The years have not been entirely kind to Sri Lanka. The uprising of the Tamil Tigers, the closing of rail lines, the withdrawal of the national carrier from our part of the world, the devastation of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami . Tourists could fairly have concluded that there were more welcoming places on the planet.
If there has been a determined fight against this perception, it has been waged by the genial and determined Chandra Wickramasinghe, a Colombo travel agent who formed Connaisance de Ceylan in the 1980s, and has, over the past decade, established a chain of seven largely boutique hotels spanning the island of his birth, with a keen eye on the most evocative and appealing corners of the teardrop-shaped land.
You need to climb high in the lush tea plantations of Nuwara Eliya in the central west for the most recent and possibly most desirable acquisition. With just five rooms, the estate now known as The Scottish Planter Glendevon Bungalow has long been a fixture in this realm of planters and pickers. Built as a stone cottage along the lines of the traditional architecture of Scotland, its first owner was one Geo Armitage who passed it into the hands of the Anglo-Ceylon Tea Company.
There are more than thirty thousand years of recorded history in Sri Lanka, with remnants of the “Balangoda Man” and of hardy hunters and gatherers. There have been 181 kings and queens and an astonishing array of legend and fable; there have been settlements of the ancient Sinhalese, forts of the Dutch and Portuguese. But, it was the arrival of the British during the Napoleonic Wars and their conclusion that the uplands of the island – which they named Ceylon – would be suitable for rubber, coffee and particularly tea cultivation, that the indelible image of the place was stamped on international consciousness.
By the middle of the 19th century, Ceylon tea – as much the resonance of the name as the actual substance – was pivotal to the British Empire. A small cadre of white planters, overlords of indentured Tamil labourers from Southern India, shaped the island in their own likeness and, though they have long decamped, their mark is inescapable – from cultivated fields, factories and extended families intertwined with the land who have known nothing else but tea and all its connections, for generations.
Inside Glendevon Bunglalow, in the spacious and elegant rooms which have been sympathetically restored and reconfigured to meet contemporary elite hotel standards within a framework of colonial charm, are remnants of the tea culture from original planters’ artefacts to promotional posters of the day. Guests who come seeking a near incomparable historical ambience – and a serenity which allows there to be Honeymoon Suite – stroll, cycle and hike the gentle hills, occasionally interacting with villagers who have encountered few foreigners in their lives. The Liddesdale tea factory, with processes largely unchanged for a hundred years, welcomes visitors; for those who feel the need for a connection with the bustle of a degree of civilisation, the substantial town of Ragala is a short drive away. In the evening, it really is a case of it being a misty mountain hop, as a chill largely unknown in Sri Lanka descends.
Temperature played a large role the establishment of the Nuwara Eliya area, overlooked as it is by Pidurutalagala, the highest mountain in the country. Like the British Raj in India’s Simla and the French colonialists in Vietnam’s Dalat, British civil servants sought it out as cool retreat for their tender sensibilities. That it happened to be the most important location for tea production in Ceylon was rather fortuitous. The main city, some twenty kilometres away, was known as Little England, when the Brits could still call the shots on such things, and is today visited by busloads who seek out a series of quaint buildings, including a well-preserved post office that could well be in Sussex or Lancashire. There is even a Windsor Hotel.
With original floors, massive four-poster beds, white linen breakfasts with tea pickers in ready sight, open fireplaces, Sri Lankan cooking classes for those addicted to the taste of it all, and a spa under construction, Glendevon Bungalow has in mind an environment which will encourage any families who stay to feel “like they’re at home”, just as the original inhabitants did well over a century ago.
Although Kenya has now risen to the top of the international tea production rankings, the industry in Sri Lanka employs over a million people and accounts for about a quarter of the global output. Its origins were in the city of Kandy, the second largest metropolis in the country and the location of Glendevon’s “sister lodge”, Mountbatten Bungalow, so named for having functioned as a war office during WWII and being one of the residences of Lord Louis Mountbatten, the 1st Earl Mountbatten of Burma. Originally owned by The Mount Pleasant Tea Company this six-room establishment (with another six garden chalets) – with similarly spacious traditional leanings to Glendevon – sits atop the city, exuding elements of Victorian grace and beauty intertwined with an up-market boutique hotel approach.
A Scotsman of some foresight by the name of James Taylor grew tea commercially in Kandy in 1867, on a 19-acre coffee estate called Looleconder, after a baleful fungus came close to wiping out the coffee crops. A switch to tea saved the planters’ day and, within a decade, Taylor’s green bushes were flourishing on 5,000 acres in the hills of Kandy and Nuwara Eliya. It was a move hailed by Scottish novelist Sir Arthur Conan Doyle of Sherlock Holmes fame, with the words: “Not often is it that men have the heart, when their one great industry is withered, to rear up in a few years another as rich to take its place, and the tea fields of Ceylon are as true a monument to courage as is the Lion of Waterloo.”
If Chandra Wickramasinghe, who also operates larger five-star resort hotels such as Maalu Maalu on Pasikuda Bay, the Aliya in the cultural triangle near Sigiriya Rock (maintaining a strong social conscience of training residents and employing local staff at both) and the tented lodge Wild Trails in the Yala National Park, has recognised a desire on the part of visitors to Sri Lanka to be transported to another place and time, to touch a past that incorporates all the comforts of the present, then his logical next step has been to help save a heritage home in the very heart of Colombo that has been a home to five generations of a family.
Adrian Mahes Basnayake, who could have yielded to offers from developers to have an apartment building or office complex rise on the site of his magnificent home at 129 Kynsey Road in the capitol but, taking the admirable view that “the world does not need another skyscraper”, he spent five years painstakingly restoring and expanding the house where he had raised his two children, channeling proceeds from his successful career in pharmaceutical supplies. With eight rooms named after strong women in his family line, who had once called his ‘heritage home’ their home, Maniumpathy took shape. His daughter, three years into a medical degree in Melbourne, Australia, chose to come home and take over the running of a grand dwelling that, had it remained as a family residence, would have required five or six servants, a burden that Adrian was not prepared to pass on to his family in an era now removed from the tranquil days of privilege.
Chandra and Adrian are banking on the fact that not only afficionados of boutique heritage properties but businessmen more generally given to chain hotels on their visits to Columbo will be won over to a place where Sri Lanka’s past has been artfully preserved, with grand dining tables, polished wood staircases, free-standing bath tubs, well-stacked bookshelves, classic furnishings and family portraits taking pride of place. Adrian feels that keeping this landmark property open acknowledges those who appreciate “not only beauty but architecture, hospitality, graciousness and an old way of living”.
These are early days, as they are with Glendevon Bungalow, but the signs are good. Maniumpathy in taking on the big name hotels, with a pool and spa, an instantly popular restaurant, wi-fi, a 24-hour front desk, private parking, a strolling garden and special touches such as bakelite telephones and vintage lamps. In the heart on Colombo, it is within reach of art galleries, shopping centres, chic emporiums and national monuments. It is five minutes away from the Royal Colombo Golf Club. A more vigorous stroll will have you at the R. Premadasa Stadium, the various embassies, and the Asiri Surgical Hospital. The airport is a drive of less than 30 kilometres.
These three heritage properties will not be the last for Chandra’s Theme Resorts and Spas group, which pursues a distinct identity influenced by the cultural traditions and symbolism unique to each area. His antennae waves constantly. “I want to expand the Sri Lankan experience for those who are just coming to know us after thirty years of war and I try to do something different each time. I establish hotels in a primarily Buddhist country, with people who work hard and bring a gentle quality to everything they do, and I think that sets us apart. There is much good that I can do, in places where people have hardly seen a tourist. My philosophy of preserving through sensitive development, seems to have appeal across Europe and even in Russia but also in Australia and New Zealand – fierce rivals on the cricket pitch but close friends in every other way. I believe we will be seeing visitors from all those countries in Sri Lanka before very long. After all these years of our civilisation, we are being ‘discovered’!”
©2017 Glenn A. Baker. May not be copied or republished in any form without permission.