When you tire of the commercialism and jollity of Christmas, consider a visit to Sri Lanka. I advise you to plan ahead as you are not alone and some of the, not to be missed hotels, will be fully booked.

We packed our tennis rackets and balls and left on December 22nd arriving by Sri Lankan Airways at Colombo, 10 hrs later. We were greeted by the heat and  Rudolph the red nose reindeer piped to Arrivals.

A short drive north took us to Negombo so we avoided the traffic chaos of Colombo. Here we relaxed for two nights  in the warm Indian Ocean lapping onto a palm fringed beach with the occasional painted sails of the fishing boats gliding past.

The next day we met Ajith Perera our Very V.I.P chauffeur /guide and our cultural adventure began. We had read up Royston Ellis in the Bradt guide  to Sri Lanka and Ajith answered our questions with humour and patience. He was also a very safe driver. Drivers of any vehicle in Sri Lanka ignore their mirrors, buses stop at the whim of the passenger, especially on corners, and a hand on the horn is essential.

An early highlight was a visit to the millennium elephant sanctuary. There are only 2,000 Asian elephants left in Sri Lanka. They are smaller than the African but with delicate pink markings. If they have tusks they are highly prized for temple duties. A Major Rogers blasted away at thousands of them but came to a sticky end. As he left his bungalow he called to his lady friend “The storm is over” and was struck by lightning. His grave suffered the same fate.

We were disappointed with the state of the tennis court at Cinnamon Lodge at Habarana. It was weedy and lacked a net so only a knock up was possible watched by curious monkeys.  All was forgiven later for it was Christmas Eve and majestically Santa Claus arrived on an elephant. Rajah, the elephant,  waited so patiently as the children received their presents and stroked his trunk. We grabbed some bananas from the artistic fruit arrangement before the chef could catch us, and he ate them elegantly.

My friend Virginia is a retired chef and we had asked our travel agent if we could have a cookery lesson. Ajith, who had friends everywhere chose Christmas Day. He drove us to the tuc tuc, from which we transferred to an ox-cart pulled along a rutted road by two patient beasts. Despite their heavy wooden yoke they managed to grab some delicious grass on the way. Then we changed to a canoe on a lake with egrets, heron and an eagle overhead to arrive at a village. Eat your heart out Rick Stein. The kitchen was in a thatched hut with cow dung mud floors and termite mud walls. There was frequent hand washing ,the cooking pots were on a wood fire and Virginia stirred the dhal to which was added lashings of coconut milk. The cook,  a woman who explained  with gestures and showed us the spices. We suspected that she reduced the amount for us. Our Christmas lunch was a delicious mix of vegetable and fish curries eaten by hand from a lotus leaf.

Our tour continued to the well known sites. There is no need to climb all the way to the top of the Sigirya Rock to admire this ancient fortress rising out of the green lush jungle. Ajith told us that us oldies are welcomed. He had taken a group of WW11 veterans. An 82 year old lady got to the top and showed him an old photo of herself at the victory over the Japanese in Colombo.

A tuc tuc ride will take you halfway up to the Buddhist statues at the Dambulla caves.

The Temple of the Tooth is a ‘must’ in Kandy but don’t miss a visit to Stones and String for irresistible , well designed and reasonably priced jewellery.

Sri Lankan families were enjoying the holiday and filling the boats on the lake so we hired bikes for a cycle ride whilst Ajith refuelled.

Thanks to booking early, we stayed at the Heritage Hotel in Nuwara Elya. This is a brilliant  eco-conversion of a tea factory. In the evening the engine with its camelhair belt starts up and we enjoyed the dining experience in the converted railway carriage. A refreshing walk in the sun with the mists in the valley and a group of tea pickers on the hill gives one an appetite for breakfast.

We were asleep long before midnight on New Year’s Eve. The first safari began at 05.30 aiming for leopard sightings but there were also wild boar, water buffalo, elephant , deer and a vain blue tailed bee -eater who posed on a branch so that we could get the best photo of his glorious plumage.

Ajith noted our interest and instead of a repeat leopard safari, proposed a visit to the wetlands of Bundala.  After a drive through villages and rice paddies we picked up a warden , books and binoculars and had a feast of birds. The great thick knees , the red wattle lapwings , peacocks with chicks, the painted storks and yellow hammers that had made our journey. Virginia got her photo of a huge crocodile yawning in the sun and best of all, we were the only visitors.

On New Years Day we headed south and saw our first soldiers at Tangalle. The president was visiting his mother and there was a party atmosphere. We travelled on motorways built by the Chinese in time for the Commonwealth conference but, be warned,  ‘comfort stops’ are few and far between.

All along the coasts are sad graves and monuments to the tsunami but Galle, the old Dutch fortified town, withstood the storm.

We continued via Bentota to Beruwala where we parted with Ajith who had spent both Christmas and New Year away from his wife and 4 year old daughter Hermione. A delightful man who made our holiday.

We relaxed by the pool where 100 rupees will secure your sun-lounger.  We had our last game of tennis at the Bentota Beach Hotel on an excellent riverside court . On the adjacent court was the most handsome tennis coach with the widest smile and the hardest serve.

Any questions? Email me: charmaine@hallmarktravel.com

Meet me in the gallery!