Many travel enthusiasts see a destination as ‘ticked off’ once they’ve visited it once, but this travel writer make a strong case for why Sri Lanka is well worth a repeat trip.
The ranga waved at us from our agreed spot in Arrivals. We beamed in return rather than wave, our hands caught up with two weeks’ worth of luggage. We were back in Sri Lanka – and back so soon after our last trip that we had a friend to meet us at the airport. Not only that: we were here for 15 deliciously long days…
I don’t get to say those statements often. Perhaps like you, insatiable travellers reading this piece right now, I prefer to visit new places, only returning – if ever – years after my first trip, and certainly not for more than a week. But that’s Sri Lanka for you: you’ll never get your fill. Which other destination rolls out wild deserted beaches, tranquil tea country, thrilling surf, elephant safaris, cool colonial hotels, ancient temples and spicy cashew-nut curry?
Sri Lanka is worth every duplicate passport stamp and expended holiday allowance. Ten times over.
So let me and Tharanga – a Sri Lanka local, guide, driver, proud dad, horoscope-reader and secret-beachfinder – show you how we’d see the island for the first time. You don’t need three, or even two, weeks – you can cover the best bits in 10 days. If you do have longer, I’ll show you what to add on (and what to skip), turning this into your very own Sri Lankan adventure.
Will you choose the closest beach? Or a jungly retreat near the airport? Your call, then set off on your escapade the next day. Even those with the toughest constitution should hire a driver in Sri Lanka – you’ll pay roughly $80 a day if hire one yourself, or up to double that if you leave it to an agent. We’re off on a greatest-hits tour of the country – beaches, hill country, wildlife, temples and more – but you’ve a three-hour journey ahead of you, whether you take the circuit clockwise or anti-clockwise. Will you climb eastwards, up to the cool tea plantations first, or head south to the sultry coast? I always do the latter (the cuppa can wait).
There’s a full cocktail menu of beaches between the two tropical towns of Galle and Tangalle, and each are able to slake any kind of thirst. At boho Wijaya Beach, turtles swim between your legs in the placid lagoon. On Mirissa Bay, boats whisk you off to seek out blue whales – the largest animal ever to have graced planet Earth. At Koggala, fishermen on stilts pose in the shallows at sunset. Surf lessons and squid curry are up for grabs on postcard-pretty Weligama Bay, and bodyboarding and juice bars on backpackery Hiriketiya. It’s cooler and calmer on the crescent they call Talalla, and positively soundless if you make it as far as Tangalle – especially if you track down what they call ‘Silent Beach’ (but please keep the directions to yourself).
Three days of loafing and eating kottu roti – a onedish wonder of shredded roti flatbread, egg, vegetables, chicken and spices – should do it. This leisurely launch into your holiday needn’t be utterly culture-free, either. Easy to reach from all these beaches is Galle (between 15 minutes and an hour’s drive); some people use this gorgeous colonial ex-capital as a base from which to see the coast, others vice versa. My advice is to stay on the beach, but duck into waterfront Galle for sunset, when locals come to fly kites, schoolchildren to play cricket and young couples to smooch on the sea wall beneath umbrellas (which never see rain).
After dark, in the glow of gelato stands and cafes laced with fairy lights, the narrow streets come to life: old print works and rampart homes, reinvented by entrepreneurial folk as small inns, have terraces abuzz with feasting families under wicker ceiling fans. Ask any Sri Lanka devotee to name their favourite spot in the country and it’s guaranteed that 99 out of 100 will say ‘Galle’.
Now comes your next crossroads: big cats or elephants? Yala National Park is home to the highest density of leopards in the world, not to mention the bucket-list Wild Coast hotel, a collection of canvas-wrapped space-craft-accommodation pods scattered along the Indian Ocean (so ‘wild’ that we once had to stay indoors when staff warned that a feline stalker was at large in the grounds). But from Galle, Yala is also three hours east in the wrong direction if you later want to go inland to temples and tea country (you do). Instead, many travellers – especially those with kids in tow, or anyone tight on time – make the journey via Udawalawe National Park, land of the pachyderm. Sightings aren’t just guaranteed, they’re trunk-squirtingly close, since the reserve is a manageable size and numbers are high; Udawalawe is the favoured hangout also of water buffaloes, langur monkeys, eagles, kingfishers and crocodiles. One night here should do it, as long as you arrive by late lunchtime (game drives depart 3pm and 5am, organised by your hotel), enabling you to venture into the reserve twice.
Onwards and upwards now, climbing and twisting along a waterfall-splashed road that ascends through the clouds and delivers you to the tea hills two hours later. Were this India or China, you could never hope to tick off hill country and surf beaches as well as a big-cat safari in a seven-day holiday (unless you had your own chopper or time machine), but you can in Sri Lanka. And then you can take one of the world’s most scenic train routes on to your last stop. For just $3!
It’s difficult to articulate the attraction of tea country, but it seduces everybody. Is it the drop in temperature? The rise in altitude? The lack of wi-fi signal? It seems suspended in time somehow, with an altogether different pace from the one you’ve been used to. (You’ll sleep for about 10 hours nightly, exhausted, despite doing nothing more taxing than playing Scrabble and eating lemon drizzle cake each day.) There are the main hub towns – Ella, Nuwara Eliya, Hatton and Haputale – but, honestly, there’s really not much between them. There are botanic gardens, grand Victorian manor houses, tea factory tastings and, of course, countless classic bars in which to drink a cooling G&T. But for me, tea country is about finding a remote bungalow hotel, pouring a cup of Ceylon’s finest, and inhaling the scenery: hillocks looking like knees draped in a green blanket; distant misty tea-covered valleys; wild alliums, dahlias and agapanthus. Hike, if you must, but be sure to stop for a while and simply breathe it all in.
If there is a meaningful difference between the tea towns, it’s where they fall on the train route north to Kandy (your next, and last, stop). This trundle of a journey, which often seems to take one lurch forward only to take two back, is – nevertheless – rated one of the world’s most picturesque railways. Train bloggers and tour operators will tell you it’s absolutely critical that you book a seat in the pricey First Class Observation Carriage, but that’s really not true. As long as you nab a window seat (and as long as your window can open), that’s really all that matters; that and the fact that you take the most spectacular stretch: between Ella and Hatton (hence choosing a hotel that lies near the beginning and not the end of this portion). Along the way, you’ll see emerald tea bushes growing in unfeasibly neat rows on unfeasibly steep surfaces; you’ll spy flashes of red, orange and yellow – tea-pickers bent low, sacks on their backs; you’ll spot wild orchids, cliff-hugging creeks and the glorious blue arc of your train ahead as it rounds yet another curve in the track. But what you can’t capture in your viewfinder is the smell of hot samosas wafting through the carriages and the echo of kids’ hoots every time the train goes through a tunnel. Unforgettable.
All alight here for Kandy, please. It’s time for the Temple of the Tooth (and time to pack away that hill-country cardigan – this city swelters). The Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic is what lures most to Kandy – a gorgeous set of golden-roofed stupas, halls and shrines, with one inner room that is said to contain a tooth of the Buddha. Warning: you won’t actually get to see this. It’s in a box in a box in a box, which then sits behind a curtain, but that’s not really the point. You’re here to get barefoot and immerse yourself in the incense-thick atmosphere, shuffling up against hundreds of fellow worshippers, lighting a candle, stopping to marvel at the flower offerings and glorious garlands that have made their way here from devout households all over the country. At the temple exit you’ll soon realise you’re on the banks of Lake Kandy, big enough for pleasure boats, with a pretty island in the centre. Sri Lankan legend has it that the then-king’s harem used it for bathing and it was connected to the palace by a secret tunnel. All I know is that it makes a cracking sunset photo.
If you’ve squeezed all of this into 10 days, pat yourself on the back, head reluctantly for the airport, and start planning your return trip. If you’re travelling at a more leisurely pace, now’s the time to take advantage of your position in Kandy and move further north – to Sigiriya (an ancient rock fortress) and the Dambulla Caves (an amazingly preserved temple cave complex). Got even longer? Lucky you. These two ancient sites mark the perfect pit stop en route to Trincomalee, the serene shoreline of the east coast. (‘Trinco’ beaches are also at their loveliest for the opposite six months to the choppier southern beaches, so a great option if you can only get away between March and August.)
I’ve yet to make it to Trincomalee myself. Tharanga taunts me, describing how beautiful it is, how his young family love to take holidays there. But what he doesn’t realise is that it’s all part of my cunning Sri Lanka plan: if I ticked off Trinco on this trip, what reason could I give my editor to go back? Again?