Review: Splendours of Sri Lanka by Rail
Escorted Tour - Rail
It wasn't the Orient Express but it was as charming!
116 people found this review helpful
Wanting to avoid January in the UK, I booked myself on a 16 day trip to Sri Lanka. This was a Mercury Holidays 12 days escorted tour called “The Splendours of Sri Lanka by Rail” and I had added 4 nights at a beach resort at the end. The idea of touring on trains appealed to me so off I went! The flight was direct from Heathrow to Colombo on Sri Lankan Airways. (One tip – don’t use Sri Lankan Airways if you don’t like curry – they serve it for every meal, even their breakfast menu!) Our flight was half an hour longer than it should have been because we had to avoid Iranian air space thanks to Mr Trump!
On arrival I was amazed to find there were only 4 of us on this tour. A nice couple from Liverpool who were about my age (I am 70) and another nice lady aged 78. We were met by our guide and driver, Ralph, who was really nice but sometimes a little difficult to understand. He drove us to our first hotel, Mount Lavinia, just outside Colombo. Wow! What a lovely hotel this is! We were greeted with a fruit drink and a panoramic view of sea, beach and palm trees. This old Colonial style hotel is just superb. Yes, it does need a bit of renovation but that didn’t detract from it’s grandeur. It even has underground tunnels which were used, when it was a governor’s residence for him to visit his mistress! It has a large upstairs, open air swimming pool near the restaurant and the only down side to that is the crow like birds that hover around looking for crumbs. (It was quite unique to see a waiter with a catapult trying to scare them away. Luckily he was an awful shot!) The hotel has it’s own beach with comfortable sun loungers and the sea was beautifully warm albeit a little choppy. My room had a spectacular view too and the buffet meals (we were on full board) was plentiful (and not just curries!) The fruit was amazing – the small sweet bananas were the best I have ever tasted).
Our first train journey was the next day. We had a short 30 minute ride from Mount Lavinia to Colombo Central Station. Now we aren’t talking the Orient Express here, or even London South Eastern! This train was very basic and the air con consisted of 3 ceiling fans, one of which didn’t work, open windows and no doors! The ride took us along the coast passing beautiful beaches where locals were fishing and we passed shacks that were right on the beach. Obviously inhabited by very poor people but what a view they have each morning! When we arrived at Colombo, Ralph met us and took us on a driving tour of Colombo. There are lots of high buildings going up and a new Lotus Tower (a tall tower with a pink lotus shape at the top) but there are also lots of markets of all kinds and small local shops. The old Colonial style is abundant and The President’s House, The General Post Office and Cargill’s (a famous old Department Store) all reflect this. There are Tuk Tuk’s everywhere and Ralph was constantly vigilant to avoid crashing into one. We had lunch at another old Colonial style Hotel, The Grand Oriental. However this is definitely not too grand anymore! Very drab and our buffet lunch was mediocre to say the least! It does however have a good view of the harbour. After lunch our tour continued and we saw numerous temples and Buddhas and drove through some very poor and also some very rich areas.
The next day we left early and got the train from Kalutara South Station to Galle. Again not the Orient Express but a lovely journey and especially poignant as this was the stretch of railway the tsunami hit in 2004. One thousand people died on the derailed train and only 10 people survived! On our train we had people selling goods and a girl besides me was feeding her baby. A crowded but lovely journey. When we arrived in Galle we had a walk round the fort (a bit like a building site to be honest) and unfortunately the Dutch Church and the National Museum were closed (Mercury hadn’t done their homework there!) In fact Mercury gave us a wrong itinerary because it said there would be two train journeys today but the 2nd destination we were due to go to doesn’t even have a station!) Instead Ralph found us the Maritime Archaeology Museum but it was fairly boring. Lunch was in Pedlars Corner Cafe which was nice and Galle has some interesting side streets to wander around. Tonight we stayed one night at the Mandara Resort in Mirissa. A fabulous hotel, nice pool and reception area and my room was huge with huge Jacuzzi bath and a separate seating area. I can’t fault the hotels we have stayed in so far.
Whilst in Mirissa I signed up for an optional whale watching boat trip. It is well worth doing if you are there at the right time of year. We saw lots of dolphins and one blue whale. The crew were friendly, fun and supplied snacks throughout the morning.
Our next stop was Kataramagara and the hotel here was OK but not as lovely as the others. However, this is a great area for wildlife. We took a walk around Weerawila Lake and saw numerous birds. We then did a safari in Yala National Park. This is a long, very bumpy ride in open jeeps but the discomfort is worth it as we saw elephants, water buffalo, mongooses (or is it mongeese?), monkeys, wild boar, deer and a crocodile. We didn’t see the sloth bears or the leopards but that didn’t detract from the trip. The next day we drove to Nuwara Eliya. This area is called “Little England” and is very British looking. We stayed at Araliya Green Hills Hotel which looked lovely but is very disappointing. It is huge and has lots of tour groups and a cavernous restaurant but it only has two small bars, a tiny swimming pool and no character. Whilst there we had lunch at The Golf Club and “tea” at the very old fashioned renown Hill Club (although as I don’t like tea I was treated to a cocktail instead!) The next day we took a very bone shaking train to Kandy. Mercury calls this tour “The Splendours of Sri Lanka by Rail”, please don’t be confused and think that the “Splendour” applies to the trains! It doesn’t! We were in “1st Class” but as far as I could see that just means that you have a seat assigned to you! The windows in 1st class don’t open and the air con was non existent at first then too cold later on. I think I preferred 2nd class where the windows are permanently open and you can get a breeze. The train stops and starts and bumps you from side to side as it descends the hillsides but the views are stunning. Tea plantations either side of us and the colourfully clad tea pickers stopped to wave as the train passed by. Not a comfortable journey but an incredible one nonetheless.
Our Hotel in Kandy, The Amaya Hills was superb. Perched high up in the hills it has wonderful views and from my room I could see monkeys leaping around in the trees outside. Beautiful birds flew onto my balcony and the hotel has a wonderful pool area with amazing views. Whilst in Kandy we visited the very impressive Temple of the Tooth. Try and go when offerings are being made, it is more crowded (I had 3 octogenarian Sri Lankan ladies elbowing me out of the way to see the ceremony) but it is wonderful to see. We also went to Sigiriya Rock Fortress (Lion Rock). This is a huge rock onto which a palace had been carved out centuries ago. At one time it had a lion’s head but now all that remains are the lions paws and the ruins of the different palace rooms. You have to walk between the paws to climb the stairs to the top. It is quite a climb, 1,200 steps but it is worth it for the views. Monkeys accompany you along the route (keep any food hidden as that is what they are after!) The downward route is an easier trip. We also visited Kandy Royal Botanic Gardens. More like a park this was full of strange trees, bamboo that had grown taller than I have ever seen it before and a whole avenue of trees full of very lively bats!.. There were more monkeys and a suspension bridge to cross the river.
The next day we were slightly disappointed that this journey from Kandy to Ragama was in a1st class carriage that was much more luxurious than the previous one (well luxurious might be the wrong word – less dilapidated maybe!) So the journey was smoother this time and with not so spectacular scenery but it was nice to see the little villages we passed through. At Ragama Ralph took us to our last hotel in Negombo. This area is used by people leaving from the airport the next day so we didn’t expect much from this hotel but we were nicely surprised. The Arie Lagoon Hotel is beautiful It is set on a lagoon and has bungalow style rooms. The grounds are very colourful and the staff were really nice as well. We only had one night here and then our little group all went their different ways. The Liverpool couple went for 4 days at the beach at the Royal Palms Hotel, the other single lady went back to England and I had chosen the least expensive hotel at the beach that Mercury offered, The Coral Sands Hotel in Hikkaduwa. Ralph dropped the couple off before me and The Royal Palms looked wonderful so I was a bit disappointed when I saw the front of the Coral Sands Hotel. It certainly doesn’t look much but my room was facing the sea with an enormous balcony (which I strangely had to share with 3 other rooms!) and it’s beach and pool area were lovely. The staff were really friendly and seemed to know my room number whenever they saw me, mind you I did seem to be the only English person there, everyone else was Russian! So, 4 days of swimming sunbathing and snorkelling followed. I ended up loving the Coral Sands, there were even turtles swimming near the beach a short walk from the hotel.
In fact I loved the whole holiday but again be warned “The Splendours of Sri Lanka by Rail” does not in anyway imply the railways are the “splendour”. Unique, interesting and rickety they definitely are but maybe the title of this tour should be changed to “See The Splendours of Sri Lanka on our Authentic Railways”!
116 people found this review helpful
This review is solely based on the opinion of a Silver Travel Advisor member and not of Silver Travel Advisor Ltd.