A recent BBC news article on how adventurer Jamie Clarke took his teenage son to Mongolia for a digital detox really resonated with me. In today’s hectic and absorbed life, vacations have become an important occasion for families to rejuvenate kindred bonds and rediscover one’s connection with the natural world.
In Asia, remote and mystical places like Mongolia, Ladakh and Bhutan have become synonymous with immersive retreats offering an escape from modern distractions, but it is equally easy to find such sanctuaries in more diverse and bustling places. Sri Lanka is full of such hidden gems that provide incredibly fun and engaging experiences and it gives me great pleasure to share three of my favourite places in the country that would make up a wonderful summer vacation!
Sri Lanka is not commonly known as a summer destination. For a fairly tiny island, it experiences complex weather patterns with two distinctive monsoons affecting south-west and north-east coasts respectively.
Most travellers tend to visit the country between December and March, but July is the “secret season” when, sparing the odd shower, hot and dry conditions can be enjoyed in many parts of the country and the beaches in the east coast are gloriously sun-drenched.
Recently featured in Tatler magazine’s Travel Guide 2020 as one of the ‘Top 101 Hotels in the World’, The Mudhouse is a unique destination with social and natural conservation and sustainability at its core.
Located in the remote rural district of Puttalam in the north-western part of Sri Lanka, what makes this one of my favourite hotels is the immersive ‘back-to-nature’ experience. There are only five private open-plan mud huts, spread across 60 acres of verdant forests, all built in the traditional style using locally sourced natural materials.
The Mudhouse is not 'luxurious' in the typical sense - this is all about the experience! Although its rusticity would suit the more adventurous kind, the Mudhouse has a wonderful homely feel and the staff – all of whom are local – are among the most friendly and caring I have ever met.
One could spend days kayaking, swimming or paddle boarding around the lakes, bird-watching and exploring various nature trails, cycling through the pristine villages and paddy fields, visiting nearby rock-temples and ancient sites, or learning to cook hearty Sri Lankan curries on wood fire using traditional earthenware. The experience here is incredibly fun and educational!
In a complete contrast to The Mudhouse, Uga Ulagalla is a luxurious retreat in a blissfully natural, remote and uninhabited environment, close to the ancient capital of Anuradhapura. The region’s cultural heritage resonates through the retreat, as it is built around a charming 150-year-old mansion surrounded by a beautiful 58-acre estate.
There are 25 luxurious villas, each boasting a private plunge pool and designed in harmony with their natural surroundings. The food and service are really impeccable and refined.
Being a history and architecture buff, this is one of my favourite parts of the country. There is so much to do in and around Ulagalla, from visiting stunning historical sites of Anuradhapura and Sigiriya to more adventurous explorations including hiking in the forested hills up to Ritigala Monastery where one could explore ruins and rock inscriptions dating back to 1st century, climbing Pidurangala Rock, horseback riding or even archery!
Another must-see spectacle in this region between the months of July and September is the great elephant migration. Sri Lanka is one of the finest places in the world for viewing Asian elephants in the wild and Minneriya National Park in the heart of the Cultural Triangle turns into a vast gathering ground for hundreds of elephants who descend upon the park every year for mating, socialising and feeding.
Although its scale is nothing compared to East Africa’s Great Migration, it is still one of the biggest wildlife spectacles in the Indian subcontinent and a wonderful opportunity to admire these endearing gentle giants.
For those interested in primates, a visit to the Smithsonian Primate Research Station in Polonnaruwa would be highly worthwhile to learn about the ongoing studies on the wild monkey population in the region and to gain a better understanding of the evolution of the primate society in general. The organisation’s research findings have been featured in various documentaries including Disney’s famous movie “Monkey Kingdom”.
Sri Lanka’s eastern beaches enjoy some of the best weather conditions between May and September with hot, dry and sunny days. This part of the country is also far less ‘touristy’ and less developed compared to the south and southwest coasts, as it was cut off from the rest of the country during the 26-year civil war. Offering a perfect balance between rusticity and modern luxuries, Jungle Beach is located in Tricomalee, which is considered to be one of the finest natural deep-water harbours in the world.
Besides exploring Tricomalee city with its towering Fort Frederick, the region offers amazing opportunities for water sports and is also great for whale watching. Between May and August, it is possible to view super-pods containing 40 or more Blue and Sperm Whales on the eastern coast, a phenomenal sight!
When the weather turns, they migrate towards the south coast where one can view them between December and late February. This makes Sri Lanka one of the finest whale watching destinations in the Indian subcontinent. Most visitors opt for speed boat excursions, but my favourite is a longer and much slower excursion on a yacht, which allows a more in-depth exploration and also an opportunity to explore some of the world-class diving and snorkelling sites.
Images kindly provided courtesy of Jungle Beach, Uga Ulagalla, The Mudhouse, Polonnaruwa Smithsonian Project (image copyright to Toby Sinclair).