TURN OVER A NEW LEAF
Find out why Sri Lanka is becoming everyone’s cup of tea
Venetian adventurer Marco Polo described Sri Lanka as “the finest island of its size in all the world”. Sure, that was in the 13th century and young Marco hadn’t seen Tasmania but the myriad wonders of this tropical nouveau-paradise are as varied and exotic as the scents in the spice gardens of Matale and Kegalle. In short, Sri Lanka is a potpourri of unpredictable pleasures.
Once a flyover location, eschewed by travellers for years because of civil war, Sri Lanka is fast emerging from its travails, posting sharp rises in tourism since the 26-year conflict ended in 2009. And Australians are catching on, finding Sri Lanka is so much more than the place where our tea comes from and our cricketers are bamboozled by mystical slow bowling.
Sri Lanka is a mix of natural and cultural marvels, pristine beaches, millennia-old heritage sites, multicultural festivals and colourful religious celebrations. Tea plantations glisten in the sun after a shower and the food is enlivened by liberal sprinklings of cardamom, nutmeg, mace, peppers and turmeric. Plus elephants and leopards and sloth bears, oh my!
As Kathy Millett of TravelManagers puts it: “Sri Lanka gently unfolds its treasures from hill stations to sandy beaches in a quiet, unassuming manner. It’s easy to get around, the food is glorious and the scenery spectacular. Easily accessed from Australia, Sri Lanka is great value for money and the locals are delighted to welcome you.”
HISTORY AND CULTURE
Sri Lanka’s cultural history extends back 3000 years and the country is a heritage treasure trove, especially around the sacred cities of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa. One of Sri Lanka’s most extraordinary sites is Sigiriya – aka Lion Rock – an ancient rock fortress near Dambulla. Dominated by a rock column that towers 200m above the surrounding jungle, the site also boasts unique frescoes, inscriptions and poems dating from the eighth century and a highly polished white plaster “mirror wall”. The nearby Dambulla cave temple complex holds about 150 Buddha statues and paintings, and swallows swoop at the entrance at dusk.
“Sigiriya is a UNESCO World Heritage site featuring extensive gardens, fountains and lakes and is considered to be the oldest landscaped garden in the world,” says Alison Mead, general manager, Collette Australia. “Travellers can ascend the peak and explore the ruins of this ancient city.”
From Jaffna in the north to the fortified city of Galle in the south, you’ll find bejewelled temples and colonial forts to explore. Lucy Jackson, a director at Lightfoot Travel, recommends a tour of Galle Fort (ask for a guide called Shanjei) as well as checking out the lesser-known and Indian-influenced far north, where colourful saris and Hindu temples represent the region’s unique character. “Head north (on the new train) to the uncharted territories of Jaffna. Wander the Portuguese-built fort, visit Delft Island and explore some of the oldest shrines in Sri Lanka,” suggests Lucy.
Sri Lanka is an island of tremendous topographical diversity, from the beaches, wetlands and rivers to the cool air, towering waterfalls and lush, green tea fields in the misty central highlands and north central Valley of the Kings.
Elephants are synonymous with Sri Lanka, and it is possible to interact with them ethically. Alison Mead recommends a trip to the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage.
“At Pinnawala, guests can immerse themselves in the iconic wildlife of Sri Lanka. The orphanage cares for abandoned and wounded elephants of all ages and guests can observe the special interaction with their handlers,” she says.
You’ll also find the gentle giants en masse – and lots more wildlife – in the country’s 17 national parks with ecosystems ranging from moist monsoon forests to freshwater and marine wetlands, savannah country and highlands.
The best time to visit is when the water levels are low, which brings the animals into the open. In the east of the country, this is generally between February and July, and in the west, May to October.
Take a jeep safari at Minneriya National Park in the north central plains and see elephants, frogs, butterflies and birds, including thousands of cormorants diving for fish. Yala National Park, where the jungle meets the ocean on the southeast coast, was a hunting ground during British rule and is now home to herds of elephants, leopards, buffalo, deer, crocodiles and sloth bears. And a new luxe glamping accommodation, Wild Coast Tented Lodge, a safari camp of cocoon-style suites, opened in November.
Well-known for its pure strips of white sand, warm, clear water and palm trees, Sri Lanka also has the perfect weather for a beach holiday. If it’s raining on one coast, it’s probably sunny on the other (See How’s The Weather?).
From relaxed and sparse to celebratory and fun, there’s a beach for all tastes and every water sport, including windsurfing, kayaking, yachting, water skiing, snorkelling, scuba, and especially surfing.
The southern and southwestern beaches are the most popular. Unawatuna and Mirissa are ideal for swimming and snorkelling, while scuba enthusiasts should head to Hikkaduwa and its coral sanctuary just offshore. Surfers will love the waves at Mirissa and Weligama. The southwest is also where you’ll find most of the resorts and the chic hotels. TripAdviser ratings suggest you can’t go wrong at Cinnamon Grand Colombo in the capital, The Blue Water in Wadduwa, Club Hotel Dolphin in Waikkal and Avani Bentota Resort & Spa.
If you prefer “undiscovered” and rustic, the east coast beaches at Uppuveli, Nilaveli, Pasikudah and Arugam Bay are perfect for lovers of long right-handers, gnarly hollow tubes and fresh seafood.
Many of the fragrant tea plantations still collect and package tea using traditional 19th century methods. The train from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya (the “Little England” of Ceylon) passes through spectacular hill country past waterfalls and deep green plantations.
A more vigorous exploration of this area begins at the Kithal Ella station, where a two-hour trek up Ella Rock is rewarded with misty views of the rugged mountains. Also
SRI LANKA GENTLY UNFOLDS ITS TREASURES FROM HILL STATIONS TO SANDY BEACHES
recommended is the guided tour of Pedro Tea Estate in Kandapola and a round of golf at Nuwara Eliya Golf Club. For top-end accommodation in the tea country, check out the colonial-style Thotalagala in Haputale and Ceylon Tea Trails, a boutique luxury bungalow getaway near Hatton.
Lucy Jackson says taking the seaplane from Colombo to Ceylon Tea Trails is the perfect way to start your holiday.
HOW TO GET AROUND
Sonia Pilovska, head of tours, Luxury Escapes, says the narrow roads and congestion can be a challenge for those used to Australian conditions and things like road rules.
“If you’re travelling just a short distance, the ubiquitous motorised tuktuks are fun and, for longer trips, book a coach or private driver,” says Sonia. “We’re seeing more travellers choosing small group tours to enjoy the comfort of a private vehicle and the know-how of local guides who can offer experiences you couldn’t have on your own.”
Sri Lankan Airlines now operates direct flights from Melbourne, making it easier than ever for Aussies to get there.
HOW’S THE WEATHER?
Sri Lanka is blessed with dual monsoon winds that ensure superb conditions somewhere on the island throughout the year.
“Sri Lanka has a blissful tropical climate. It’s varied, so you can go from sunbathing in the southern beaches to the cool breezes of the Hill Country on the same holiday,” says Lucy Jackson.
“There are two distinct monsoon seasons and the main southwestern monsoon brings rain to the popular southwest between May and September. In short, the best time to visit the west and south coasts and hill country is from December to March, while the best weather on the east coast is from April/May to September.”
WHO GOES THERE?
TravelManagers’ Kathy Millett recommends Total Holidays for their local contacts and up-to-date knowledge. They have options from seven to 14 days, in a small group or by private car with an English-speaking driver and experienced tour guide. TRAVELMANAGERS.COM.AU; TOTALHOLIDAYOPTIONS.COM.AU/COUNTRIES/SRI-LANKA/
Lightfoot Travel offers 10 Sri Lankan itineraries. Most cover the main attractions but provide a different emphasis: honeymoon, beaches, family-friendly, wildlife, heritage, cultural and “untouched north”. LIGHTFOOTTRAVEL.COM/DESTINATIONS/SRILANKA/
Scenic’s Ultimate Sri Lanka is a 14-day luxury tour from Negombo to Colombo, taking in beaches, colonial sites, central highlands, tea plantations and a Madu River cruise. This insight is designed around boutique, heritage and cultural style hotels and experiences for groups of up to 16. From $12,890 a person. SCENIC.COM.AU/TOUR/ULTIMATE-SRILANKA/6805
Collette’s 13-day Exploring Sri Lanka is so popular it has sold out for 2018. The tour includes a cruise on the Mahaweli River, a visit to Bandu Wijesooriya School of Dancing, Sri Lankan mask making, cultural shows and a visit to the wildlife sanctuary at Minneriya National Park. GOCOLLETTE.COM/EN/TOURS/ASIA/SRI-LANKA/ EXPLORING-SRI-LANKA
Trafalgar’s nine-day Wonders of Sri Lanka encompasses the important sites with emphasis on the spicy cuisine and hospitality of the Sri Lankan people. A feature of Trafalgar’s tours is its signature “Be My Guest” dining. On this trip you’ll sit down to lunch with Ganga Akka, a mother of two who lives in a small traditional 1950s house in the village of Katugastota near Kandy. Have a chat as Ganga prepares curries, rice dishes and sambols combined with colourful and fiery hot spices to complement the flavour and add medicinal value. From $3175 a person. TRAFALGAR.COM/AUS/DESTINATIONS/ASIA /SRI-LANKA
APT is launching a 13-day tour this month. The Spirit of Sri Lanka tours will run from September 2019 to March 2020 and will take in six World Heritage listed sites, the Minneriya and Yala National Parks and dining experiences at the Ministry of Crab restaurant, owned by former cricketers Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara, a cave dinner at Heritance Kandalama and a Railway Carriage Dinner at Heritance Tea Factory. From $8995 a person. APTOURING.COM.AU/
The island paradise has endless beaches to explore, coral reefs, tea plantation tours and fascinating architecture.