There’s more to Sri Lanka than sweeping sands. Here, Jo Upcraft of Lightfoot Travel reveals three of the island’s most diverse landscapes that promise a unique holiday experience with every visit.
I’m not the kind of person who gets out of bed easily or happily at 5.30am, but rising early is an entirely enjoyable experience in Sri Lanka. Here, my early morning call sees me practically springing out of luxurious bedsheets in preparation for my first-ever safari, due to leave at sunrise for the best chance of wildlife spotting.
My location is Yala National Park, located on the island’s southeast coast. It’s Sri Lanka’s oldest nature reserve, and four-fifths of the park is a strictly designated Natural Reserve. For this reason, safari is the name of the game, and all the camps camouflaged within the region arrange daily nature drives into a landscape of bleached white trees, lush jungle, rocky outcrops and brackish lagoons.
Armed with a camera, binoculars and a trusty personal guide, we set off in our private jeep. It’s bumpy and dusty but fascinating. Along with peacocks, monkeys, exotic birds and lizards, we spy water buffalo taking shade under the trees, watchful crocs eyeing us from waterholes, a sloth bear crossing the tracks in search of breakfast and – bingo! – an elusive leopard basking on a tree branch, its tail slowly curling as it sleeps.
After a picnic we return to our accommodation, the space-age cocoon-like lodgings at the latest Relais & Chateaux property, Wild Coast Tented Lodge. Remote and glamorous, the tents are designed to resemble boulders on the beach and feature teak floors, leather chairs, freestanding copper bath tubs and – in some – private plunge pools. There’s also a super-cool kids’ tent for those with older children. An open-air restaurant overlooks the infinity swimming pool and the coastline that is rugged and raw against pink sunset skies. As night falls, we grab our portable room lanterns and are escorted to a beachfront spot for a fresh seafood barbecue with the waves rolling in the background.
There’s no doubt that Sri Lanka is gaining popularity, which means that at peak times of the year (November to April) some of the beaches can get busy. However, there are some beautiful escapes that offer access to quieter stretches of sand, allowing you to simply switch off, sleep and reset.
Why House is hidden down a winding road that takes you past local shops and homes, and it immediately speeds me into a welcoming world of peace. Set in lush tropical gardens whose ripe fruit and spices scent the air, the property’s embroidered scatter cushions lure me to the sofa, fresh coconuts prop up the bar, and fairy lights twinkle in the trees. There’s a lovely swimming pool, a breezy restaurant, cute spa treatment rooms, and a lounge full of pre-loved books and magazines. This boutique bolthole is perfect for romantic couples, solo travellers or groups of friends searching for calm away from the throngs.
After a few days of total chill, I venture to the walled enclave of Galle Fort, ten minutes away by taxi, and filled with rambling lanes, 18th-century Dutch architecture, quirky cafes and independent shopping boutiques. Favourites include KK The Collection (71 Pedlar Street), selling linens, crafts and home accessories, and Barefoot (704 Galle Road), with its ethical and local textiles, and bags and toys made by workers in their homes. Post-shopping, I indulge in an afternoon tea at Amangalla, a charming hotel housed in the old Dutch Governor’s residence, and the perfect place for tea, scones, and some sneaky people-watching from the veranda.
When you head towards the centre of Sri Lanka the landscape gets confusing. Am I suddenly in Scotland? The Amazonian jungle? A Norwegian forest? I’m surrounded by an eclectic mix of skinny trees, tight winding roads, rugged stone walls and tropical tea plantations that stretch on forever. Interspersed among vast swathes of green are brightly painted rows of remote houses and pops of coloured clothes worn by those skilfully picking the leaves.
Fans of a good ol’ cup of tea will love it here. Many of the original tea factories are over 100 years old and still in use today, and Norwood Estate Tea Factory hosts daily tours around the plantation. We spend a morning learning about the tea-making process, watching the working machinery, meeting the staff and sampling various brews before returning to our accommodation.
Keeping up with tradition, we stay at Tientsin Bungalow, a Ceylon Tea Trails property and former tea planter’s home. It’s discreetly nestled within sprawling English gardens that bloom with rose bushes and burst with birdsong. Inside, six rooms feature four-poster beds, tapestry carpets and clawfoot bathtubs. I’d kicked off my shoes and was padding barefoot within an hour of arrival (not just me I hasten to add!), and we holed up in the drawing room that comes with loungey seats, board games and an open fireplace.
You won’t want to leave Sri Lanka’s Hill Country, but when you do, depart by train. The route between Hatton and Ella is touted as one of the most scenic in the world, so pull down the window and let the fresh air mess up your hair. You won’t regret it.
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This article first appeared in the August/September 2018 issue of Expat Living magazine. Subscribe now so you never miss an issue.