Our guide to Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka simply has it all: an amazing history and culture, dramatic views, national parks teeming with leopards and elephants and palm-fringed beaches. With a range of luxury boutique hotels throughout the island, it is one of Scott Dunn’s favorite destinations. Here is our little guide to the island to help you plan your luxury vacation to Sri Lanka. Everything we do is totally customized, so do call us and we can plan an itinerary totally around you, but we hope this guide will help you in the initial stages of your planning.
When to go to Sri Lanka
It is fairly difficult to accurately predict the weather patterns in Sri Lanka given it is an island that receives a range of weather fronts moving in from the Indian Ocean throughout the year. However, here is the general rule of thumb! There are two monsoons which affect Sri Lanka, the South-West Monsoon, or Yala Monsoon affects the south and west coasts from May to September, whilst the Maha, or North-East Monsoon affects the Cultural Triangle and East Coasts from October to January. That said, August is a little sunny sandwich for the south coast, so perfect for a beach break. For the summer, you can easily combine the Cultural Triangle with the East Coast beaches, or even the Maldives.
How to get to Sri Lanka
There are many airlines that fly to Sri Lanka. Many Middle Eastern carriers fly to Colombo such as Emirates, Oman Air, Etihad, Qatar & Turkish and provide good connections around the globe. For the UK and Europe, Sri Lankan Airlines either fly direct from London or allow good connections from a number of European hubs. From North America, on the west coast it is best to connect through Asia while it makes most sense to connect through the Middle East or India if you are coming from the east coast. Asia provides many routings into Sri Lanka and is served by many major carriers (Singapore, Thai, Cathay and Malaysia) in the region.
Getting around with a private driver/guide
Whilst in Sri Lanka, Scott Dunn only uses private driver/guides using luxury air conditioned vehicles. They drive you from A to B but also bring the destination to life. Things are really flexible, and often they will uncover the sort of the experiences you like the most and ensure your expectations are exceeded. Should you want to travel around Sri Lanka in style, we can arrange private helicopters or seaplanes to avoid the driving. A relatively new airline called Cinnamon Air provide domestic seaplane flights mostly from Colombo to all parts of Sri Lanka, as well as Sri Lankan Airtaxi run by Sri Lankan Airways. There are some great connections such as Kandy to Bentota, Koggala or Dickwella on the south coast – this links the Hill Country to beach destinations and saves you a great deal of driving.
What are the major highlights in Sri Lanka?
Sri Lanka brings together so many diverse experiences from history, stunning landscapes, local culture, tea plantations and palm-fringed beaches. Here are our tops picks:
- Cultural Triangle (also known as the Ancient Cities): Located to the north of Colombo in the center of the island, these sites are well worth visiting. Polonnaruwa is possibly the best preserved as you need to use your imagination a little more when visiting Anuradhapura. The climb to Sigiriya Rock is hugely rewarding, as too is visiting the Buddhist Caves at Dambulla.
- Kandy: The city that houses the Temple of the Tooth, and located to the south of the Cultural Triangle. It is also well worth visiting the Botanical Gardens. Close to Kandy is the Pinnawella Elephant Orphanage.
- Tea & Hill Country: Located to the south of Kandy, the Tea Country is surprisingly large. Stay in colonial planters' bungalows and either take light day walks or just sit back and look at the amazing views. For the more active, you can head off exploring Horton Plains, or climb Adam's Peak.
- Leopards: The best place to see leopards is in Yala National Park on the south-west coast, but Wilpattu on the north-west coast is very up and coming (best seen in the summer rather than the winter for Yala). For seeing wild elephants, head to Minneriya close to the Cultural Triangle (the Elephant Gathering happens in August). Other parks include Uda Walawe, and ideal link between the Tea Country and the South Coast.
- Galle: Galle is a wonderful city on Sri Lanka’s south coast, built as a fort by the Dutch East India Company. Perfect to wander around with an expert guide, or stay just outside in one of the superb beach hotels such as Cape Weligama or The Fortress.
- Colombo: Colombo is not the most picturesque of cities, but if you like the idea of seeing the bustling melting pot of Sri Lanka then we can arrange an uber guide to show you around.
- Food: Nothing quite beats a Sri Lankan curry either indulge in eating, or try your hand at the secret techniques.
- People: The Sri Lankan people are fantastically welcoming and meeting them and hearing their stories can be some of the most rewarding experiences you can have on your travels. We can arrange for you to visit local homes to see what Sri Lankan life is all about.
- Beaches: The Palm-fringed beaches of Sri Lanka’s coastline are hugely inviting, we have seen all the many hotels first-hand and will advise on the one that is perfect for you.
Family vacations to Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka is a truly fantastic destination to take the family, whether you want a simple beach vacation, a soft adventure, or something that will fully entertain your teenager’s sense of exploration. Many children love the chance to meet elephants at the elephant orphanage, learn about exotic spices, clamber over ancient ruins, cycle through local villages, learn to pick tea and then end on the south coast for some beach time. For teenagers, you can head to Kitugala for some excellent white water rafting and trek to remote waterfalls. If you just want to kick back on the beach, then the Fortress and Cape Weligama are wonderful family hotels with kids clubs and connecting rooms.
Do however note that interconnecting rooms whilst touring the more cultural aspects of Sri Lanka are fairly hard to come by (the hotels are fairly small and boutique so many of our families who travel with Scott Dunn have found it to be absolutely fine).
Honeymoons to Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka is impossibly romantic, and so laid-back making it an ideal destination for a honeymoon, and perfect to combine with the Maldives for the ultimate combination of adventure and beach. Maybe tie together a little time in the Cultural Triangle with a stop in a colonial tea bungalow where you can have al fresco dinners overlooking amazing scenery. End on the south coast of Sri Lanka for some R&R or head off the Maldives to kick back in a villa perched on stilts in a turquoise blue lagoon.
Colonial Ceylon & Tea Plantations
Sri Lanka’s Tea Country is strikingly beautiful, and a wonderful way to access it is via the train from Kandy to Hatton in the observation car as the train snakes it make through the vibrant green plantations dotted with bright sari-clad ladies going about their daily tea leaf collection. Many of the old colonial bungalows have been restored:
- Ceylon Tea Trails: The iconic luxury tea hotel has five bungalows overlooking Lake Castlereagh
- Rosyth Estate House: A former planter's bungalow dating back to 1926 on a working rubber and tea estate.
- Ellerton: Dating back over 100 years, and run by two British ex-pats and close to Kandy
- Mas Villa: Over 250 years old, located in an untouched hillside location
- Lavender House: Dates from the 1890s and a former tea planters residence
- Warwick Gardens: Close to Nuwara Eliya and within easy reach of Horton Plains
What are the best beach hotels in Sri Lanka?
One thing guests aren’t usually aware of is that all beaches in Sri Lanka are public, and as such you won’t find too many beaches where you have them to yourself. Also be aware that the sea can be fairly choppy, especially in the summer months on the south coast. Don’t expect amazing snorkeling, or even diving and see the beaches more as picturesque places to sit back and relax and possibly spend more time in the main pool than the sea. The further down the coast from Colombo you get, the less touristy the beach destinations become.
There are a range of luxury beach hotels in Sri Lanka. Let’s start with Amanwella, located in Tangalle on the south coast – they have a range of amazing pool villas and a wonderful beach. Cape Weligama is located just down from the town of Galle and has amazing views and two quiet beaches. The Fortress is well known for families, and again just outside of Galle. Our favorite boutique beach hotels include Frangipani Tree, Villa Bentota and Rock Villa.
First time trip to Sri Lanka?
Sri Lanka can of course be seen time and time again, but if you want a classic first time trip to Sri Lanka then consider looking at our Highlights of Sri Lanka itinerary which combines the Cultural Triangle, Kandy, Hill Country and the southern beaches. You can then decide to maybe add on some wildlife (maybe Uda Walawe or Yala).
Usual and unique experiences in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka has a range of unique experiences that simply make your trip and create fantastic memories. Here are our highlights:
- Take a rural cycling tour near Galle through local villages, paddy fields and temples
- Take a whale watching boat trip on Sri Lanka’s south coast
- Visit the Kosgosa Sea Turtle Conservation Project
- Have tea with a local family in Sri Lanka
- Take a walking tour with Juliet Coombe in Galle exploring the city with the best guide in town
- Learn to cook amazing Sri Lankan curries
- Meet baby elephants at the elephant orphanage
- Go on Hot Air Balloons in Dambulla
- Climb the amazing Adam's Peak in the Hill Country
- Go deep sea fishing in Bentota
- Take a train journey through the tea country from Kandy to Hatton
- Explore Sinharaja Forest Reserve, Sri Lanka’s last untouched rainforest
- White-water rafting at Kithugalla
- Cycle through the ancients ruins of Polonnaruwa
Luxury Sri Lanka vacations in style
With a little thought, you can certainly do Sri Lanka in style. By using private helicopters and chartered seaplanes, you can take out all the traveling so you can access remote corners of the island. Take a helicopter to a remote hillside location for a champagne breakfast, take a luxury plantation house exclusively or have the best wildlife naturalist in Sri Lanka at your disposal. We have the creativity to think outside the box and come up with something utterly spell-binding and designed completely around you.
Sri Lanka’s wildlife is superb. There are a range of national parks that can be incorporated into a journey, or combined to create an ultimate wildlife itinerary through Sri Lanka:
Yala National Park – located on the south-east corner of Sri Lanka and ideal from December to May, it offers the best chance of seeing leopard, but you can also see wild elephants, boar, deer and buffalo.
Wilpattu National Park – Located close to the Cultural Triangle, and good to visit from May to December, you can see leopard, spotted deer, bears, boar and crocodiles.
Uda Walawe National Park – located mid-way between the Hill Country and the southern coast, it acts as the perfect place to break the journey, and very scenic. There are fewer leopards here, but the park is really well known for its 500 wild elephants, water buffalo, langur monkeys, deer and bird life.
Active and adventure
For those who enjoy getting into the great outdoors, then Sri Lanka is a perfect adventure playground
- Adam's Peak is Sri Lanka’s holiest mountains and located in the Hill Country, climb early in the morning for an amazing sunrise
- Horton Plains and World's End is located close to Nuwara Eliya and gives a chance for a full day of trekking in the mountains
- Lipton’s Seat was the favorite view point of Sir Thomas Lipton (of tea fame) and is another superb walk
- Mountain biking in Sri Lanka’s Hill Country is the best way to get onto the more remote trails and see the rural highlights of Sri Lanka away from the main tourist routes
- You can go sea kayaking in Bentota
- White water rafting in Kithugalla
Combinations with Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka combines well with a multitude of destinations. The Maldives is the most popular twin-center, where you can spend a week seeing the more cultural side of Sri Lanka before ending up on the beach at one of the luxury resorts in the Maldives.
India is another popular combination, with flights to a great deal of destinations. Kerala or Tamil Nadu work well together given the proximity, but you can also fly direct to Delhi to access Rajasthan or Mumbai to explore the Tiger parks.
The Middle East also works well and often breaks the journey, so consider a stop in Dubai or Abu Dhabi on the way to Sri Lanka, or maybe think about Oman for an ultimate combination of deserts, culture, mountains and beaches!