A step into the past: colonial Ceylon

When I travelled to India 10 years ago, meandering through the derelict colonial charm of Kolkata and the dilapidated British Raj architecture – shattered windows; crumbling, hand-carved plasterwork – of Darjeeling, I felt like I’d seen and experienced the British Raj, as well as it could be experienced some 70 years after its (thankfully) inevitable demise.

That was, until I went to Sri Lanka, or ‘Ceylon’ as it was known during the British era. I didn’t know it – but I had unwittingly organised a trip that was strikingly colonial from start to finish. It is a period in time and to see its remnants today was nothing short of fascinating.

I started at Ceylon Tea Trails, high up in Sri Lanka’s Hill Country, famous for its expansive tea estates. It’s a hair-raising five-hour drive from Bandaranaike International Airport, and you’d be wise to organise a driver with a 4x4 (I hired a driver with a normal car for the whole trip with Sri Lanka Exclusive Tours, and found them to be excellent). It’s the only Relais & Châteaux hotel in the country. I arrive to a flurry of butlers, greeting me by the lobby fireplace with chilled, fresh juice, the chef sharply out to take me through that evening’s menu.

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Sri Lankan rice and curries

Ceylon Tea Trails features five renovated tea plantation bungalows set within the grounds of a giant tea estate. Built in 1925, Castlereagh Bungalow felt like the kind of house Hercule Poirot would stay at on one of his suspiciously timely visits to the colonial past: wide open, white painted windows open to English-style country gardens, lush with colourful flowers, tiny birds and wood peckers tapping on the trees.

At night aromatic citronella is spritzed silently throughout the high-ceilinged house, giving it a dreamy feel. At every meal, served on the quiet veranda, I am served soup to start (as colonials might have preferred) but I ask for Sri Lankan food and get my wish: fish curries heady with curry leaves, sambals lightened with freshly grated coconut and string hoppers like edible lacy doilies ready to be dipped and guzzled. In the evenings, the fire is lit and I sit drinking negronis with the other guests as the sun sets over the river, waiting for Poirot to shuffle through the door and reveal who did it.

Over about four hours, I travel to Kandy with my driver, through hectic, ramshackle towns. I stop by the roadside to refresh myself with the juice of bright orange, fresh king coconut (it tastes citrusy; grassy); and later with fat, pearly lozenges of juicy, saccharine jackfruit, newly in season. Kandy is a busy, beautiful and after dark, slightly forbidding, city. As I sit in a rattan chair by the glossy teak bar of the dimly-lit, open-shuttered balcony of the 1860-built Royal Bar and Hotel, eating spiced peanuts and drinking mojitos while mosquitos play menacingly on my ankles, I can’t help thinking “This is colonial life all right.”

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The colonial cobbled streets of Galle

But nothing compares to the ancient fort of Galle, another four hours away on the south coast. Built by the Portuguese in 1588, the fort is now a UNESCO World Heritage site, and walking along the cobbled streets within it – terracotta-tiled roofs sloping towards you from either side, white-washed walls and buildings dating back to the 1500s – you can see why. I stayed at Amangalla, a building straight out of Game of Thrones, built in 1684 during the Dutch occupation. Pre-dinner martinis are served in the long, elegant corridors outside the suites, with windows open wide, overlooking the sun as it sets over the fort and the Indian Ocean beyond. The orange roofs make it look like a Tuscan village. I dine on traditional rice and curry (rice and pappadums with various curries on the side) on the colonnaded veranda. A band plays in the bar while I sweat in the intense heat (it is hotter inside the fort than outside it, thanks to all that ancient stone). I wander down the street past 18th century Dutch churches, to bars with ceiling fans and gracious waiters serving overpriced, iced-up – and cheeringly cooling – drinks (my driver tells me that Sri Lankans don’t go to Galle Fort – it’s too expensive, and I can see what he means. Even for a Westerner, food and drinks aren’t far off Sydney prices).

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The lush tea plantations of Sri Lanka

It’s a relief to leave the fort, as much as I am in love with it. It’s unbearably hot at times – but stay there you must. Just make sure, even if you don’t stay at Amangalla (it’s an absolutely wonderful, but expensive, hotel), that you get air con: the colonials didn’t have the option but trust me on this, you’ll thank me later.

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