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In his usual style, Ian tells the amusing story of their travels … thank you so much for, as always, making me laugh (especially through the last two years when there’s not been much to laugh about!). …. Over to Ian …
First of all this was an amazing holiday, where all the arrangements went very smoothly, with no hiccups or problems, so thank you very much for all your troubles organising everything for us.
We arrived eventually in Colombo to be greeted by a man with a very big board with all our names for all six people on, and we were shown to a pleasant lounge where we awaited out luggage. I don’t think I’ve ever not collected my stuff from the carousel before; the family were most impressed though.
The best thing about the lounge at Colombo was the couple who had looked down their noses at us in the queue to board at Heathrow, were then shocked to see us all in the arrivals lounge, and who amused us all by requesting “proper tea – PG Tips” in Ceylon of all places!
We were then introduced to Roy who was to suffer us for the next couple of weeks as our driver/guide/taxi/translator/and butler. I think he had the measure of us by the time we arrived at Kahanda Kanda, having had three ‘washroom’ stops, and one for a cup of tea in the three-hour journey, but he provided quite a moving story of the effects of the Tsunami as we drove along the coast.
The suites were fabulous, the staff absolutely amazing, and the gym and pool excellent. It was a great place to unwind and get to grips with being in Sri Lanka, and having a family of black faced langurs in the trees around the site was a real eye opener for those who had never been in the presence of wild animals before.
We were able to wander around the site especially to see the original villa imported from Bali by Mr George the owner, that was having a makeover. I’m not sure why one imports a wooden structure from Bali to Sri Lanka but . . . . KK was exceptional.
The only downside was that it was in the middle of nowhere – I hadn’t appreciated how far it was from anywhere else – and we do like to explore. However we were booked on a tour of Galle town walls at 5pm on the first day. Whilst Atheeq the guide was very knowledgeable, erudite and funny, most of the walk was done in darkness and in places the walls were being renovated. This simply meant that we had to tiptoe our way across what amounted to a building site in the pitch black. It was all very interesting, but to my mind utterly pointless as we couldn’t see a hand in front of our faces it was so dark.
The next day four of us went to a cookery demonstration by Shahira (who turned out to be Atheeq’s mother!) By chance Atheeq and his cousin were also there, and later Shahira’s husband Ifthi turned up. Having spent a couple of hours preparing the food, we then ate en famille which was very entertaining and informative. We would thoroughly recommend this experience to future visitors. Ben and I had quite a chat with Mr George (Cooper) one evening, who owns KK. He was quite vocal in his support of his staff, and how only a few had been voluntarily ‘furloughed’ during the previous couple of years, and that those that remained were gainfully employed renovating the site. He did tell us of the guest that was ‘marooned’ at KK for a couple of months – I can think of far worse places to be confined by Covid…
Next stop the Grand Udawalawe Safari Resort! As a non-architect, I can only say that a great deal of time effort and money had been put into this building. It was amazingly well designed, but seemed to be the only large hotel in the area. And we seemed to be the only guests. I have never been to Chernobyl, but we were all left with the feeling that this is what a post apocalypse scenario might look like. (Actually an apocalypse is probably the best way to describe what has happened to the tourist industry in Sri Lanka… We understood that the normal complement of 400 staff were down to 40, and none of those left could cook, or knew how to open a beer bottle).
Having light bulbs stronger than 40W might have brightened up the place a bit too! The magnificent pool had weird green tiling just where you would expect mould to grow – so although the water was pristine the whole area looked unappealing. There was a children’s play area out the back that need a machete to explore, and was rusted and mildewed into disrepair. The only plus side was the front part of the hotel which was a huge wedding reception area, so we witnessed at least three proper weddings with full dress and hours of photography going on!
The safaris there were good value, with plenty of elephants at close quarters; they were obviously very well used to plenty of vans chugging around, and we did see wild cats up a tree, as well as the usual suspects, although I was a little taken aback to have Roy climb up in the back with us to act as safari guide, in his shorts and safari hat. It seemed that the driver didn’t speak much English. One high spot was when an irate elephant mother had been temporarily separated from her calf, by an inconsiderate other vehicle driver. When we later decided to move off, she ‘mock’ charged us, getting to within about six feet of where Emily was sitting in our jeep. The elephant transit home was a very touristy event, but quite pleasant for us, due to the lack of visitors. It obvious caters for hundreds of viewers, where there were probably just twenty of us. The action still takes place about 100m away so is not that easy to see. The little ellies are very cute though.
Gal Oya Lodge I must admit that I was slightly disappointed when we arrived at Gal Oya. Having been completely spoilt by TWJ ‘proper safaris’ in Africa, I had expected something along the lines of a remote setting in the midst of impenetrable jungle; I hadn’t appreciated that it would be about 500m along a rough track from a fairly busy road. However, for me this place was the highlight of the whole trip! Luxurious yet remote. No WiFi or phone connection. Bliss.
Cathy and I were up early the first morning to go on a pre-breakfast amble with Boby. He was able to tell us a little of the history of the area, and the Lodge, but by 08:30 I was finding it rather hot and humid and hard work. The evening boat safari was delightful, and although we didn’t see swimming elephants, we did see sunbathing crocs. The guide (Boby again) was very helpful with the bird identification, and there were plenty of elephants on land to watch (including one young male in musk who obviously didn’t like our smell). Tea and cakes by the water’s edge was very relaxing for all, except Lucy who stayed on Croc-Watch.
Monkey Mountain had literally loomed over us, and eventually the morning of getting up at 5am came. We walked about 1000m through fields and scrub to get to the edge of the mountain and then started scrambling up rough terrain of rocks and outcrops, with no discernible path. I consider all our family to be pretty fit – more so than the average – and yet we found this hill climb a real struggle. We had all got the impression that it was merely a vigorous stroll, as an appetiser for a late breakfast, but we were all fairly banjaxed by the time we got to the top. And then the fabled sunrise and panoramic view was blotted out by swiftly rising clouds that ‘flowed’ up the hill. Going down was faster, but then sliding on one’s backside for most of the way, would be.
We also did the Jungle Drive and Picnic. Surprisingly, for a non-animal dominated safari this was a family favourite. Emphasis was given by the guide (this time Manoj) to the flora and history of the area, especially regarding the dwarves with long fingernails, who used to live here. There was some discussion about suggestive remains being found on a hill top, but due to a lack of mobility, scanners couldn’t be taken up to the graves to do forensic research. Which all sounded a bit like “we don’t want to investigate in case it’s not true”. However, Manoj did a great job in letting that slide, and telling us all the uses in Ayurvedic medicines for all the plants we could see.
We ended up having a delicious picnic by a very fast flowing river, where they found us a rockpool or two to cool off in. The trip was completed by Cathy spotting a family of elephants hiding in the bushes. They were obviously much more timid and concerned about the vehicle, than the elephants at Udawalawa. However, we were able to watch them for ten minutes or so in peace. We all found Gal Oya to be an idyllic place.
The lodges were well designed, spacious and comfortable, and the food was simple but very good quality. The staff were exemplary, both the ‘housekeeping’, and the ‘naturalists’. There are two dogs belonging to the camp, Whisky and Arrack. Lucy made friends with Arrack, so everyone was happy! (Whisky had apparently gone for a break in Colombo). Whereas KK seemed to cater for honeymooning couples, Gal Oya seemed to be more for Sri Lankans experiencing the ‘wild side’ for a night or two.
Again they were desperate that we return to the UK singing their praises; as a family we would thoroughly recommend Gal Oya.
Jetwing Surf …To be able to lie in a bed, and look past egrets on the grass, past the sandy beach, to see the waves of the Indian Ocean come crashing down, is a vision from one’s childhood dreams. I was worried that the elegance of Gal Oya would tarnish the gem that is Jetwing Surf.
We didn’t get to see much of Pottuvil, and Arumgan Bay seemed to be a surfer’s paradise except it was shut down on the whole, but the resort is wonderful. Miles of unspoilt deserted sandy beaches. Beautiful ocean. And no great desire to do anything else. We did spoil it though!
Cathy, Emily and I got up early one morning and after breakdowns and delayed we were on the move! I’m not at all surprised that Kumana is one of the least visited safari parks. We did see lots of wildlife, but not because we stopped where we could see them. Roy used a system of tapping on the drivers roof to get him to stop (even though his window was open all the time). This meant that the driver stopped if he felt like it; stopped so that we would then be next to an impenetrable bush or tree, or most usually didn’t stop at all. There would then ensue a prolonged loud discussion, and the jeep would reverse past the sighting point until Roy got him to stop again! The safari park was beautiful, the animals plentiful, and the sun was shining.
The downside of Jetwing was the YTS boys. Because it was low season and they had very few customers, they obviously had a policy of training young men to do the waiting at tables. These lads, whilst very pleasant, had little or no English, and had little idea about taking a food or drinks order. That coupled with the general Sri Lankan leisureliness of service meant that mealtimes were somewhat of a lottery as to what food you would get and when you would get it. One of us ordered a Pina Colada. After 15 minutes for the barman to telephone someone else who might know the recipe, a brown sludge arrived, bearing no relation to any cocktail known to man!
The other downside was that I expected to leap out of my cabana and go rushing straight into the sea. This wasn’t allowed due to hidden rocks (apparently – they were so hidden that we couldn’t see them). We were instructed to walk about 500m along the sand to a swimming area. Even that wasn’t so simple – we had to inform the lifeguard and get him to go with us. I’m sure his favourite pastime wasn’t watching us arse about in the waves for hours!
And heaven help anyone who wanted to swim in the pool at the same time. Emily also struggled with squirrels in her Cabana. Inexperienced in “jungle life” she had bought biscuits and bags of crisps – which the squirrels found irresistible, even when the bags were hidden in piles of clothes. The intrusion really upset Emily, until the on-site naturalist explained that the cabanas were built amongst the trees where the squirrels used to live; she was so sad that she personally was responsible for the squirrels becoming homeless that she forgave them.
Ben, who had had the job of shooing a squirrel out of the waste bin, had thrown the bin outside, and in the morning had mentioned matters over breakfast to the manager who happened to be passing. When we returned to our cabanas, we had each been supplied with an air conditioning unit – not very useful or green, when the cabana has open ventilation through the roof and the outdoor shower area!
So Jetwing Surf, Pottuvil seemed to be a place for couples / honeymooners rather than families, and wasn’t designed for anything other than lounging in the sun. It was a fair way from the main street and shops, and in itself was quite difficult to find. But it was fabulous and beautifully designed, and the food was amazing. We had a great time doing nothing!
Thence to Pointe Sud, Mirissa. Wow! This was glorious, sitting high over a rocky beach reached by a long staircase past an outdoor yoga area. Although it looks like it was a colonial building, it seems to have been constructed in the 1980s. It basically was a large double story main room with four bedrooms, one at each corner, and a ‘cellar’ with windows out on to the grass. Cathy and I elected to have the cellar, to try and distance ourselves from the others. This meant that Ben and Emily had probably the best bedroom (but as at every other place, their room always seemed to have been prepared for the “Honeymoon Couple”).
We lived, ate, lounged, and drank on the porch, with views of the sea, sunsets, and any animals and birds. We had our own mongoose, and kingfisher, not to mention the porcupine down the road! The pool was wonderful, and was well used. The staff, mainly Shehan and Isuru, were amazing; very attentive, helpful, and far too handy topping up the Arrack and ginger beers!!
Whilst there we did two trips; the first was to the cinnamon plantation. I have to admit that I knew nothing (and cared even less) about cinnamon, but I went along anyway, with Cathy, Emily and Ben. What a day out! Rupert and Charlotta were effortlessly gracious hosts, with a proper tour of the hill they had bought some seven or so years ago, reclaiming an overrun cinnamon farm. It was both fascinating, and informative, with live demonstrations of bark stripping from a wizened old man called Samantha (!) and his wife who was known as Mrs Beaton, and then further explanations of how they used the leaves from the cinnamon trees to distil further cinnamon oil, using a real Heath Robinson still. Amazing.
Then cool beers on the terrace of the house they built, and a lovely lunch with a couple who were both delightful and easy to chat to, and who were hungry to hear news from the UK. On TV, the whole saga would have knocked Jeremy Clarkson’s Farm into a cocked hat! I wasn’t so keen on the tea plantation tour. It was a bit touristy with us all ending up in the shop, where White Tea tea-bags were selling at over a £1 each. That’s quite a pricey cuppa. Even the tea that the Queen drinks was for sale – even though she buys it from another plantation. Sadly for the local chap who showed us round, the high spot of the tour was the cinnamon production area; having spent the previous day with Rupert, we walked on by.
Back at Pointe Sud, we abused Roy by using him as our personal taxi service, to and from Mirissa beach, to Galle shopping, and for Ben to go deep sea fishing. (We ate the small tuna that he caught as sashimi that evening, which was entertaining.) Roy was always happy to help us, cheerful, and available at short notice. I hadn’t appreciated that he was going to be with us the whole trip, but he was the glue that held everything together, and sorted out any problems – like when we arrived back at Colombo airport, to be faced with a rather unfriendly receptionist who insisted we had what looked like a large bill – possibly the flight – to pay before we could get into the departure lounge. The whole system was a little odd; we entered a smallish room with this rather aggressive, for a Sri Lankan, lady on one side, and a baggage Xray machine on the other. Having walked around with our passports and my phone, on which were the all-important Covid test results and the Passenger Locator forms, we finally were ushered across to the other side of the same room, where a chap on a stool wanted to see our faces to check with the passports.
It was only when I dropped the passport as he handed it back to me, that I realised he had been comparing my face with Dave’s picture – a good match apparently. We all waited agog for Dave who was last in line to be checked through: absolutely no problem!! We then were ushered into a lift with Mrs Grumpy and Mr Passport Man, where we waited looking at each other for something to happen. After about five minutes Mr Passport Man suggested that Mrs Grumpy press a button to make the lift work, by which time we were all in hysterics.
The flight home was horrid, mainly because they served lunch shortly after take-off then dimmed the lights. These then came back on several hours later, dinner was served (possible the most awful meal I’ve had on an aeroplane) and the lights went off again until we landed. And this was on a daytime flight. Apart from our taxi driver getting lost in the carpark, and then us arriving home in a power cut, not much else happened!
It was an absolutely wonderful holiday. Apart from Leopards and Sloth Bears which I didn’t truly expect to see, we had great safaris, fabulous unspoilt beaches, and the most amazing accommodation. Thankyou so much for making everything superb. Sri Lanka is an exceptional country, with warm friendly people, and I love would to go back and see more of the island. One day.
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