I’ve dreamed about visiting Sri Lanka for as long as I can remember, and now that I’m back, I can’t imagine why it took me so long to go! Sri Lanka is deceptively rich and diverse – it looks so little on a world map! When I first started plotting my itinerary, I suspected that a week would be plenty of time to see the highlights, but while doing more research it was clear I’d need at least double that amount of time.
I flew on Qatar Airways and had a perfect experience. Only two flights from Boston to Colombo with an easy transfer in Doha! They have many US gateways and an ever-expanding flight network around the world, and I highly recommend them.
Sri Lanka is on the cusp of a tourism boom, so this is the ideal time to go. It’s not too busy yet but the country is prepared, and there’s great awareness about developing tourism in a sustainable way. The quality of roads and comfort of vehicles was way better than I anticipated and I found excellent boutique accommodation choices all around the country. I had a private driver/guide for my entire trip and he added greatly to my experience and my understanding of the cultures and complicated history of Sri Lanka.
I adored my time in Sri Lanka and would go back again in a heartbeat. The people are extraordinarily kind and welcoming, I always felt completely safe, the food is incredible, the scenery unique and diverse, and travel time from place to place was fairly short, usually no more than a half-day at most.
I started with a couple of nights at Ulagalla near Anuradhapura in the heart of the cultural triangle. Ulagalla is a 58-acre property with the historic main house serving as the common area, reception, restaurant and bar, and then there are a handful of villas scattered all over the property, each totally private. The private plunge pools are so welcome at the start and end of each day, and I rode my (included) bicycle around the estate and back and forth to the main lodge, great fun! Of course you can also call for the staff to collect you in a golf cart if biking isn’t your thing. My only regret about my time at Ulagalla was that I didn’t stay a third night, and have a full free day to explore the property itself.
It was at Ulagalla that I had my first traditional curry meal for dinner and I was immediately hooked. The food is so, so good! I was startled at first to see my table set with about 20 small plates with various unidentifiable ingredients, but it didn’t take long before I was eating curries three meals a day. Every curry meal is totally different, but always a variety of components – some vegetarian, some meat, some fish, and always rice or string hoppers (noodles), dhal, coconut sambal and various chutneys to turn your meal into a complete sensation. Even now, I still haven’t stopped craving the meals I had in Sri Lanka.
I spent my first few days of touring exploring the ancient cities and temples of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, and seeing the massive herds of elephants in Kaudalla National Park, and getting a traditional Ayurvedic massage for ‘research’.
The highlight of my time in this area, however, was my visit to Sigiriya. I’ve always been fascinated by ancient urban planning and engineering, and Sigiriya was astounding. Sigiriya Rock is a gigantic volcanic plateau rising hundreds of feet up out of the forest. Originally a monastery from the 3rd century BC, King Kasyapa then rebuilt the mountaintop and surrounding grounds as his royal residence in the 5th century. Even on a hot morning, the surrounding grounds were lush, green, cool and shady enough. Geyser-like fountains still work, fed from the small reservoirs and canals full of rain water. There is plenty to see walking through the grounds, even before you reach the lion’s paws carved in the rock that mark the start of the climb to the top. It looks daunting, but it’s worth every step as you wind around the edge of the rock, decorated by frescoes, to the top where knockout views and the ruins of an entire palace, (and even a swimming pool!) await.
After Sigiriya and a couple of nights spent on the edge of the giant lake in Kandalama, my driver took me south towards Kandy for a night, then I caught the train up to tea country. Luckily I had a jacket with me, because we gained so much elevation that the mornings and evenings were very chilly, and I even turned on the heat in my room! It was such a drastic change from the warm (but not hot) rolling hills further north, and here I was only a few hours later up in the mountains, all slopes covered by tea plantations, Tamil families hand-picking tea leaves, and old colonial tea factories rebuilt into boutique hotels, all decked out for Christmas, complete with snowflake decorations. It was fascinating to watch the entire tea process from picking fresh leaves to drinking a steaming cup of delicious tea, and I made sure to bring a few boxes home.
From tea country, we descended back to sea level rapidly over a couple of hours’ drive, and emerged onto the hot plains of the southern provinces, bound for Yala National Park. The chance to see leopards was one of the original driving reasons for me to make this trip and although I was surprised and delighted by my trip so far, I was thrilled to be heading to Yala. We left tea country early enough that I arrived in Yala in time for lunch and an afternoon game drive.
I spent two nights glamping with Leopard Trails, and I wouldn’t trade that time for anything. I was there before the busier season, so there were only 8 of us in camp, along with two fabulous guides and the staff. Yala National Park is known for having the highest density of leopards in Sri Lanka, but they are still elusive which only adds to the anticipation and excitement on each drive. We saw signs of leopards, we saw leopard tracks, we heard monkeys screaming and carrying on because a leopard was nearby, but where was he?! When we finally saw our first one at the end of our first game drive, I was so rapt watching him in the dying light that I had to rely on my guide to take a decent photo!
I really love being in camp with very early wake-up calls with hot coffee, tea or chocolate waiting for you, being in the wild on a game drive as the sun rises, seeing the jungle wake up in the fresh morning air, being so relaxed but also so focused on your surroundings that you see not only the large animals (elephants, leopard, various deer, the naughty macaques, the nimble black langurs), but also the birds, insects and butterflies. I love returning to camp for a Sri Lankan breakfast, while feeling like it should be lunchtime and still having a whole day in front of us! Plenty of time to relax or visit or look through photos before going out, full of anticipation again, in our high open vehicles for the evening game drive. The evenings were fun and relaxed, stories and cocktails around the bonfire before a delicious candlelight meal. Two nights here, along with 4 game drives, were perfect and everyone going to Sri Lanka should include Leopard Trails and Yala on their itinerary.
I finished my trip with a few nights on the beach – of course! Depending on the season, there are beaches all around the west, south and east coasts, all gorgeous in their own right, and the decision is based on the season and whether you prefer a surfing or a swimming beach. I’m a swimmer, so I opted for Talalla Beach on the southeast coast. Miles of fresh clean sand, sunrise out of the Indian Ocean, the full moon on my second night, and gorgeous warm water for floating and swimming was the perfect way to cap off my trip. The local fishermen went out every morning at daybreak, and I saw the fish caught that would then be cooked for my dinner.
Driving back to Colombo on my last day before a very late departure flight, I saw the sun rise out of the Indian Ocean at Talalla Beach, and I saw it set into the Indian Ocean as we reached Colombo. How perfect is that? Sri Lanka is a small enough island that one can see that happen in a single day, but so rich with culture, kindness, diversity and deliciousness that you’re best to take your time exploring, and then go back again for another look. I know I will.