Paradise regained: Alan Hughes' great Sri Lankan adventure
Trips of a lifetime
Our destination was the Olcote In Ceylon boutique hotel in Sri Lanka.
Olcote is an acronym for 'Our Little Corner Of The Earth', and this was to be the luxurious base from which we explored a fascinating little country (we were surprised to discover Sri Lanka is not much bigger than Ireland).
Olcote is owned and run by Sri Lankan-born Tess de Kretser, who married an Irishman, the late Cathal Ryan. It's lovely to be in this faraway land, yet see the strong Irish influence visible throughout the hotel.
There are just eight luxurious bedrooms in all, and they are named after Irish places, including the Sandymount room and the Dalkey room. All rooms are magnificent in size and complete with ensuites.
The first thing that greets us as we arrive at Olcote is a group of dancers, drummers and acrobats. Garlands of flowers are placed around our necks and our phones are out to record the fun. This is our first sense of just how welcoming and nice everyone is (yes, 'nice' - it's become an almost negative or wimpy compliment, but 'nice' is exactly how to describe the Sri Lankan people). We go into Olcote, which reminds my husband Karl of the house in The Thorn Birds; we are not surprised when, a few days later, Tess mentions her favourite TV show of all time is, in fact, The Thorn Birds.
The hotel is both indoors and outdoors at the same time. As you move around it there's roof coverage as well as wide open spaces so the glorious sunshine beams in everywhere. Make sure to apply your sun cream, as the strength of the Sri Lankan sun is different to the likes of Spain and can be deceiving.
The pool is too hard to resist after our long flight (luckily we flew business class with Turkish Airlines, which made the long journey a pleasure - with one stopover in Istanbul and the best business class lounge we have ever experienced. Turkish Airlines fly twice daily from Dublin and beyond to 297 destinations worldwide… isn't that incredible?)
Though it's 10pm we dive into the welcoming pool - well, not literally dive in, but one toe at a time.
"What's that noise?" we ask, as it sounds like animals. "That's the family of monkeys who kind of live here; they just go about their business. After all, they were here first," says Tess, with a glint in her eye.
Tess is one of the warmest people we have ever met and she has done a wonderful job in creating a mini paradise in her little corner of the earth. The staff at Olcote are all Sri Lankan and they look after our every need. They want to please us with all kinds of amazing food, and after a few days of spicy delights, when we just want something plain to eat, that's not a problem. The chef tries out his new lasagne recipe for the first time; it's a big success and he beams with pride.
Although it's a hotel, Olcote In Ceylon feels like a large private villa, with your own staff. Indeed, you and your friends can take over the whole hotel, and all food and local alcohol is included in the price. A small wedding took place here the week before we arrived, between a Brazilian and an Estonian, and the couple and their families had the entire run of the place.
Outside the walls of the hotel is rural Sri Lanka. Dirt roads with neat, small houses and lots of tiny corner shops scatter the landscape. Tess delights in telling us how most Sri Lankans are paid daily, so the shops are filled with tiny sachets of everything from shampoo to cereals; all they will need for that day - there's little waste in Sri Lanka!
It's remarkable to think that the big city of Colombo, with its beaches, skyscrapers and frantic tuk-tuks roaring around the bustling streets, is only 40 minutes away. Some residents tell us it's really only 15 minutes away, but traffic and bad roads conspire to elongate the travelling time.
Colombo feels more like our idea of Bangkok with neon signs, fast traffic and tonnes of souvenir sellers with knock-off goods. It's quite exciting and we are offered an hour-long tour by tuk-tuk for the equivalent of €2! There's lots of street food to be tried too, if you're brave enough. Restaurant prices are pretty much on par with Ireland, while a bottle of water from a shop was about 20c.
After a few days sunning ourselves at Olcote in Ceylon, we head off on a three-day trip to see the best of the island. We travel by minibus, organised by Tess, to our first destination, Sigiriya, which is 184km from Olcote in the north central part of the island.
Our hotel here is like a ranch, with three swimming pools. It's all on one level and feels rather remote, like being in the Outback of Australia. The iconic mountain known as Sigiriya Rock seems to hang in mid-air above the trees. It's like something from a science fiction movie - it looks like it's been added in using CGI. We take a dip in one of the pools before dinner and enjoy an early night; it's been a long day's travel and we have a 6.30 start next morning to visit some elephants in their natural habitat.
Karl is a particular fan of these magestic creatures and it was one of the reasons Sri Lanka appealed to him. So, with high expectations we set off for Minneriya National Park.
After just a few minutes of bouncing about on the back of our jeep along the rough terrain we set eyes on the herd in the distance. It really is a sight to behold. You wonder just how close you will be able to get… and the answer is very, very close.
The elephants don't seem to mind us gawking at them, but at the same time you can see them putting a protective trunk around their babies. It's a privilege to watch these families gently and lovingly interacting with each other. They all seem to have different faces and personalities. The odd time they let us know we're too close, by letting out a loud roar, which just adds to the adventure. All in all they seem happy to gawk back at us too, and almost come to greet us… again with the Sri Lankan hospitality!
Next, it's back on the minibus and a 90km drive south to the centre of Sri Lanka and the picturesque town of Kandy, a beautiful mix of ancient and modern.
It's here that we visit the sacred Buddhist Sri Dalada Maligawa Temple, also known as the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic. We aren't allowed inside wearing shorts so Karl buys a sarong from one of the many eager street sellers for €5.
We then make our way to our hotel for the night. It's only five minutes from the centre of Kandy, yet it feels like we are in the middle of the jungle, up above the treetops. The pool is calling and a dip before dinner is so refreshing. There are spa treatments at ridiculously low prices and we avail of them.
Next morning, not too early, we head to our final destination, the cool tea country hill town of Nuwara Eliya. Wealthy islanders flock here every summer to escape the steamy temperatures - from the 30 degree heat of Olcote, here we were wearing coats and needed heaters in our bedrooms. The houses here are large and very colonial and reminiscent of the British influence in India.
Walking around the town, you feel you've wandered off the tourist track and may be seeing the real Sri Lankan life. There are no proper roads and quite a few people beg for money.
There is a magnificent golf club called St Andrews, which we visit for tea (not golf) and it feels somewhat out of place in this part of town, which is more like a village.
The following day, we head back to Olcote In Ceylon - and arriving back felt we were like coming home. There was only one thing to do, and that was to jump into the bluest swimming pool we've ever seen.
The monkeys were still there and we watched as the mammy monkey encouraged her baby to take a leap of faith from the roof of the hotel to a nearby tree.
We were glad that we too had taken a leap of faith and chosen to visit Sri Lanka.
Take two Top attractions
Plenty on the menu
Sri Lankan food is similar to Chinese or Indian food. Lots of mild curries with rice, coconut, chutneys and relishes, and plenty of fresh fruit. And Lion beer is great.
I loved lazing in the pool at Olcote (above). I was swimming there one morning and looked up to see a troupe of monkeys bustling around the treetops. I felt privileged to glimpse them — and when I think of Sri Lanka, this is what I think of.
Alan and husband Karl Broderick were guests of the new boutique hotel Olcote In Ceylon, a 40 minute drive south of the Sri Lankan capital Colombo. For more information, see olcoteinceylon.com. They flew from Dublin to Colombo with Turkish Airlines.
For more information, see turkishairlines.com or call 01-5251849.