A jewel of an island where blissful beaches, elephant-packed jungles and ancient ruins unite, Sri Lanka turns on the charms for Natarsha Brown.
For decades, Sri Lanka has been hiding in plain sight. Known as ‘The Pearl of the Indian Ocean,’ Sri Lanka is fast becoming recognised as the ideal destination: uncrowded beaches, timeless ruins, flavourful food and a diversity of wildlife that could rival the savannahs of Africa.
And, perhaps most importantly, as you walk the streets you will be met with a chorus of “Ayubowan” on every corner – not by shopkeepers, but by welcoming locals who simply wish to say hello. After years of hardship, this is a place appreciative of tourism, and the warm people are what truly make a visit memorable.
Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle
Sri Lanka’s famed Cultural Triangle is a treasure trove of historical monuments, with the remains of ancient royal cities sitting alongside intricate Buddhist temples – few places have as many UNESCO World Heritage Sites packed into such a small area.
Built in 1804, The Kandy House started life as the residence of a dignitary. Striking in its simplicity – lofty white arches, pillared verandahs and rooms set around a central courtyard – the heritage hotel pays homage to a bygone era with its atypical antiques, hand-woven silks, butler service and sepia photographs.
The focus is on seclusion and quiet: situated among paddy fields and bordering tropical jungle, here the only sound is nature and Buddhist chanting from the nearby monastery. Early risers can enjoy breakfast poolside while overlooking the grazing buffalo and deer in the fields; come evening, diners can savour a 10-course curry feast, laid out twice a week. Drive 20 minutes into town to visit the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, one of Buddhism’s most sacred shrines.
A few hours north, within easy reach of Sigiriya and Anuradhapura, you can sleep among the elements in one of the stilted treehouse-like villas at Ulagalla by Uga Escapes.
Located within 23 hectares of private grounds – home to more than 100 species of birds and bordering two reservoirs blooming with lotus flowers and dotted with kumbuk trees – the serene setting is the main draw at this resort. Guests can enjoy nature walks, take one of the hotel’s horses for a gallop, help with the annual rice harvest or simply unwind in private plunge pools.
In the hills of tea country
The scenery further inland grows even more striking: mountain ridges covered in swirls of tea bushes cascade into lush valleys home to hidden waterfalls and winding train tracks. The air is cooler, perfect for growing the country’s prized brew. First planted by a pioneering Scotsman in 1867, when the island was a British colony known as Ceylon, tea remains Sri Lanka’s most important agricultural commodity.
Relive the Raj era at Ceylon Tea Trails with butler service, afternoon tea and croquet accompanying a stay at one of its restored tea-planter bungalows. Decorated in colonial style – claw-foot tubs, outdoor pools and bay windows included – these heritage residences serve ‘bed tea’ in the morning, before guests venture out on excursions to nearby waterholes, or further afield to Adam’s Peak and Nuwara Eliya.
Heading south on the Cultural Triangle, boulders line the shores of tucked-away beaches, palm trees grow without restraint and fishermen perch on precarious wooden poles in the shallows. Enjoying a blissfully quiet location near the sleepy town of Tangalle, on its own stretch of sand frequented by nesting turtles, Anantara Peace Haven Tangalle Resort is the only place of its calibre on this part of the coast.
Yala National Park
The most famous of Sri Lanka’s wildlife reserves, Yala National Park, is a two-hour drive away, offering up elephants, monkeys, crocodiles, buffalo and the ever-elusive leopard across 1,268 square kilometres of scrub, forest and grassy plains.
European Galle Fort
For more than 100 years, the grande dame of Galle Fort welcomed throngs of steamship passengers from across the world as the New Oriental Hotel. Today, Amangalla continues to attract travellers with its fascinating history and old-world charm. Galle Fort walks, either self-guided or accompanied by your private butler, are the best way to familiarise yourself with the World Heritage-listed surrounds – stop by the gabled roof of the Dutch Reformed Church, the lighthouse and the old spice warehouses before relaxing with locals on the ramparts at sunset. A spot of cricket and a sundowner make for the perfect Sri Lankan send off.