Sri Lanka s many spices
Sri Lankan food on buffet at Cinnamon Lodge Habarana. Picture: Stephen Scourfield/The West Australian

I am sitting in the warm early morning, facing palm trees, golden sand and the ocean, sailing canoes passing with big, seemingly tea-stained cotton sails, surrounded by sarongs and saris, eating my first beautifully spicy breakfast of the trip.

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Where to start with this tour of Sri Lanka? Well, at the beginning. For the island's flavour will both gently and strikingly unfold day by day on this tour with Wildlife Safari.

And I simply must start with this scene - this breakfast - because spiciness permeates this Indian Ocean island off the southern tip of India.

And so I enjoy my first hopper of the trip. A hopper is a Sri Lankan food specialty. Similar to a bowl-shaped pancake, it is swirled around the deep lip of a small pan while cooking, giving crisp vertical sides and a thicker, soft yet spongy, bottom.

With it, usually, comes sambol or mallum - leafy vegetables blanched and chopped finely, often with grated coconut, to make a dry dish. And with that the moistness of lentil dhal, and vegetable, chicken or fish curry.

Curry for breakfast?

It is a quite wonderful and appropriate start to the day; the unsuspecting Western stomach's delight.

And tea, of course. This is, after all, the land of quality high-country tea, and there is nothing quite like a pot of deep biscuit-coloured Ceylon English Breakfast to start the day.

The hotel Jetwing Blue, in Negombo, north of Colombo and close to the airport, is my first very pleasant encounter, with its interesting contemporary design, wonderful position and cuisine, and immediately endearing staff.

And so enters to this story Susantha Jolita, the knowledgeable, gentle-mannered and humorous Wildlife Safari guide who will accompany our small group throughout the week. Wildlife Safari is a WA-based company with many itineraries and long experience in Sri Lanka.

Its reputation for quality touring has been earned and is deserved.

Without further ado, we are in a comfortable coach, with Donald at the wheel, the amiable Rasanga as his offsider. "It's a little bit complicated, our way of traffic," explains Susantha, as Donald weaves calmly through it. We are in safe hands.

Through the melee of three-wheel auto rickshaws and motorcycles, past fish drying by the ocean, we head east, to the interior, past bungalows and rice paddies, coconut plantations and brick-makers, teak trees and clay-tile factories, white mourning decorations and washing drying on bushes, to Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage.

Elephants from Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage are taken to the nearby Maha river to bathe. Picture: Stephen Scourfield/The West Australian

It is estimated that there are 4500 Asian elephants living in the wild in Sri Lanka, with the 60 at the orphanage being cared for here for good reason. Over a Sri Lankan curry lunch at Pinnalanda Restaurant, we watch a big group which has been brought to the river below us to drink and bathe.

Later, at Minneriya National Park, we will witness the annual elephant gathering - the biggest gathering of Asian elephants in the world. We see perhaps 200 elephants in two adjacent herds, with lots of young, matriarchs leading their clans to the water. It happens in August and September, and has done through the island's long natural history. It is not surprising that such a throng of vehicles gathers.

At the hotel Heritance Kandalama, we get a taste of the depth of Sri Lanka's human history. For while the outstanding architecture of the hotel, built into the rock and jungle surrounding it, makes it a contemporary artwork in its own right, it looks down upon a reservoir, or tank, built in the third century.

Near the town of Anuradhapura, in the cultural heart of Sri Lanka, we visit the 5th century irrigated gardens of Sigiriya with the high fortress above them on Lion Rock.

This is where King Kashyapa lived with his 500 concubines and seeing the paintings of them in 1500-year-old frescoes is a highlight of the week.

Throughout, we are treated to wonderful accommodation and food.

But at Cinnamon Lodge Habarana, the stakes are raised.

At its buffet, I attempt to keep the volume down, while still trying much of what's on offer. The lotus root tempered (which we work out means "blanched") is delicious. So too the kekiri red curry, cabbage leaves mallum, beans dry curry and curry leaves sambol, with mango chutney, lime pickle, ladies finger sambol and coconut mallum.

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And, of course, the ubiquitous rice - both white and the more textural local red rice - and a golden-glow dhal. Through my travels in Sri Lanka, the texture and flavour of dhal and "standard" Sri Lankan curries varies from place to place, maker to maker.

But surely Cinnamon Lodge Habarana's showpiece this evening is its chilled dessert room. Mango cheesecake, passionfruit mousse, cashew nut blondies, homemade avocado ice-cream and marshmallows, and even dishes of jujubes sweeties.

Surely one of the best buffets, anywhere, ever.

Breakfast is a hopper and curd. This divine dish is a kind of thick yoghurt produced from the milk of buffalo in the hotel's own farm, which also includes six cows. I can almost see you squirming, so you will just have to trust me on this. We all seem to agree it is one of the most incredible dishes we've ever eaten.

The room is very comfortable - mine is like a little cottage and its low, arched windows throw a chapel-like light into the room in the early morning.

At the hotel Ulagalla Walawwa, based on an 18th-century manor house at Anuradhapura, 20 luxurious stilted chalets are surrounded by 23ha, much of which is the hotel's own farm.

Resort manager Roshan Dylan says: "We grow our own rice. We have about 30 varieties of vegetables - we are trying a lot of things to see what grows well and will get it down to 10 or 15."

Yam and beetroot, chillies and watercress, pomegranate and lemongrass.

He adds that there are not set meal times at Ulagalla Walawwa - guests eat what they want, when they want, where they want - including on a special deck overlooking the rice paddies.

The hotel also generates 60 per cent of the energy it uses and 60 per cent of irrigation water that goes on the land has been recycled.

And from there we explore the antiquities of Polonnaruwa, with Buddhas carved into a rock face and the remains of its 12th century garden city.

But then the tour rises to new heights as Donald weaves us up into the high tea country.

From the dry zone we have left, which has been enduring drought, we are suddenly in the cool, and a soft, soaking rain. In the Bogawantalawa Valley, near Hatton, Ceylon Tea Trails have four bungalows, and we stay in Tientsin Bungalow, on a settler site dating back to 1888.

At 1400m above sea level, Bogawantalawa is known as the Golden Valley of Tea - a land of rolling green, tea-bush hills, mist and tea pluckers. We are shown around a tea factory, but a real highlight is the tea itself, and what comes with it. For with just six rooms with a full staff, pre-dinner drinks in the drawing room and excellent meals on the veranda are a highlight.

We stay two nights - for the first evening meal we choose more western fare, for the second, Sri Lankan curries.

And then it's back to Colombo - a lovely day winding back down through the hills, through forests and villages, stopping for a local lunch, and arriving at Mt Lavinia Hotel.

Mt Lavina hotel. Picture: Stephen Scourfield/The West Australian
Just as the first hotel was a surprise, so too is Mt Lavinia. The ocean crashes just behind the hotel and there is an epic view along the coast to the centre of Colombo.

The colonial building was constructed in 1806 by British governor-general of Ceylon, Sir Thomas Maitland, who had fallen in love with local low-caste dancer Lovinia Aponsuwa - a love that had to be clandestine, though as a mark of his affection, he named his grand mansion Mt Lavinia after her.

After a day around Colombo, finding high-quality shopping (linen, tableware, quality clothing, men's shirts and suits) at prices at least a third of those in Perth, and nice places to eat, we return to Mt Lavinia.

We sit out by the rooftop pool, above that roaring ocean and the city far beyond, as the sky darkens and then the almost-full moon rises. Naturally, with its romantic history, it is popular for weddings - indeed, we have been bumping into a procession of weddings all day.

And there is one going on right now, with accompanying live local music and a sense of it building to crescendo.

Sitting out here is our last moment before we head off to the airport. We savour it.

"Well," says Terri Cordin, our wonderful host and guide from Wildlife Safari, "I suppose we'd better go."

And with that reluctant last word, a massive chrysanthemum firework bursts overhead in the velvet sky.

Barefoot shop, Colombo. Picture: Stephen Scourfield/The West Australian

FACT FILE

• WA-based Wildlife Safari has several itineraries in Sri Lanka, after flying five hours to Singapore, and then just over three to Colombo.

• Its eight-day Cultural Sojourn includes time in Colombo, Kandalama - visiting Sigiriya - and Kandy. It is from $1495, including seven nights luxury accommodation twin share, private vehicle with chauffeur guide, breakfast daily, and entrance fees.

• Buddhas and Beaches is nine days, visiting Negombo, the cultural sights of Sigiriya and Kandy, and finishing with a beach stay at Bentota. It is from $1995 per person including seven nights luxury accommodation twin share, private vehicle with chauffeur guide, breakfast daily, and entrance fees.

• Over 10 days, Wonders of Sri Lanka spends time in Colombo, Kandalama, Kandy, Nuwara Eliya, Yala and Negombo. It is from $1995 per person, including nine nights accommodation twin share, private car with chauffeur guide, jeep safari at Yala National Park, breakfast daily and entrance fees.

• Its 12-day Sri Lanka in Style includes visits to Negombo, Sigiriya, Kandy, the high tea country and Ulagalla Resort in Thirappane. It is from $3795 per person, including 10 nights luxury accommodation twin share, breakfast daily and all meals at Ceylon Tea Trails.

• 1800 998 558, www.wildlifesafari.com.au and travel agents.

The West Australian

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