Sri Lanka: platter up on the spice island

Dried red chilies are a signature ingredient of
Sri Lankan food.
 Photo: Kevin Clogstou

  

Not for the faint-hearted or the waistline obsessed, Sri
Lankan food is chili and spice-laden taste sensation and there is always
enough to feed a small army. Belinda Jackson goes to the front line to
taste the best of the best.

After a lifetime of putting (almost) everything in my mouth – dog,
toad, rotten fish and cheese so old it qualifies for the pension – Sri
Lanka, the game is on.

 Let’s not muck around, let’s go straight
to the source: Sri-Lankan born chef Peter Kuruvita is Australia’s go-to
man fzor everything edible on the Tasmania-sized island.

Kuruvita’s 
top suggestion is also possibly Sri Lanka’s top restaurant, the
officious-sounding Ministry of Crab (Old Dutch Hospital, Colombo).

It
was always going to be a hit with the locals: in cricket-mad Lanka, the
restaurant is owned by test cricketers Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar
Sangakkara, along with chef Dharshan Munidasa, Sri Lanka’s answer to Our
Tetsuya. The half-Sri Lankan, half-Japanese celebrity chef is also
owner of the polished benchmark of Japanese cuisine, Nihonbashi (1 Galle
Face Tce, Colombo).

A lone stilt fisherman, Sri lanka.
A lone stilt fisherman, Sri lanka.
 
Photo: Eye Ubiquitous

Ministry is set in the Old Dutch Hospital complex, which
should be the first stop on the first-time tourist’s list for its
excellent cafe and shopping scene, a hit with locals and out-of-towners
alike.
Thank goodness Kuruvita  advises  me to book ahead.
Midweek, and Ministry is pumping on the signature cocktail, Small Island
iced tea, made with Sri Lankan tea and Old Arrack, a traditional spirit
made from the sap of coconut palm flowers. The signature dish, chilli
crab, comes out in a flurry of waiter’s whites and torturous cutlery
while the open kitchen rattles and howls, with the occasional spurt of
naked flame.

Driving around the island, fruit stands offer an unashamed abundance including Sri Lanka’s 18 types of banana.

“I went to Singapore and I ate their chilli crab,” chef Dharshan
tells me. “But Singapore has no crab, no chilli and no pepper. It’s all
from Sri Lanka. So why do they think they own it?”

He’s a man on a mission to prove Sri Lanka has its own
cuisine. “We’re not sitting in a rice paddy, smashing spices with
rocks,” he says. “We’re as sophisticated as anyone else.”

Regardless,
if you asked any traveller for their take on the local food, the first
thing that comes to mind is also its most humble.

It’s the hopper.
A hand-sized crepe made with rice flour and coconut milk and cooked in a
cupped pan, we’re not talking haute cuisine here. String hoppers are
made with rice noodles that, despite all the gaps, are ideal for soaking
up curry sauces. Early in the morning, hopper stands line the roadsides
and laneways: little carts that fuel a nation for the day ahead.

“Ask for an egg hopper and seeni sambal,” Kuruvita has recommended.

The
first place I taste hoppers probably isn’t where Kuruvita had in mind.
Forget street sellers, I’m in Galle’s top digs, the Amangalla hotel.
Specifically, I’m in the pool and breakfast is being delivered to my
poolside ambalamba (cabana) early one fine morning. Three hoppers are
beautifully presented on  china, an egg baked into the well of the fine
crepe.

Red, yellow and green bananas hanging for sale at a market, Kandy, Sri Lanka.

Red, yellow and green bananas hanging for
sale at a market, Kandy, Sri Lanka. 
Photo: iStock

There’s a pot of bright Sri Lankan tea and an array of
condiments including seeni sambal – a sweet onion and chilli relish –
and pol sambal, which Ministry chef Dharshan names his quintessential
Sri Lankan dish.

“Pol sambal’s not the most expensive, it’s not the most interesting, but it’s the most important on the table,” he says.

Pol
sambal is a dish of fresh grated coconut (pol means coconut in
Sinhalese) spiced with lime, red onion, cured tuna flakes and a
blistering amount of fresh chilli. The locals ladle chilli onto hoppers
for a morning eye-opener, at lunch as a pick-me-up then at dinner, as a
tasty side to round out their chilli intake for the day.

In
between, Sri Lankans are incorrigible snackers. If you find yourself in
someone’s house at 3.30pm, chances are you’re in time for tea and butter
cake, a super-simple Madeira-style cake that kicks the country over the
afternoon slump.

Otherwise, they’re queuing at their favourite short-eats
stand. Short eats are not for the weight conscious: savoury little
calorie bombs such as deep-fried fish rolls, sausage pastries, creamy
chicken pastries or spicy vege samosa. There’s fierce competition as to
the best short-eats shop on this island, the epi-centre appearing to be
in the Colombo 3 district, home to old-timer The Fab (474 Galle Rd),
upmarket contender Sponge (347 Galle Rd) and the undying institution
that is Green Cabin (453 Galle Rd).

If you’re leery of eating on
the street, follow the trail of foreigners to one of the many, many
branches of the 100-year-old Perera & Sons, who’ve lifted the game
with sparkling shops and, let’s be practical, nice loos (pereraandsons.com).
Trucking kids with you? While you’re in there, make like a local and
grab a pack of rulang cookies, crunchy semolina and coconut biscuits
spiced with cumin seeds as a good travel snack.

In this
neighbourhood, travelling and eating are indistinguishable: at the
Hatton train station, up in the tea-growing district, men lift baskets
of steaming wadi, fried savoury snacks with chilli chutney, up to my
window, hot, deep fried lentil patties wrapped in the leaves of a
child’s old schoolbook, soaking up the tasty oils.

Market vendors selling produce in Hikkaduwa, Sri Lanka.

Market vendors selling produce in Hikkaduwa, Sri Lanka. Photo: PhuongPhoto

On the drive
from Galle to Yala National Park, we stop to photograph the famed stilt
fishermen of Tangalle Lake, where a retired fisherman sells us king
coconuts. He slices the top off with a machete and we sit beneath a
shade of woven leaves, drinking fresh coconut water while his sons
teeter on poles, one eye on the fish, one eye on our coin.

In
Tangalle, at the insanely luxurious Amanwella hotel, I dine on seafood
caught by local fishermen that morning. Move over, deep-fried seafood
basket, this is the real deal: prawns, mahi mahi, red mullet, seer fish
(Spanish mackerel) and calamari are served with steamed rice, mango and
papaya salad and gotukola salad.

“Gotukola makes you look younger
and helps you lose weight,” the waiter tells me helpfully. Bring me two,
please. So great are its claims, gotukola is known for its miracle
properties in the West and is also in Ayurvedic medicine, so I joyfully
wolf down the salad, which looks like chopped spinach, dressed with the
omnipresent chilli, coconut and fresh lime juice.
Amangalla breakfast with hoppers.

Amangalla breakfast with hoppers. Photo: Belinda Jackson

Driving around
the island, fruit stands offer an unashamed abundance including Sri
Lanka’s 18 types of banana, and tiny villages on the highways sell just
one food, be it Kadjugama (literally ‘cashew village’) on the
Colombo-Kandy road, Thihariya for mandarins the colour of a Buddhist
monk’s robes or buffalo curd (meekiri), served roadside in Andalla, deep
in the Southern Province, drizzled with kitul syrup, or palm-sugar
treacle. An ancient lady in a white chola, held together Liz-Hurley
style with three gigantic safety pins, carefully packs a traveller’s
picnic of curd, which is traditionally set in rough hand-thrown clay
pots that you smash back into the earth once finished. It’s a probiotic,
it’s a passive-aggression outlet.

Back in Colombo, it’s time to
try the famed black pork curry of the Gallery Cafe, contender to
Ministry of Crab for best restaurant (2 Alfred House Rd, Kollupitiya).
Cruising the menu, I’ve gone past the seer fish served with coconut
risotto, past the fish-head soup and even said no to the baked crab.

The
black pork dish is owner and entrepreneur Shanth Fernando’s baby. “I
taste it every morning,” he says, sipping espresso in his chic hotel,
Tintagel. “That’s why I’m the size I am.” He leans in to spill its
secrets: belly pork with fenugreek, curry leaves, bitter gourd, sweet
spices and the signature (chilli-free) black-roasted curry powder, which
adventurous traveller-cooks can buy at any supermarket. The curry is
served with another classic, brinjal pahl (eggplant relish), cucumber
raita and more gotukola sambal, presumably its anti-obesity properties
balancing the extravagance of the belly pork. It is divine, but also
calls for a nice lie-down afterwards.  Or maybe a tart, cleansing
cocktail. Either way, the Gallery Cafe will oblige.

Gallery Cafe.

Gallery Cafe. Photo: Belinda Jackson

Some of the
best food of this journey is served in the most unexpected location. In
the leopard-rich Yala National Park, the under-canvas kitchen of my
luxury Leopard Safari camp, fuelled only by solar energy, turns out
spectacular plantain curry and bitter gourd curry, tuned down to sate
the western palette, but not so much that it offends us: and
vegetarianism is easy in this isle.

Pre-dinner snacks are hot,
deep-fried leaves called elephant ears, tossed in salt and chilli
powder, and the all-male kitchen serves the  toddler on my hip gentle
baby potato curries, as well as two classic street foods, coconut roti
and her favourite, egg roti, the sweet coconut and egg cooked into rich,
buttery fried flatbread.

At the Kandy Muslim Hotel,
fierce-looking old men in white robes serenely serve us the staple meal
of kottu roti – chopped roti fried with strips of egg, cabbage, carrot
and whatever else comes to hand (70 Dalada Vidiya, Kandy) –  and I taste
the classic Dutch Burgher dish, lamprais, in a Colombo home kitchen,
from the generous hands of my Burgher friend Andrea.

The samba
rice and mixed meat curry are baked in a banana leaf with a prawn paste,
fried cutlet and eggplant in the mix. If you don’t have a Burgher chef
to hand, trust Colombo city guide yamu.com
and head to the colonial mansion that is the Dutch Burgher Union
(that’s DBU for those in the know) (114, Reid Avenue, Colombo 4).

“Everything
is called a curry, but not everything is pungent,” explains Andrea.
“And everything that floats in a gravy is curry.” She also notes that
Sri Lankan curries are quite dry, compared with their Indian
counterparts. “It preserves the fresh tastes, instead of drowning them,”
she adds, with a sly dig at her gargantuan neighbour.

I make the
rookie mistake of ordering ‘just a curry’ at boutique hotel The Wallawwa
and end up with a 10-plate extravaganza by the time all the
accompanying curries, sambals, salads, rice and deep-fried fillers are
laden on the table. Delicious, though slightly unfair to any dining
companions wishing to sit near me.

Asking around for the best meal
turns up some unlikely answers: “I’ve found chicken parts curry,”
confides a local artist. “It’s so good, I’ve had it twice in the past
two weeks.” I ask for the cafe’s address but he won’t tell me. “I’ve had
training,” he says delicately, then abandons all tact. “Pack the
Imodium! Hahahaha!”
 
It’s on the last day, just before we dash to
the airport, that my bubbly driver, the fabulously named Lucky
Lokubalasuriya, teaches me how to eat a classic lunch packet of curry
and rice – perhaps the Sri Lankan equivalent of a sandwich. I buy a
couple of packets from a man on the street and we sit in the back of our
van. Unwrapping the decorative newspaper reveals a train smash of rice,
chicken curry, dhal, deep-fried crisps and a few blackened chillis that
I don’t believe are just a garnish. There’s no cutlery, just a handful
of serviettes.

After a fortnight of fending off Western wannabe
cafes (what’s with the bruschetta obsession?) and toned-down cuisine,
this is the real deal. The packet packs a punch of big spices, hot oil,
curry leaves and a hellish amount of chilli. My nose runs, my ears roar
and I admit defeat. Respect for the spice island.

TRIP NOTES
MORE INFORMATION srilanka.travel
GETTING THERE There
are no direct flights between Australia and Sri Lanka. The best
connections are with Singapore Airlines, Malaysia Airlines and Thai
Airways.
GETTING AROUND Banyan Tours runs five-night tours including private car, guide and accommodation, from $3500 for two people, banyanlanka.com.
STAYING THERE For luxe hotels, stay at Amangalla, Galle or Amanwella, Tangalle (from $585, amanresorts.com), opt for boutique hotels Maya Villa or The Wallawwa (from $205, mrandmrssmith.com)
or go budget at the Olde Empire Hotel, with an extra-early wake-up call
from the nearby Temple of Lord Buddha’s Tooth (from $20, oldeempirehotel.com).The sustainably-run Leopard Safari costs from $380 a night, all-inclusive, leopardsafaris.com.

The writer was a guest of Banyan Tours Lanka (banyanlanka.com), Sri Lanka Tourism (srilanka.travel) and Mr & Mrs Smith hotels (mrandmrssmith.com)

This feature by Belinda Jackson was published in Sydney’s Sun-Herald newspaper’s Traveller section.

The real trip advisors reveal their tips for travel in 2015

Mesmerising Myanmar: Ancient temples and an increasingly
modern infrastructure are the drawcards. Photo: Getty Images.

So – what’s the next big thing? Travel experts
reveal their tips for the coming year.
With an
eye on the hip pocket, we’re looking at hometown holidays in 2015, say travel
industry’s chiefs. And while Asia is back on top as our favourite playground,
Myanmar continues its stellar orbit as the region’s shining star.
Gary Bartelings, Captain’s Choice
Where is
everyone going in 2015?
Gallipoli for the centenary, on unusual train journeys, South America,
Antarctica and our new Australian tours by private plane.
Where
should everyone be going in 2015?
Iran and Myanmar. For safe and trusted, a British
Isles cruise or a train journey through Switzerland.
The
biggest issue in travel in 2015?
 An unsettled world and the weakening
Australian dollar.
Where are
you packing your bags for?
Chichen Itza in Mexico, Rio, Easter Island, Tahiti, Angkor  Wat,
the Taj Mahal and the Serenas, well as the UK and Europe.
Fearless
prediction?
Keep
travelling, so people across cultures, religions and countries can connect
peacefully. See captainschoice.com.au.
Simon Westcott, Luxe City Guides 
Where is
everyone going in 2015?
Myanmar: infrastructure is improving and there’s a sense it’ll all
change fast.
Where
should everyone be going in 2015?
Bhutan: because it’s not going to change fast. A
purer and more controlled experience awaits.  
The
biggest issue in travel in 2015?
Travel safety: the perceived threat of increased
terrorism and infectious diseases.
Where are
you packing your bags for?
London, Florence, Marrakech, Taipei, Tokyo and the USA.
Fearless
prediction?

 Wifi flights will become the norm. See luxecityguides.com.
Alan Alcock, Wendy Wu Tours
Where is
everyone going in 2015?
Japan, now great value for money, and India.
Where
should everyone be going in 2015?
Sri Lanka, which is rapidly healing after its
terrible civil war, the idyllic Maldives, and Myanmar for quaint, rustic
antiquity.
The
biggest issue in travel in 2015?
The potential spread of terrorism to our region, health
issues such as Ebola and the value of the Australian dollar. 
Where are
you packing your bags for?
 Vietnam, Japan and Mongolia.
Fearless
prediction?

Self-drive three-wheeled tuk-tuk tours in India! See wendywutours.com.au.
Tom Walley, Flight Centre Australia
Where is
everyone going in 2015?
Philippines: budget carrier Cebu Pacific Air has just kicked off a
service departing Sydney four times weekly.
Where
should everyone be going in 2015?
London, for the Rugby World Cup! 
The
biggest issue in travel in 2015?
Airfares have never been more affordable and
unless the US dollar drops significantly, the only issue is choosing where to
go. 
Where are
you packing your bags for?
Whistler: snowboarding is my passion. We will thaw out on Hamilton
Island. Fearless prediction? Aussies are in a golden era of travel with more
accessible prices, services and routes. See flightcentre.com.au.
Sue Badyari, World Expeditions
Where is
everyone going in 2015?
Hiking and biking Cambodia, trekking the Patagonia Ice Cap, Arctic
cruising to see the Northern Lights, Nepal’s Manaslu Circuit, walking Spain’s
Camino. 
Where
should everyone be going in 2015?
Trekking the Altai mountains in Mongolia, hiking
and biking in China, cycling Puglia, Italy. 
The
biggest issue in travel in 2015?
Flight availability in peak seasons, more freak
storms and volatility in weather patterns due to global warming.
Where are
you packing your bags for?
Italy’s Gran Paradiso Trek plus a self-guided cycling holiday from
Slovenia to Croatia!
Fearless
prediction for 2015?
The Great
Himalayan Trail – a five-month trek traversing Nepal’s high passes. See worldexpeditions.com.
Ann Sherry, Carnival Australia 
Where is
everyone going in 2015?
Cruising Europe, Alaska, and the Baltics. 
Where
should everyone be going in 2015?
Asia, cruising from Japan and Singapore, visiting
Vietnam and Cambodia, and even Indonesia’s Komodo Island. 
The
biggest issue in travel in 2015?
The falling dollar, sharpening travellers’ focus
on value.
Where are
you packing your bags for?
Stradbroke Island, maybe an African safari and a PNG and Solomon
Islands cruise to test new destinations.
Fearless
prediction?
Weekends
at sea with Australia’s best food and wine. See carnival.com.au.
Caroline Kennedy, Cox & Kings Australia
Where is
everyone going in 2015?
Italy and Greece for the food, wine, history and sites and Norway for
the Northern Lights.
Where
should everyone be going in 2015?
ANZAC centenary commemorations in Gallipoli, with
or without ballot tickets.
The
biggest issue in travel in 2015?
Global safety issues and natural disasters.
Where are
you packing your bags for?
I would like to do The Ultimate Travelling Camp in India.
Fearless
prediction?

Experiencing destinations in 3D, such as enjoying the view from your
(prospective) hotel’s balcony. See coxandkings.com.au.
Anton Stanish, Stayz Holiday Accommodation
Where is
everyone going in 2015?
The Gold Coast, Darwin and fringe CBD; homeowners are realising the
viability of short-term rentals while travellers can immerse themselves in the
local neighbourhood.
Where
should everyone be going in 2015?
Dunsborough, Western Australia. Definitely a new
hot spot.
Where are
you packing your bags for?
A holiday rental in Cape Kidnappers, New Zealand, near golf courses,
vineyards and beaches. 
The
biggest issue in travel in 2015?
Low-cost air carriers continuing to open up new
markets, particularly in Asia.
Fearless
prediction?
Holiday
rentals becoming bookable online, like hotels. See stayz.com.au.
Karin Sheppard, InterContinental Hotels Group 
Where is
everyone going in 2015?
South-east Asia and the Asia Pacific, for snorkelling safaris, stunning
beaches.   
Where
should everyone be going in 2015?
On ‘staycation,’ exploring your own city. Sydney’s
Double Bay has new eateries, bars, shops and the new InterContinental Sydney
Double Bay. 
The
biggest issue in travel in 2015?
Truly personalised and local experiences. 
Where are
you packing your bags for?
Japan’s Cherry Blossom Festival, a diving holiday to Fiji and skiing in
Queenstown. 
Fearless
prediction?
More
marketing aimed at locals through social media, and brands rewarding guests for
publicising their trips via social media. See ihg.com.
Dave Boyte, Skyscanner
Where is
everyone going in 2015?
Safe, affordable Nicaragua, Central America and Mykonos, Greece. 
Where
should everyone be going in 2015?
Colombo, Sri Lanka is reinventing itself as a cool
foodie paradise. Flight searches to Bhutan are also on the rise.  
The
biggest issue in travel in 2015?
Online travel companies becoming mobile savvy, as
travellers use mobile phones to research, plan and book holidays.
Where are
you packing your bags for?
The coolest little capital, Wellington, and Tasmania.  
Fearless
prediction?

Meta-search websites – websites that aggregate information from all over the
web into one site – being an essential planning tool. See skyscanner.com.au.
This feature by Belinda Jackson was published in the Sydney Morning Herald’s Traveller.

Travel news: Glam with the Fam

It’s tough being gorgeous
when you’re trucking nappies and toys, but help is at hand with the
fairy godmother of fabulousness, LUXE Guides.

The new pocket-friendly
second edition of its Little LUXE Bali tours the island with
ankle-biters in tow, and is summed up in its tagline, “How to go glam
with the fam”.

Little LUXE has also got junior Singapore and Hong Kong
covered. Costs $US10 each. See luxecityguides.com.

Edited by Belinda Jackson, Takeoff is published in the Sun-Herald‘s Traveller section every Sunday.

The hidden jewels of Sri Lanka

Ambassador House, Galle

Elegant villas dot Sri Lanka’s jungle and coast.

Petite and chic, the true gem of Sri Lanka is its rising wave
of beautiful boutique hotels and villas peppered throughout its wild,
lush interior and sublime coastal strips. The tiny island has performed a
staggering comeback – just three years after its 26-year civil war
ended in 2009, more than a million tourists came to soak up its sun, sip
its tea and savour its culture.

Sri Lanka and Bali are emerging rivals, sharing similar
climates, a guaranteed warm welcome and an innate sense of style and
design.


Many of Sri Lanka’s top villas are reinvented walauwas, the 18th and
19th-century manor houses of the ruling elite, with grand verandahs and
great halls.

You might see a Dutch colonial column, an English colonial
balcony, Portuguese whitewash and an Arabic inward-facing courtyard all
in the one building, as the country morphed from Serendip to Ceylon to
Sri Lanka.

This is also the birthplace of tropical modernism, al fresco
living invented by Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa and imitated
across the tropics, from Capricorn to Cancer. Book just one room or take
the whole villa: courteous Sri Lankans will tell you to make it your
home – you’ll just wish it was, permanently.

JUNGLE GLAM:CASA HELICONIA

Halfway between Sri Lanka’s current capital, Colombo and the
ancient capital, historic Kandy, Casa Heliconia is, like all the
country’s best villas, well hidden. The property comprises two king
bedrooms in separate pavilions, the Temple Angkor and Pagoda Gold. The
new villa’s pedigree is impeccable: its stablemates include The Kandy
House and one of the country’s bastions of design, Bawa’s The Last
House.
THE LOOK The villas are hidden among acres
of lush jungle with a little path leading down to a plunge pool and sun
loungers. The look is rustic timber doors and planter lounges, yet
there’s also Wi-Fi, a home theatre and aircon.
DON’T MISS For a special Sri Lankan touch,
you share the jungle with Casa Heliconia’s household pet, a (reportedly)
extremely placid, but extremely large white Brahman bull.
Rooms at Casa Heliconia start from $115 a night for the Pagoda Gold pavilion, including breakfast and dinner. See casa-heliconia.com.

AMID THE PADDIES: MAYA VILLA

Five is a special number in Sri Lankan villas: there are five bedrooms in Maya Villa, and you can book just one or the lot.
Ten minutes’ drive from Tangalle, on the south coast, and
about an hour from happening Galle, the villa is designed by architect
Pradeep Kodikara and Hong Kong-based interior designer Niki Fairchild.
The rooms are in two pavilions set around an L-shaped pool and open-air dining pavilion and lounge, perfect for sunset drinks.
THE LOOK In a former life, Maya was a
walauwa, a 100-year-old manor house built in the traditional local
style, with ornate woodwork in the main pavilion, which houses two
rooms.
The new wing has three bedrooms designed in contemporary Sri
Lankan style using cool, polished cement for the walls and floors and
massive doors that open onto a private courtyard.
DON’T MISS The villa is surrounded by picturesque rice paddies and hammocks on the lawn – surely there is no more serene match?
Rooms start from $265 a night for a room, $1140 a night, full villa, low season, including breakfast, mayatangallesrilanka.com. See mayatangallesrilanka.com.

COLONIAL SPLENDOUR: 20 MIDDLE STREET, GALLE

Embracing Galle’s Dutch colonial history, this villa was
originally a Dutch merchant’s house built in 1750, with English
additions in the 1800s.
Recently renovated by top Sri Lankan starchitect Channa
Daswatte and interior design by George Cooper, the four-bedroom villa
maintains its teak windows and perfumed gardens.
THE LOOK The modern luxuries of plunge
pools, snooker tables and home theatres are worked into a colonial
design with sweeping staircases, a zaal (great hall) and open-air loggia
with views over the historic, red-roofed seaside town. The villa is in
the centre of the UNESCO-listed town of Galle and comes fully staffed.
DON’T MISS The villa’s neighbour, Amangalla, is the spot for high tea with champagne or drinks on the terrace.
Full villa usage stars from $955 a night, including breakfast. See villasingalle.com.

OLD WORLD, NEW WORLD: AMBASSADOR VILLA, GALLE

One of Galle’s oldest buildings, the villa is located on one
of old town’s main streets. This is the place to stay when you want to
be in the thick of the old town’s great cafes, bars and restaurants, but
able to slip home and slip into the pool when the temps start to soar.
The house is built for entertaining, with a vast dining table and reception.
THE LOOK Step out of the sun, through the
pillars of the verandah into the cool salon lined with deep sofas. The
whitewashed villa sleeps 12 in five bedrooms on two levels: three
bedrooms open directly onto the pool. The rooftop terrace is a suntrap
that soaks up the Sri Lankan rays.
DON’T MISS Make like a local and walk the
Dutch ramparts to Galle’s lighthouse in the late afternoon. It’s a
promenade, so take it slowly. Nearby Fortaleza is a great lunch stop (9
Church Cross Street, fortaleza.lk).
Costs from $560 a night, full villa, including breakfast. See ambassadorshouse.com.

COUNTRY STYLE: KALUNDEWA RETREAT, DAMBULLA

This spectacular country chalet, four hours’ drive from
Colombo, is built around the natural beauty that surrounds it: the
retreat is on 36 hectares of sustainably farmed orchards and paddies.
It sleeps four in two beautiful open bedrooms, with another new chalet opening in early November.
THE LOOK The hero is an open-air lounge
filled with snowy sofas placed for lounging and contemplation. Split
over two stories, this chalet’s two bedrooms are set among the kumbuk
trees and a private lake.
DON’T MISS Kalundewa is a twitcher’s
paradise, with hornbills, kingfishers, kites, coots and storks on the
visitor’s list. Peacocks are de rigueur (this is Sri Lanka). Take time
to watch the butterflies and natural springs, or take a nature walk with
the on-site expert. Two of the country’s top sites, Dambulla Cave
Temple and Sigiriya Rock Fortress, are nearby.
Costs from $445 a night for the two-bedroom chalet, including breakfast. See kalundewaretreat.com.

SURF SIDE: HABARADUWA HOUSE, HABARADUWA

Languishing right on the beach on Galle’s south coast, this
glamorous beach house sleeps eight in four bedrooms with en suites.
Outdoor showers allow you to revel in the warm sea breezes.
THE LOOK The beachhouse has been renovated
recently, so expect four-poster beds and a polished finish. French
windows open out to the 20-metre infinity pool and the Indian Ocean.
Don’t expect First-World pool gates – children aren’t encouraged at this
fully staffed villa: the fully kitted games room has grown-up kids in
mind.
DON’T MISS Order a massage, a yoga teacher
or a guide on a morning bike ride. Staff can also arrange visits to
local markets and boat trips. Nearby Unawatuna beach frequently rates in
the world’s top 10 strips of sand.
Costs from $955 a night, full villa, including breakfast. See villasingalle.com.

SAFFRON & BLUE: KOSGODA

Think big at this contemporary villa, halfway between Colombo
and Galle, which sits 12 for lunch and sleeps eight in four bedrooms.
Relax on the terrace by the 12-metre swimming pool, set among palm and frangipani trees, overlooking the beach.
THE LOOK The three-story villa is designed by one of Sri
Lanka’s most renowned architects, Channa Daswatte. Guests can take over
the kitchen or barbie, or leave it in the hands of the staff and hit one
of the two outdoor jacuzzis. The den is kitted out as a games room.
DON’T MISS Just 15 minutes away are the gardens of Lunuganga.
The villa is next door to Kosgoda’s marine turtle conservation project.
Costs from $245 a night for a room or $745 a night, full villa, until December 23, including breakfast. See jetwinghotels.com.

The writer was a guest of Banyan Lanka and Mr & Mrs Smith. See banyantours.com; mrandmrssmith.com.


This feature by Belinda Jackson was published in Sydney’s Sun-Herald newspaper.

Bali’s newest club has ‘em screaming for more

The screams were ear-splitting, and they rang out through
the vast hotel lobby.
“I want to go back to kids’ club!” shrieked Mme Three, as we
attempted to check out of the hotel. Happily, the general manager was within
earshot (it wasn’t hard).  At least
someone was smiling in the room.
We were test-driving the brand new kids’ club in the
Sheraton Kuta, in southern Bali. Traditionally the bastion of Bintang t-shirts
and bad cornrow braids, the hotel has carved out a chic niche within the most
maligned of Australians’ tourist destinations.
I’m not a kids’ club pro: my experience is limited to Fijian
nannies for very young babies (excellent, especially for new mothers who
haven’t slept in five months) and private nannies in the countries we’ve
travelled together, including Vietnam (where, in Hanoi, I came back to the room
to find the entire housekeeping division dancing to the cartoon channel along
with an ecstatic baby) and Sri Lanka (my older driver and de facto nanny would
have his afternoon nap along with Yasmine while I interviewed hoteliers and
chefs).
The Sheraton’s kids club appears to have the lot, from a super-shallow
swimming pool and sandy beach and little playground at the front, separated by
the interior of the Play centre, with its computer terminals loaded with games,
books, babies’ wooden toys, farmhouse animal sets and the pinkest palace to
house all the Barbies. Upstairs, the playstation den is also a crash pad for
exhausted clubbers.
Mme Three played with happy little Indonesian and Chinese
children, united by a love of a pink world, pausing reluctantly only to eat
with her guilt-ridden mama (now sporting extremely beautiful orange nails). The
kids’ club is free to all guests (and anyone spending more than A$35 in the
hotel spa – clever marketing, eh?)
I always said I’d never do the big fun parks and razzed-up
amusement arcades, but I’m more than happy to become part of this club. Quite
frankly, both Mme Three and I were both upset to be leaving the hotel: I guess
we’ve just got to learn to say goodbye. 
Yep, I was a guest of Sheraton Kuta Bali. (62) (361) 846 5555, sheraton.com/balikuta.

Trading places: Sri Lanka

Winter is happily settling in to Melbourne: it’s got its squalls, sharp winds and drizzle and is setting up shop quite nicely, thank you very much.

If I could trade places, my choice (today, anyway) would be Sri Lanka, specifically on the banks of the gracious Tissa wewa (tank, or man-made reservoir), said to have been constructed in 250-210 BC as part of a network of reservoirs across the country. Tissa wewa is beside the town of Tissamaharama, the gateway to the leopard-rich Yala National Park. 

The town pumps with a frontier vibe, as sticky touts peddle jeep safari tours, but the serenity of the tanks nearby give no indication of the hustling and hard sell going on behind your back.
Herons fish, lily pads float languidly and spectacular rain trees (Albizia?) curve in perfect formation.

2013: a year in the world

Sri Lanka masks

Happy New Year!
By now, most of you in the northern hemisphere should be scrounging around for the asprin or box sets of Dr Who – or, judging from Facebook, run a marathon or some other such oxygen-sucking activity. Here in the southern hemisphere, there are thoughts of work tomorrow. Ugh. Let’s not go there.

It’s raining here, the Christmas pudding is back on the boil and it’s time for tea and reflection. The tea is Russian Earl Grey, from Harrods, which seems a good way to kick off a year in the world…

…I’m not going to win points for originality, but I fell in love with London again: the cheesy, the touristy, the lot, from Harrods to London Bridge.
The city’s on a high, with energy levels up there with the London Eye. The Tate Britain has
just opened after a £45-million renovation, the Shard glimmers over
Southbank, the grungy quarters have reinvented themselves as edgy design
destinations, cashing in on their bad old days, when the High Street
might be known as the Murder Mile… it was all fabulous (except the serious cold snap, but hey, that’s London in November).

Leopard spotted in Yala National Park, Sri Lanka


For sheer sell-your-pants-off stories, Sri Lanka left all other destinations in the shade. It didn’t hurt that the Lonely Planet named it one of 2014’s must-visit countries.The food, the fabulously quirky fantastic shopping, the leopard spotting and the warmth and security of the country all stitch together for a great holiday destination, without overwhelming the sub-continental novice.

This was also the year I learned to make gnocchi, rekindling a post-Aitkin love of pasta.
The destination: the King Valley, in northern Victoria, just a shade
under our modest little Alps. The teachers: the Pizzini and the Simone
families. Forget milk and honey, this is the land of pork and prosecco.

The year 2013 also finally brought a return to Egypt, this time
to bring the Small Girl to her other spiritual (and ethnic) home. I saw
how a population can survive when all the news reports we see tell us
they are being gassed in the streets and chased by tanks. They just keep
going on: going to work, to school, to the market. And they just keep
hoping the generals and the politicians – the big men – treat them
better than pawns on a chessboard.

Fashion parade in Thimphu, Bhutan

I know Egypt will recover, hopefully
soon after the next presidential elections. But in the meantime, Tahrir
Square, the scene of the revolutions, is lush and green, well maintained
and clean. I have never seen it look better. So there is some good come
out of this whole, messy Arab Spring.

The most unexpected experience was attending Bhutan‘s first indigenous fashion parade, beneath the stars in the mountain kingdom. Visiting two tiny countries at either end of India – Sri Lanka and Bhutan – was an eye-opener as to the powerhouse of the sub-continent, and how these tiny nations fight to maintain their identities in the face of ‘a billion shouting Indians’ (their words, not mine).

This year and next mark a flurry of solar activity, resulting in the best showings of the Northern Lights, the Aurora Borealis.

Deck 9, Midnatsol,

About the same time as I was teetering on a rolling deck of the Hurtigruten, somewhere in northern Norway,
trying to take a photo that wasn’t just a series of squiggles, the
Southern Lights, the Aurora Australis, were reportedly putting on a
great show in Tasmania, about an hour’s flight from home. With another winter of high solar activity ahead, maybe that’s next year’s goal?

Here’s wishing you peace and happiness for 2014 (with the Year of the Horse promising prosperity, to complete the trifecta).

A tale of three cities: Colombo, Kandy & Galle

A wooden horse, salvaged from the ruins of a temple,
rears up in its new home, the chic Colombo boutique
hotel, Tintagel. Photo: Belinda Jackson

Colombo, Kandy, Galle: discover the triumvirate that encapsulate Sri Lanka’s essence of life. 

From modern capital to ancient seat of power and colonial maritime enclave, they form the classic touring route that crosses mountains, soaks up mystical tales and touches the ocean’s shores.

Click here to read more.

This photo essay was first published in Sundowner (Abercrombie & Kent magazine, November 2013)

The new world order: Myanmar and Sri Lanka our must-do destinations

Stilt fishermen in Sri Lanka. Photo: Alamy
Myanmar and Sri Lanka top the list of must-do destinations,
industry experts agree. 
CHRIS ZEIHER
Lonely Planet
My pick for 2014 is Riga, the art nouveau jewel of the
Baltics. The Latvian capital is a twin to Prague, minus the fleets of tour
buses and crowds, and is the 2014 European Capital of Culture.Next year is all
about indulgence for me: I’ll be travelling to stunning Waiheke Island off
Auckland to celebrate my birthday.
DAVE BOYTE
Skyscanner.net
Brazil will be in the limelight, thanks to the football World
Cup. We’ve seen increased interest in Myanmar and Cambodia and Sri Lanka is a
rising star: visit the fort town of Galle. Mount Kinabalu (4095 metres) is the
highest mountain between the Himalayas and New Guinea: let’s see if I am up for
it.
SUJATA RAMAN AND GEOFFREY KENT
Abercrombie & Kent
Sri Lanka is still remarkably unspoiled, with ancient cities,
tea plantations and hill stations vying for attention alongside amazing
wildlife, temples and golden beaches, while Myanmar is a truly spiritual
destination. In 2014, you will be able to travel along the Ayeyarwady River on
the boutique river cruiser, Sanctuary Ananda, through stunning landscapes.
JAMES THORNTON
Intrepid Travel Group
Myanmar is Asia’s hottest new destination: get even further
off the beaten track and set sail around the 800 islands of the blissful Myeik
Archipelago. Sri Lanka is rising in popularity, and with all eyes on South
America for the World Cup, my tip is to escape the crowds in Colombia.
Outdoor dining in Istanbul. Photo: Getty Images
SALLY GODFREY
Homeaway Holiday Rentals
Internationally, Dubai, Istanbul, Phuket, Kyoto and Tel Aviv
are receiving strong booking inquiries for 2014, while domestic mainstays are
Gold Coast, Byron Bay and Sydney. Rising stars include Seminyak, Boracay and
Goa and the holiday rental market is becoming more popular in South-East Asia.
I will be hitting the slopes of Queenstown, sunning on a Bali beach and catching
some weekend respite on Phillip Island.
ROWENA FITZGERALD
Mr and Mrs Smith
Lanterns in Kyoto. Photo: Getty Images
People are looking for accommodation that offers an authentic
connection to the destination, such as smaller, locally owned boutique hotels
like Brody House in Budapest or Claska in Tokyo. We’re seeing a surge in
interest in Japan, prompted by its distinctive pop culture and increased
flights. I’m going to Costa Rica and Belize for their beautiful beaches,
incredible diving, and unspoilt rainforest. I hope to stay at six-suite hotel Kura.
RICHARD MOLE
Byroads Tours
Sri Lanka is safe, easy to get to and great value, has an
excellent range of accommodation and offers both beaches and culture. In many
respects, it’s the new Bali. Myanmar is another one on my list. It still lacks
beds, so prices are unreasonably high, but it’s seen as Asia’s last frontier.
Cuba is in the same category – go before it changes forever! My left-field
prediction is Iran. The new government is clearly trying to build bridges with
the West.
THE LEGGY LOVELIES
Luxecityguides.com
Why sprint madly through an overcrowded airport when you can
transfer leisurely and luxuriously via riverboat? We like Heritage Line’s
(heritage-line.com) vintage-inspired fleet for South-East Asian jaunts. For gastro-travel, Copenhagen, Lima, Bangkok and Tokyo are
emerging as envelope-pushing culinary destinations. Pack your elastic-waist slacks! There’s very good bang for
your buck. Quaint boutique hotels and delicious street foods keep it cheap,
cheery and culture-savvy. South America is booming but we also intend to escape the
crowds in Mongolia and Myanmar.
 

The delights of Noma in Copenhagen. Photo: NY Times
SIMON McGRATH
Accor Hotels
After slowing in 2012-13, Bali is becoming popular again for
Australians. Our top picks are Sydney for its great 2014 events line-up,
Tropical North Queensland for beach and adventure travel and Adelaide, just
named in Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2014 roundup, with a focus on culture
and the arts. With an increase in low-cost airlines flying into Adelaide and
Cairns, accessibility has never been easier. I’m heading to Terrigal, NSW,
close to home, for a great Australian beach holiday.

Compiled by Belinda Jackson for the Sydney Morning Herald/The Age newspapers

20 reasons to visit Colombo, Sri Lanka

Colombo classic: The historic Galle Face Hotel.
Colombo classic: The historic Galle Face Hotel. Photo: Getty Images

1 PETTAH
Brave the streets of Pettah to pick up everything from
fabrics and fruit to watches and wedding invitations. “It’s utter
chaos,” the locals cheerfully admit. “You can get a suit made in two
hours, though it may last only three.” The streets are crammed with
saris, electronics and ayurvedic medicines, while the fruit and
vegetable market heaves with sacks of outrageously fierce-looking
chillis.

2 GALLE FACE GREEN
 It’s easy to forget Colombo is a seaside city when you’re
stuck in a 1pm traffic snarl on the Galle Road. The best way to
reconnect with the Indian Ocean is by making like a local and
promenading on the Galle Face Green. Sundays are a big day for local
families, kite flyers and food trucks serving deep-fried snacks.

3 SRI LANKAN CRAB
Singapore’s famed chilli crabs actually come from Sri Lanka,
so go back to the heart of it all at Ministry of Crab, one of
Australian-Sri Lankan chef Peter Kuruvita’s top picks on the Colombo
dining scene. It may be the priciest place in town, but chef Dharshan
Munidasa’s cooking is worth it (ministryofcrab.com). Crab gets the Tamil
treatment on Sundays in a Jaffna-style crab curry at Yarl (56 Vaverset
Place, Wellawate, Colombo 6) or little sister Yarl Eat House (Cnr Galle
and Station roads, Wellawatte).

4 OLD DUTCH HOSPITAL
Until recently, the Old Dutch Hospital was a crumbling ruin.
Dating from 1677, it’s the oldest building in town and now its long, low
courtyards are Colombo’s new heart. It’s a one-stop shop for clothes
and gifts, spa treatments, chic dining, serious tea drinking at Heladiv
Tea Club or more relaxed pizza and steins of beer at Colombo Fort Cafe.
Come nightfall, it’s a buzzy hotbed of locals and tourists.

5 CLOTHES SHOPPING
Odel is Colombo’s fashion house of choice (5, Alexandra Pl,
Col 7) and KT Brown its designer, with ethnically inspired designs (7
Coniston Place, Col 7, ktbrownstudio.com).
For leaner budgets, Cotton Collection (143 Dharmapala Mw, Col 7) has
fab finds and nearby Kelly Felder (117 Dharmapala Mw) employs only local
designers with new stock every Tuesday. For cool beachwear, check out
the super-colourful Arugam Bay label, in Odel, Barefoot and their
showroom (32 Ward Place, Col 6), which is also home to contemporary
Buddhi Batiks. Grab a tuk-tuk and skip between ’em.

6 BAREFOOT
It’s a cafe, an art gallery, a performance space and shop.
Established 40 years ago by Sri Lankan artist, entrepreneur and
philanthropist Barbara Sansoni, its signature style is hand-woven,
hand-dyed yarns made into brightly coloured children’s toys,
free-flowing clothing and fabrics manufactured ethically by women across
the country. Also one of the best places for books on Sri Lanka (704
Galle Road, Colombo 3 and Old Dutch Hospital, barefootceylon.com).

7 BOUTIQUE HOTELS
It’s a small country and Sri Lanka has embraced the small,
boutique hotel concept. Lovers of classic interiors head to style guru
Shanth Fernando’s 10-room Tintagel (tintagelcolombo.com) while Casa Colombo is a playful (some would say over-the-top) 12-suite remake of a 200-year-old mansion (casacolombo.com). Park Street Hotel mixes minimalism and antiques (asialeisure.lk) while Lake Lodge’s 13 rooms overlook South Beira Lake (taruhotels.com). Newcomer Colombo Courtyard doesn’t have the design pedigree but it’s small and centrally located (colombocourtyard.com). Because of a government tariff, Colombo hotels aren’t cheap. They also book up quickly, so get in early.

8 AYURVEDIC SPAS
The subcontinent’s traditional ayurvedic medicine morphs into
a sublime spa experience at the Siddhalepa Ayurveda Spa (33 Wijerama
Ma, Col 7, siddhalepa.com) or Spa Ceylon, with its scents of white tuberose, red sandalwood and jasmine (Dutch Hospital, Park Street Mews, spaceylon.com).
A warning: be prepared for days of oily hair or plenty of hair washing
if you’re signing in for Shirodhara, where warm oil is continually
dripped onto your third eye (forehead).

9 ART MARKET
Support local artists with a visit to Colombo’s kala pola
(art market) on Sunday mornings, where affordable artwork is hung around
Viharamahadevi Park (Col 7). If you miss the market, Saskia Fernando
Gallery exhibits Sri Lanka’s top artists (61 Dharmapala Ma, Col 7) or
cool down at artist Harry Pieris’ serene Cinnamon Gardens mansion, the
Sapumal Foundation (34/2 Barnes Place, Col 7). Barefoot and Paradise
Road Gallery and Cafe (2 Alfred House Road, Col 11) show and sell the
country’s greats.

10 GEM & JEWELLERY SHOPPING
Sri Lanka is most famous for its blue sapphires, as worn by
the British royals. Slip in to premier gem dealer Colombo Jewellery
Stores for a quick education and check out the well-priced men’s watches
while you’re there (1 Alfred House Gardens, Col 3, also Old Dutch
Hospital, Galle Face Hotel, cjs.lk). Ridhi is a good stop for affordable silver jewellery (74 Lauries Road, Col 4, ridhi.lk).

11 SUNDOWNERS
The verandah of the Galle Face Hotel, looking over the Indian
Ocean, is the place to be seen for a sunset cocktail or dinner
aperitif. The grand dame has been swizzling sticks since 1864. Budget
alternatives include the sleepy rooftop bar of the Colombo City Hotel
beside the Dutch Hospital, or join the locals on Galle Face Green with a
bottle of pop.

12 CRICKET
Go to a cricket match. “There’s no sledging here, it’s just a
big party,” swear the locals. Catch the internationals at the R.
Premadasa Stadium. For more slap of leather on willow, pop in for lunch
and current matches or old classics on the many big screens at the
Aussie-owned Cricket Club Cafe, (34 Queens Road, Col 3, thecricketclubcafeceylon.com).

13 TEA TASTING
Taste some of the world’s finest teas at Mlesna Tea Centre
(89 Galle Road, Col 3) or the Australian favourite, Dilmah Tea Shop (5
Alexandra Pl, Col 7). If you can endure the seriously lacklustre service
in the government-owned Sri Lanka Tea Shop, you’ll find a broad range
of teas, from working-class brews to elaborately packaged gifts.

14 WALKING TOUR
Colombo local Mark Forbes takes you by the hand through the
Portuguese, Dutch and British architecture and influences on Colombo.
Pause for a cuppa, butter cake and harbour views at the Grand Oriental
Hotel, which dates from 1837, before continuing on through the Pettah
markets and into the ramshackle 180-year-old mansion that is the Dutch
Period Museum (colombocitywalks.com).

15 SHORT EATS & HOPPERS
Colombo’s short eats are a vast collection of pastries with
such fillings as curried chicken, seeni sambol (caramelised onion) and
fabulous fish rolls. Kollupitiya, in Colombo 3, is fertile hunting
ground for short eats cafes: try Perera & Sons’ modern, super-clean
branches (2 Dharmapala Mw), stalwart The Fab (474 Galle Road), Cafe on
the 5th (108 5th Lane) or Sponge, which many rate the top short eatery
in town (347 Galle Road). Hit local fave Green Cabin for hoppers, thin
pancakes made with coconut milk, designed to scoop up curry sauces (453
Galle Road). Don’t expect gushing service.

16 UNIQUE SOUVENIRS
Resist globalisation and discover unique, locally produced
artisan products: find textural elephant dung paper, ceramics at the
government-owned handicrafts shops Laksala (60 Fort St, Col 1) and
Barefoot’s signature bright woven linens. Sri Lanka’s premier homewares
store, Paradise Road, prints the curvaceous Sinhalese alphabet and
elephant motifs on to household linens in a palette of black and French
beige (213 Dharmapala Mw, Col 7). Find affordable gifts at Casa Serena
(122 Havelock Rd, Col 5) or try Lakpahana (14, Phillip Gunawardena Mw,
(Reid Ave, Col 7), Suriya (39 Layards Rd, Col 5).

17 FEEL-GOOD TOURISM
Shop for fair-trade toys, ethically produced food and craft
at the kid-friendly Good Market, every Thursday from noon-8pm (Water’s
Edge Park, Battaramulla, thegoodmarket.lk). The Warehouse Project gives
good reason to eat more cake: profits from its Wonderbar soul food and
Cakes for a Cause projects help run community programs for the local
Maradana population. Email for a tour of the watta (shanty community).
See warehouseproject.lk.

18 MULTI-FAITH VOYEURISM
Pick a religion, you’ll find an elaborate place of worship in
Colombo: the Buddhist Gangaramaya temple on Beira Lake was designed in
part by the influential architect Geoffrey Bawa. Wolvendaal Church is
the country’s oldest Protestant church, from 1749, while the red and
white striped Jami-Ul-Alfar is open for visitors except during prayer
times. For a hit of intricacy, visit a Hindu kovil: the old and new
Kathiresan Kovils in Pettah were built to appease the war gods. The
Catholic St Lucia’s Cathedral is modelled on St Peter’s Basilica in the
Vatican and the Sambodhi Chaitiya is a shining white dagoba (stupa)
raised so seafarers could see it offshore.

19 THE FORT DISTRICT
Fort is the heart of Colombo, named for the 17th-century,
Dutch-built ramparts pulled down by the Brits in 1879. Its modern face
is the glitzy World Trade Centre (where you can get a decent coffee) and
the revitalised Old Dutch Hospital. Its British Raj face is undoubtedly
the gothic pink-and-white Cargills Building on York Street, the Old
Parliament building (1930), the old GPO (1891) and the Lighthouse Clock
Tower, built two years before London’s Big Ben, in 1857, now towered
over by skyscrapers.

20 MOUNT LAVINIA
Dive into the Indian Ocean at Mount Lavinia, half an hour
north of central Colombo. The waters are far cleaner than off the Galle
Face Green and the beach is lined with seafood restaurants. For a taste
of luxury, check into the five-star British colonial Mount Lavinia Hotel
for colonial-style High Tea overlooking the ocean, from 3.30pm daily (mountlaviniahotel.com).


By Belinda Jackson, published in the Sun-Herald newspaper.