Ampersand's mini-guide to Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka’s cultural charms and drop-dead-gorgeous looks make her the perfect island for a family holiday or a romantic escape. With such an extensive a roll call of attractions, there really is something for everybody: temples and forts, jungle safaris, tea plantation walks, palm-fringed beaches and arguably the best boutique hotels in the world.
The walled fort town of Galle is the ideal place to kick back and unwind. The area was colonised by Arab traders, then the Portuguese, then the Dutch and it is crammed with historic architecture, dominated by the UNESCO-protected Galle Fort. It is a laid-back yet sociable place with a stylish colonial-boutique vibe and several sandy bays a short drive or tuk-tuk away. New domestic flights, helicopter transfers and a brand new motorway between Colombo and Galle have thankfully signalled the end of those bumpy 4-hour car transfers, meaning you can be on the beach before you know it.
There are several world-class wildlife destinations on the island. First and foremost: Yala National Park, which has the highest density of leopards in the world. Animal-lovers should also visit Udawalawe National Park to see great herds of elephants and Rekewa’s beaches to meet with marine turtles. Head for Mirissa from December to April for some of the best blue and sperm whale watching in the world and one of the most sensational beaches around. Snorkel and scuba dive at Unawatuna, go for a sunrise surf at Hikkaduwa, or venture off on a mangrove safari in Balapitiya – a really fun way to observe Sri Lanka’s magnificent birdlife.
Time for a tea break? Escape inland to the island’s hilly interior to the witness the extraordinary beauty of Sri Lanka’s renowned tea country. Here, in the solitude of Celyon tea land, you can enjoy private walking tours through tea plantations to watch women pluck tea leaf by leaf and learn how it is harvested, dried, and aged. To up the adrenaline there is mountain biking, white-water rafting and trekking through areas of amazing natural beauty.
For couples or a group of friends with a sense of adventure, Sri Lanka has some gorgeous eco lodges – perfect for those seeking to get back to their traveller roots with an added bit of comfort as an incentive! If you have ever dreamt of sleeping under the stars in style, Galapita Eco Lodge in Buttala is the place for you. It is pure eco bliss, with rustic huts perched on top of the rocks alongside the Menik Ganga (Gem River) in the middle of the jungle. From here you can visit the beautiful rock temples of Dambegoda and Maligawila – which has the largest monolithic statue of Buddha on the island – and the holy pilgrimage site of Kataragama.
And don’t forget: visit in January for the esteemed Galle Literary Festival or in August for the Esala Perahera Festival at the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy – a flamboyant coconut husk-lit procession of fire-walkers, drummers and bejewelled elephants.
Where to stay
Nowhere does boutique hotels like Sri Lanka – there are so many it’s difficult to know where to start. Here are our top recommended places to stay:
Set in Sri Lanka’s rejuvenating central hill country, Tea Trails is something we’d recommend to those who want to really splash out and pamper themselves. A series of four classic colonial bungalows built for British tea estate managers in the days of the Raj, the décor, service and attention to detail here is truly exquisite. Enjoy cream teas by the log fire, dips in the swimming pool and strolls through the surrounding tea estates.
The Amangalla is the ultimate colonial tropical fantasy, loved for her superb arrack sours, outstanding Ayurvedic spa and gigantic swimming pool. One of the original hotels to open in Galle back when Dutch and Portuguese globetrotters would head straight here off the boat, the Aman Group have been gentle with their minimalist stamp, maintaining the feel of Galle’s colonial heyday.
The Dutch House is an elegant restoration of a classic Dutch villa built in 1712, voted one of the top 20 hip hotels in the world. This four-suite villa, situated just minutes from town, has brilliant views of UNESCO-protected Galle Fort and comes with a croquet lawn, large gardens and a good sized infinity pool.
Kahanda Kanda is a sprawling hideaway perched on a ridge north of Koggala Lake. It is one of southern Sri Lanka’s hippest new boutique hotels, with just 5 pavilion suites, a sexy Living Pavilion bar and a top-notch restaurant (if you don’t stay here, at least try to drop by for lunch). The hotel can also be booked for exclusive use.
Once home to two prime ministers and a president of Sri Lanka, Tintagel has been converted to a luxury private hotel in the centre of Colombo by the hugely talented Shanth Fernando, Sri Lanka's equivalent of Terrance Conran, who also owns Colombo's most enduringly popular restaurant, The Gallery and the highly influential lifestyle store, Paradise Road.
Also renovated by design guru Shanth Fernanda of Paradise Road fame, Villa Bentota is a stunning ancestral house and the chicest private beach hotel on the west coast, just 1.5 hours drive from Colombo. It opens onto the beach and has 15 airy rooms, two lovely swimming pools, a sea-view ambalama and thick tropical gardens.
Built as a family beach house, the owners of Lansiya in Tangalle still use it a lot so it is perfectly set up for family life. Although it has a very chic aesthethic, there is no need to worry about wet swimming costumes of sofas here! It comes with everything you could possibly need, including Sylvester, Lansiya's lovely chef and housekeeper who will look after you and your family's every need.
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