Sri Lanka is one cool little country. We’ve just returned, having visited Colombo, the Cultural Triangle, Tea Country, Yala National Park, Tangalle and Galle Fort.
Sri Lanka offers a diversity that’s hard to match in such a small area: UNESCO World Heritage sites, Tea Country, interior mountains, rain forests, some of the best wildlife outside Africa, Buddhist culture, wild beaches and stunning food. It’s as easy to reach as Thailand, yet none of your friends have been here.
Our visit was a full two weeks, as there were so many parts of the country we wanted to explore! Here’s a run-down of where we went and what we learned…
Natural Beauty Abounds in Sri Lanka
Many people will skip the busy capital, but we thought a night here was important as context to the rest of the country. From a colonial gem, to a war-torn city, and now a city with a future, we were fascinated by the city’s architecture, it’s history, and now it’s future, as they build a new financial center downtown. Where to stay?The Residence by Uga Escapes. We loved the peace, the excellent food, and that we could walk out the door and explore a bit of the city.
One of the key areas of the “Cultural Triangle”, here our main purpose was to visit Sigiriya Rock Fortress, a truly impressive site on the top of a massive rock, once home to a regal palace overlooking the mountains and surrounding agricultural plains. Ruins and ancient wall art still exist, and the trek up is worth the 45 minutes, vertigo and sweat that it takes. Tip: Travel in shoulder season to avoid crowds in the Cultural Triangle. Start the climb up Sigiriya Rock Fortress at 7AM or risk getting stuck in a very long line of others also climbing to the top. Where to stay:The Water Garden with very nice villas overlooking water features and lily pads. They have a great Sri Lankan breakfast – we recommend it!
Sigiriya Rock Fortress - Climbing
Sigiriya Rock Fortress from Distance
Ancient Art of Batik Making - Near Sigiriya
HIking the Mountains Outside of Kandy and Santani Wellness Resort
Another corner of the Cultural Triangle, Kandy is a larger city and monastic center. It’s large monastery in the center is absolutely worth the visit: It houses a tooth relic of the Buddha, and so is considered an important pilgrimage site. Local pilgrims clad in white mix with tourists hoping for a glimpse at the urn which houses the relic; we recommend going to the temple at times when the relic is not on display as it is just too crowded. Where to stay: Once you’ve had your fill of temples here, we recommend heading into the countryside about an hour to Santani Wellness Resort, where you are surrounded by pristine mountains (hiking options are endless), can practice yoga or have local Ayurvedic spa treatments, and meals are designed just for you. And, oh, those views from the bungalows… this was our biggest surprise of the trip.
Take the train to Tea Country! What a fun way to travel, just you and the locals. Up into the highlands you’ll go… the air becomes fresher, the landscape greener, the people are different, and soon the scenery gives way to tea plantations, which workers still ply by hand, a key reason Sri Lankan Tea is some of the very best in the world. Lovely lakes and hills abound – walking around the region is a joy. And do visit a tea factory, where you’ll see the 75-year-old technology that still processes these valuable leaves today. Where to stay:Ceylon Tea Trails are a series of 5 guesthouses, former colonial tea plantation houses in fact, that have been converted into the most charming boutique hotels we found in Sri Lanka. This is a *must do* here!
Riding the Local Trains to Tea Country
Afternoon Tea in the Tea Country
Yalla National Park and Lovely Chena Huts Villa
YALLA NATIONAL PARK:
Sri Lanka is known to have some of the best wildlife outside of Africa, so we decided to check it out ourselves. While we would not say it is like Africa, it can be a really nice addition to an itinerary in Sri Lanka. Leopard are the most common predators here (although they are shy), and you are very likely to see elephant no matter where you are. Note that the conservation standards here are not quite up to par yet; they have a way to go to control vehicle traffic and improve their stewardship of the land and the wildlife. Where to stay:Chena Huts would be our pick. This might have been our favorite room overall – we had a view of the ocean, and had wild boar and peacocks stroll by our window at regular intervals! They also have a team of very passionate ranger, that take guests off the beaten path in the park, ensuring the best possible viewing experience, away from the crowds.
If a little beach time is in order, this area at the south of Sri Lanka is where to look. This is Sri Lanka’s original tourist destination, and receives several Europeans, but almost no one from North America. Long a place for backpackers, it’s finally home to some good luxury options. We recommend Anantara Peace Haven, a very complete and comfortable resort (we suggest the villas), with excellent food, and some terrific activities that really get you off the beaten path. This area is also home to Amanwella, although this was not one of our more favorite resorts in their otherwise amazing portfolio.
Anantara Peace Haven Tangalle
Sir Lankan Cacao Beans - Everything Grows Here
This UNESCO World Heritage town is a treat – still rejuvenating, it still has the aura of the Portuguese settlement it once was. A wonderful place to stroll, try some of the good restaurants, and do a little shopping while learning about the history of the area. Walk the old ramparts for dramatic views of the sea. Where to stay: Well, maybe our all-time favorite Aman Resort is here – Amangalla. Our stay was marvelous – it’s a colonial gem, graced with some of the finest service we had during our entire stay in Sri Lanka. Think Raffles Singapore, run by Aman and you’ll understand why we love it!
Vintage Nature of Galle Fort
Evening falls on Galle Fort and Colonial Comfort at Amangalla
There is so much to see and do inside a country smaller than the state of Connecticut. Now is the time, as tourism is still budding, and many places are still pristine. Many of our clients pair it with a stop in the Maldives at the end – perhaps a perfect combination for those who enjoy culture, but love a gorgeous stretch of sand at the same time. We’d go back in a heartbeat!