To take an early morning stroll along the ramparts of Galle Fort is to suddenly start to see in sepia. With the narrow lanes hushed and bathed in treacle light, one passes the erstwhile spice warehouses half expecting to find the harbor bristling with East India Company vessels. The jumble of Dutch -era mansions, grandiose trading houses and statuesque administrative buildings is punctuated by gargantuan frangipani trees. At the former Lloyds shipping office, the arrivals board remains well-used.
Beyond the erstwhile dungeons and gunpowder magazines embedded in coral fort walls built by the Dutch after they ousted the Portuguese in 1640 is the Law Court Square, an area of commanding British-built buildings. Duck under the banyan tendrils then head towards the battlements and you’ll end up at the Gymkhana Club. At day’s end, the ramparts become a promenade. Chanting mingles with impromptu cricket games and shy couples court by cover of oversized umbrellas.
The most relaxing way to start time- travelling in Sri Lanka is to stay at Negombo, a relaxed, historic city that’s just a 15 minute drive from the international airport- the perfect balm for otherwise insufferable flight arrival times.
Negombo is famed for its striking churches, so expect to awake to bells and beaming hymns. The canals built by the Dutch to transport cinnamon and pepper are still used by locals for fishing and transport and recent upgrades have made boat and bike trips possible along the waterways.
Although most visitors don’t linger in Colombo, lovers of grandiloquent colonial architecture will be spoilt here. When the British unified Sri Lankan administration in 1818 and developed Colombo as trading and administrative hub, they created magnificent buildings that have accrued stateliness with the patina of passing centuries. Explore beyond Colombo’s main thoroughfares to find a nostalgic fantasy of ornate mansions and wide streets with giant trees knotted overhead; where milk and bread are delivered by cart each morning.
Older, upmarket districts, like the evocatively named Cinnamon Gardens and equally elegant Nu 7 and Nu 9, brim with stylish galleries, cafes and eateries. Standouts include Paradise Road Cafe and Elephant Walk. Colombo’s shopping is sensational, with hand–honed treasures a specialty: try Barefoot Gallery, Odels and the colourful clamour of Pettar Bazaar, a knot of narrow lanes crammed with jewelers, silk-stores, antiques dealers, perfumeries and tailors. Be mindful of wooden carts loaded with cloths or spices – they’ll scuttle shoppers and cows.
Another reason to not bypass Colombo is the inimitable Galle Face Hotel, an almost ironic colonial relic where octogenarian staff stand resplendent in white linen and cantilevered moustaches. Afternoon tea remains an institution here and Mr Dutt- who scares birds with a slingshot- does his duty diligently.
Where Sri Lanka has an edge over other history-rich destinations is the abundance of outstretched golden beaches. On the lusciously emerald, palm fringed south coast, reaching a beach can involve a path through paddocks dotted with cows.
Close to Colombo, Bentota snuggles between golden beaches and tranquil lagoons, with stylish eateries and antique shops reminiscent of The Adams Family that test baggage limits. Also near Bentota is Lunuganga, the country estate of revered architect Geoffrey Bawa. It’s a delight to stroll around the mindfully designed gardens and ‘tropical – modern’ houses and the food served here is delectable.
Detouring only slightly from the coast road between Colombo and Galle and you’ll find temples shimmering amidst rice paddies and little lanes where choir rope was being woven and cinnamon is being cut and sorted.
Sri Lanka’s interior is also loaded with intrigues. Harking back to the 10th century, the ancient extravagance of Polonnarawa, with its vast gardens, temples and pleasure chambers is best explored by bike, preferably in the cool calm of the morning.
Come dusk, ramp up the romance at nearby Minneriya National Park. Here, large herds of wild elephants- sometimes only metres away- make their way across the bleached grasslands to drink from wetlands shared with flocks of birds.
In Sri Lanka’s misted mountains, the English grew tea and revelled in an eternal spring, gathering in clubhouses, sprawling mansions and polo grounds. Dining at The Hill Club or The Grand Hotel offers a quintessential colonial experience.
Home to hallowed temples, lakeside Kandy remains Sri Lanka’s cultural and artistic heartland, regaling with hypnotic drumming performances, as well as bustling markets and frequent visits by elephants and mahouts.
In one compact, flamboyantly tropical island, Sri Lanka somehow manages to cram in evocative history and an exotic culture, superlative shopping and dining, wildlife and blissful beaches. And as if that’s not enough, your hotel most likely offers replenishing ayurvedic spa treatments and internationally-inspired cuisine that’s a destination in itself.
Body images: Melissa Rimac
For the latest deals on travel, browse our great range of offers online, visit your local Escape Travel or call 1300 670 969.