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 Post subject: As smooth as silk
 Post Posted: Sun Aug 06, 2006 12:49 pm 
As smooth as silk

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© Copyright of Telegraph Group - UK

There may have been some initial curry worries, but Sri Lanka worked like a charm on Rosanna de Lisle and her widowed mother, who were seeking both solace and diversion after two difficult years.

'Will we have to eat curry?" my mother asked, when I floated the idea of going to Sri Lanka. Mum has never set foot on the subcontinent, but has tasted hot, spicy food often enough to know that it makes her choke, splutter and cry.

Tea fields in the Bogawantalawa Valley: bushes are staked by spindly grevillia trees

Sri Lanka probably wasn't her kind of place. Yet circumstances were conspiring to make our shortlist of destinations very short. My father died suddenly two years ago, leaving a gaping hole in our lives - and a stack of air miles.

The miles were with Emirates, so Europe was out. There weren't enough points for Cape Town and my mother, Mary Rose, wasn't in the mood for New York. The aim of this holiday was to relax. Neither of us fancied Dubai, so - tossing the curry worry to the wind - we booked flights to Colombo with Emirates' partner airline, SriLankan.

We plotted a 12-day itinerary round the south-west corner of the island and, via the web, found four small hotels promising style and, more vitally, fusion food. We also booked a car and driver.

Sujeewa was there to meet us at Colombo airport, all smiles despite it being the middle of the night. He drove us to Havelock Place, an airy bungalow with a very zen lap pool.

Surfacing at Sunday lunchtime, we asked him to take us to The Gallery Café, which was for years the studio of the late Geoffrey Bawa, Sri Lanka's most famous architect. Like Bawa's architecture, the food was East-meets-West, which meant Mum got plain fish while my chicken was zinged up with ginger and lemongrass. So far, Sri Lanka was suiting both of us.

The next day we inched out of Colombo in a swarm of tooting tuk-tuks, cars and buses. Eventually the traffic thinned, but the tin-shack shops never let up the entire 72 miles to Kandy. En route, at the Millennium Elephant Foundation, I climbed on a placid female, whose saronged mahout promptly steered into the main road. I was back in the traffic - only this time looking down at the buses from the bare back of an animal with the gait of a dinosaur.

At The Kandy House, a beautifully restored walauwa (manor house), the Australian manager gave us a choice: the twin room we had booked, or a double each at no extra charge. It was a generous offer, which we appreciated when we saw the twin room's open-plan bathroom.

I was also grateful for the four-poster covered with an amber silk sari, the deep verandah outside my door and the straw hats signposting the infinity pool below the terraced lawns. Never mind that there was only a trickle of hot water to fill the cement bath. By the time I was settled in the sofa with a Caipirinha cocktail made with limes from the garden, I was wishing we could stay for a week.

Talking to one of the other guests, a British engineer building temporary housing for some of the 443,000 Sri Lankans left homeless by the tsunami, I realised that running up a bill at a small luxury hotel was the least we could do. "More than anything, they need the tourists to come back," she said. "And a place like this employs a lot of people."

The next morning we wandered around the vast Temple of the Tooth, where the sounds (hypnotic drums) and smells (jasmine and frangipani) made more of an impression than the Buddha's tooth itself (hidden in a casket). Then we went to a sari shop to find something to wear to an Indian-themed party back home.

The sartorial equivalent of a sweet shop, the store was piled high with saris in every conceivable colour and fabric. Three hours later, after a picnic in the Botanic Gardens, we collected a shalwar kameez and a skirt and top. For £35, we each had a made-to-measure silk outfit.

Of all the places I had ogled on the internet, Ceylon Tea Trails - a quartet of bungalows beside a reservoir in the Bogawantalawa Valley - looked the most beguiling. And sure enough, 60 winding miles up from Kandy, the landscape became Elysian: valley after valley and emerald-green hills, striped with lines of tea bushes and staked by grevillea trees.

It is, of course, green for a reason. And we arrived to find the monsoon had beaten us to it.

The principal Tea Trails bungalow, Castlereagh, was built for a British tea planter 100 years ago and has more than a whiff of colonial-era house party. There are more staff than in Gosford Park, cream teas just appear and you don't have to sign for drinks.

Oddly, though, the house didn't cater for chilly rainy days. The French windows were always open, the fires wouldn't go because the wood was damp and the lamps were so few and so dim it was hard to read. Mum's decision to take a kettle to a tea plantation made perfect sense when she pulled out of her suitcase…a hot-water bottle.

We drank five pots of Broken Orange Pekoe a day and the in-house guides drove us round the plantations in a Land Rover, explaining how camellia sinensis is cultivated (by cloning) and harvested (two leaves and a bud taken from several points on each bush every seventh day). We met some drenched, barefoot and implausibly smiley tea pluckers. All Tamil and all women, they pick 35lb of leaves a day, for the flat rate of 163 rupees, about 90p.

At the factory down the road we saw the tea being withered, churned and fired by old-fashioned cast-iron machinery. We pottered along a tea trail, and a leech latched on to Mum's leg. After that, we played safe and sat on the veranda, watching the croquet lawn turn into a paddy field. Curry finally showed up on the set menu, at which point the chef kindly rustled up a mother-friendly BLT. We worried that Sujeewa, billeted in the staff quarters, might be bored in the rain, but found him merrily drinking arrack, the local firewater, and watching Bollywood videos.

Still, we were all glad to head back to the tropics. We wove through rainforest and rubber trees, round sleeping dogs and ambling cattle, and after five hours emerged on to the south-west coast, where we saw great piles of rubble and houses half demolished by the tsunami.

But parts of Bentota were spared and at Taru Villas the only evidence of the disaster was the number of other guests: just two of a possible 16.

In this peach of a boutique hotel - coolly minimal, richly eastern - our rooms had Chinese lanterns, candles floating in stone bowls and stable doors opening on to balconies from where we could see the waves rolling in and, every half an hour, a train chuffing along the single track at the back of the beach. We thought the noise might drive us mad, but it was the chanting Buddhists at dawn who proved impossible to ignore.

Over dinner by the floodlit pool, we hatched plans to visit Galle. But it wasn't to be. The next morning Mum was feverish with a gastric attack. A doctor prescribed various unlabelled pills. She took them and her temperature rocketed to 102. The doctor put her on a drip.

Stuck in bed, Mum felt guilty that I was stuck in the hotel. But I couldn't have been grounded in a lovelier place. I sat by the pool, wrote letters, walked along the beach and generally had as nice a time as anyone could while wondering if she should take her mother to a developing-country hospital.

Thankfully, on the third day Mum got up. Still wobbly, she gamely agreed to come and see the Brief Garden, the home of the late Bevis Bawa, Geoffrey's brother. A tuk-tuk was summoned, with a dead ringer for the guy in The Buddha of Suburbia at the handlebars. He introduced himself as Bindoo.

Comparing his spanking new tuk-tuk to a Ferrari and himself to Michael Schumacher, Bindoo hurtled through a Muslim village, scudded over potholes and nearly whipped the horns off any beast thinking it had equal right of way. Swivelling 180 degrees to interview us face to face, he got the basics on me, then turned to Mum.

She was concentrating on clinging to the seat, so I had to answer.

"Mama work?"
Me: "Er, no."
Bindoo: "Mama pension?"
Me: "Er, yes."

Then he started offering her a hand up and down the steps at the beautiful, jungly Brief Garden and bought a lotus flower for each of us. Sri Lanka was a good place to be elderly, reckoned Mum.

Our verdict was that Sri Lanka was our best holiday yet - despite Mum's illness. In Dubrovnik, two months after my father died, I had sat at the Villa Argentina gazing at the blue Adriatic and wishing he was there (his name had been on the ticket). For the first anniversary of his death we went to Sicily, but didn't find the energy to make the most of it.

Sri Lanka, by contrast, was diverting, and we were able to afford a level of luxury beyond our reach in Europe. What's more, staying in small places gave us an insight into the country and the people. With so few guests, the hotel staff had time to talk. Almost everyone had terrible stories of the tsunami. Their courage was humbling and inspiring and we left with the impression that smiling is the Sri Lankan default facial expression.

On our last night, the Taru Villas' staff - whose service, as a guest had written in the visitors' book, is psychic - gave us dinner. Mum had plain fish and I had curry. It came in seven dishes and was eye-wateringly delicious.


Sri Lanka basics

Sri Lankan Airlines (020 8538 2015, www.srilankan.aero) flies from Heathrow to Colombo daily; returns from £544. Emirates (0870 243 2222, www.emirates.com) flies via Dubai; returns from £586.

Boutique Sri Lanka (0870 833 3838, www.boutiquesrilanka.com) can tailormake itineraries to Havelock Place, Kandy House and Taru Villas, from £95 double b&b, and Ceylon Tea Trails, from £185 double full-board; driver and car from £25 per day.


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