Holidays in Sri Lanka take myriad forms: a beach break, yoga retreat, safari camp, surf getaway – whatever’s your cup of freshly picked tea. Yes, Sri Lanka’s pot of fragrant Ceylon black flows over when it comes to tropical splendour.
Driving distances are manageable (and chauffeurs easily hired) and Sri Lankan intrigues are as densely packed as the coastline’s palms; so, like explorers of old who were besotted with the island’s sand-dusted, jungly charms, we’ve chartered a course along its dramatic coast, through national parks and colonial towns, with a few tea breaks along the way…
ARRIVE IN COLOMBO
Bold goers Marco Polo and Fa Xian arrived at Sri Lanka’s leafy shore by boat; nowadays visitors enter by the less romantic but more convenient Bandanaraike Airport, a 40-minute drive from capital Colombo.
The former ‘garden city of the east’ is in full flower as a cosmopolitan hub (even if it’s a smidge less green these days), where skyscrapers and colonial edifices jostle for space amid lakes and parks.
Paradise Road Tintagel Colombo is a gleaming-white colonial confection with moody interiors, housed in the the president of Sri Lanka’s hood: Cinnamon Gardens.
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Day one Browse the woodcuts, prints and weaponry housed in the Italianate National Museum, just a few minutes’ walk from your stay. Then, wander the floating walkways of Gangaramaya Temple – admiring the modern Simamalaka Shrine (crafted by legendary Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa) and Buddha-topped terraces. By the port is Galle Face Green, a sociable open-air spot where street-food stalls clamorously dish up kotthu roti (a comforting mess of meat, bread and spices), isso vadai (prawn and split-pea patties) and achcharu pickles; chase with lime juice and pungent wood apples for dessert.
Pettah’s gloriously chaotic market has carry-on-size trinkets to haggle over (spice baggies, rainbow-bright shawls), and candy-striped Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque is nearby. Stop for ice cream by the floating market, then sundowners on ocean-eyeing Galle Face Pool Bar’s terrace.
Day two Stroll arm-in-arm around Viharamahadevi Park’s ponds, stopping by the central gold Buddha and the neoclassical White House-double of a Town Hall. Along the bank of glittering Beira Lake, on Chatham Street, t-lounge by Dilmah serves creamy tea-infused shakes. Continue your restful ramblings at Seema Malaka temple (another Geoffrey Bawa beauty) where you can meditate until your mojo returns.
Dip your toe in the waters of Galle Face Beach, then head to romantic Mt Lavinia Hotel (named to commemorate an affair between a general and a gypsy dancer) for half the ocean on a platter.
RUN FOR THE HILL COUNTRY
Sri Lanka’s hinterland is cooler, greener and more curvaceous than its coast. The drive inland is long and winding, but climbing roads into cloud forests, meandering past waterfalls and rushing rivers, and wild-elephant spotting will distract and delight the road-weary.
Ceylon Tea Trails is a dainty step into the bygone era of the British Raj, complete with faithful manservants. Romantic vintage quarters have verdant views and tea is everywhere: the name, the food; the scenery; the drinks and spa treatments; your butler’s back pocket…)
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Day one Take a hill trek with the resident naturalist, or, if you prefer nature without narration, the hotel has trail maps for the sedate and sporty. If you bike it, your personal Jeeves will pack a gourmet picnic for you – good man, good man…
Sore? Achy? Or you stayed by the hotel pool all morning but you’d like a massage anyway? The spa’s therapists will brew you in black-pepper-and-orange or bergamot-and-geranium infusions before pleasurably pummelling you. For dinner a 12-course curry feast awaits.
Day two Sri Pada (Adam’s Peak) is a dramatically contoured shard of emerald green, cloaked in mist; formidable and photogenic, with a foot-shaped indentation at the top. It’s sacred to Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists; but whether you believe the print belongs to the Buddha or Adam (of ‘and Eve’ fame), or dancing deity Siva, it’s a moving sight.
After your challenging climb (around six hours in total), high tea awaits – a curiously English affair in tropical gardens with tiers of home-made cakes and the Sri Lankan equivalent of ‘all the tea in China’. Polish off your genteel getaway with rounds of croquet and fan-cooled lazing on the porch at sundown.
Unesco-cherished fortifications, Dutch-colonial treasures and the centre of Sri Lanka’s art scene: Galle is a richly cultured region. But with frangipani trees and mop-topped palms swaying in spice-tinged winds, the region’s most-beautiful bits are left un-enhanced.
Quantum yoga within the Fibonacci Sequence sounds like the plot of the next Christopher Nolan film, but it’s part of Tri retreat’s fiendishly clever charm: cinnamon-wood cabins in math-approved concentric circles get an eyeful of Lake Koggala or the Galle region’s greenery.
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Day one and day two Do you think you came to this place of unruffled palms and Castaway set piece serenity to wave your butler over for unlimited cuppas? You did not. First up, learning how to bend yourself through time (possibly) with a session of Lara Baumann’s Ayurveda-informed Quantum Yoga in the spa’s open-plan sala. Yoga workshops are available in two-day slots, so you’ll spend most of your stay in downward-dog mode.
Otherwise, bounce about the landscape on the ‘holistic parkour trail’, learn how to shimmy up a coconut tree using just willpower and a rope, and seek out surf breaks (the south coast has ideal wave-riding conditions). Come evening, the Cambodian kitchen team craft decadent six-course feasts that will tempt you from your good intentions. Well, you Tri-ed…
A LA YALA
Yala National Park, on Sri Lanka’s south-east coast, is a rumpus of chittering langur monkeys, show-off peacocks and skittish deer. The wilder party animals – elephants, tigers, grinning crocs – can be safely seen on a jeep drive. It’s all fair game, except for a couple of cheetahs…
Give yourself fully to the wilds and rest your yoga-worn bones in eco-friendly stay Chena Huts’ thatch-roof residence. These simple dwellings – inspired by traditional farmers’ shelters – have the bare basics you need to survive: a private plunge pool, Bluetooth-equipped sound-system, free WiFi… Humbling.
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Day one Elephants, tigers, sloth bears… oh yes!
Day two There’s a long day of animal-ogling ahead, so fill up on French toast with caramelised apples and pineapple and cinnamon muffins at breakfast. Then glue your eyes to your binoculars as you head in for round two of pointing and gasping a lot as leopards, buffalo, and other beasties swan into your view.
Hit the two spa pavilions on your return to be buffed and scrubbed, then watch the sunset into the Indian Ocean and on your Sri lankan getaway with some watermelon-infused cocktails in the sunken bar.
And, if you’re not quite ready to go home yet, the Maldives are just a short seaplane-aided hop from Sri Lanka’s shores…