Steaming through in Sri Lanka

A luxury train journey across the 'Pearl of the Indian Ocean'.

A luxury train journey across the ‘Pearl of the Indian Ocean’.

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I once read an article on the increase of female smokers. They gave an example of a woman waiting for her friend at a bar: “If she’s a non-smoker, she’s just standing around passively. But if she lights up a cigarette, then she’s not waiting – she’s smoking”.

I’m not condoning the excuse as being a good reason to smoke, but I can understand what they’re getting at. Train journeys do the same thing to me, albeit as a more introspective experience. Industrialist J. Paul Getty, once the richest individual in the world, compared working for a large company to a train ride: “Are you going 60 miles an hour?” he asked, “or is the train going 60 miles an hour and you’re just sitting still?”. I work for hard for a large company, so when on holiday in Sri Lanka, I opted for sitting still and letting the train do the work.

Making tracks for the Sri Lankan hills

J.F. Tours privately manages the only steam locomotive in operation in the country, the 75-year-old Viceroy Special. Running on railway tracks originally built during 19th century British colonization to transport commodities, the Viceroy Special has been offering a luxurious mode transportation for passengers since 1986. Viceroy runs on all the railway tracks that crisscross the country, making it easy to fit a train journey into any Sri Lankan travel itinerary.

From Colombo, they offer several routes to cultural, spiritual, and natural destination hotspots. The ‘Hill Country Odyssey’ goes to Nuwara Elliya in the central highlands, while the ‘Sense of Heritage’ heads to the spiritual heart of the country Kandy. Then there’s ‘Glimpse of the Ocean’, which takes you to the southern provincial capital of Galle. We were keen to get out of Colombo as the first few days there were quite hectic, so we booked the 2-night roundtrip tour on the “Hill Country Odyssey” to make up for the shortened Colombo stay.

We arrived at Fort Station around 7.20am, 40 minutes before our scheduled departure time. The train station is the busiest in the country (one of those ‘keep your hands firmly on your bags’ type of bustling places), and the old train station architecture and the atmosphere on the platforms reminded me of those in India. Not so surprising, I guess, considering their British influences, but I hadn’t thought of it prior to that. With some time to spare, we grabbed a much welcome strong coffee from the vendors up front, and instead of pure waiting, lit up a cigarette and imagined lives for the passing fellow travelers.

Aboard a Ceylonian express

The train arrived a few minutes late, but finally we boarded the Viceroy Special. Walking through the period-furnished carriages, we found our seats, and plopped down side by side. That’s one small step onto a train, one giant leap back into time. Barely having time to cool off in the air-conditioned carriage, a rumbling began under our feet and we started pulling out of the station. The urban landscape slowly thinned outside the windows, morphing into sprawls of green as far as the eye can see. The gentle rocking of the train lulled us into a nap, only to be woken up seemingly minutes later with clanking noises as the train crossed a bridge stretching over a small valley. We decided to pop down to the restaurant car to get a drink, and purchased a soft drink to fizz away any remaining groggy cow webs. As we sipped our refreshing beverages, we looked around the open air carriage – Edwardian ceiling fans, dark wood paneling everywhere, and a smiling bartender impeccably attired complete with a vest and matching bow-tie.

There’s really not much to do on a train other than relax in the company of your fellow travellers. I read, chatted with my partner, but for the most part, I just looked out the window, with random thoughts flowing through my mind, coming and going too fluidly to pin down any particular train of thought. En-route, we were served snacks and tea at regular intervals, as well as a hot lunch set. A few hours later, we started seeing swathes of verdant tea plantations and terraced fields, and we knew we were approaching our destination.

High on Little England

We arrived at Nanuoya Railway Station close to 4pm on the same day, and made our way to the hotel. For the rest of the evening and the entire day after, we were on our own to explore Nuwara Eliya, also known as “Little England”. Sitting over 1,860 meters above sea level and known for its tea plantations, the town center is quaint, and littered with fine colonial architectural remnants. We also spent some time getting back to nature, exploring the numerous waterfalls along mountain trails, visiting a tea factory and wandering through the plantation. On the last evening, I was niggled with a reminder that I’d be returning to regroup in Colombo before heading down to Galle, but at least consoled with the fact that the train would bring us back to the reality of the capital as gently as it had transported us to the hills.

Just because it’s a means to an end does not mean you should enjoy the journey any less than the destination itself, and thanks to this soothing adventure we’ve fallen even more in love with the romance of rail travel. As the wheels chugged over the sleepers on the return journey we decided¬† to take the train on all our Ceylonian travels and the experience of this breathtaking country was made all the better by the choice.

J.F. Tours ( manages the 75-year-old Viceroy Special, the only running steam locomotive in the country.  Picturesque routes, which can be booked roundtrip from Colombo, include:

  • ‘Hill Country Odyssey’: 7 hours one-way Nuwara Elliya in the central highlands
  • ‘Sense of Heritage’: 4 hours one-way heads to the spiritual heart of the country Kandy
  • ‘Glimpse of the Ocean’: 3.5 hours one-way which takes you to the southern provincial capital of Galle
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