A tear drop shaped island afloat in the Indian Ocean boasts of a pristine coastline offering crystal clear waters, soft sand and tropical forests that form a perimeter around its unspoilt beaches. Welcome to Sri Lanka, where the sun always shines, the people greet you with a smile and the weather is perfect to lounge on the beach – all year long. A tropical haven, Sri Lanka’s natural bounty has long been recognized by denizens of the animal kingdom; man, or more accurately, travelers have only recently begun to acknowledge its unpretentious charm. Leopards, elephants, bears, monkeys, birds of mind-boggling variety, turtles, dolphins and whales are locals of this temperate paradise; infact Sri Lankan waters are part of an exclusive group that can boast of hosting whales all year round since time immemorial.
If the profusion of life this small island supports doesn’t indicate how special it is then perhaps its rich history and culture can stand testament to its brilliance. There’s so much to do and see in this tiny island that a traveler returning from a trip will inevitably sounds like a guidebook listing laurels. We’ll start with its capital Colombo, where most international travelers land. The most advanced and cosmopolitan city by far, Colombo represents Sri Lanka at its most modern. If there’s something to look forward in the capital it’s the nightlife, devoid everywhere else. From laidback pubs to thumping clubs (that tend to get a bit rowdy as the night progresses) Colombo is where everyone stops to party.
Head from Colombo to the island’s cultural triangle where ancient cities nestle under swaying palm fronds and coconut groves. Explore the cave temples of Dambulla or walk through the well preserved cities of Anuradhapura or Polonnaruwa, the civilization that’s credited for introducing Buddhism to Sri Lanka. For the more adventurous and less historically inclined, indulge in white water rafting or enjoy the stunning vistas from the vantage point of a hot air balloon. Hike to the top of Sigiriya, known as Lion’s Rock, a UNESCO World Heritage Site before making your way to cool Kandy with its cultivated hills and tea plantations. Hop on a scenic train from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya, the highest city in Sri Lanka. Walk across Horton Plains in the morning and enjoy the sunset by Nuwara Eliya’s picturesque lake.
There are lots of national parks in Sri Lanka that house an amazing variety of wild life, take a day out to visit one (we opted for Yala National Park) for a bumpy safari ride before heading towards the coast. Depending on the time of the year, Sri Lanka’s extensive coastline is always open for business. In the winter when its east coast is wet with rain, Sri Lanka’s south coast welcomes tourists fleeing freezing temperatures with warmth. There are more beaches than one can count and accommodation that fits every traveler’s budget. Be warned though, Sri Lankan beaches have no night life, save a few popular spots closer to Colombo that have a strip of bars along the beach. If you’re looking to party, this is definitely not the place. But if you’re in the mood to relax, unwind and dig your toes in the sand, there’s no better spot. Choose from Bentota, Hikkaduwa, Mirissa (where most holidaymakers stop for whale-watching) or Tangalle in the south to Trincomalee or Passikuda in the east, Negombo in the west or Jaffna in the north.
Jutting out into the Indian Ocean also stands the Galle Fort, Asia’s oldest living fort. Walk under imposing arches to enter this bastion of security that was built by the colonizing Portuguese, further fortified by the Dutch, only to eventually fall under British control until the island gained independence in 1948. There’s a real sense of history that permeates the entire fort, from its narrow cobbled streets, preserved as they were centuries ago to its high rampart walls that were built from corals and shells, Galle is by far the most mesmerizing city on the itinerary.
Where to Stay
There’s no lack of accommodation options in Sri Lanka with prices starting from low as $10-12 for backpackers to eye-watering charges at resorts. In Colombo Mount Lavinia and Galle Face Hotel come highly recommended – Galle Face is more central but doesn’t have a beach even though it’s on the ocean. Mount Lavinia has a gorgeous beach where they serve the catch of the day at a beach side restaurant. Bentota’s Saman Villa, a boutique resort will transport you to a lush world of luxury with its sumptuous villas, two beaches and an infinity pool that overlooks the ocean. Spend a night in the Galle Fort Hotel in Galle Fort, an experience you will cherish for life due to its well preserved architecture reminiscent of colonial times (we also spied Michelin star chef Marco Pierre White staying at the hotel, working to revamp its menu). Another boutique resort that comes highly recommend is Imagine Villa, a small property 10 minutes by tuk tuk from Mirissa that had the most stunning beach we encountered. Earl’s Regency in Kandy is also gorgeous though choosing another property within the city that might not be as luxurious is recommended.
Where to Shop
There’s tons of tea, cloth and handicrafts that you can pick up along the way in Sri Lanka. Barefoot is a great one stop shop for locally crafted house-hold items and has stores in both, Colombo and Galle. Don’t miss out on organic goodies at Spa Ceylon, infact don’t return until you’ve experienced one of its famous scrub and hot oil massages. For the fashionably inclined, Galle has the best boutiques with KK Fashion, Mimi Mango and The Three offering a trendy variety. Galle is also the place you want to pick up jewellery from (Sri Lanka is known for its gemstones, particularly sapphires).
Where to Eat
Stick to the local cuisine and fresh sea food in Sri Lanka. Most places, even proper resorts and hotels don’t have chefs that do international food well (we quickly realized this after ordering sushi at one resort, only to be served fist sized servings and frozen sashimi). Their coconut and curry leaf curries are divine, as is all the sea food they grill. Stop by the Ministry of Crabs in Colombo (voted one of Asia’s top 50 restaurants, owned by cricketer Kumar Sangakara) but remember to call and book in advance as it fills up quickly. Elita in Galle is another must visit stop on the culinary map followed by a little known restaurant called Asian Jewel Hotel near Hikkaduwa that serves the best curries we tasted in our entire trip.