Inspiration

THIS TRAIN TRIP THROUGH SRI LANKA IS THE DEFINITIVE IN OLD-WORLD ROMANCE

We can't wait to get back to Sri Lanka, with its tea-covered hills, historic architecture and trains ambling through insanely picturesque countryside.

By Cedric Arnold

May 3, 2021

Colombo is one of those cities too often loosely described as “bustling” and “chaotic.” But not here, from my perch on the seawall above the beach where local families, young couples and groups of school children gather to watch the sunset. Some tentatively dip their toes, giggling as the waves come towards them. Kites fly high above the seafront promenade; below, vendors ply cold drinks and samosas, balloons and beach toys. This is Galle Face Green – the seaside park adjacent to the legendary hotel of the same name – and where I start my slow-motion Sri Lankan adventure.

The idea is to loop around the island’s southern half, by rail when possible. And here you definitely need to have a plan. So I head to the Galle Face Hotel’s Traveller’s Bar to look over my itinerary. It doesn’t take long before the décor and atmosphere of the 150-year-old building has me drifting off in reverie rather than concentrating on logistics. 

When I get to Colombo Fort Railway station, the commotion, stifling air and confusing signage soon put the romance of rail travel on hold while I attempt to get my ticket to Kandy. I am swiftly turned away from the booth that says “Kandy” above it, only to return to it a few minutes later to be able to successfully purchase the ticket. 

T+L Tip: The key to a good experience with rail travel in Sri Lanka is to have a driver follow you and pick you up on the other end. That way, you can cover the bits the railways don’t reach and board the trains luggage-free. No, this isn’t exactly ‘roughing it,’ but it is a way to have your cake while eating it, too: immersive travel with a comfort safety net. My driver Supun has already rushed off to avoid traffic. More than a decade of growth post-civil war has seen a huge surge in cars on the roads – another good reason to board a train.

It’s a rather slow, somewhat bumpy ride. A friend had highly recommended the “observation car,” but today it is not available. So standard second class it is, with me occasionally standing between carriages to catch a better glimpse of the changing scenery as we rattle our way through coconut groves and begin to climb up through rice fields at an ever-slowing pace. 

Kandy nests in the hills atop a plateau, with a lake at its center. Life moves at a different pace here in what was the last bastion of resistance against the British in the early 1800s. With streets spread out and lined with small shops and local markets, you’d never know you’re in Sri Lanka’s second largest city. Home to the Temple of the Sacred Tooth, Kandy remains to this day the island’s spiritual center. After a snack and a slow meander through the botanical gardens, I head lakeside to visit the temple early evening. 

It’s crowded inside with a mix of backpackers, tour groups, local worshippers and monks on pilgrimage, especially in the room where the holy relic – Buddha’s tooth – is housed. The grounds around the temple also give ample opportunities for a leisurely sunset stroll along the lake after the visit. 

There are plenty of overnight options in Kandy, but I choose one described as an “anti-hotel” on its website. Gregory Peck and Gandhi stayed here at Helga’s Folly, named after Kandy native Helga de Silva Pereira Blow, who it is said “grew up in a world of colonial tea pots, Hollywood gossip and Marxist revolutions.” The next morning, after a tour of the huge family home-cum-hotel, Blow shares fascinating stories – all the while sipping wine – of her intriguing family and personal history. After our chat, it’s time for me to say my goodbyes and head further into the hills to Sri Lanka’s tea growing regions. 

The weather suddenly turns rather dismal so I opt for a road journey until I can rejoin the train, hopefully for the Nanu Oya-to-Haputale leg. On the way, we stop for a bite to eat by Lake Gregory in Nuwara Eliya, surrounded by very British architecture. Nicknamed “Little England,” it was a hill country retreat with cooler climes where the British could indulge in golf, cricket and all kinds of outdoor activities. 

We reach Nanu Oya and after a fun chat with the stationmaster about some rather antiquated devices still in use at his station, I manage to board a train as planned. A French couple are in the midst of a heated argument about where to sit to get the best video of the journey for their blog. This is, after all, the leg of the trip where you’re meant to grab the epic shots. Despite strange and unseasonal atmospheric changes throughout, the trip is still absolutely breathtaking and one wonders how in the 1860s train tracks were laid down on such terrain.

The will to conquer the challenge at any cost boiled down to tea, and how to get it to England faster.

Haputale is still all about tea and the time has come to explore after a good night’s sleep. Supun drops me off on a hillside and I go for a walk in a tea plantation on a hazy but beautiful morning. The tea-picking Tamil women navigate the sometimes very steep terrain to fill the baskets on their backs at bewildering speed to meet quotas of 18 kilograms a day. I, for my part, can barely keep my footing on this hill with just a camera in hand. 

Just up the road, the winding paths leading up to Lipton’s Seat turn out to be much easier to navigate. The hilltop was named after Sir Thomas Lipton, the tea mogul who would often walk the seven kilometers from his factory in Dambatenne to survey his growing empire. One can opt for a tuk-tuk but I decide to take the slow walk up. At the viewpoint, I am greeted with an army of selfie stick-yielding tourists and a hazy view; this calls for action – a cup of tea. 

The next morning, I begin the slow descent back down to the south coast to see a different face of Sri Lanka. 

The historic charm of old Galle fort grabs you as soon as you enter the 400-year-old UNESCO preserved town. I stop to send some cards at the local ramshackle post office housed in what used to be the Dutch Administrator’s office. This is one of the countless historical structures here, where vibrant local life meets boutique hotels, cafes and Galle’s famed silversmiths and jewelers. The fortifications originally built by the Portuguese, and later reinforced by the Dutch, to withstand heavy canon fire are now a peaceful sunset spot of choice for locals and tourists, as well as wedding photographers.  

The trick to really enjoying Galle and surrounds is to spend one night in the fort, linger on for a bit the next day to shop, and then backtrack just a little to stay on the palm-fronded coast around Talpe. The impressive resorts, complete with lush gardens, vast swimming pools, and great seafood, will wrap up your trip in style.

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