Sri Lanka is a beautiful island which has been well-admired by many cultures. The Persian explorers who first arrived there named it Serendip, which inspired the term serendipity. Later the British referred to it as Ceylon, reminding one of the colonial era and of course tea. It is a tropical paradise of culture, food, flora and fauna, and pristine beaches that will not disappoint you.
Of all the countries in the Indian sub-continent, it resembles India the most in terms of its cultural, geographical and religious diversity despite its relatively compact size. It is also very laid-back, which is quite suitable for young families.
Having just returned from a journey along the south and west coasts, and through the lush mountains and thick jungles in the centre, I am excited to share with you a selection of some of my favourite places and experiences. These offer the most quintessential Sri Lankan flavour for those seeking immersion in the history and culture of this beautiful island.
I love to immerse myself in the local culture when I am travelling and there is no better place for this than the country’s capital Colombo. For me urban spaces offer an ideal opportunity to experience the local society and culture and how they have evolved over time. Asian cities are particularly good for this as they have witnessed a myriad of foreign influences creating an incredible melange of sub-cultures.
My favourite part of the city is the old quarter in and around the Dutch Hospital. Amidst a rapidly changing city-scape dominated by towering skyscrapers lies this tiny area of Fort and Pettah that allows you to travel back in time and experience the true meaning of serendipity. You could walk for hours through the bustling streets and alleyways and go on exploring the historic shops, churches and buildings.
The real charm of exploring such neighbourhoods is with someone local who has wonderful stories and fun facts to share to make history come alive. One such person I met in Colombo is a truly passionate photographer and curator who is also an avid traveller and a real history buff.
After spending years photographing exotic wildlife in Sri Lanka and beyond, he has returned to his beloved city and loves to introduce like-minded locals and foreigners to the hidden treasures of the city such as the oldest clock-tower in Asia, the original era emblem of HSBC and share an insight into the budget allocated and spent by the British government to build the Grand Oriental Hotel. It is such interactions that make one’s travel experience extraordinary and memorable.
Another amazing aspect of the city is food with some of the finest eateries and bars in the country. You could share a traditional Jaffna meal with a local family, be taken on a foodie tour by a well-known journalist and food critique to try out street vendors and dodgy bars, or enjoy a more refined dining experience at one of the upscale restaurants such as Ministry Of Crab.
From Colombo’s buzz to the complete wilderness of Wilpattu, I was looking forward to seeing some of Sri Lanka’s majestic wildlife in the country’s biggest and prettiest nature reserve. Teeming with leopards, sloth bears, Asian elephants and a variety of smaller mammals as well as incredibly rich birdlife, Wilpattu has remained blissfully unspoiled.
Meaning the ‘land of lakes’, Wilpattu covers a vast area of 1,317 square kilometres and has about sixty water bodies within the forest. The safaris are thrilling, as the forest cover is dense and what I found most interesting is the contrasting topography as a large part of the forest used to be under the sea centuries ago.
Unlike Yala, there are just a handful of lodges and camps in Wilpattu, which means the safari experience is relatively private. I stayed in the wonderful Leopard Trails Tented Camp, which offers luxurious tented rooms and game drives with expert naturalist guides.
Comprising of the ancient capitals of Anuradhapura, Pollonnaruwa and Sigiriya, Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle is steeped in the island’s ancient Sinhalese heritage and is filled with magnificent UNESCO World Heritage Sites. A must-visit region for those interested in history and archaeology, it can also be great fun for children and adventure-seekers.
My favourite experiences were exploring Anuradhapura on a bicycle, especially in the late afternoon when the town comes alive with devotees visiting temples on their way home from work; a hike on the completely off-the-beaten-track forested hills up to Ritigala Monastery where you could explore ruins and rock inscriptions dating back to 1st century; and a pre-dawn climb to the top of Pidurangala Rock.
Taking in the first rays of the rising sun falling on Sigiriya Rock and the lush plains beyond, painting the stunning landscape in a bright golden hue was one of the most magical moments of my trip. Most people visiting this region opt to climb to the top of the Sigiriya Rock to explore the ruins of the impressive fortress. It is quite an impressive site, but it is also very touristy and the climb is steep but fairly straightforward.
Pidurangala offers a refreshing and much more challenging and fun alternative, and the beauty is that you would get to enjoy similar, panoramic views of the countryside with Sigiriya Rock in the frame. Unlike Sigiriya, Pidurangala can be climbed before sunrise and the last part of the climb involves crawling in-between and over the massive boulders, which can be great fun.
Like Kerala in South India, Sri Lanka is renowned for its wellness traditions based on the ancient science of Ayurveda. Santani, a multi-award-winning luxury wellness retreat located near the remote Knuckles Mountain Range, has elevated the bar and put Sri Lanka on the global map of one-of-a-kind spa and wellness destinations. Created with utmost respect for its pristine natural surroundings, Santani’s design and architecture are minimalist and pure.
The rooms are designed in such a way so that neither air-conditioning nor heating are needed, which has drastically reduced the retreat’s carbon footprint compared to other standard hotels. Most of the structures are built on stilts allowing for natural thermal flows to cool the rooms and to ensure minimal disruption to the earth below. The spa is built underground, which provides natural cooling and almost 80% of the wood used within the property is recycled.
It is a sort of a place where you can leave all the distractions behind and be one with nature and your inner-self; a true sanctuary. Everything is utterly bespoke, from food and service to activities and spa treatments. The food, I can safely say, was some of the best and most innovative I’ve had so far and a bespoke menu is created for each guest by the head chef based on the guest’s individual preferences and requirements, all using the freshest and organic local produce.
For nature lovers and those with an adventurous spirit, the Knuckles Mountain Range, located about an hour’s drive from Santani is pure heaven. One of the most remote parts of Sri Lanka, this UNESCO-protected conservation area offers incredible trails ranging from 16 to 24 kilometres with stunning views and an impressive array of flora and fauna. You can spend the whole day climbing peaks, looking for birds, visiting remote mountain villages and taking a dip in natural rock pools created by pristine waterfalls.
For tea lovers like myself, a visit to the resplendent tea plantations is nothing short of a holy pilgrimage. What could be more special than having an opportunity to be taken around the estates by an experienced planter, giving you an overview of everything that goes into creating the tea you love, and sharing an insight into how to make a perfect cup of tea?
Surprisingly, tea is a relatively modern phenomenon in Sri Lanka for the country was renowned for being one of the largest producers of fine coffee for over a century. If it weren’t for the catastrophic coffee blight in the 1870s, Sri Lanka would have continued to dominate the global coffee market today.
After almost all the coffee crops on the island were wiped out, the planters switched to tea and the central highlands provided a very suitable climate for the cultivation and production of high-quality tea. Today, tea is one of the biggest industries in the country and the main source of foreign exchange.
I was in my element… taking leisurely walks through the plantations from one bungalow to another, kayaking on the reservoir and trying my hand at croquet during the day and sipping a hot cup of tea at my charming tea bungalow in the evening watching the sun go down.
At night, you are left awestruck by the brilliant sky filled with a gazillion stars – a real treat for stargazers. Although the area of central highlands is vast and there are many beautiful bungalows, my favourites are Tea Trails’ bungalows in Hatton and Goatfell in the Hills of Kandapola near Nuwara Eliya.
For the train enthusiasts, taking the heritage mountain train from Kandy is the best and most scenic way of travelling to the tea country. I quite enjoyed the ride, as it is a great opportunity to meet the locals and other travellers and a relaxed way of travelling through the mountains than on the windy and narrow roads.
Established by the British in 1864 for transporting tea and coffee from the hill country to Colombo, the same tracks and signalling systems are still in use today. The portion between Kandy and Ella is the most beautiful with views of waterfalls, tea estates, mountains, pine forests, bridges and tiny stations. The Nine Arch Bridge between Ella and Demodara is a brilliant piece of engineering as it is made entirely of stone bricks and cement without any steel or iron.
No holiday in Sri Lanka is complete without a stay on the pristine south coast. This is perhaps my most favourite part of the country where there is so much to do and see if you want to be active or you could just switch off, relax and surrender to the sound of the waves crashing on the beach and enjoy the feeling of sand under your feet.
Galle is unforgettable. Originally discovered by mistake when the Portuguese explorer Lourenco de Almedia was blown off course on his way to the Maldives in 1502, Galle’s strategic location has attracted traders from the world over for centuries. The fort is one of the finest examples of a Dutch-built fortified town in South Asia and was awarded the UNESCO World Heritage Status in 1988 for its unique design and heritage.
It is best explored on foot, taking in a myriad of narrow streets packed with old mansions, shops and eateries, and exploring prominent landmarks such as the National Maritime Museum, Reformed Dutch Church, Mosque, old library and of course the lighthouse on the ramparts.
Amangalla is one of the finest heritage hotels located inside the fort and whether you are staying here or not, I would definitely recommend taking afternoon tea here. If you fancy something cooler, try some gourmet gelato at the Isle of Gelato on Pedlar Street.
I also really enjoyed dining at the Church Street Social at Fort Bazaar – a chic and buzzing restaurant service a wide range of cuisines from tapas and pizzas to contemporary Sri Lankan as well as traditional Moroccan, Turkish and Middle Eastern. The restaurant is housed in a very tastefully restored ancient merchant’s home.
Besides Galle Fort, there is so much else to do on the South Coast. I loved exploring the interior countryside, away from the beach, cycling through the lush paddy fields and tranquil villages. Animal lovers could take an early morning whale and dolphin watching excursion, as Sri Lanka has some of the best whale watching opportunities in the world and plays home to many species of whale including the Blue Whale as well as Orcas.
On the South Coast, the main whale-watching season runs from December through to the end of March. Most visitors tend to prefer a fast speedboat, but for a longer and slower-paced excursion, sailing yachts are also available.
These can be privately chartered for a much more off-the-beaten-track excursion during which you could also go to remote parts along the coast to enjoy a swim in clear waters, snorkelling as well as stand up paddle boarding. Surfing is also big in Sri Lanka and there are incredible spots all along the coastline that offer amazing waves for surfers of all levels and skills.
In the 1300’s Marco Polo described Sri Lanka as ‘The prettiest island of its size in all the world’. Eight centuries later, this still holds true. If you would like more information on fantastic explorations of Sri Lanka, please do feel free to contact me.