There are so many things that make Sri Lanka incredible. For such a small country it has such a rich history with some much to offer: beaches, jungles, tea plantations, mountains, safari and more. We, (my partner and I), travelled around for two weeks, which was the perfect amount of time, and moved around every few days.
If you’re flying straight into the capital, Colombo, I wouldn’t recommend hanging around. There isn’t much to see or do there. We landed into Colombo and got a car to take us straight to Negombo, a west-coast beach town, to acclimatise to the time difference and the weather. My god, it was humid.
On the way to Negombo we stopped at a fish market, where all the local sellers were drying their fish in the midday sun. It stank! Ashamedly, my initial thought was, I hope the entire island doesn’t smells like this.
We stayed one night in Negombo at the Jetwing Sea Hotel. The room was big and looked out onto the stormy Sri Lankan seas. It was my first experience of Sri Lankan service, and it was wonderful. Sri Lankan people were incredibly welcoming, attentive and kind. They even had a breakfast barman!
After our first night in Sri Lanka, we headed straight into the centre of the island to Damulla. Dambulla Cave Temple, also known as the Golden Temple of Dambulla, is a World Heritage Site in Sri Lanka. The Golden Temple is a sacred pilgrimage site that has existed over 22 centuries. It houses five sanctuaries making it the largest, best-preserved cave-temple complex in Sri Lanka. The Buddhist mural paintings (covering an area of 2,100 m2 ) are of particular importance, as are the 157 statue inside the caves.
Damulla was also the first place I saw the toque macaque monkey. There were tons of them and would forever surround me throughout my stay in Sri Lanka.
After visiting the Damulla Cave temples, we went to one of the most popular areas of Sri Lanka: Sigiriya.
Sigiriya is an ancient rock fortress that juts an impressive 200 metres out of the ground. According to an ancient Sri Lankan chronicle, (and our tour guide), the site was selected and built by King Kasyapa (477 – 495 CE) as his new capital. He built his palace on the top of this rock and on a small plateau about halfway up the side of this rock he built a gateway in the form of an enormous lion. The name of this place is derived from this structure: Sīhāgiri, the Lion Rock. You can see the outline of other areas he built, including moats, prayer houses and a hareem, which he apparently used to peep into! Cheeky sod.
It’s a pretty tricky climb if you’re afraid of heights. I’m not usually, but I was a little concerned by the number of people on the narrow stair cases jutting out of the side of the rock.
Oh, and the hornets nests. Yep, you read that correctly. If you’re standing at the foot of the Lion, look up and to the left. You’ll see several dark pointed nests. At first I thought they were the Lion’s teeth, but they are live hornet’s nests. There are signs along the climb warning you to be quiet, as to not disturb the nests, but with all the screaming children and loud Spaniards, they easily go unnoticed.
Steep climbs and hornets aside, the view from the top of the rock is outstanding. There was one view in particular where I thought, this is paradise. I hope you find it.
Top tip: go to Sigiriya as soon as it opens. The queues become very long very quickly, not to mention the fact that you don’t want to be climbing up in the midday sun.
Minneriya National park is a national park in the North Central area of Sri Lanka. Not far from Sigiriya. Minneriya isn’t the ‘famous’ national park of Sri Lanka. If you’re looking for that, that would be Yala National Park in the Southern Province, with their 215 bird species, 44 recorded mammals and one of the highest densities of leopard in the world. (Side note: if you go to Yala National Park, I heard that the Tree House is a really fun way to spend an evening).
That said, Minneriya houses 24 species of mammals, 160 species of birds, 9 species of amphibians, 25 species of reptiles, 26 species of fish, and 75 species of butterflies. And, best of all, has an incredibly high number of elephants.
Top tip: go to the park at around 3pm. That way you have a few hours in the afternoon to drive around and you’re exiting the park at 6pm which is when it shuts and the sun goes down. The sky is outstanding.
Poḷonnaruwa, again not too far from Sirgiriya or Minneriya in the North Central Province, is the old capital city of Sri Lanka. It’s an ancient city in itself and spread across a few miles, so best to go with a car, or even better, by bicycle. Today, Polonnaruwa is an incredible archaeological relic sites that shows the vastness of the country’s first rulers.
As well as the ruins themselves, the toque macaques monkeys are big draw for tourists. There are hundreds of them. And be warned: you if have food on you, they will know and they will take it from you.
For all these North Central Province visits (Siririya, Minneriya and Polonnaruwa), we stayed in a central location and did day trips to each destination. The hotel, situated slightly south of Habarana village, was called Aliya Resort & Spa, and I have no doubt that it is one of the most beautiful and impressive hotels in Sri Lanka. We slept in one of their deluxe luxury tents for three nights, which was heavenly. Everything from the pool, the staff, the views and food were excellent. If you’re headed in that direction, I would urge you to stay there.
And yes, that is Sigiriya Rock you can see from the hotel.
After getting comfortable at Aliya for three days, we went straight to Kandy. I had heard such impressive things about Kandy, and honestly, I was a little disappointed. It’s the second largest city in Sri Lanka (after Colombo) and is a bustling place to visit. Don’t get me wrong, the scenery is stunning: Kandy is set on a flatland that is surrounded by mountains of green that are home to tea plantations and the rain forest, but I didn’t think that there was much too it, other than a busy city.
Kandy is famous of the Temple of the Sacred Tooth, which Buddhist’s believe, houses the relic of the tooth of the Buddha. Like, the actual Buddha. So it’s a pretty important and holy place.
Kandy is also well known for it’s Botanical Gardens. I love a botanical garden, and if you do, you’ll love this one. It’s pretty big, but we managed to get around it in a three hours. If you go, make sure you look up. There are literally thousands of bats who live in the tree tops. At times, I felt like I was in Gotham.
We stayed in Kandy for two nights, and slept at the Mahaweli Reach Hotel. I wouldn’t recommend it. They weren’t particularly friendly when we arrived, and on two occasions when we were shown a table in the restaurant, the tables cloths were dirty. When I pointed it out to the staff, they looked at me like I was crazy.
The drive from Kandy to Nuwara Ella took around four hours, and on the way we made a quick pitstop to go to the bathroom and the hotel we stopped at had not only incredible views, but the rooms themselves looked great. Minimal chic. I would have like to have stayed there one night. It was called Tea Bush Ramboda.
Nuwara Eliya is, apparently, referred to by the Sri Lankan tourist industry as ‘Little England’, which I would assume it given because of the race course and golf course in the town, because those two things are quintessentially British, right?!
The town of Nuwara Ella itself is quite small and frankly, a little boring. But the drive through the tea plantations to get there, was outstanding. Go go go! Along the way we stopped at a tea factory to learn about tea-making and had a cuppa.
Train ride to Ella
The train ride to Ella is something everyone should do. We took a train for three and a half hours from Nuwariya Ella to Ella, and it was a particular highlight of the holiday. There’s a seven hour train journey from Kandy straight to Ella – if you can get on that train, do!
Trains in Sri Lanka have four classes: third, second, first and a final one called Expo. This last class is purely for tourists – the price is much higher (but still affordably by Western standards), you’re reserved a seat and even given a cup of tea and cake. If you can, I would recommend booking an Expo ticket, as that section of the train has a carriage that is open with benches, so it’s the best way to see the views.
Ella is back-packers Heaven, so in other words it’s incredibly touristy. That said, I thought it was charming. We arrived into Ella at night and drove through town, up the winding road which had restaurants all along it with hanging lights (I’m a sucker for a fairy light), with people sitting and drinking outside. It felt very special.
The views from the mountain tops in Ella are breathtaking, the hotels are charming and romantic and the hikes were daring in places.
We booked our trip to Sri Lanka incredibly last minute, which meant that all the best hotels in Ella were fully booked. So we had to split our stay across two hotels: The Secret Ella Hotel and Mountain Heavens Hotel.
The Secret was unique and wonderful. It has a total of seven rooms so the level of service is outstanding. We were given the family suite which had its own butler. I think the hotel is used for a lot of yoga retreats as the place felt very spiritual and the hotel didn’t serve alcohol. But don’t worry, if you like a glass of something with your meal like me, all you needed to do was to pop across to its sister hotel next door and use their bar.
Mountain Heavens Hotel on the other had was awful. The bathroom was dirty when we arrived, and the canopy around the four-poster bed was stained and musty.
The hotel seemed to be run by one young man (he couldn’t have been older than 25), and he seemed to be the manager, the bell boy, the waiter and the pool man. Despite all of the things he was responsible for, he made the hotel stay much less painful. He was the most charming, patient and kind young man, who clearly knew the hotel wasn’t up to the right standards, but made you feel incredibly welcome and cared for. Sadly though, he’s not enough for me to encourage anyone to stay there.
Things to do in Ella: If you want to see some incredible views for not much effort, walk up Little Adam’s Peak. If you wanted a tougher hike, climb Ella Rock.
A couple of hours West of Ella, in Ohiya, is the Horton Plains National Park. We didn’t get to make it there, but World’s End is supposed to be an incredible hike. I hear you can climb it in the early morning and get to the top within 4 hours to watch the sunrise.
Visit Galle and its Fort on the southwest coast of Sri Lanka. The fort was originally built by the Portuguese, then taken over by the Dutch in the 17th century. The fort itself is pretty impressive, but the town of Galle is what is really charming.
You’ll see a huge Western influence in the shops, cafes and bars. And it has a large number of jewellery shops. That’s where I purchased my first ever precious stone – a sapphire. I bought it from Laksana on Hospital Road. If you head that way, pop in and try something on.
Whilst in Galle we stumbled upon a stunning hotel called The Galle Fort Hotel. It had a limited number of rooms and quaint courtyard where I ate lunch. The meal was outstanding. Not your typical Sri Lankan curries, (given the Western influence of the area), but it was delicious. I’d go back in a heart beat.
We didn’t stay in Galle, but I was recommended the Apa Villa Thaple.
Bentota, a beach on the West coast, was were we ended the two week trip. We stayed at the glamorous Centara Beach Resort where we rested, sun-bathed, exercised(!!!), ate and drank for four days. I had heard that the beaches on the East of the island are prettier, but the best thing about being on the West of the island was that you get to see the sun setting.
I can honestly say Sri Lanka is one of the most incredible countries I have ever visited and would urge everyone to go. It’s small enough to see most things in two weeks, and if you really wanted to end on romantic beaches, well, the Maldives are only an hours flight away.
Southern Sri Lanka
We didn’t make it down to southern Sri Lanka, but I heard that it’s surfer’s Heaven, and that Talalla is the place to stay.
As I mentioned above, Yala National Park is the big one if you’re after leopards and other magical creatures.
Northern Sri Lanka
The end of the recent civil war in Sri Lanka means that the North is accessible and safe for tourists. We didn’t have time to go, but Jaffna, which is the capital city of the Northern Province, is the place to go.
Sri Lanka: July 30 – August 14 2016