We climbed mountains, saw herds of elephants, swam in the Indian Ocean and stayed in 5-star hotels. Sarah Slattery joined the Travel Counsellors and Turkish Airlines Fam trip to see the highlights of Sri Lanka.
I was delighted to be asked to accompany eight Travel Counsellors and Onur Gul from Turkish Airlines, to explore this diverse country in South East Asia, that coincidentally is the same size as Ireland. We flew with Turkish Airlines via Istanbul – it was my first time to fly with the airline and I was duly impressed. The attentive staff, including their famous flying chef, were on hand throughout our flight, supplying us with copious amounts of drinks and plenty of snacks. Entertainment was top class too, on the short-haul and long-haul flights. After we solved all the problems in the travel industry, the ear phones went in and we watched one of the many movies on demand.
We were fortunate to visit the Business lass lounge in Istanbul Airport, which was outstanding. It was voted the World’s Best Business Class Lounge in 2015 and 2017, and I am still wondering why they didn’t win it in 2016. The two-story lounge is massive, a staggering 63,000 square feet! The selection of bars and dining options are remarkable, as are the shower and massage facilities. If you have a long layover you can even enjoy a snooze in one of their day rooms. If you don’t fancy some quiet time in their library or olive garden, you can choose to practice your golf swing in their golf simulator, enjoy a game of pool in their full-size billiards table or watch a movie in their theatre room. There is also a separate children’s play room with video games and an area with Playstation 4 consoles for teenagers.
The flight from Istanbul touched down in Male for a little over an hour, but fortunately the time of the flight gave us the opportunity to take pictures of the Maldives from the aircraft, much to my personal delight. Once we left Male, we were in Colombo within the hour and headed straight to our hotel. Many travellers opt to go straight to Negombo or one of the other nearby beach resorts, but I thought our overnight stay in Colombo was just what was needed after the long flight.
The Movenpick is a 5-star hotel located in the heart of Colombo. The deluxe rooms are superb and come with a freestanding bath. The buffet was excellent, in fact it was so good that I would recommend staying in the hotel for the food alone. There is also a rooftop pool and bar with views over the city.
The following day we had a brief tour of Colombo before setting off to explore the centre of Sri Lanka. We only had six nights to see as much as possible and with only one highway in the country, it was a tough ask. Thankfully we were aided by the expert staff in Columbus Tours. Our small group of nine had two minibuses and a private guide in each one, so we learned a lot about Sri Lanka, its customs and highlights, while travelling. It was also interesting to listen to the chatter from the enthusiastic Travel Counsellors talking about how much they enjoyed their jobs. The happiness in their work/life balance was evident and travelling with them made the long bus journeys very easy to bear.
After a brief stop at Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, we were fortunate to visit Kaudulla National Park for an elephant safari. Kaudulla National Park is located beside Minneriya National Park, which is renowned for having the largest gathering of Asian elephants on the planet. Elephants are free to roam between the two and during our visit most of the elephants had crossed from Minneriya to Kaudulla. Thankfully we had the pleasure of seeing hundreds of elephants in their natural habitat. It was a fantastic experience and is one that most visitors will have, as there are so many elephants in the area.
That evening we stayed in the Cinnamon Lodge Habarana, which is located only 10 minutes from the park. The private cottages blend into the environment perfectly and I even saw monkeys swinging from the trees outside my bedroom.
The following day led us to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Sigiriya, one of Sri Lanka’s most famous landmarks and one of the highlights of the week for me. This dramatic rock fortress dates back to the 5th century AD and its flat-topped summit was once home to an ancient city. I cannot begin to comprehend how a palace was built here in the 5th century.
Unfortunately it was a holy day, so it was a lot busier than usual, but nevertheless, in 35 degrees, most of us managed the 1,200 steps and reached the top! The panoramic views made it all worthwhile and, of course, Onur, the charismatic Sales and Marketing Manager from Turkish Airlines, was on hand with the Turkish Airlines flag to capture our proud moment!
After our strenuous morning we deserved a rest on one of Sri Lanka’s best beaches, and Travel Counsellors duly obliged. We arrived at the unique Jungle Beach Hotel in Trincomalee and enjoyed a swim in the warm waters of the Indian Ocean. Another fabulous choice, this 5-star hotel is one of the exclusive Uga Escapes hotels, which are renowned for offering luxury boutique hotels that are also environmentally friendly.
The Jungle Beach Hotel managed to incorporate existing trees into the hotel’s design, which gives the impression that you are entering a magnificent tree house! My spacious room came with an outdoor shower but the Travel Counsellors stayed in the cluster of villas with their own private pool. Needless to say, that’s where the party was that night…
The following day we visited another UNESCO World Heritage Site, Dambulla Caves, and saw the extraordinary Buddha statues and frescoes inside. Five separate caves are home to over 150 preserved statues. These ‘rock temples’ are remarkable – the Buddha statue in the first cave is over 47 ft long.
We also visited the sacred Temple of the Tooth Relic in Kandy, which houses a tooth of the Buddha. We were fortunate to visit at night time to witness the Puja (prayers) and see the temple lit up, it was spectacular. We stayed in the Mahaweli Reach Hotel that night before setting off to visit the Tea Plantations the following day.
On our way we decided to visit a local town, Nawalapitiya, to get a glimpse of everday life in Sri Lanka and remove ourselves from the 5-star hotels and tourist attractions. It was here that I soon realised how friendly the people were. They were happy to pose for photographs and were always smiling, I would have no hesitation in walking around this town alone. We took a brief ride in one of the 1.2 million tuk-tuks that are in Sri Lanka, which cost the equivalent of 50 cent – and that was between two!
Our day got better and better as we took the scenic route towards the Tea Plantations. Our patient driver allowed us to stop on several occasions to take photographs as the scenery was incredible. Just as we thought it couldn’t get any better we arrived at the Ceylon Tea Trails Hotel. This Relais & Chateaux hotel must be one of the best hotels in Sri Lanka, if not in Asia. There are five bungalows surrounding the man-made lake, each with five rooms, accessible to each other by boat.
The service and scenery was superb. After a quick swim in the infinity pool we retired to the bar and enjoyed some tasty food and a selection of wines. There are no menus, the executive chef advised us of what fresh food was available and made it accordingly. Needless to say, it was delicious.
The pièce de résistance, was the seaplane that collected us from the hotel the next day and brought us to our last stop. If this is how Travel Counsellors organise trips, I am not surprised they are so successful. The views of the Tea Plantations from the air were sublime and the short flight saved an eight-hour bus journey – thank you Cathy Burke!
We flew to Weerawila, which is close to Yala National Park. After a delicious lunch in another Uga hotel, the magnificent Chena Huts, we were brought directly to the National Park by Chena Huts’ own rangers. We came across a friendly elephant along the way, who duly obliged for some close-up pictures. Yala is home to one of the largest populations of leopards in the world and most visitors do spot the elusive animal, however on this occasion we were not so lucky. We did manage to see a sloth bear though!
Our last night was spent in the Jetwing Yala hotel, which sadly was the beginning of the end to a terrific week in Sri Lanka. We left our hotel the following morning to go back to Colombo Airport. In true Travel Counsellors style, however, we stopped for lunch in Cape Weligama, one of Sri Lanka’s best hotels. A sister property to the Ceylon Tea Trails, this is world-class. Conde Nast Traveller named it as one of the top 100 hotels in the world last year, and I would wholeheartedly agree with them! We took a quick look at the nearby Galle Fort and saw the iconic stick fishermen before arriving at Colombo Airport.
The flight back was a dream, lots of tired Travel Counsellors and myself all crashed out and we were in Istanbul before long. The always attentive Onur Gul organised for another visit to the Business Class lounge in Istanbul, where we were well looked after. It was the perfect end to a perfect trip.