Only now opening up since the end of the war in 2009, infrastructure is still thin on the ground, but people are open and delighted to receive guests into landscapes and seascapes that are starting to breathe again. Such as Pasekudah Bay or the inland lagoons and fishing villages around Kalkudah. Our responsible tourism operators are adding tours there now, so jump on board before the developers get there.
On the northwest coast, this is far from the all-inclusive resorts of the southwest, but home to the quiet, quintessentially idyllic beaches we all yearn for, with the Puttalama lagoon on one side and Indian Ocean on the other. The most developed beach is Alankuda beach with winds that make it kite surfing central, but there are other more sheltered havens. Whale and dolphin watching trips also go from here.
Much less known than the Nuwara Eliya tea plantation regions, these tea covered hills rise to more than 1800 metres, and are a hiker’s hideaway in clouded forest of the central hill country. There are five major forest types here teeming with endemic birds and home to deer, monkeys, wild boar and the slender loris. Trails abound, as do cooling waterfalls. Get in.
Sri Lanka was traditionally a 60 + vacation, ‘doing’ archaeological highlights, harking back to colonial times and still calling it Ceylon. Yet with such a family orientated culture, Sri Lanka is surprisingly, still relatively undiscovered for families, except at the ‘could be anywhere’ resorts on the southwest coast. With white water rafting, great food, elephants in the wild and surfing, getting real and responsible is so much cooler.
The ancient artery of Sinhalese civilisation, where tourists will debate whether the vast palaces of Anuradhapura are better than the extraordinary ruins of Polonnaruwa. Or if the caves at Dambulla are more worthy of a hike than the majestic rock Sigiriya. Just follow the trail of Buddhist pilgrims who still come here today in their thousands. For them there is no debate. They are all spectacular.
This charming little village turns quickly from sleepy to dreamy as you arrive into its luscious hill country by train, take a two hour hike up to Ella’s Rock or Little Adam’s Peak for spectacular views, or to Ravana Ella Falls where you can also cool down with a dip. Plenty of small guesthouses serving some of the best food you will find.
A great way to get around Sri Lanka with a vast network of quiet roads alongside coconut groves, paddy fields and tea plantations. It isn’t all steep either, with a lot of the paths very manageable. You can hire a bike in the main tourist hubs, but not so easy in rural areas. It is also worth hiring a local guide if you are going into the rural areas, and many tour operators can organize this.
A prolific Sri Lankan architect who died in 2003, his work is known as tropical modernism and seen in hillside houses, beach hotels and even the Sri Lankan parliament. His work is about connecting with natural heritage, working with landscape in a sustainable way long before it became fashionable. You can visit his gardens at Lunuganga. Look out for the work of Sri Lankan architect Cecil Belmond, a contemporary creative of similar genius status.
More of a circus than what it is sold as – an elephant sanctuary or orphanage. The elephants are, in fact, in captivity, many not orphans at all but bred on site, as this is a big tourism earner. And they are trained to interact with tourists in a way that is unnatural and unkind. Head out to the national parks to see these wonderful creatures in the wild instead.
Considered a must see by many, and certainly the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic is superb, it is now losing its eye ‘kandy’ appeal. Suffering from pollution and over development it doesn’t have a cultural capital feel about it anymore. The Kandyan dancers and drummers are a bit too touristy for many although the Botanical Gardens are gorgeous. Make it a one night stay.
The highest town at 1,900m, and so a good outlook point for the British who made this their focal point for all things colonial. Although hard to know why as the weather is often pretty dismal here. It still feels like the Home Counties, with tea plantations and factories, mock Tudor, gentlemen’s clubs and cricket. Falls somewhere between ‘what ho’ and ‘WTH?’
There are many lovely beaches but on the southwest coast some of the beaches are very overdeveloped, catering for mass tourism, when in fact they look like idyllic isolated beaches online. So, if you want to tie on a couple of special beach days to a cultural vacation, head north, east or indeed northeast, and do your research.