The tear-drop island that dispenses tea and sympathy

Andrew Eames stayed in zany Sri Lankan hotels, discussed the merits of Michael Atherton with cricket-mad monks and went back to the future with Arthur C Clarke

Arthur C Clarke's name was on the celebrity guest list in Colombo's Galle Face Hotel, along with Ted Heath, Bo Derek and the wonderfully-named Tigger-Stack Ramsay Brown. I wasn't surprised to find him there. I had an imminent appointment with Sri Lanka's most famous expatriate, and I had stopped off in the marble halls of the GFH in search of an opening question.

Dr Clarke is no great enthusiast for interviews. In our brief telephone conversations he'd announced that if I asked him something he hadn't heard before then I'd get another question for free. So far, the best I could come up with had been "name any one of the Spice Girls". The GFH seemed a good place to think of something better.

The "oldest hotel this side of Suez", built in 1864, bears the scars of the fight against change: the corridors are shabby, and its staff seem elderly and distracted. Perhaps they were mourning the recent death of its colourful owner, Sir Cyril Gardiner, who had resisted all offers with the words: "What would new owners do with my boys?"

Sir Cyril's legacy was undisturbed, including the notices asking his guests not to smoke in bed ("the ashes we find may be yours"), but his death had cast a shadow. Was there really a market, even in Sri Lanka, for a genuine, galleried, verandahed and slightly dog-eared, colonial hotel? That, in turn, suggested an opener for my talk with Dr Clarke: was there room in a science fiction writer's world for nostalgia? Not brilliant, I thought, hailing a tuk-tuk, but more up his street than the Spice Girls.

As for nostalgia, it was very much on his mind, he said, particularly for Sri Lanka, where there were new hotels springing up all over the place. That hadn't exactly been my impression, fresh from the Galle Face Hotel, but then I hadn't lived in the country for 35 years. In the end it was one of those interviews where neither party was on the other's wavelength, and it wasn't long before I was on the way back to my own hotel, via Colombo railway station.

For much of its journey, the Colombo to Galle line runs little more than a canoe's width away from peerless beaches. Fishermen's children play cricket among the coconuts while toddy-tappers clamber around 30ft above. It is a delightful, stop-go journey, the coaches bobbling along like struggling fish on a line. At one point it was more stop than go. "The signalman has taken liquor," growled a fellow passenger.

In fact I had had a rare meeting of minds with Dr Clarke on the subject of Sri Lanka's charismatic trains. When I got back to the hotel, though, our travel company representative had a different angle. Trains, she cautioned, were an obvious terrorist target.

Till then it had been easy to forget that this tear-drop island was having such problems. The conflict in the far north between the Tamil minority and the Sinhalese majority has no impact on the beach resorts - although there had been a cursory baggage check before I got on the train.

Terrorism cropped up for the second time that day in a conversation with a GP. Dr Vijay ran a sort of snip team which vasectomied whole tea-plantations at a sitting. But business was getting slow, he said. Now even the poor families were being encouraged to have at least three children "because we are losing too many young men".

Sri Lanka doesn't feel like a war zone. Occasional roadside checkpoints wave traffic lazily through. This is one of those conflicts that has been going so long that it is rarely reported in the international press.

Two years ago a bomb destroyed a bank in the city and laid waste to a year's international arrivals. And, it turned out, there had been a bomb on the coastal railway that had killed over 100 people. But nobody volunteers that kind of information to tourists.

It may seem heartless to talk about the benefits of war, but the conflict has had its preservationist effect. Even in tourist areas there are elephants on the roadside, monkeys on the telegraph poles and crocodiles in the rivers. And Sri Lanka's hotels have a zany side that would otherwise have been swept under the carpet by have-a-nice-day professionalism - as we found out when the family headed up-country.

This time we travelled by mini-van, but it wasn't the most comfortable alternative. Our driver did chicanes on roads that hugged every burp in the land. "Jungle," he cried, pointing out of the window. And then "beef taxi", indicating an ox-cart shambling upwards. The safest form of transport, but rather slow.

Our first stop was in the humid Ratnapura valley, throbbing with wildlife. Here, the Kalavathi hotel was a long bungalow in several acres of herbal- garden-cum- riot-of-nature. There were tree frogs hanging in the curtains and a 5ft monitor lizard lounging in the jungle-reclaimed remains of the swimming pool.

The Kalavathi billed itself as an ayurvedic healing resort - our room looked out over a Tantric lady dancing on a lily pond. As the evening thunderstorms rolled their copper drums overhead the surface of her pond turned into a trampoline for jumping beans.

The healing centre itself was down among the trees, but the manager was on holiday, said his staff, which meant that the "gum massage with herbal toothpowder" and "fermentation of face with boiled pomegranate leaves" were off.

His photo, however, was on the wall gazing messianically into the heavens like a Sri Lankan Robert Powell, and the visitors' book had a strange undertow. "Paradise for single women," suggested one entry. What did she mean? "When I come back it will be you on the massage table," promised another. Could it be...? And then, in the sloping hand of Ursula from Austria, "Antony, you're a naughty boy."

The next day our driver started disappearing for long periods and we knew the cricket had started. We were penetrating a nation obsessed. In Kandy we stayed in the Lake Inn. "Ah, English," greeted the proprietor Mr Fernando, resting his belly in a big armchair. "What do you think of Mike Atherton?" We met cricket in the unlikeliest places, even the rock temple where a Buddhist monk opened the door with a huge, rusty key. "Aravinda de Silva," he said, "120 not out." It was the only English he knew.

Beyond Kandy we drove on up into the clouds towards Nuwara Eliya. An elephant emerged from the mist riding down the hill on the back of a lorry; we overtook a man with a tuna tied to his bicycle, and I caught a glimpse of a mist-shrouded cagoule holding out a bunch of flowers with all the melodrama of a bit-part player in the Name of the Rose.

We emerged, blinking, into the sunshine of Nuwara Ellya, which at 6,197ft is four times as high as any town in Britain. They've dubbed this area Little England, but there's little that's English about the bandages of tea plantations that swaddle the hills. Despite the estate names - Cameron, Glendevon, Rothschild - the massive tea industry is totally nationalised.

Sadly, the Lion pub was closed for renovation, so we reverted to the bar of the Grand Hotel (pink and Tudor-beamed) for a planter's punch next to the log fire. There was so much polish that you could almost get high by sniffing the air. But the hotel is not so English to have dispensed with that staple of all Sri Lankan hotels, the Sinhalese calypso band with their interpretation of Country Roads.

West of Nuwara Eliya the country roads wind higher, entering a landscape of gardens separated by spating streams that threaten to tear out the topsoil. The sunlight is so sharp you can almost feel it prick your skin. Here, 6,800ft above sea level beyond the village of Kandapola, the have- a- nice-day professionals have just landed, and taken up position in Hethersett's factory.

The Tea Factory is literally what it says. A hotel marooned in a sea of tea, with much of the tea-making machinery still in place. Somehow it seemed appropriate that Sri Lanka's newest upland hotel should be its most inaccessible. Sitting on the grassy terrace at 6,800ft, sipping Ceylon's best, and looking out over 40 miles of hills, the only disturbance to the air was the distant snicker of fingers as a tribe of pickers crawled like coloured beetles across a forehead of green. There was a complete absence of any guests.

The Tea Factory represents a brave attempt to advance Sri Lankan tourism on to the next generation, combining the charisma of the setting with five-star service. Its success, though, is dependent on something more precious than Hethersett's silver tips: peace. Only when the handbrake of terrorism is released will the likes of the Tea Factory really begin to roll - and I hope that the momentum doesn't crush the likes of the Grand, the Lake Inn, and the GFH, and that Antony at the Kalavathi keeps his probing digits well out of the way.

Sri lanka fact file

The Kalavathi Hotel, near Ratnapura, tel: 00-94-45-2465. Double rooms from $12.

The Galle Face Hotel, Colombo, tel: 00-94-1-541010, fax 541072. Doubles from $55.

The Tea Factory, Kandapola, tel: 00-94-52-3600, fax 2026. Doubles from $50.

Also recommended around Galle are the New Oriental and the Closenburg. The latter used to be the mansion of a ship's captain. The curry menu is excellent, and the rooms are some of the finest examples of preserved colonialism on the island. Tel: 00-94-9-32241. Doubles from $35.

The New Oriental (tel: 00-94-9-34591, fax 22059. Doubles from $35) is Galle's equivalent of the GFH, although in this case the recent death of the eccentric owner has opened to the door to Aman resorts of Hong Kong, and change is imminent.

Andrew Eames travelled to Sri Lanka with Tradewinds (tel: 01706 219111).

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Alan Bennett criticised the lack of fairness in British society encapsulated by the private school system
peopleBut he does like Stewart Lee
John Terry, Frank Lampard
footballChelsea captain sends signed shirt to fan whose mum had died
Life and Style
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Rita Ora will replace Kylie Minogue as a judge on The Voice 2015
Life and Style
Life and Style
Alan Turing, who was convicted of gross indecency in 1952, was granted a royal pardon last year
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
Tennis player Andy Murray's mum Judy has been paired with Anton du Beke for Strictly Come Dancing. 'I'm absolutely delighted,' she said.
tvJudy Murray 'struggling' to let Anton Du Beke take control on Strictly
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
David Moyes and Louis van Gaal
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Food and Beverage Cost Controller

    18,000 to 20,000 per annum: Accountancy Action: Our fantastic leisure client i...

    Affiliate Marketing Manager / Affiliate Manager

    £50 - 60k (DOE): Guru Careers: An Affiliate Marketing Manager / Affiliate Mana...

    IT Administrator - Graduate

    £18000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPORTUNITY FO...

    USA/Florida Travel Consultants £30-50k OTE Essex

    Basic of £18,000 + commission, realistic OTE of £30-£50k : Ocean Holidays: Le...

    Day In a Page

    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits