After booking my holiday to Sri Lanka, travel articles via Wanderlust, Condé Nast Travel, Trip Advisor, and Lonely Planet started appearing in my inbox hailing ancient Ceylon as a top 2013 travel destination. The tiny island just off the southern tip of India recovered from the devastating 2004 Boxing Day tsunami and long political unrest in 2009 when its civil war ended, to once again claim tourism as a major income source.
As I planned my own ambitious itinerary, I was determined to maximize limited time and see everything. Given the dimensions of the island, just slightly larger than West Virginia (in European terms roughly Belgium plus the Netherlands), I was optimistic.
Here’s my itinerary including sites and hotels:
My flight landed into pre-dawn darkness at the international airport, just 20 miles north of capital city, Colombo. Having arranged a car and driver with our hotel, we started in early morning light and drove inland on near deserted roads.
First stop, Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage founded in 1975 as a refuge for orphaned and abandoned elephants and now home to around 70 elephants. We arrived in perfect time for the first feeding at 9:15am followed by the first bath time at 10:00am.
We checked-in to our first hotel in the afternoon, the Heritance Kandalama, an ecological wonder built straight into a cliff by architectural legend, Geoffrey Bawa. We called it the jungle hotel, not because of the monkeys on our balcony or geckos everywhere, but because its dirt road goes so deep into the wild, we were genuinely concerned if we needed to get out.
The hotel was an excellent base for exploring the archaeological monuments of the Cultural Triangle, the triangular area between the cities of Kandy, Anuradhapura, and Polonnaruwa, and from it we visited four of Sri Lanka’s eight (yes eight) UNESCO World Heritage Sites:
The sacred city of Anuradhapura Sri Lanka’s first capital founded in the 5th century BC and capital city of Buddhism:
The Sri Maha Bodi or Sacred Bo Tree grown from a transplanted branch of the tree under which Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment. A revered Buddhist holy place, it is the oldest documented tree in the world (2,200 hundred years old).
Polonnaruwa medieval capital city with ruins and shrines dating from the 10th to 13th century AD:
Sigiriya rock fortress a massive stone monolith dating from the 5th century AD also known as the Lion Rock. Views from the once royal palace at the summit are worth the 180m (591 ft) vertical climb:
Golden Temple of Dambulla and 1st century cave-shrines:
After the sequence of stairs to reach the temple inside the hill, some 340m above the entrance, depositing our shoes to walk barefoot though the five caves, here we had the best guide who kindly shared his historical knowledge and beliefs about the philosophy of Buddhism.
On Day 4 we relocated to Kandy and our second hotel, Mahaweli Reach. The royal city of Kandy is another UNESCO World Heritage Site and the last capital of the Sinhalese Kings. From here we visited the Royal Botanical Gardens, Peradeniya surrounded by the Mahaweli Ganga (River) and extending nearly 148 acres. The grounds, with giant fig trees, beautiful manicured lawns, and stunning flora, are an idyllic, peaceful place to relax.
Kandy’s main attraction is Sri Dalada Maligawa or Temple of the Tooth. The Sacred Tooth believed recovered from the ashes following Buddha’s cremation hence making the temple a spiritual place of veneration for Buddhists. We visited during one of the daily formal prayer offerings or puja, when pilgrims can join the procession to see the casket containing the tooth. The drums pounding throughout as monks in bright saffron robes chanted, the rewarding glimpse of the gold-gilded casket and experiencing the sacred, the transcendent. Unforgettable.
One can’t see everything, so we consciously missed the Central Highlands, the cold, wet tea-growing region also known as Little England. I live in London, I passed. Instead we started the long, long drive from Kandy to the deep south coast. Turning right “near the 214km post on the Tangalle highway” and way-off-any-beaten-path we found Turtle Bay in Kalametiya for a few relaxing days at a remote beach hotel on the southern tip of Sri Lanka, just 6º from the equator and facing Antarctica.
Day 7. No missed opportunities. Sightseeing on the two-hour drive from Tangalle to Galle.
Onwards to the Dutch fortifications in Galle, the sixth UNESCO World Heritage Site on our agenda. Spent a lazy afternoon walking the charming streets and alleys of Old Galle and the ancient walls around the colonial fort. Stopping for tea at the luxurious Amangalla Hotel is a must.
Our last night in Sri Lanka at the Doornberg (The Dutch House) was perfection with bouquets of flowers, gentle background music, detailed room decor, and plentiful artwork. Dinner across the street at sister residence, the elegant Sun House, and its 3-course menu won best meal of the trip. The staff was so attentive, I sneezed and a tissue appeared in a blink. In appreciation of your visit, owner Geoffrey Dobbs kindly donates a planted tree on your behalf to preserve the country’s coastline. Amazing.
Last day in Sri Lanka started with a Simpifly chartered helicopter flight over the hill country from the tea plantations to Adam’s Peak. That was awesome.
The rest of the day we spent in Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo, had lunch at Galle Face Hotel and walked on the promenade of Galle Face Green.
That is how you squish a 14-day itinerary into 8-days and 7-nights. Should you have any energy left, Bandaranaike International Airport has a tea village with up-market tea-shops towards departures gate 14. Enjoy.