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).

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