THE TWO-TIER HONEYMOON
Mail Magazine, January 2007
I said I didn't want to think of it as a honeymoon, just a lovely holiday. The whole 'honeymoon' deal means pressure – for one thing, the man traditionally chooses and arranges it, which is a non-starter for a control-freak like me. Then, too, you're supposed to feel romantic and loll about gazing at sunsets, doing nothing. I wonder how many couples' problems start there? I've not yet had such a letter to my Saturday problem page, but knew – once my intended started talking about busy sightseeing whilst my mind dwelt on white sands and stillness – that we needed to pre-empt problems by co-operation and compromise. What better beginning to marriage?
Robin wanted to see and do; I wanted to 'be.' He wanted to move on; I wanted to stay put, with no timetables. He wanted to snorkel; as a non-swimmer, I just wanted to read and read. The one thing we agreed on was the best hotels and somewhere new to us both. My first honeymoon (in 1968) consisted of three days in Devon in February, whilst Robin has never been married. So this had to be pretty special. The strange thing was, we took a very long time to come up with what we thought of as brilliant two-tier honeymoon to satisfy our conflicting needs: Sri Lanka and the Maldives. Then we learnt that the particular combination has become one of the most popular of destinations for newlyweds. So much for originality.
In another life, Robin was a backpacking independent traveller, but he knows I like everything cut-and-dried – hence the up-market tour operator. From the moment I saw Rabel, our driver-guide waiting, early in the morning, at Colombo airport, I knew everything would be fine. Rabel spoke good English, knew his history, and would be with us for seven days, during which we stayed in three excellent hotels, rode an elephant, viewed wall paintings and statues of Buddha and romantic ruins. Even as he picked us up he swung into action – recommending that we stopped off to look at the fish market on the way to our hotel, the chic 'Beach' at Negombo. Did I really want to pick my way through fish, debris and crows in my white shoes and trousers, with jet lag? No, but it was surreally memorable – like a scene from The Birds.
Sri Lanka's colonial past (as Ceylon) means that most people speak English, and for tourists the atmosphere is gentler, somehow, than in (say) Rajasthan. Yes, people want to sell you things, but they don't hassle you too much. Driving from Negombo inland you move from white sands and fishing boats through lush greenery, interesting towns and villages, rice fields, the beginnings of tea plantations…this small, teardrop-shaped island seems to have everything.
After a four hour drive, we arrive at Kandalama, a spectacular hotel in the middle of nowhere, which seems to be cut into rock, disappearing into the hillside, Our room is suitably romantic, with its big jaccuzi and a balcony visited by greedy little pink faced monkeys. And in the distance we have a clear view of one of the island's chief attractions: Sigiriya. This is a 200 metre high rock, rearing up from the plane, with an ancient history the experts disagree on. No matter – Robin was keen to climb the 1200 steps to the top. I put my sun hat on but sighed at the very thought.
Yet you can always surprise yourself – and (memo to newly-weds) it's always good to surprise your partner. Despite the heat I raced up that rock! You walk though what giant stone paws, all that's left of the great lion-mouth entrance to a spectacular palace (or temple). Half way up you come to the beautiful 'gallery ' – wall paintings of beautiful, bejewelled women carrying flowers and fruits. Were they once the mistresses of some great king? Nobody really knows – it's enough to marvel at what is left their voluptuous beauty. When you reach the top the plain stretches all around for miles, and no number of tourists and guides can diminish that strange, wild beauty.
That evening we go for a ride on a female elephant called Komilly. Heavy sky, sounds of tired birds in the rustling jungle, and us giggling at how funny we must look, tossed about by her rolling gait like little boats on choppy waves. The following evening is even more magical – as we walk to a flat grey rock about twenty minutes from the hotel, and watch as the sun sets and pelicans, crows and hawks whirl pell mell in the sky, and monkeys make the trees shake – all heading for home before night falls. The sky reddens under purple clouds, and, 'This is the best thing so far' we whisper, entranced by the vast glory of the skies.
Yet how to judge? We saw the ancient capital Anuradhapura, with its temples and ruins, picked up leaves fallen from the sacred Sri Maha Bodhi (the oldest, historically authenticated tree in the world) beneath which Buddha sat, and waved from cave to cave at Dambulla, gazing at the countless images of Buddha which looked back at us from the darkness – as if blessing our marriage, I thought. And why not? We watched a rainstorm over Kandy and tucked into a heart-shaped 'Congratulations' cake the management of the Earl Regency hotel (our third and last hotel in Sri Lanka) sent up for the honeymooners. In the famous Botanical Gardens outside Kandy we saw trees heavy with fruit bats, the world's largest fig tree, and the kaleidoscopic wonders of the Orchid House….
Yet this was just half of our honeymoon. On the seventh day Rabel drove us (via an elephant orphanage) to the airport, to take our flight to Male, capital of the strange archipelago which forms the Maldives. This was the point at which I wanted to stop moving on and just loll around a luxurious hotel in the six days left, but that wasn't the plan. We were to stay in two hotels owned by the same company – and I soon discovered why. To experience first the tiny island of Dhoni Migili, then move to the larger Huvafen Fushi is to experience two levels of romantic luxury – the first small and exclusive, the second epitomising the ultimate in modern chic.
On Dhoni Migili there are only six little houses (complete with private garden and plunge pool) and each one has its own Dhoni – the traditional sailboat which is yours while you stay, to take out for the day, to sleep on, as you wish. You have your own 'thakaru' - or butler. Ours, a sweet, funny young guy called Ahmed, arranged for us to have lunch on a sandbar in the middle of the turquoise sea. As he and the crew took the table, sunshade, barbecue and hampers by boat to the strip of blonde sand, I thought it must rate as one of the oddest, most wonderful things I've ever done. We drank white wine to toast our great good fortune, then searched for star fish skeletons as a brisk, warm wind ruffled the waves – and we thought the whole Indian Ocean was ours.
After two nights there (entertained by the island host Brendan, a delightful man from Cork) we flew by sea taxi to Huvafen Fushi, to stay in the most glamorous hotel room I've ever seen. You have your own little 'house', with plunge pool, terrace, and every mod con – including a glass section of floor so that you can gaze down at the fish. The weather was disappointing; our trip was just a bit early and we were told the overcast skies and wind would soon disappear as the peak season brought golden, glassy stillness. But in truth it didn't matter. At least it was hot, and our ocean bungalow was a superb retreat in which to read, watch DVDs and snooze the hours away. The sheer glamour of the whole resort – from the twinkling lights in the main pool to the superb food - was enchanting and relaxing, whilst the staff were exceptionally warm and friendly. We had a double massage surveyed by tropical fish (part of the spa is underwater) and watched a marine biologist feed sting rays, which came flapping into shore inches from our feet, and naturally Robin found a myriad little Nemos with the help of his snorkel kit. It's terrible for a writer to reach for clichés, but – yes – the word 'paradise' does spring to mind. Isn't that what most of us crave?
Usually I'm keen to get home to the house, the little dog and my work. Not this time. As we spend across the water to Male in Huvafen Fushi's private speedboat, for the long journey (Male-Colombo-London) home, somewhat sadly I asked Robin, 'What was your favourite part of the whole holiday?'
'Climbing Sigiriya' I replied, without thinking, 'And yours?'
'Reading and doing nothing in the Maldives' he replied.
And that was the final confirmation that we'd got it right. Here's to the future.