Wednesday 28 August 2019

The Secret River, The National Theatre, the South Bank, Central London

Images from the National Theatre web site

Set in the early nineteenth century, The Secret River tells the fairly simple, yet absorbing, story of the struggle by a family of downtrodden Londoners to build a new life in Australia. They stake a claim to a plot of prime riverside land that has long been the home of the local Dharug people. From here, the rollercoaster of hopes and fears is fairly predictable. But the play conveys a powerful message, as the tension ratchets up, and the family are forced to take sides in the struggle for supremacy between the motley collection of former convicts from Britain and their aboriginal hosts. With a large cast and live music, this Sydney Theatre Company production is a feast for both the eyes and ears. While the spacious stage is quite spartan, the dramatic lighting and the precise percussion conjure up the Australian outback. When the family start digging holes, the sound of spades scraping on hard ground rings out convincingly. The Brits' faces are painted white, as if to emphasise their alien status, while they routinely refer to the locals as "the blacks". In another era of mass migration, this depiction of the disorientation and distrust, that often accompany dislocation, rings true.

Monday 26 August 2019

Notting Hill Carnival, West London

A heady cocktail of colour, costumes, flesh, music, sunshine, architecture and attitude, Notting Hill Carnival is something special.

Sunday 18 August 2019

The Trafalgar Tavern, Greenwich, South London

Overlooking the Thames and awash with nautical paraphernalia, The Trafalgar Tavern is a lively pub and restaurant selling good value beer.  Although it can be swamped with tourists and day-trippers at weekends, there should be just about enough seats, either inside or out, in which to make yourself comfortable.

Saturday 17 August 2019

The Blackbird Bakery, Herne Hill, South London

The Blackbird Bakery is ready for the Saturday influx of hungry park-runners, local families and pastry-lovers.

Friday 9 August 2019

Galle, Sri Lanka

Controlled by the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British at various times, the fortified seaside town of Galle is awash with old-school atmosphere. Its broad earth and stone ramparts completely enclose a dozen or so streets of restored colonial buildings, mostly occupied by hotels, shops and restaurants aimed at middle class Europeans. There are also some fine public buildings, churches and squares to admire, as well as a white-washed lighthouse and dagoba. The locals play impromptu games of football and cricket in the open spaces, while tethered cows graze the lush green banks around the walls. Just outside the old town's main gateway is an impressive cricket ground, which is still used for international fixtures.  Even in the rain, Galle is a fine place to chill out for a few days. 8/10

The Fort Printers, Pedlar Street, Galle, Sri Lanka

A refined and elegant hotel inside Galle's historic ramparts, the Fort Printers is both a relaxing and stylish place to stay. With white-washed walls decorated with black and white photos, polished wood and tiled floors, verdant pot plants and shady courtyards, the interior belies the eighteenth century building's previous, more industrious roles as printers and a school. Still, in a nod to that heritage, upstairs in the heart of the mansion, some of the best rooms are called "The Headmaster's" and "History".  You'll find the bedrooms well-equipped and comfortable, while the dining area, bar, terrace and courtyard pool are all pleasant places to hang out. Breakfast and lunch in the restaurant is imaginative and varied, with the kitchen expertly handling both western and Sri Lankan dishes. The Fort Printers is pricey, but difficult to fault. 8/10

Thursday 8 August 2019

Thuduwa Camp - Udawalawe, Sri Lanka

A unusual mix of bohemian and mid-market accommodation, Thuduwa Camp - Udawalawe consists of clutch of bungalows around a pleasant pool, a cheap and cheerful restaurant and a ramshackle lake-side bar.  The Wi-Fi can be very, very patchy and the service erratic, but the food is plentiful and tasty enough. This hotel is clean and well-located both for lounging by Kiriibbanwewa Lake and for visiting Udawalawe National Reserve, but it could do with investment. 7/10

Wednesday 7 August 2019

Udawalawe National Park, Sri Lanka

 It is not hard to spot regal birds of prey, preening peacocks, sinister crocodiles, lone elephants, dour buffalo and presumptuous monkeys in this watery nature reserve, which apparently spans more than 30,800 hectares. But be prepared for an early start - the safari guides recommend being at the gates at 6am to see the animals before the heat of the day. The tracks are really bumpy inside the Udawalawe park, so there is a lot of bouncing up and down in your jeep. But there are places where you are allowed to stop to have some breakfast. To hire a jeep, a guide and a driver should cost the equivalent of US$35 a head (including entrance to the park). Worth every cent. 8/10 

Tuesday 6 August 2019

Nine Arch Bridge, near Ella, Sri Lanka

Completed in 1921 and built entirely of bricks, the Nine Arch Bridge has become a favourite location for Instagram enthusiasts visiting Sri Lanka's southern highlands. Although you are very unlikely to see this graceful structure without dozens of other tourists in tow, it is still well worth making the hike along the track from Ella or Demodara. Surrounded by lush green vegetation, the Nine Arch Bridge evokes adventure.

Little Adam's Peak, near Ella, Sri Lanka

A popular hike from the backpacker town of Ella, the climb up Little Adam's Peak is tough enough to get the heart pumping, but easy enough to do in a couple of hours. On the way up, you'll pass the grounds of a very luxurious hotel, a zip wire and a mountain bike rental outlet. From the peak, you'll be treated to fine views of the lush green hills in this part of the island. Although this isn't a walk for those in search of solitude, it is one of the few hikes you can do in Sri Lanka comfortably without a guide.

Monday 5 August 2019

Walking and Cycling in the Hills East of Kandapola, Sri Lanka

Blanketed in lush green plantations and studded with tea factories, the hills east of Kandapola are perfect for pottering about on foot or on a mountain bike - the winding roads are mostly quiet and the scenery can be stunning. You'll pass the odd tuk-tuk, the occasional improvised cricket pitch, as well as the many workers toiling on the steep hillsides. You might also see wild boar trotting along the many tracks lacing the hillsides. When the rain stays away, the cool climate makes the hills manageable, even in the middle of the day.

Goatfell, Kandapola, Sri Lanka

In a beautiful stretch of hilly countryside east of Nuwara Eliya, Goatfell is a very comfortable and relaxing place to chill out for a few days. If the weather holds, there are some lovely walks/cycle rides (the hotel has mountain bikes) around the rolling tea plantations in the vicinity, while the tuk-tuk ride down to the nearby tea factory for a free tour is also fun. At Goatfell, the service is exemplary and the views from the terrace and pool are special. There is a good choice of dishes for both breakfast and dinner, spanning both local and international cuisine, and the food itself is generally excellent. Drinks around the open fire pit are another highlight, as is playing card games or reading one of the many well-chosen books next to the open fire in the cosy lounge. Middle class Brits will feel at home here: there is even a (somewhat battered) croquet lawn, as well as a well-stocked umbrella stand next to the front door. It feels like the owners have put a lot of thought into creating a distinctive experience and staying in this tasteful and homely bungalow makes a refreshing change from the big hotels elsewhere in Sri Lanka. 8/10

The Heritance Tea Factory, Kandapola, near Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka

A painstakingly and lovingly restored industrial building in the rolling hills around Nuwara Eliya,  the Heritance Tea Factory now serves as a upmarket hotel. In the foyer, basement and bars, the wooden floors and ceilings remain intact, as do the steel girders and the quaint window panes. These communal areas house numerous examples of the original factory equipment, as well as tea crates, vintage photos and other antique paraphernalia. Outside, are beautifully manicured lawns and wide-ranging vistas over the tea plantations, studded with the corrugated iron roofs of the pickers' homes.

Sunday 4 August 2019

Hakgala Botanic Gardens, near Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka

Clinging to a hillside above the highway running south east out of Nuwara Eliya, Hakgala Botanic Gardens date back to 1861. For the modest entrance fee (2,000 rupees for an adult), you get fine views over the Uva Valley below as you wander around the terraces, flowerbeds and arboretums, complete with bands of monkeys. With about 28 hectares to explore, these gardens should occupy you for at least an hour or two.

Cycling around Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka

In the immediate vicinity of Nuwara Eliya, the family cycling options seem to be pretty limited. The roads in the town itself are the domain of maniac drivers, while the surrounding countryside quickly gets very hilly. There is one fairly safe, but quite short, ride you can make down the track, through the woods, to the Boburuella Reservoir, which is quite a nice spot. You can ride back past Lake Gregory, with its swan-shaped pedalos and other kitsch Victoriana, but you won't want to take your eyes off the road for too long.

Saturday 3 August 2019

Kandapola, Sri Lanka

Kandapola Kovila, a colourful Hindu temple, north east of Nuwara Eliya.

Train from Peradeniya to Nanu Oya, Sri Lanka

Surely one of the most scenic train journeys in the world, the three to four hour trip from Peradeniya station (close to Kandy) to Nanu Oya (close to Nuwara Eliya) climbs steadily through lush green hillsides blanketed with tea plantations and studded with golden temples. You pass through maybe ten timeless and timeworn stations, complete with vintage signal boxes, faded signage and pedestrians with umbrellas. The track dates from 1864 and some of the trains (the brown ones) are also pretty ancient, transporting you back to the colonial era, as well as up into the cooler hill country in the south of Sri Lanka. Even in the best class, tickets are cheap and foreign tourists can book in advance through one a hotel or tour operator, meaning you should get a seat. Although the carriages can be stuffy, particularly when you are at low altitude, and the train can be noisy and crowded, this journey really does conjure up the golden age of travel. 9/10 

Kandy, Sri Lanka

After working your way through the congested suburbs, the lake in the heart of Kandy is a welcome oasis of space and tranquility. It is overlooked by the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, one of the most important Buddhist sites in the world and the beating, bustling heart of the city.  This revered religious complex is surrounded by venerable colonial-era white-washed buildings. 

Friday 2 August 2019

Hiking in the Knuckles Mountains, Sri Lanka

Although Sri Lanka is a relatively small and densely-populated island,  it retains some genuinely wild and dramatic scenery, such as that in the Knuckle Mountains.  Although much of the range is unmarked, there are a few hiking trails you can take - one leads up from Knuckles Peak Road (a minor road off the B205), past the Knuckles Falls, and up to a 1850 metre peak. It is about a 12km round trip involving some steep gradients and taking in some fine views, if and when the mist breaks. You are supposed to take a guide and pay the park entrance fee, so this can be quite an expensive, whilst rewarding, walk. If it has been raining, beware of leeches.

Jim's Farm Villas, near Pallepola, Sri Lanka

A quirky and charismatic hotel, combined with a working spice plantation, Jim's Farm is tucked away in a peaceful and hilly rural idyll a few miles off the busy road between Dambulla and Kandy. There are three main buildings, each some distance apart. They all have bedrooms, but one (Mango) has the restaurant, another (Spice Garden) has the reception and another (Hilltop) the pool. You can reach them by hiking up and down the paths or by calling a hotel tuk-tuk. From the Mango Villas and restaurant, the broad views of the sun sinking over the lush green countryside and distant mountains  are a bit special. The meals are also a delight. There is no choice of dishes, but the cooking is excellent and the ingredients, such as pork belly and king prawns, are top notch. The guests eat dinner together around a communal table, which is fun, particularly if the gregarious owner is at home. Breakfasts are also very good: be sure to order the Sri Lankan option, featuring tasty egg hoppers, in advance.