tinged with drops of lime and syrup.
Cocooned in another structure is a spa, glass-encased library and airy yoga studio, where Mr Drummond's German wife, Lara, teaches quantum yoga. I get a Thai massage here from young New Zealander Nik Robson, a wandering yoga instructor who was a semiprofessional footballer in Orlando - it is all a swirl of global currents at Tri.
My villa has a private infinity pool, verandahs on three sides and 140 sq m of space.
There is much to do, at a relaxed pace, in and around the resort, where rates for a lake suite start at US$343 (S$488) a night.
We take a 5.30am boat ride. At one point, we have the muted gold of the sunrise, double rainbows over our villas and a storm on the other side of the lake - everything is happening, yet it is tranquil.
Another time, we visit Cinnamon Island on the lake. A farmer cuts a long branch from a century-old cinnamon tree on his family plot. He scrapes off the moist bark and says it will dry for three weeks.
It can be made into an oil that is a folksy cure for headaches, or used for a scented bath that smells of Christmas.
Further afield, we drive into Galle, which reminds me of Malacca, but with Moorish elements. The kindly owner of Ibrahim Jewellers shows us fine sapphires in cornflower and all hues of blue.
We do a walking tour with an insider, Ms Shahira Ifthikar, 48, and step into the elitist, no-frills Galle Library. Set up by the British as Asia's first lending library in 1832, the tiny institution ironically has a closed membership of 121 local luminaries including the governor.
Galle looks peaceful today and it is a little unreal when Ms Ifthikar recounts the story of how she survived the 2004 tsunami. Her resilience is mirrored in the restored city, where the walls of the Galle Fort, built in 1588 by the Portuguese, stand strong. I love walking along the top of it, with its ocean view and air of liberation.
Back at the resort, on our last evening, we sample spicy martinis designed by a London food consultant - I also like a theatrical arak sour veiled in smoke.
Mr Drummond, a British photographer who has lived in Sri Lanka for 13 years, is a perfectionist who has not found "the right kettle" yet for his villas. In that moment, as talk turns to artistry and how Tri is changing the game, life feels sweet and the possibilities for creativity stretch before us.
Singapore-based luxury tour operator Lightfoot Travel has a six-night Sri Lankan itinerary for two guests at three resorts. This includes accommodation on a bed-and-breakfast basis at Tri, full board at Ceylon Tea Trails and Cape Weligama, two seaplane transfers via Cinnamon Air and return flights from Singapore to Colombo.
The transfers on an eight-seater Cinnamon Air (www.cinnamonair.com) seaplane present aerial views of blue-green mountains and wave-tossed coastlines and, importantly, save travel time. For instance, a flight from the capital Colombo to the Tea Trails resort takes about 30 minutes, compared with a 4.5-hour drive.
Prices for the Lightfoot Travel package start from $7,450. Go to www.lightfoottravel.com or call 6438-4091.
Follow Lee Siew Hua on Twitter @STsiewhua
The writer was hosted by Ceylon Tea Trails, Tri, Cape Weligama and Lightfoot Travel.
This article was first published on January 31, 2016.
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