The southwestern coast of Sri Lanka is world-famous for its beaches. But if you aren’t up to busy beach resorts such as Bentota, Unawatuna and Hikkaduwa, which line this coast, pack yourself off to little-known Ambalangoda. Barely 100km south of Colombo, and arrived at by car or train, it’s a scenic journey whichever mode of transport you choose. The beach features white sands, clear waters and solitude. Accommodation options are waterfront properties such as Max Wadiya, a chic colonial-style villa (from $275 doubles, all-inclusive; maxwadiya.com). Once you tear yourself away from the fabulous beach, make sure you visit the mask-making factory. Hand carved from a local lightweight wood, the famous masks of Ambalangoda are characterised by demonic faces in loud colours. Traditional devil dances, meant to ward off evil spirits, can sometimes be seen in the nearby villages.
The beaches of Sri Lanka’s eastern coast bore the brunt of the savage 2004 tsunami. And the war rendered much of this region out of bounds to the visitor in any case. But seven years down the line, this virgin stretch is calling. Arugam Bay is perhaps the best-known of the little fishing towns and villages that dot this stretch, and has become popular as a surfing site after it slowly shook off the effects of the tsunami. It’s still quiet, pretty and well worth a visit, offering a variety of day trips — it’s surrounded by wetlands and forests. Stay at Stardust Beach Hotel ($35-75; arugambay.com). Also consider travelling further up the coast: the beaches of Pasikudah and Kalkudah near Batticaloa (110km from Arugam Bay) have been recently opened to the public. A brand new, super-chic stay option is the Maalu Maalu Resort in Pasikudah (from $320; maalumaalu.com).
This fascinating conical mountain (7,500ft) located in southwest Sri Lanka, 65km from Colombo, and overlooking the forested Central Highlands, is among the best-known natural sights in the country. Its distinctive profile and a giant footprint-shaped depression on a boulder makes this a sacred mountain for Buddhists, Hindus, Christians and Muslims alike. Most people visit the peak between December and May, and especially in April to catch the sunrise and the distinctive triangular shadow that the peak casts on the surrounding plains. There are six possible trails up to the summit, and if you’re looking for some adventure, try out the non-pilgrim Murraywatte, Mookuwatte or Malimboda routes.
Sri Lanka’s sumptuous cuisine commands a potpourri of influences—Indian, Arab, Malay, Dutch, Portuguese and English. And you can sample it all without setting foot out of Colombo. The Gallery Café (paradiseroadsl.com/cafe) is stylish and authentic. For Jaffna fare head to Palmyrah at the Renuka Hotel (renukahotel.com). At Vilasa Kitchen, Majestic City Mall, you can sample that Burgher speciality called lampries — banana leaf parcels of rice, with fish or chicken curry and a side of sambol. And don’t miss street eats like isso wade and kottu-rotty along Galle Face Green, the striking seafront promenade.
The island is just as famous for its shopping as it is for its beaches. And you can do it all in Colombo. The Odel department store (odel.lk) is a convenient one-stop for clothes, homeware, foodstuff and souvenirs—perfect if you’re on a flying visit. Those with more time should explore Pettah’s warren of lanes, where you’ll find everything from spices and jewellery to rare books and footwear. Other recommended stores in town: Paradise Road (arts and crafts), Barefoot (textiles), Elephant Walk (furniture), House of Fashion (affordable clothing) and the Mlesna Tea Centre (quality teas).
Tucked away in forgotten corners are heritage sites that, well, deserve to be remembered. Just outside Colombo is the tiny town of Kelaniya, home to the impressive and beautiful Kelaniya temple. Near the obscure village of Maligawila, in the southeast, is the country’s highest free-standing statue of the Buddha, dating to the seventh century. Nearby, in Buduruwagala, lies an eponymous temple with tenth-century statues of the Buddha. Further east, outside Pottuvil, is another ancient temple complex, the Mudu Maha Vihara. Much of the massive site is buried beneath sand dunes, but several pillar stumps, dagobas and sculptures are visible.
If all you know of Sri Lanka are its gorgeous beaches and bustling cities, you don’t know then that most of the island is a biodiversity hotspot with over 140 species of endemic plants, animals and reptiles. A tour of some of its national parks is a good way to experience the richness of the country’s natural wonders. The Horton Plains National Park, located in the Central Highlands, about 200km east of Colombo, is home to leopards, giant squirrels and several species of amphibians. The Yala National Park, located 309km south of Colombo, boasts of a variety of eco-systems ranging from moist monsoon forests to wetlands. This is an important birdwatching site, with over 200 avian species. But to visit a real hotbed of tropical biodiversity, head to the Sinharaja Forest Reserve. Located at an easy 160km from Colombo, its tropical rainforests and grasslands are home to several endemic species of birds, mammals and butterflies.
The Cultural Triangle
Set pat in the centre of the island, the treasures of Sri Lanka’s ‘Cultural Triangle’ — Unesco World Heritage Sites all of them — make it every bit as golden as ours. The ancient capitals of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Kandy make up the three corners of the triangle, while the rock fortress of Sigiriya towers over the centre. Highlights include the revered Bodhi Tree temple and the Jetawanarama and Abhaygiri monastery complexes at Anuradhapura, the Temple of the Tooth Relic at Kandy (the town also boasts the Pinnewala elephant orphanage and a tea museum), the Alahana Pirivena monastic university and the royal city and palace at Polonnaruwa, spectacular Ajanta-style frescoes at Sigiriya and, near Sigiriya, the painted cave temple at Dambulla. An embarrassment of riches — and we’re not complaining.
Call it one of the little-known natural wonders of the world. Every year, during the monsoon months of August and September, hundreds of elephants gather at the ancient manmade Minneriya tank in the North Central province of the island. One of the largest such gatherings anywhere in the world, this is an excellent place to observe the behaviour and social rituals of these lovely beasts. To experience the conservation efforts at Minneriya, travel with Nature & Kind, which organises fourteen-day tours in support of the Sri Lankan Wildlife Conservation Society (from £2,495; natureandkind.com). Eco Team Sri Lanka (srilankaecotourism.com)and Jetwing Eco Holidays (jetwingeco.com) also organise tours of Minneriya National Park.
The 2004 tsunami left its savage mark on this southern coastal city. But there’s an even more distinct stamp that the ancient port of Galle bears — that of its long colonial history, reflected in the city’s European architecture. The most prominent architectural example belongs to the Dutch era. Galle Fort, a World Heritage Site, was built in 1588 by the Portuguese to secure Galle, before the Dutch took over and expanded it extensively. Step into the fort today and you step back in time. The 130-acre granite mini-town is home to mosques and churches, colonial government buildings, villas with arches and pillared verandas, the National Maritime Archaeology Museum with marine artefacts dating back 800 years and even a luxurious Aman resort — Amangalla (from $400; amanresorts.com), in a building that once housed the Dutch Governor.
Declared a protected zone by the International Whaling Commission, Sri Lanka has become one of the easiest places to go whale-watching. Major whale migration paths surround the island but a popular site to see sperm whales is Dondra Point in the extreme south. Sperm whale sightings are commonest between December and April, while blue whales are sometimes seen here in December or January. Between June and September, sightings are possible off the eastern coast, near Trincomalee. Alankuda beach, off the coast of Kalpitiya in the west, also gets many sightings in winter. The best place for dolphin sightings — spinner, bottlenose, spotted and other species — is Kalpitiya. Jetwing Eco Holidays organises eight-day whale-watching tours at Dondra between December and March (jetwingeco.com).
In an island nation known for its uniformly stunning beaches, there’s still going to be contenders for the position of first among equals. And Tangalle could win. It’s located in the deep south, a beautiful two-hour coastal drive from Galle. Less remote than similarly beautiful sites such as Arugam Bay in the east and less touristed than those along the west, Tangalle must seem like paradise to those who make it there. No roughing it out required: accommodation ranges from Amanwella (from $450; amanresorts.com) to Turtle Beach Cabanas (from $25; turtlebeachcabanas.com). If exertion is necessary, activities include snorkelling, surfing and day-trips to the turtle nesting site of Rekawa, the Mulgirigala rock temple, the Bundala and Yala national parks. Paradise, we said.
Some of Sri Lanka’s most breathtaking scenery lies in the Central Highlands. This is ‘tea country’, characterised by lush greenery, waterfalls, dramatic ravines and gorgeous blue skies. Tea connoisseurs, get thee to the source of the best ‘Ceylon’: get going on a tea trail. The most popular route is Kandy to Nuwara Eliya, the chief tea-growing regions. And the most luxurious option is Ceylon Tea Trails, offered by Relais & Chateaux in the Bogawantalawa Valley (from approx. $500 per night, all-inclusive; teatrails.com). On this estate that comprises four bungalows, complete with butler, activities include plantation walks, tea-tasting sessions and visits to a tea factory. Warwick Gardens in Nuwara Eliya provides a similar experience (from $255 per night, including breakfast; jetwinghotels.com), while Jetwing Eco Holidays (jetwingeco.com) organises a nine-day tour that includes stays at Ceylon Tea Trails and Warwick Gardens.
It is serendipitous indeed that Sri Lanka’s most influential architect and pioneer of ‘tropical modernism’, Geoffrey Bawa (1919-2003), found his vocation purely by accident. A lawyer, his desire to recreate an Italian villa and garden on an abandoned rubber estate he acquired in Bentota in 1948, drove him to pursue a career in architecture. The result is Lunuganga, Bawa’s country home, which over half a century served as a sort of laboratory for his architectural ideas. Today, this sprawling house overlooking the backwaters is open for tours (from LKR 1,250) as well as stays (from $185). See lunuganga.com.
From luxury colonial villas to secluded beach retreats, Sri Lanka offers a blissful stay to the fussy, design-conscious traveller. And because boutique is no niche trend in this style isle, there’s a wealth of accommodation options to choose from, some bristling with individuality, some with a location to die for and some which simply ooze style. In Colombo, there’s the Havelock Place Bungalow (from $100; havelockbungalow.com), which claims to be the city’s first boutique hotel. Built in the 1940s, and initially serving as an art gallery, it actually consists of two bungalows, cleverly combined and set within a neatly manicured tropical garden, providing guests with an elegant oasis in the island’s busy capital city. Set high on a hill overlooking Galle Harbour and with just four suites, the cosy Dutch House in Galle ($320; thedutchhouse.com) is classic boutique, overflowing with colonial antiques, mosquito net-draped four-poster beds, polished concrete floors and traditional claw-footed bathtubs. Dutch House’s sister property Sun House (from $175; thesunhouse.com) was built in the 1860s and was once the home of a Scottish spice merchant. Known for its fine dining, it exudes a country house vibe across seven highly individual bedrooms. Other promising options include the understated Lansiya in Tangalle (from $411; lansiya-tangalle-sri-lanka.lakpura.lk), inspired by the styles and colours of Buddhist temples and monasteries and set on a palm-strewn hillside, and the airy Frangipani Tree ($250; thefrangipanitree.com) near Galle, the latter designed by Bawa-protégé Channa Daswatte, better known to us as the architect of the acclaimed Ganga Kutir near Kolkata. Extensive listings at srilankainstyle.com, boutiquesrilanka.com and i-escape.com/sri-lanka/boutique-hotels.