Sri Lanka by private train - one of my best travel experiences in 2017
Travelling across Sri Lanka in a privately chartered heritage steam train staying at resort hotels along the way is by far the best travel experience I've had this year.
As part of my consulting work with Scott McGregor's Railway Adventures, I've been lucky enough to experience some of what they offer us guys and gals over 50. A couple of months ago I was in Denmark and Scandinavia with Scott - see that blog here if you missed it then.
This month I joined his popular Sri Lanka on the Viceroy Special tour, along with 24 other over-50's travellers. And what a great time we all had!
We came from all over Australia, from different walks of life and experiences to share two weeks together in the hands of Scott McGregor, a recognised television personality, actor, producer and author, whose lifelong passion for the great railway age led him to establish his own antiques and collectables company, Off The Rails, followed later by his boutique tour company, Railway Adventures, which has specialised in train tours to destinations all over the world for the last six years.
Scott's incredibly joyful personality, showbiz energy, competence (he's now run this tour 7 times!) and seemingly bottomless pit of knowledge about the history of Sri Lanka was just the beginning of what turned into a truly great two weeks on the rails.
The passenger carriages on the Viceroy Special are fitted with nineteenth-century period fittings and include a restaurant car, an observation car and a bar, which was well patronised as we tootled across the country. Modern features such as air-conditioning and refrigeration in the kitchen and bar cars make for a very comfortable journey. The train itself is run by both diesel locomotives and the only steam locomotive still in operation in Sri Lanka.
And all of us got a turn riding up the front - no obsessions with rules, litigious risks and OH&S considerations in Sri Lanka!
There's nothing quite as much fun (or as grimy) as riding in the cab of a steam locomotive, with the guy shovelling the coal on my right and and the driver on my left, and me in charge of the steam whistle, which I was at liberty to blow pretty much any time I wanted! They probably should have through that one through a little better!
The train isn't a sleeper train, which makes the adventure even more fun as you get to stay in great hotels along the way - 5-star wherever possible or the best in town if 5-star isn't part of the infrastructure. From the wonderful Uga Bay Resort near Batticaloa on the east coast to the iconic Geoffrey Bawa designed Heritance Kandalama, to the very English Grand Hotel in the tea country region of Nuwara Eliya (fondly referred to as 'little England'), it was class and comfort all the way!
The places we saw
This itinerary takes in all the things you want to do in Sri Lanka. Or at least the best things you want to do when you only have a couple of weeks to do them, including most of the stunning and priceless UNESCO sites - the Ancient City of Sigiriya; the Golden Temple of Dambulla; Anuradhapura, the first ancient capital of Sri Lanka; Polonnaruwa, the second most ancient of Sri Lanka's kingdoms; the sacred city of Kandy and the ancient city of Galle.
But my favourite day by far was our visit to the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, where we saw first hand the work of committed volunteers to protecting and rehabilitating the beautiful Sri Lankan elephant community, devastated by poachers and the loss of habitat. Watching a great herd of these wonderful animals lumber down to the river and enjoy 30 minutes rolling around in it was truly heart-warming and rather life affirming!
Add in great shopping, brilliant food and some of the most kind and generous people on the planet and you have a 'cracker' two weeks.
The people I travelled with
I've always been a bit wary of group travel. And in this case, there were 24 of us! What if I get stuck sitting next to Grumpy Graham, Whining Wendy, Sniping Susan or Offensive Olaf? What if I don't want to do one of the activities on the itinerary? What if I want to skip dinner with the group one night and go out with the interesting chap I met at the markets?
I couldn't have been more surprised and impressed with this group and the way our preferences and comfort were managed. Everyone, down to the last person had an interesting background, life story, and travel experiences and were considerate of their fellow travellers. Pretty much everyone was flexible and easy going when it came to the inevitable itinerary changes at short notice due to things beyond our control, and we had talent on board that spanned stand-up comedy, opera singing and bird calls!
I couldn't have wished for a better travel experience and highly recommend a Railway Adventures tour to you all!