Travel Expert Amber gives you her guide to what there is to see and do in Sri Lanka and where to stay in style along the way…
Sri Lanka is the ideal destination for those wishing to experience central Asia for the first time and are seeking a gentle introduction – diverse landscapes, friendly and welcoming people, mild and tasty cuisine, an eclectic array of beautiful properties to choose from, malaria free, and the perfect itinerary combination of culture, history, nature and well-earned R&R. Having opened up to visitors just under eight years ago, tourism is still rather new to the country with much of the island feeling very unspoiled, though with increasing popularity this isn’t likely to remain the case and is therefore well worth considering as a vacation destination sooner rather than later.
To get a real flavor for Sri Lanka ideally you would look to explore the fascinating Cultural Triangle (historic Anuradhapura, striking Sigiriya Rock Fortress, Dambulla Cave Temple and vibrant Kandy), combined with the picturesque tea plantations of Hill Country, finishing along the scenic southern coast where you could potentially incorporate some National Park wildlife sightings.
Anuradhapura: The most northerly point of the Cultural Triangle, this historic UNESCO World Heritage city lies around 130 miles north-east of Colombo, and is great to explore either by car or bike with a guide, as there is an abundance of ancient temples and stupas to see. Just 30 minutes from the hustle and bustle of the city lies tranquil Ulagalla, which is ideal for those seeking relaxation yet like having fun activities readily available, from horse riding and kayaking, to cooking lessons and guided nature walks.
Sigiriya: Towards the center of the Cultural Triangle is the striking Sigiriya Rock Fortress, seen as one of the most valuable historical monuments of Sri Lanka. This 200m tall volcanic plug was selected by a King for his royal residence, building his palace on top of the rock and surrounding it in beautiful gardens, the remnants of which you can still see today. It is probably the most visited tourist destination in Sri Lanka and as such is extremely busy, and therefore best visited either first thing in the morning to avoid the crowds (and the heat of the day!), or in time for sunset when the views will be even more breath-taking. I wouldn’t recommend those who are nervous of heights or have young children climb the rock, as the stairs are steep and rickety metal in parts. Vil Uyana is a wonderful property option in this region, or alternatively the newly opened Water Garden, which boasts impressive views of the Rock Fortress and spacious two-bedroom family villa options.
Kandy: A night or two is all you really need to explore this vibrant city, with key sights being the Temple of the Tooth, the bustling fruit and vegetable market, Botanical Gardens and lake. An oasis from the city steeped in character and charm is the boutique Kandy House, where you can enjoy delicious food with one of their signature Arrack Sour Cocktails overlooking their lush candle lit gardens. Alternatively, if you’re seeking a wellness retreat there’s the newly opened Santani hotel located 40 minutes out of Kandy which boasts the most incredible views and promises to leave you feeling completely rejuvenated after your stay.
Hill Country: In contrast to rice paddy fields, coconut groves and spice plantations driven past previously, came undulating hills carpeted with lush green tea bushes worthy of a postcard. Staying at one of Ceylon Tea Trails’ bungalows is the idyllic spot to immerse yourself in the landscape, whilst enjoying fine dining cuisine, games of croquet on the lawn with a Pimms in hand, and clearly marked trails through the plantations to take yourself off for an explore.
Yala National Park: There are 22 National Parks in Sri Lanka, some more renowned for elephants such as Uda Walawe and Wilpattu, and others for the elusive leopard, such as Yala which is the most densely populated in the world. In addition to leopards, Yala is home to crocodiles, jackal, water buffalo, monkeys, deer and numerous bird specious, all of which I was very fortunate to see on my fleeting visit (although the leopard was at a distance sadly walking away into dense shrubbery, but still counts!). Chena Huts opened just last year and is the first of its kind offering gorgeous stilted accommodation not seen before near the National Park, each with its own private plunge pool in addition to a central swimming pool oasis for guests to enjoy between game drives.
South Coast: There is now an array of beautiful properties to choose from along Sri Lanka’s southern coast for your well-earned R&R towards the end of your trip. For those who love larger resorts with all the facilities you could possibly want, the newly opened Shangri-La Hambantota with its 18-hole golf course and Water Park that children won’t be able to resist is a great choice, with the added plus of being just an hour from the entrance to Yala National Park for a day visit. The equally new Anantara Peace Haven resort is half the size of the Shangri-La and has a very serene feel to it, with a great variety of villas as well hotel accommodation to choose from, much like Cape Weligama which also boasts the most incredible views from its crescent moon shaped swimming pool perched on top of a hill – stunning! For those who prefer the privacy of their own villa, Habaraduwa House is amazing, as is 20 Middle Street if you’d prefer to be in the heart of vibrant Galle Fort instead of a beach. Amangalla is also a wonderful experience for those looking to stay in Galle who prefer being in a hotel, steeped in character and history with a gorgeous pool to rest your feet by after a day of sightseeing. An excursion I thoroughly enjoyed when here was heading out on a river “safari” to spot Asian Water Monitors and a variety of bird-life, before a guided cycling village tour where I was shown how to make the local breakfast Hoppers which are just delicious and such a fun and memorable experience well worth considering!
Maldives: A great alternative for your beach experience at the end of a Sri Lanka itinerary is flying an hour south to the Maldives. From Male, you can then easily reach a variety of stunning islands either by speed boat or plane, with something for everyone in terms of style whether it’s the relaxed barefoot ethos of stunning Soneva Fushi (where you will be guaranteed the most incredible fresh produce and variety of food, a large number of which is grown on the island), the reliable Four Seasons service at Landaa Giraavaru or fresh and contemporary Amilla Fushi to name but a few.