We are pleased to be able to offer much-enhanced holiday and travel experiences to this appealing country after detailed investigation and exploration. Here we are able to give you a real feel for why Sri Lanka is such a worthy destination for Expressions.Roughly half the size of England, yet packed with a whole continent’s worth of temples and ruins, wildlife reserves and luxury beach resorts, Sri Lanka is a beautiful, bite-sized island offering a world of diverse escapes. Littered with elegant colonial hotels and enchanting boutique lodges, Sri Lanka also offers luxury at a relative snip. Young or old, family or couple, beach-bound or culture-vulture – whatever your holiday bent, Sri Lanka’s got the lot.
No matter which main course you choose on Sri Lanka’s vast holiday menu, Colombo will be your starter, and there can be no friendlier capital on the planet. Bustling rather than beautiful, this one-time Arab trading port nevertheless contains one or two real treasures, not least its fabulous bazaar, colonial churches, craft markets, and the magnificent Galle Face Hotel. The oldest hotel east of Suez, the ‘GFH’ is now a venerable old memsahib staring out across the Indian Ocean, with a guest-list – Mountbatten, Hirohito, Nixon – that reads like a Who’s Who of the great and the good. Forty minutes down the coast, and a great alternative base for exploring Colombo after you arrive, Wadduwa is a wonderfully sleepy fishing village with palm-fringed beaches and two exquisite boutique hotels we were absolutely thrilled to find.
Wadduwa, of course, is just the start of a string of fabulous beaches running all the way down and around Sri Lanka’s southwest coast. If you do just want to fly and flop while the rest of Europe scrapes ice from its pavements, then nowhere does it better than here. Three hours south of Colombo, Aditya is one of many boutique hotels where you could happily be marooned for the length of your stay, as is Jetwing Lighthouse, a masterpiece by local architectural star, Geoffrey Bawa, perched atop a rocky outcrop just east of Galle. As for Amanwella, an Aman spa resort on an idyllic, bone-white crescent of sand near Tangalle: it’s so achingly sensuous and has such fabulous food, we were almost tempted to keep it to ourselves.
But inviting as Sri Lanka’s beaches are – and as inevitable as it is that you will wind up on one at some point in your stay – the island’s interior is brimful of spectacular things to see and do, with the Cultural Triangle north of Kandy worth the airfare alone. Forming a small area between Kandy, Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa – three ancient capitals spanning 2,500 years of history, with six UNESCO World Heritage Sites in an area no bigger than Kent – the Cultural Triangle does exactly what it says on the tin. Whether you come for a whole week, or just for a day away from the beach, the rewards are immense.
Last capital of the Sinhalese kings, hilltop Kandy is the gateway to the Cultural Triangle, reached in two or three breathtaking hours by road or train from Colombo, climbing 2,000ft through paddy fields and mahogany forests, with Pinawella Elephant Orphanage an essential stop with kids.
The Temple of the Tooth – a 17th century golden-domed temple complex housing what followers believe to be Buddha’s upper left canine – is Kandy’s main attraction, but an afternoon beside the lake, exploring the market, or wandering the impressive Botanic Gardens just south of town, is sure to reward you with brushes with Kandy’s real star-turn: its famously friendly people.At the heart of the Cultural Triangle, Lion Rock at Sigirya is an astonishing highlight in a land fair tripping over itself in natural wonders. A vast toadstool of granite rising 600ft above the plains 40 miles north of Kandy, Lion Rock is an outrageous geological oddity, with the ruins of a 5th century palace at its three-acre summit, frescoes on its face, and an extraordinary, Heath Robinson network of ladders and carved steps giving you access to stupendous, 360-degree views from the top. Two miles from Sigirya, with stilted villas dotted about a beautiful lake teeming at dawn with herons and egrets, kingfishers and geese, Jetwing Vil Uyana is our base camp of choice, a fantastic new hotel we know you’ll enjoy.
Astonishingly compact, the Cultural Triangle’s pickings are at their richest round Sigiriya, with the extraordinary 1st century cave monastery of Dambulla less than 10 miles to the south, and the one-hour drive east to Polonnaruwa’s stunning medieval ruins passing two excellent national parks. Sitting atop this magnificent triangle is Anuradhapura, ancient seat of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, with a superbly preserved temple complex arranged around a Sacred Fig supposedly planted in the 3rd century BC.
If the Cultural Triangle is Sri Lanka’s historic heart, the Hill Country south of Kandy is its romantic core. A series of faded hilltowns linked by impossibly twisting roads, the Hill Country was – and still is – tea country, and the hills today, dotted here and there with planters’ bungalows and clubs, are a rolling sea of mist-shrouded, lush green plantation. Abounding in faded Victoriana, Nuwara Eliya is the jewel in the Hill Country’s colonial crown, with churches and tea rooms, grand hotels and band-stand parks – a journey back in time as much as an escape from the heat of the plains. Nowhere is this truer than Ceylon Tea Trails, a preposterously lovely hotel in four planter’s bungalows surrounded by tea in the hills above Hatton: fireplaces and butlers, tiffin and sundowner G&Ts, it’s an absolute treat. But the Hill Country isn’t just a gin-tinged taste of the Raj – it’s also just plain spectacular. Top of your list should be World’s End, a wildly dramatic, Grand Canyon-like precipice in Horton Plains park, or for the more adventurous, Adam’s Peak, a 7,352ft sacred mountain you can climb, traditionally at night, to catch to most exhilarating of sunrises from the summit.
With nearly 20 national parks, wherever you go in Sri Lanka, you’re never far from a safari. Wild elephants are the ubiquitous, dependable draw, but leopards, sloth bears, several species of deer and some 435 species of bird make safari here a brilliant foil to Buddhas and beach, especially Yala, where Bill Oddie recently spotted leopards. Closer to the south-coast beaches, Udawalawe National Park is one of the best parks on the planet for wild Asian elephants, with an elephant orphanage nearby just perfect for a half-day trip with kids.No matter how densely packed its attractions, you’re probably going to have to miss something, especially if you’re planning some serious time on the beach. All we’ll say is make sure it’s not Galle Fort. One of our favourite spots in the entire Indian Ocean, the fort is way down at the southern tip of Sri Lanka, a dusty, heart-stopping antique with 500 houses within its ancient seawalls, as well as a mosque, a pair of crumbling churches, antique shops galore, and a magnificent Aman hotel housed in the former Dutch governor’s mansion. Walk the ramparts at sunset, with cricket games breaking out on dusty squares beneath you, couples canoodling against the setting sun, and the ghosts of nearly 700 years of Arab traders and European invaders wandering the leafy alleys and lanes, and we swear you’ll want to toss your plane ticket into the surf below. If ever a country got the stunning land’s end it deserved, this is it.
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