High in Sri Lanka’s hill country, Kandy has what must rank as one of the world’s most scenic airports. Ringed on both sides by lush jungle, it is pleasingly quiet as I wait by the patch of grass that acts as its main departure gate. Groups of schoolchildren hang around nearby, hopefully scanning the horizon. And in front of us lies the blue waters of Polgolla reservoir: the runway for today’s flight, which is due shortly to touch down from the capital Colombo.
Since 2009, when more than two decades of civil war came to an end, Sri Lanka has enjoyed a mini-boom in tourism as foreign travellers return to the tropical beaches and tea plantations of the teardrop-shaped island.
But while a gleaming new highway now connects Colombo to the southern city of Galle, Sri Lanka’s other attractions – notably its eastern beaches and verdant central highlands – remain tough to reach, typically requiring lengthy drives on bumpy, single-track roads.
One solution arrived last year with the launch of Cinnamon Air, a scheduled airline that makes use of lakes and rivers instead of airstrips. Cinnamon Air can now whisk visitors from Colombo to Kandy – typically a four-hour drive – by Cessna seaplane in a little over 30 minutes. The service is expanding too, having launched new routes to Sigiriya, site of a famous hill-top fortress in the north, and Batticaloa, close to the best beaches in the east. In May, a further three weekly flights will be added to the port of Trincomalee, also on the island’s east coast.
Cinnamon’s services are part of an evolving trend for using seaplanes in Sri Lanka. In 2011, the national carrier, SriLankan, introduced “air taxi” seaplane services, which are now being operated by Cinnamon on a code-share basis. Meanwhile Simplifly offers private charters and sightseeing flights by seaplane and by helicopter.
My journey began the old-fashioned way, with a serene train ride up from Colombo: a spectacular but slow-moving affair that winds steadily through mountain passes before pulling into Kandy’s dilapidated railway station.
Overnight, I stayed at the Kandy House, a villa originally built in 1804 as a residence for the chief minister of the Kingdom of Kandy, Sri Lanka’s last independent monarchy, which succumbed to British rule in 1818. The property now operates as a gorgeous nine-room heritage hotel, set in a tropical garden about 20 minutes’ drive outside of town, and has impressive wooden interiors redesigned by a protégé of Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa.
It is the return flight, however, that proves to be the highlight of the entire trip. It is an experience that begins as the seaplane roars in to land, delighting the schoolchildren nearby, before pulling up to a pontoon dock fabricated from wooden planks and oil drums. After a perfunctory check-in, the captain – a dashing Swiss expatriate in shorts and aviator sunglasses – ushers me on board his eight-seater aircraft.
We wait inside as he talks on the radio, briefly delayed by strict rules enforced by Sri Lanka’s army. “The Tamil Tigers once used a small training aeroplane to bomb Colombo during the war, so there are still endless restrictions on flying,” the captain explains, with a smile. “But we get by OK now.”
The flight itself is as exhilarating as it is brief. We rattle off the water in a whirl of propellers, before soaring over the valley above a breathtaking panorama of Kandy’s hilltop houses and Buddhist temples, all bathed in bright sunshine. The aircraft then banks off to the south. Yet for all the serenity below, this is still flying at its most visceral: the tiny seaplane sways this way and that in the wind, while dipping in and out of thick patches of cloud.
I crane my neck to see first mountains and tea plantations passing far below; then paddy fields; and finally the patchwork of agricultural lands that lead into the outskirts of the capital. And less than half an hour later, we touch down on a lake close to Sri Lanka’s parliament building that acts as a dropping-off point for downtown Colombo. I clamber out on to another rickety pontoon dock, and pause to catch my breath.
Cinnamon Air’s operation isn’t perfect: at $172 one-way between Colombo and Kandy, its flights are expensive, especially compared with the train. Having only three aircraft means that the company operates a service that is infrequent, at best. Nonetheless, director Romesh David hopes that his new venture will tap into broader changes in Sri Lanka’s postwar tourism economy.
“We are seeing fewer visitors coming from Europe for two- week visits and more coming for just six or seven days – and also more from India and China, where traditionally people don’t take long holidays,” David tells me. “But people still want to see the best of the island – the beaches and the hills – so they want to move quickly. And for that, we really are the best option.”