Sri Lanka’s Central and South-West: Wanderlust in the land of serendipity

by Lori Blackburn
Sri Lanka

Are you ready for adventure? Do ancient ruins, balmy beaches, and misty mountains catch your eye? Perhaps you fancy cosmopolitan glamour or an off-the-beaten-track destination? Well, Sri Lanka has something to show you.This tiny, but mighty destination is nestled off the coast of SE India. It earned the moniker “Pearl of the Indian Ocean” thanks to the bounty of natural beauty packed into its small island nation. As ultra-explorer Marco Polo once proclaimed,“ (It is) undoubtedly the finest island of its size in the world.” Once upon a time it was called Serendip, then later Ceylon, but these days it is called Sri Lanka…and it is having a moment.For years, Sri Lanka highlighted travel magazines as an ‘Emerging destination to watch.’Now, this previously hidden gem is hitting the spotlight. If you get the chance, go before the crowds arrive. Word has gotten out.

Nature

Lonely Planet dubbed Sri Lanka’The Top 2019 Destination’ while Conde Nast Traveler called it one of the’Best islands in the world’. Sri Lanka hosts eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites making it rich in both culture and nature. In addition to diverse landscapes, friendly people, tasty food, and oodles of attractions, Sri Lanka stands out because whether you are a budget-traveller or a big-time-budget-blower,there are options galore. If you have the heart for it,then Sri Lanka invites you to play.Your biggest problem within this action-packed island might be fitting everything into one trip. Location hop to maximise experiences. There is a lot to see! Sri Lanka has twenty-two national parks; an impressive tally considering that it is smaller than the size of Ireland.(Comparatively,Ireland boasts six national parks.) If you are exploring various areas, then pack for different climates. One morning you might be on a sunrise trek through chilly mountains, but by afternoon you could be lounging on a beach.Your main entry point is most likely Colombo. Settle in by learning about Sri Lanka’s history at the National Museum www.museum.gov.lk/ or visiting heritage sites such as Gangaramaya Buddhist Temple and Museum http://gangaramaya.com/. Take a sunset seaside stroll along Galle Fort Green for a look at local life.

Explore

Explore Colombo Fort which is full of notable colonial buildings such as the 400 year old Dutch Hospital where beautiful architecture houses cool cafes and shops.Colombo bursts with tasty street food and small eateries, but should you want a mainstream option, bring your appetite to Ministry of Crab (MOC) http://www.ministryofcrab.com/ for fresh, ginormous Sri Lankan seafood.These award-winning dishes live up to names such as OMG Prawn and Crabzilla. Once you’ve had your fill of Colombo, then travel to wider regions. You can get around by public transportation or by hiring a private car and driver through websites such as Sri Lanka Car and Driver www.srilankacaranddriverhire.com If you have the money and inclination, a private car will cost about 1800B per day and provide a convenient, flexible,and streamlined option.So, where do you go and what do you do? Rather than race around the country trying to fit everything in, spend time exploring specific regions.

Lake

Sri Lanka is full of amazing experiences. For an introductory trip,many people focus upon the central and south-west regions which host a concentration of accessible activities. Here are some ideas to get you started…Charming mountain provinces and tea plantations (Central Sri Lanka): Come take a walk in the clouds through picturesque plateaus steeped in old English charm. Depart from Colombo via Sri Lanka’s iconic train journey which traverses the tea districts of Kandy, Nuwara Eliya and Ella.This famous train ride is one of the world’s most beautiful railway trips, but it isn’t your only option. Buses and cars will get you there,too.The bustling city of Kandy, a UNESCO World Heritage Site,was once the ancient capital of kings. It is also known for important Buddhist sites.Walk around Kandy Lake to reachThe Temple of the Tooth Relic(Sri Dalada Maligawa) which is considered one of the Buddhist world’s most sacred places.Keep an eye out for Kandyan drummers during temple puja (prayers).

Cheers!

Long ago the Peradeniya Botanic Gardens www.botanicgardens.gov.lk/ were reserved for royalty, but these days you can amble through the lovely park, too.Enchanting Nuwara Eliya is a land of sprawling tea plantations and scenic waterfalls. This hillside retreat offers the country’s highest altitude and coolest climate. The weather is reminiscent of England, which made it an ideal retreat for 19th-century colonial Brits to kickback in ruralgrandeur. Fox hunting, anyone? Expect rain showers in this “little England,”but a raincoat is perfect for exploring sites such as Lover’s Leap Waterfall, Hakgala Botanical Garden,Seetha Amman Temple, or a boat ride around Lake Gregory. Drop by historic Pedro Tea Estate to enjoy a guided factory tour and learn about the region’s tea legacy. For a romantic getaway, find your way to the elegant and inviting Scottish Planter Glendevon Bungalow. www.themeresorts.com/scottishplanter/ where colonial design honours this secluded estate’s past.Yes,a real Scottish planter once lived here. Peruse its 19th– century history through memorabilia displayed in the airy front room. You’ll feel like the lord of a grand manor with breakfast in the gardens and dinner in a formal dining room. End the day nestled by a crackling fireplace planning the next adventure while sipping Scottish whiskey. Cheers!

Trail travels


Want to see the world’s end… or at least Sri Lanka’s version of it? Then, plan a day trip to Horton Plains National Park, a UNESCO Heritage Centre and biodiversity hotspot. Nuwara Eliya or Ella make ideal jumping points. This super-scenic, moderately difficult 10km loop trail travels along billowing grasslands, cloud forests, waterfalls, and the sheer precipice of World’s End cliff. Pack lunch and water. Arrive by 7am to beat the crowds. Just east of Horton Plains sits Ella, a small mountain town defined by its backpacker vibe, happening main street, and nature-infused activities. Fragrant tea plantations create the perfect backdrop. Nightlife bumps at spots like Café Chill or Café One Love. Climb Little Adam’s Peak, the smaller version of the sacred, steep Adam’s Peak. If you don’t go for sunrise, then start hiking Little Adam’s Peak at 7am to avoid crowds. The trail starts at Ella Flower Garden www.ellaresort.com where views and a rambling garden create a sweet spot to enjoy a post-hike ice cream. From there, the trail up to Little Adam’s Peak passes through a local village and tea plantations. On the way down, stop at sky-high 98 Acres Resort  www.resort98acres.com which welcomes visitors to its stunning hillside restaurant. Two words: That view! Later, just across from Ella Flower Garden is a trailhead that offers a 30 minute hike to the world-famous Nine Arches Bridge. Walk across this railway bridge for memorable moments and photo opps. It truly is an architectural marvel! Time your visit to see a passing train. Afterwards, take a quick drive to Ravana Falls for a refreshing dip. Another highlight is Lipton’s Seat in nearby Haputale. Drop by to see the viewpoint where 19th-century Scottish tea baron, Sir Thomas Lipton, once surveyed his vast tea empire.Southern Coastline: Safaris, Surf, Sailing, & Scuba (Southern Sri Lanka)

elephant

Drive 110km south from Ella to reach Yala National Park – the country’s most visited and second largest national park. The main attraction is jeep safaris. This wildlife-rich area hosts the world’s highest density of leopards. It also provides opportunities to encounter elephants, monkeys, water buffalo and crocodiles. It’s brilliant for bird watching, too.There are numerous national parks and wildlife sanctuaries around here. The main thing is to manage expectations: This is not an African safari.You will most likely be part of a jeep queue all jostling for a glimpse of the elusive leopard or the perfect peacock photo.Just keep that in mind and enjoy the ride. There is still plenty to see. Oh, and watch your lunch during rest stops because cheeky monkeys are afoot. Those wanting to splurge can check into the eco-conscious Wild Coast Tented Safari  www.resplendentceylon.com/wildcoastlodge-yala/ where the jungle meets the sea in safari splendour. Kick back in cocoon suites that blend “colonial expedition chic” with natural landscapes. Take a dip in your private plunge pool before a beachfront happy hour set against a bonfire and candlelit lanterns. Stays include naturalist-led safaris where guests explore the nature parks’ quietest corners. For family-friendly accommodation, try the newly renovated Cinnamon Wild www.cinnamonhotels.com/en/cinnamonwildyala/ where, thanks to its location bordering Yala National Park and a lake where animals congregate, you can see various safari animals.Try to spot the sunning crocs and don’t be surprised if a family of wild boars walks by your lunch table.

Live Shows

Ready to hit the beach? Beach bums and mermaids can revel in the vast shoreline stretching along Sri Lanka’s southern coasts. Options abound, so here are some highlights. Those eager to see blue whales (the largest creatures on earth!), surf, or enjoy catamaran sailing should head to Mirissa – a quaint seaside town with a happening beach bar scene. Budget accommodation is available at Poppies Guesthouse www.poppiesmirissa.com/ where rooms are nestled within a charming garden and it’s just a short stroll to the beach. A ten minute drive takes you to Weligama, a popular surf spot where surf schools and rental shops cater to beginner and intermediate surfers. For a high-end hang out, head to W15 www.w15.lk/ .This modern beachfront resort overlooks a jamming surf spot and welcomes non-hotel guests. Pay the consumable dining fee and relax on giant bean bags while topping-up your tan. If you’re looking for live-music with a surf party vibe, then drop by The Doctor’s House https://thedoctorshouse.lk/. This chill hang-out is situated within a 200 year old former Dutch and Ayurvedic hospital. Grab a seat in the funky palm tree garden. Wood-fired pizza and beers go great with the cerulean sea. Cruising along the coast, you are sure to see stilt fisherman demonstrating a traditional way of fishing in shallow water. These days it’s mainly a tourist attraction, so expect to pay to see these guys “fish”. Once you’ve explored the surface, come dive beneath the sea. Scuba divers can explore wrecks (around 200 shipwrecks are suitable for diving), reefs, pinnacles, walls, and more. Hikkaduwa and Unawatuna are popular spots, but Sri Lanka offers many quality options.

colourful clothes

History, Culture, & Architecture: Fort Galle (South-West Sri Lanka)Step back in time at the interesting and impressive Fort Galle, a 16th century Portuguese and Dutch influenced UNSECO World Heritage Site. There is an undeniable charm about Fort Galle’s breezy lanes and crumbling colonial facades. These days, rather than warding off foreign invasion, this fortress embraces it. From cobblestone streets to historic monuments, the fortified old town showcases European influence blended with South Asian tradition. History comes alive in walkways full of sites such as the Clock Tower and Mansion Museum. There is a Buddhist temple, Anglican Church, and Muslim mosque so if you’ve indulged in too much revelry the previous night, you have several options for repenting that last shot of arrack.Wander along streets whose names reflect Fort Galle’s history. You will pass bohemian boutiques, historic hotels ensconced within 300 year old homes, and colourful cafés. When you reach the intersection of Pedlar Street (referring to the Muslim retailers that once resided here) and Lighthouse Street (named after a lighthouse destroyed in a fire) then you have arrived at the Heritage Café www.heritagecafeandbistro.com/ – the perfect combination of history, hospitality, and hipness. This funky café-and-art-space was recently recommended by Condé Nast Traveler as a must-see spot for those exploring Southern Sri Lanka. Good thing we are in the right place! Just enter past the eye-catching, brass elephant tuk tuk created by artist Prageeth Monohandsa. Art and artefacts are everywhere. There is everything from a 19th-century Ceylon News printing press to contemporary art by a local graffiti artist to fierce lion sculptures that once guarded a Jaffna temple. Yup, that couch is made from burlap dahl sacks from the local market.

happiness

Owners, Dale and Sabrina Rennie created a unique space that blends Sri Lanka’s vivid past with its vibrant present. To get a sense-of-place,The Heritage Café is a historical landmark nestled within the UNESCO Heritage Site of Fort Galle. The café was once the national bakery for Fort Galle’s community. It gets even cooler when you realise that within Heritage Cafe’s courtyard is a giant 200 year old oven which once baked over 1,000 loaves per day for the area’s residents. Wow. These days, this bustling café serves up specialties such as curry hoppers – a staple Sri Lankan street food similar to rice and coconut crepes. The Heritage Café is the fort’s only restaurant making traditional hoppers. In fact, the ‘hopper lady’ arrives each morning to freshly prepare them in the classic style. You can also nosh on seafood sourced from local fisherman, handmade pasta, and an array of international flavours created with local ingredients. If you need to cool down, their handcrafted lemonade does the trick. They are created daily from pure ingredients that showcase Sri Lankan flavours such as Cinnamon Orange or Ginger Lemonade. Heritage Café is the perfect place to nourish both your body and mind. This creative space welcomes art talks, design exhibits, and cultural interactions.

friendly

If your taste buds tingle for home-style Sri Lankan dishes, then head to Lucky Fort www.facebook.com/luckyfortmama/ Mama Lucky makes everyone feel at home in her cosy establishment. Come hungry for the set menu of ten curries or join a cooking class to create a few of your own. Once your belly is full, walk off the calories by exploring the fort’s seaside ramparts. You can literally walk on these walls. During sunset, Triton Bastion makes a great viewpoint. Lookout for the cliff jumpers at Flag Rock. These daredevil locals defy danger by leaping into the rocky ocean for tips.Whew! Sri Lanka is one cool country. It may be tiny in size, but it is mighty in offerings. This is a land throbbing with life, beauty, culture, landscapes, diversity, and endless possibilities.  It is a place with heart where visitors are welcomed with friendly smiles and hospitality. The warmth of this nation reflects Sri Lanka’s signature island style. Perhaps paradise isn’t lost after all.

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