Ashlee Starratt explores the magnetic pull of South Asia’s Isle of Spice – Sri Lanka.
There are few places where, if you stop to listen, you can hear the Earth speak back to you. Sri Lanka is one of them. Ancient, majestic, mystical, the isle of old Ceylon issues like a teardrop off the tip of the Indian subcontinent, waiting to leave you awash in the vibrancy of its culture, its people, and its cuisine.
From the rolling hill country with its mountainous tea plantations in Nuwara Eliya, the primordial stretches of its southern coastline from Kalutara all the way down to Hambantota; to the cultural renaissance of the capital hub of Colombo, Sri Lanka is a country that continues to reveal itself, layer by colourful layer, upon every visit.
After touchdown at Bandaranaike International Airport, travel Sri Lanka by road and you’ll discover its history along every bend of its arterial by-ways. With a cultural heritage spanning as far back as 377 BC to the first Indo-Aryan settlers, over the centuries the island has witnessed the rise and fall of mighty Sinhalese dynasties, Portuguese and Dutch colonial influences, a push for independence and a 26-year civil war, the end of which came only in 2009.
Today, it’s a nation finding its balance amid a new effort towards stability – one that hasn’t been without its setbacks. Yet the indomitable vibrancy of the Sri Lankan people continues to make it one of the most-frequented tourist destinations in the world. Bohemian backpackers looking for best beach and the next swell, new-age troubadours seeking solace among its ayurvedic yoga retreats, and five-star foodies seeking out the most Instagrammable hotspot among Colombo’s eclectic culinary roster – the shores of Sri Lanka call to all.
Listen closely, and you’ll be humbled by its nature.
My favourite place The beaches of Bantota and Maha Induruwa. Stretches of pristine sand that offer solitude among the crashing waves, king coconut palms, and sea turtles that come ashore at night to lay their eggs – need we say more?
Highlights: Indulge in the vibrant colours of Peradeniya’s Royal Botanical Gardens, make an offering at the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic in Kandy – said to hold the tooth of the Siddhartha Buddha, witness the reclining Buddha’s of the Dambulla cave temple – a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and make the epic climb atop Sigiriya or the ‘Lion Rock’ fortress dubbed the ‘8th Wonder of the World’ – just don’t feed the monkeys along the way!
Lowlights: Depending on which season you travel in, the weather in Sri Lanka can be unpredictable. With two monsoon seasons in the west and south-west from May to September, and the north and east in October and February, it’s best to plan your trip accordingly as it conditions can change from sunshine to gale-force winds on a dime.
Souvenirs: Batik silk, Sri Lankan cinnamon, carved deity masks, gemstones, Ceylon tea, elephant dung stationery.
Getting there: SriLankan Airlines continues to be one of South Asia’s best carriers, with competitive rates and fantastic on-board service. Tourists can apply online and grab their Electronic Travel Authority (ETA) prior to their trip for easy visa-on-arrival access. Hiring a driver or car is essential to cover long distances – or for shorter journeys hop in one of the island’s iconic tuk-tuks and be on your way.
Where to stay: Sri Villas in Maha Induruwa is a pristine boutique hotel experience at its best, along unspoiled coastline. Or, take in the striking Anantara Kalutara Resort designed by the late iconic Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa. And, if you’re heading into the hill country the chalet-style Grand Hotel Nuwara Eliya is a must-see, must-stay relic of a bygone age.
Top 5 things to do:
1. Wander through Colombo’s iconic Old Dutch Hospital District – now an art and restaurant hub
2. Watch rescue elephants roam free at the Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage
3. Roam the ramparts of the colonial Galle Fort
4. Catch some of the biggest waves for surfers at Hikkaduwa
5. Experience Sri Lanka by train, south to north, with unparalleled views