Exploring the rivers and rainforests of Sri Lanka
Posted on October 16th, 2020

by Stephanie Takyi London courtesy https://www.standard.co.uk/

Planning a long haul escape for when things (finally) open up again? Stephanie Takyi gets lost in the lush landscapes of this unique South Asian island 

Sri Lanka has long been a destination for travellers seeking escapism. This small beautiful island, situated south of India, is larger than life with idyllic beaches, sprawling tea plantations and exquisite properties that have the luxury credentials to rival any major city in the world.

There are plenty of towns hidden away from the well-trodden tourist paths of Sri Lanka. One is Piliyandala, where you’ll find Bolgoda Lake – which at a staggering 342 square kilometres is the country’s only natural and largest fresh water lake.

Just 45 minutes away from the capital of Colombo, it’s a secluded gem for those looking for a serene lakeside break.

For those who want to stay as close to the water as possible, local and international visitors can stay on board Flow by The Amber collection – a luxury river cruise aboard two floating houseboats docked on a secluded inlet on Bolgoda Lake.

Flow 1 and Flow 2, which were originally two steamers, channel old school elegance and luxury, with cosy four-poster colonial beds, antique furnishings and in-room standing bath tubs.

This is a boutique experience, with just five bedrooms in addition to a living area and dining space, all only accessible via Flow’s private marina. The crew on the vessels include an ex-Navy Captain, engineer, chefs, steward and deckhand.

Flow, as I discovered, is a haven for naturalists and also promotes well-thought out sustainability. The Flow ‘steamers’ are fitted with bio-tanks, which dispose of fuel waste in an earth-friendly way causing no harm to the very lake and ecosystem they sit in.

Every day on Flow immerses you in the lake safari experience. On my first day, at the crack of dawn, the captain set sail for Flow’s nature-watching cruise with naturalist Ajantha, who shared his knowledge on the rich and diverse flora and fauna of Bolgoda Lake.

Flow, Sri Lanka

As we cruise through unspoiled mangroves, we spot eagles, parrots and kingfishers. The Sri Lankan Monkeys also make an appearance leaping from palm tree to palm tree, calling to each other. In distant shores you can also spot the holiday homes of some of Sri Lanka’s wealthy elite.

Breakfast is served on the upper deck’s floating lawn and is a banquet of traditional Sri Lankan dishes: string hoppers, dhal curry, coconut sambol, fish curry, coconut roti and spiced chickpeas – all served up on a banana leaf.

The relaxing mornings are followed by fun-packed afternoons curated by The Marina – an exclusive water sports private members club, which arranges outdoor activities and excursions for Flow’s guests on a complimentary basis.

A Sri Lankan  spread 

I opted to hop onto the back of a jet ski to enjoy an adrenaline-fuelled escapade speeding downstream the Bolgoda river to the south to the mouth of the Indian ocean at Panadura.

On the right day you may even spot the salt-water crocodiles, who are known to circulate the area mostly unnoticed.

A more relaxing excursion is fishing on an ‘Oruwa’ – a traditional Sri Lankan fishing boat made entirely from wood, held in place with bamboo poles. They are hard to miss as the sight of local fishermen steering the rudders and casting their nets are very much a part of everyday life on the lake.

Even for beginners like me, Bolgoda Lake is a fishing paradise with over 40 species of fish in this lake – if you’re lucky, your catch of the day will be on the menu for dinner.

Flow, Sri Lanka

On-board, guests are also encouraged to take part in cookery classes with Flow chefs who can lift the lid on many of Sri Lanka’s delicacies.

While I pride myself on being able to handle spicy foods, my taste buds were put to the test when I tried my hand at a traditional dish of beef curry and devil’s potato using a fiery concoction of spices and seasonings.

Flow is located near enough to Colombo for guests to also dip into the hustle and bustle of city life. There is an abundance of attractions to explore, many of which are easy to get to using Sri Lanka’s most popular mode of transport – a Tuk Tuk.

A personal highlight of visiting Colombo was learning about Sri Lanka’s Buddhist culture. This included a visit to Gangaramaya Temple, one of the most well-known and elaborate Buddhist temples in the country.

Barefoot visitors can marvel at the gigantic Buddha statues, all lined in formation to tell a story. The high ceilings also tell tales, with wall paintings that depict Buddha’s triumphs. In the background devotees can be heard chanting Buddhist prayers. Gangaramaya also boasts a museum that houses a robust collection of Buddhist artefacts.

For eating and drinking in Colombo, you’re never too far from a bounty of places to dine. Sri Lanka is a tropical island known for its great seafood and more uniquely its celebrated speciality of the lagoon mud crab.

I headed to grounds of the old 400-year-old Dutch Hospital in Colombo, where you’ll find The Ministry of Crab restaurant. This well-regarded eatery was set up by chef-restaurateur Dharshan Munidasa together with Sri Lankan cricket legends Mahela Jayawardena and Kumar Sangakkara.

The menu includes a variety of crab dishes freshly prepared on the day – thanks to the restaurant’s no freezer policy. Do visit on an empty stomach as the crabs’ weigh from 500g ‘1/2 Kilo’ up to a 2KG ‘Crabzilla’ and are plated up in a variety of ways from fiery Pepper Crab to Garlic Chilli Crab and the succulent Baked Crab. Other seafood choices are available including jumbo prawns, cuttlefish, clams and oysters.

Post-lunch drinks can be toasted nearby at Rooftop bar Botanik, where you can try your hand at a cocktail making class using Aarak – a traditional Sri Lankan spirit, which be warned is 47% ABV.

After a short adventure in Colombo it’s a nice feeling to retreat back to Flow, where you can watch the spellbinding pinkish-purplish sunset during a sunset dinner cruise. The moonlight of nightfall on the marina is just as enchanting with the added bonus of enjoying an alfresco film screening and, of, course more food.

Palmstone Retreat

Sri Lanka’s relatively small size makes it easy to town hop.

After leaving Flow I took a three-hour car journey to Kitulgala – which is also known as the adventure capital of Sri Lanka. Tucked away in a 10-acre rainforest jungle near the town is the Palmstone Retreat, a five-star boutique hotel which lives up to its ‘retreat’ name.

Compromising three chalets and two suites hidden amidst the rainforest, Palmstone blends Mother Nature with the unique artistic craftmanship of Sri Lankan architecture.

I stayed in the super deluxe Aarliya suite, which boasts a king-size bed, a 40” Flat screen TV with Satellite TV, an en-suite bathroom with shower, a sauna and a private outdoor heated plunge pool.

Stephanie enjoying the suite 

Outside the suite is a natural landscape to soothe mind, body and spirit. There was no better start to my day then with breakfast looking out at a stream steadily flowing past from a nearby waterfall.

While you can lounge at Palmstone all day long, there are adventures to be had nearby too, from a mountain cycling tour to white water rafting on the infamous rapids of the Kelani Ganga.

I enjoyed a hike up to Belilena Cave, one of Sri Lanka’s hidden wonders. Waiting to be found in the thick of Kitgula’s luscious rainforest jungle, the caves are one of the most important historic and cultural heritage sites of Sri Lanka.

Stephanie visits Belilena Cave 

Evidence of human occupants from 16,000 years ago has been found in the caves. On the walls you’ll find scrawlings from former inhabitants, including monks who have used the cave as a retreat for meditation. It’s easy to see why they picked this spot, beautifully secluded and surrounded by nature.

Nearby is a secret cascading waterfall, which can only be reached through a short but arduous hike. Every step is worth it as the endless vistas of green hills swoop all the way down to the gushing waters of the Kelani River. I long to go back there.

For prices and availability at Palmstone Retreat and Flow by the Amber Collection head to palmstoneretreat.com or theambercollection.com/flow.

Both Palmstone and Flow by Amber Collection have adopted the Safe& Sound initiatie, an all-round Covid-19 safety and hygiene program.

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