Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Snow at last

I titled this blog because I was hoping to be able to do lots of gloating about the bad weather in Minneapolis compared with here. Unfortunately (for this goal at least) this winter has been really mild back home, especially compared with the crazy amounts of snow and cold we experienced last year. But finally today there's been a decent snowfall in Minneapolis, and at the same time it's 86F and sunny here.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Sri Lanka

We just had a totally great family vacation to the beautiful island of Sri Lanka. Emma went there a couple of months ago on a girls' weekend, and loved the place, and seeing as my mum and brother are visiting, we decided it would be great to go back and explore a bit more. Emma designed the itinerary and did a totally great job. It's a very quick flight - about an hour and a half direct - so super easy to get to. When Emma visited she stayed only in Colombo, but we thought that a trek to the center of the island would be excellent. It's a fairly long journey from the airport, about four hours, so we stayed the first night close to where we arrived.

Because of the flight schedule, we arrived quite late at night, and stayed at the Tamarind Tree Hotel, a 10-minute bumpy ride from the airport. We were slightly concerned when our driver wasn't obviously waiting for us after we got through customs and immigration, but we eventually found him thanks to some surprisingly nice guards who let us back into the airport terminal to hunt him down.

The Tamarind Tree is pretty nice in that all the rooms seemed to be mini-villa style on beautiful grounds with gorgeous trees, but it is quite basic - the rooms and food were quite utilitarian, but it was great for one night near the airport.

Next morning our driver from the Heritance Hotel, Mohan, showed up in a very neat van, and looking very neat too. He was very friendly and he took us the 4 hour drive to the Heritance. We stopped at a touristy coffee shop/restaurant on the way - different from India in that it's all very clean and we weren't descended on by people asking for money. This theme continued all through our stay - the roads were all in really good shape, and unlike India there was no garbage around, and no speed bumps on the road! Also different from here was the fact that cars generally stay in their own lanes, and people only cross the roads at marked crossings. It was all very civilized.

The Heritance is stunning - it's built into the rocks by the side of a lake - with green roofs (cactus and other plants growing out the top) and rocks along all the walkways outside rooms (no enclosed corridors). Lots of wildlife too - geckos everywhere, slightly too many bugs near the lights, swifts and bats zooming along the hallways, and loads of monkeys around. The snack restaurant is open-sided with amazing view over the lake and the monkeys stole a lot of food from people, including from David! The staff were all very friendly, however, and took it in their stride. When David's sandwich was swiped, they brought another one really quickly and a waiter stood guard near his table for the rest of the meal. 

(by the way you can click on any of these pics to see them full size in Picasa, and you'll also be able to see the whole photo album, not just the pics in this post)

We were fairly worn out after the drive so we had a relaxed late afternoon, and enjoyed the buffet restaurant for dinner. There was a dress code and quite a few visiting bus tours of older people, so it felt a bit cruise-like. Great food though.

For our first full day we got up early for a bird watching walk. We had a really nice old guide who was very proud of his English skills. Saw lots of birds on the lake, tons of egrets and ibises as well as stunning kingfishers. Also saw the Sri Lankan national bird, the jungle fowl, which looks a bit like a cross between a rooster and a turkey. Some beautiful birds as well as deer, more monkeys, and tracks by the lake from a fishing cat.

Later in the day we went to the Dambulla Cave Temple, only 15 minutes away. Quite a climb up a rock in the heat, but well worth it. The temple is built into caves, as you would expect from the name, and had lots of buddha statues and frescoes on the ceilings. Very old and beautiful, and the general feel was what I imagine Egyptian pyramids to feel like, with the ancient paintings and statues. There were quite a few traders along the way, one of whom sold us beautiful lotus flowers to give as offerings, but we had to be careful how we held them so that the monkeys wouldn't steal them from us - they seem to like to eat them like they're artichokes. The humidity broke with a big rainstorm, but we found a good place to shelter on the way down the hill. The rain stayed on most of the evening, with some spectacular thunder and lightning. 

We were booked to do a balloon ride the next morning but it was called off because of the weather, so we decided to make the longer trip to Sigiriya rock fortress. It's a UN Heritage site with lots of fairly recent excavation of the gardens, swimming pools and palace rooms. We got a great guide who took us right to the top. It's a really long climb - over 1,000 steps, including some in very rickety metal spiral staircases and walkways tacked on to the side of the rock. One good thing about the guide was he made us stop every now and then to show us stuff, which meant that we could have a bit of a breather - it was really hot and hard work. The final climb was up a crazy metal staircase to the peak - I made it about 1/2 way before chickening out, although David found that there were guides specially to help people who were anxious. David and Toby made it to the top and said the view was totally stunning. Getting down was almost more scary than going up, and our thighs were burning by the time we were done. Cool thing to do though. 

Later that afternoon mom and Emma went on a boat ride across the lake, while I took Toby and Dara on a pony ride. It was Dara's first time and she really enjoyed it. We got to see the four other hotel ponies at their stable, and also saw the hotel snake catcher in action as he caught a large cobra.

Back at the hotel, swimming at one of the three pools. Loads of monkeys came down to the water - around 40, and many of them were drinking from the pool, so we could be only 3-4 feet away.

Next day we got up at 5am for the hot air balloon ride. Toby, David and I rode in the back of a very bumpy jeep to a muddy field where they were inflating the balloon. The pilot was an English bloke who has been flying in Sri Lanka for 7 years, and in other places for many years before. Great sense of humor and no-nonsense style, which really helped me get over my nervousness about heights. It was a truly amazing feeling to take off and go above the trees and just float along above the palms and paddy fields. Loads of people waved at us as we floated by - it was almost Disney as they would come out of their houses and smile up and shout good morning. The pilot said he took Prince William up five years ago - he said all the waving was good practice! We flew for about 50 minutes and landed in a rocky clearing, and immediately loads of people appeared to watch us and say hello. Kind of strange to be in the middle of it drinking champagne, but really fun.

After breakfast it was time for the drive back to the coast, again with Mohan. We stopped at Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage - it was amazing to see so many large and small elephants up close. It sounds like there have been questions about how well the elephants are looked after - most of them seemed pretty happy and healthy, but obviously I'm not an expert. The only thing I really didn't like was that after paying a large fee to get in (which seemed fair enough if that's what's helping look after the animals) the elephant herders asked for money for allowing us to be near the elephants for photos. However it wasn't that big a deal, and the guy I gave money to turned out to be great with ensuring that we got good pictures with the kids.

After we'd met the elephants we got to see them take their daily trek down the road to the river for their bath. This means that they have to cross the main road of the town, and down a lane lined with tourist shops. We saw a couple of elephants try to swipe things from the stalls! 

We eventually got to Colombo fairly late and checked into the Galle Face Hotel, which is where Emma had stayed previously. It's a bit of a strange place - it was opened in 1864 and has quite a reputation as a grand old dame of Asian hotels. There are plaques all over the place featuring dignitaries who have stayed, especially in the Classic wing, which is where we non-celebs stayed. It was a bit creaky, but we had quite a view of the Indian Ocean from our window:

The restaurant, bar and pool are right by the ocean, so we actually ended up spending a lot of time just hanging around there. I stupidly got sunburned (still recovering a bit) as the ocean air and cool salt water of the pool meant that I didn't realize how much sun I was getting. We did have excursions to a couple of places in town - quick auto rides to the Sri Lanka national museum, which was really beautiful, and for some touristy shopping. The second evening David and I wandered round the corner to an Irish pub, which unfortunately didn't sell Guinness or indeed any beer darker than Carlsberg, but we did OK. There were a couple of guys playing guitar and bass who were surprisingly good, but it was quite surreal being there as they played the theme song from Friends.

All in all it was a totally great time. Really friendly people, easy to get around, very safe-feeling, and beautiful. We're already planning our next trip!