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A Cruise to Serendib – Island of Plenty

Embarking on the Hebridean Spirit

Arriving at Dubai International Airport in the early morning sunshine, by Emirates from London Heathrow was interesting.  As the great plane came into land I looked out on what seemed a tiny neat white Legoland City!  It is after all only about 40 years old. 

View along Jumeirah beachI had especially chosen to fly Emirates because it seemed logical to use the national airline and because it has such a good reputation.  Regrettably the flight was unremarkable and not any better than the host of airlines I have used in my travelling life.  Passengers became tired and cross and frustrated at the inefficient baggage handling system that allowed the daily morning flight from a major capital to arrive without staff there to progress the baggage to the baggage hall. It took nearly two hours from our arrival to claiming our baggage.  

A car and driver took us through the interesting, exciting and pristine city to the hotel of my choice, Le Royal Meridien Beach Resort and Spa, which is situated on Jumeirah Beach.  Le Royal Meridien is going to celebrate its 10th anniversary this year.  This is a wonderful hotel with enormous attention to detail and very well run.  The efficient friendly welcome wiped away our exhaustion and frustration; we were shown to a beautiful suite with a stunning view of the whole length of Jumeirah Beach to the Burj al Arab in the distance.  To the left the outline of Palm Island can be seen taking shape in the sea.  The hotel has about 14 different places in which to eat.  The swimming pools are elegant surrounded by well manicured lawns with loungers and umbrellas.  There is also a large lawn on which children can kick a ball around.  The path to the hotel’s beach is attractive and the beach itself is beautifully swept every morning and afternoon.  I visited many of the hotels on Jumeirah Beach, but for my taste rate this very highly as being thoroughly five star but not excessively expensive!

The staff at Le Royal Meridien are all Asian – that is mostly South Indian, Sri Lankan, Bangladeshi and Filipino, with a total of 800 staff to 500 beds. Satchmos is a superb restaurant providing the best steaks in Dubai (imported from the USA).  The hotel management are very proud of this recent venture and certainly the quality rivals the best I have eaten in the world.  The seafood restaurant was a delight and the Tea Lounge an elegant restful oasis where a talented young harpist plays whilst one treats oneself to scrumptious pastries, and the choices of tea rivalled those found at the The Savoy in London.  Thai, French, Italian or Fusion cuisine are the choices in this hotel, and one would find it hard to tire of this selection.

The Royal Mirage HotelWe also visited The Royal Mirage Hotel for lunch at their buffet restaurant Olives, which as the name suggests has a Mediterranean theme.  This too is a beautiful establishment with striking tasteful décor and pool, which has been designed to resemble a desert oasis.  All the hotels lay on a courtesy coach throughout the day to take guests to the various sumptuous shopping malls and souks.

I saw plenty to buy in these malls but a lot of the beautiful household objects are straight from India and our home is already full of lovely items sourced directly in India.  The Gold Souk is interesting and good value, and we did purchase an item of jewellery.  I think one could spend a whole week in Dubai with several interesting places to visit like the Dubai Museum, plus plenty of relaxation.  A visit to the interior was also recommended by other guests. Golf, diving, beach and bird watching at the nearby bird sanctuary, and of course horse racing are all well catered for, and I suspect an ardent golfer could easily fill a two week holiday.  The Spa at Le Royal Meridien was outstanding, and I am sure that is probably the same with the other top rank hotels.

The roads and motorways are beautifully maintained with immaculate verges, themed roundabouts and even the underside of the flyovers are well finished off! This is however a city restless to improve and maintain its glittering status, and sometimes I felt there was a touch of all that glitters….!

Hebridean Spirit

Our cabin called the Isle of LewisWe embarked on the m.v. Hebridean Spirit at the Dubai Port Rashid Cruise Terminal for our cruise to Oman, the West Coast of India and Sri Lanka.  Hebridean Spirit is probably the world’s most exclusive little cruise ship and beautifully appointed with attention to detail and excellently maintained.  The staff are only too eager to please and so pleasant and the food is always very good and at times exceptional.  The ‘Spirit’ only takes about 70 passengers and thus very quickly a house party atmosphere is created.  We cruised for 17 nights and visited so many interesting places.

Oman was a new destination for us and we were able to visit the interior on two occasions and witness camel racing as well as Arab horse racing in the desert; that followed a very good curry lunch!  We were shown their vital life giving falaj water system and the date gardens. The forts we visited look like those given to a child! We met some shy Bedu ladies in their unique tribal dress and enjoyed visiting the Souk for exotic perfumes and small gifts. Leaving Muscat at sunset with the Hebridean Spirit’s resident piper playing the bagpipes was very beautiful.  Oman has an arid austere beauty of mountains and desert, and Muscat is a ‘dinky’ little town which is also only a few decades old and wonderfully maintained.  Again there are many attractive themed roundabouts that are both colourful and amusing.

Mumbai

Gateway of India in MumbaiMumbai was the next destination and the contrast between new, tiny Muscat could not have been greater.  We arrived at 0700 hours and were amused at the age old habit of ancient India to employ 12 men to do the work of about four.  We were only spending the day there so it was easily filled with a visit to Crawford Market and the various Victorian Gothic or Indo-Saracenic buildings for which Mumbai is famous, plus the tranquillity of the Afghan Church and a walk around the Gateway of India, followed by a sumptuous tea at The Taj Hotel and a quick walk through the hotel’s shopping arcades.

Goa

Goa was our next destination for Christmas Eve.  This was enjoyable and so interesting, and it was unique to celebrate Christmas with a Mass at midnight in an attractive little square outside the San Sebastion Church.  It was both memorable and moving, and at times amusing with exploding fireworks, barking dogs and enthusiastic guitars contributing to Christian worship. Earlier in the afternoon children had embarked on the ship and given us a Christmas Carol recital with a simple Nativity Play, followed by popular Christmas songs.  Watching the earnest youthful faces singing and acting was touching and that sunny afternoon worked its own form of Christmas magic.  

Fort Aguada Beach GoaSome of the very wealthy passengers bought wonderful jewellery in Goa and a number of other beautiful items.  On Christmas Day we privately met with friends and were shown the Portuguese Churches and the environs of Old Goa, which are attractive and interesting.  There seemed a touch of unreality to our being there on Christmas Day in glorious warm sunshine.  We had a luncheon party at The Taj Fort Aguada Resort which is beautifully situated and very nice. The other guests made their own choices as to how to spend Christmas Day and they were given the option of visiting the World Heritage site of Old Goa on Boxing Day, whilst we took things easy and enjoyed the ship.

We left Goa, with a warm breeze and beautiful red sunset and travelled northwards for a little to Murud Janjira.  This was a 16th century capital of the Abyssinian Siddis and is now known chiefly for its lovely beach fringed by long stretches of coconut palms.  The Janjira island fortress is 300 years old and very impressive.  To reach the fort one has to disembark from the ship into tenders and then into hodi boats which all added to the fun. The following day we visited Malvan and the impressive Sindhudurg Fort, which was built by the Maratta hero Shivaji in 1664.  It is still occupied, but I would like it to be substantially cleaned and maintained as it really is a gem.  When we left the fort we went by ship’s tender to the little fishing port of Malvan from where we went by coach to a lovely beach called Tarkhali for a truly sumptuous lobster and seafood barbecue with curries and all sorts of other delectable food.  This was most beautifully laid out under what is known in India as a shamiana but we in the West think of it as a marquee, with open sides.  A swim was called for and thoroughly enjoyable in beautiful tepid water.  That was a memorably enjoyable day.

Cochin

Ancient Cochin is a place I had never previously visited and it was lovely to arrive early in the morning by sea.  It is blessed with a superb natural harbour created in a flood in 1341, its name is derived from kocchazhi meaning new harbour.  Cochin Cochin's famous fishing netsboasts a wonderful array of architectural styles and there is a lot to see, plus if the time allows a visit to the famous Kerala Backwaters – a truly tranquil haven. The Jewish Synagogue is old and small and unique and the church of St Francis Xavier was the first ever European church in India. 

The cantilevered quayside Chinese fishing nets are so photogenic and when on the water one could find dolphins swimming if one looked carefully. The Spice Auctions are another essential attraction and we bought some beautiful linen for the table that had been worked by fishermen’s wives to supplement the family income.  The linen is sold in a little co-operative, and made wonderful easy gifts for family members.

After Cochin we continued on our journey to Sri Lanka round the tip of India at Kanyakumari and arrived at 0600 hours on New Year’s Day 2004 at Galle.  How wonderful to arrive in Sri Lanka for my first visit on the first day of a new year!  We disembarked from the ship on the 3rd January in Colombo and we privately started an eight day holiday into the interior. Whilst at Galle we had visited the Old Dutch Fort and a folk museum and had a walk along the beaches in the south.  The cruise passengers were also taken to visit a tea garden and its factory and had lunch in a rather faded old manager’s bungalow that would have seen it’s hey day in the time of British rule. It was an enjoyable last full day of our cruise and I felt a lump in my throat as the piper Martin played us out of Galle’s harbour after such a happy time.

Silhouette of ship with Hodi boats

Sri Lanka

Elephant Orphanage at PinnawelaWe loved Sri Lanka and managed to visit the Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage en route to Kandy which was so natural and enchanting.  Elephants are the national animal and it was wonderful to see them everywhere.  Kandy itself is a pretty city and we were impressed by the Temple of the Tooth (of the Lord Buddha) and a superb cultural evening of dancing.  The following day we visited one of the renowned jewellers called Balasuriya and enjoyed the tour of their gem mining exhibition and museum housed within their showroom and manufacturing premises. We bought some lovely rings.  Our driver and guide Premodh took us to a vantage spot from which to look down on the whole city and the lake – the countryside all around is so lush.  Truly this island is a garden paradise filled with exotic wildlife and the most beautiful birds.  Everywhere one looked there were colourful creepers and flowering shrubs and trees and it needed no real special effort to observe the plentiful and exotic bird life.  The Botanic Gardens are both interesting from a gardener’s point of view and a pleasure in which to stroll, with some truly unique specimens like Napoleon’s Crown and the Coco de Mer in both genders.  Lunch was very welcome and that was followed by a visit to an Ayurvedic Herb and Spice Garden which again was especially intriguing for us keen gardeners.

Kandalama

We arrived at Kandalama in the late afternoon and were entirely captivated.  The hotel building is stark but the architect was required to incorporate it into the landscape and now that it is ten years old the hotel can hardly be seen.  It is somewhat minimalist and the interiors I find a bit like airport lounges yet I love the incorporation of the rocks and huge boulders within the interior or in the passages, and the jungle comes right up to the walk ways and then falls away beneath the balconies.  The dawn chorus was enchanting with the sun rising over the huge lake, which is really a man made ‘tank’, with an elephant walking silently by with her ‘passengers’ aboard, whilst the cacophony of bird song filled the air next to the balcony.  Imprudently I left my tea tray on the balcony and went for a shower, but had mercifully remembered to shut the sliding door; when I reappeared a small monkey was calmly sitting in my chair trying to drink a cup of tea! 

The sunsets were memorable and we managed to capture some on film.  We went on a two hour elephant ride through the scrub jungle in the late afternoon and were ‘aboard’ at the time of sunset; standing in the shallow area of the lake sitting on an elephant filming the sunset was very special.  The three swimming pools are a delight and one in particular as the evening light turns to dark is so evocative with a flautist playing, sitting cross legged on the nearby rock as the light fades and discreet lighting brings reflections to the pool, it looks as if in its infinity it is part of the huge lake. 

Dining out under the full moon was quite lovely too with the star studded sky and the jungle noises all around us.  The food overall is good and the staff try to please and are so friendly, Sri Lanka is generally a very friendly place. We visited one of two wildlife parks nearby to see wild elephants.  This was a splendid outing and we were fortunate in seeing quite a few elephants along with other wildlife, including a crocodile, monitor lizards and jackals.  Driving home towards the setting sun with the breeze blowing in one’s hair looking at the sights and sounds all around was lovely.

Dambulla

Golden Buddha at DambullaWe visited the historic sites of Dambulla, with its amazing cave artistry dedicated to Buddha, Polonnaruwa, which was one of the ancient capitals of the island for 200 years, Sigiriya the outstanding huge rock citadel and its well kept gardens and Anuradhapura where the first ever Buddhist stupa on the island was built.  At Sigiriya there are gardens on top of a huge rock city built 1500 years ago.  I did not have the head for heights or stamina to go all the way up, but half way up gives one a good idea and a panoramic view of the surrounding countryside.  Anuradhapura was founded in 380 BC and remained Sri Lanka’s first capital for more than 1400 years. 

In 247 BC the son of the Indian Emperor Ashoka of the Mauryan dynasty helped the Sinhalese king to become a Buddhist and this led to a flurry of building with great stupa and temples being constructed.  The sacred Bo Tree, which grew from a sapling of the original Bo Tree of Bodhgaya in India is still flourishing, protected by railings and devout Buddhists like to pour water on its roots to symbolically nourish and cherish it.  An elderly pilgrim came up and spoke to me; she was sweet and friendly and we enjoyed the encounter.  Most of these sites are well maintained and are World Heritage Sites; being in a semi wild garden setting makes them even more attractive with a profusion of pink coral island creeper or deep blue potato creeper flourishing everywhere and any amount of huge Temple Trees, or frangipani.  Driving to the various destinations one was aware of the abundant bird life and we saw many kingfishers both big and small, bee eaters and other birds like jacanas walking about on the lily pads.  The purple water lily is Sri Lanka’s national flower.  The sides of the jungle roads were also covered in gloriosa superba lilies which look so exotic in their sort of lobster claw shape in red and yellow – these I was told are highly poisonous and sadly Sri Lankans quite often attempt suicide, and sometimes succeed by eating their roots.

Affects of civil war

We spent two nights at Trincomalee at Nilaveli Beach.  This has an unsophisticated appeal of sand and sea with very good sea food available to order.  Trincomalee itself is a sombre reflection of nearly 20 years of civil way, with many ruined buildings and a rather forlorn air.  In colonial times it must have been beautiful.  Sri Lanka should try and invest in the area and improve its appearance to attract foreign visitors, and then the input of wealth would hopefully ‘trickle down’ to the locals.  The other good hotel is Club Oceanic at which we had lunch.  Sadly the north east monsoon raged for a day and stopped us going snorkelling off Pigeon Island.

As with India, Sri Lanka has a huge problem of litter and rubbish ruining the appearance of her towns and cities.  I despair sometimes with Asian countries; they must realise that this squalor really repulses Western and Japanese eyes.  Apart from damaging their environment this is the single most important deterrent to a great many people.  Time and time again I hear the refrain ‘Yes, India is interesting but the city squalor really appalled me…’ and ‘we don’t think we will return’.  I try valiantly to explain that the population pressure is the real reason and add how difficult Western towns and cities would find it to maintain neatness and order with similar population challenges.  Tourism is the world’s largest industry and people can make choices.  For India and Sri Lanka now is their tourist opportunity; it should be grasped and their respective governments must enforce stringent rubbish collection and appropriate disposal thereof.  Putting up a few signs in public places exhorting people to say ‘No to Plastic’ achieves nothing and is cosmetic and irritating.

Our last hotel was lovely and my favourite.  It is The Cinnamon Lodge at Habarana, which makes a gracious and comfortable hub from which to visit the ancient cities of the North.  There is huge attention to detail and it has elegant tranquil gardens and a lovely pool.  The Lodge and its sister property The Village are cleverly built around a huge artificial lake which abounds in bird life and there are a number of hides in trees and by the water side from which to observe this avian splendour.  In the space of one hour I saw a Paradise Flycatcher followed by a Golden Oriole, plus of course all the other lovely birds that are perhaps more commonly seen.  The bedrooms are in charming cottages in the grounds and the management are engaging on a refit very soon to provide a fine dining restaurant as well as the normal elegant buffet.  We watched a youthful magician after dinner during our brief stay.  The hotel has its own farm which I was taken round by the farm supervisor and it was well maintained with healthy livestock. I so enjoyed the young man’s enthusiasm and the way he talked with pride about the whole place.  Moreover another youngster served me a drink and asked ‘Do you like our hotel Ma’am?’  The use of the proud possessive pronoun our hotel was significant and indicative that the management are motivating their staff well.

We made the long journey back to Colombo and spent some hours in The Galle Face Hotel and The Taj Samudra.  The Galle Face has antiquity on its side and its wonderful position by the sea; much requires to be done to it however to reintroduce it as a premier hotel.  I personally do not like living in what I term ‘heritage eccentric’. The Taj Samudra has a little book shop with interesting titles and a good jeweller from whom I also bought a lovely jewel.

My abiding memory of this lovely island is of huge Temple Trees, pink and blue creepers, brilliant abundant birdlife and wild elephants.  The people are friendly and welcoming and it is a place to which I shall return happily and recommend to others.

Update to Heridean Spirit 2012

By April 2004 Sri Lanka had returned to a devastating civil war which has now been resolved in May 2009.  I have not had an opportunity to return since that event. This cruise ship has now become The Caledonian Sky and is accessed through Noble Caledonia.