Serendipity – the phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for. That’s the definition, but have you ever wondered where the word Serendipty came from? Probably not, but let me tell you anyway. It was inspired by one of the former names of Sri Lanka, Serendib, and that to me, is what Sri Lanka is all about. Let me explain.
It has an 833 mile long coast line consisting mainly of pristine, tropical, white sand beaches. Encased within that stunningly beautiful perimeter are ancient capitals with stories of intrigue, love, battles and Buddhism, forest clad mountains and green, verdant tea plantations, wildlife rich national parks, rivers for rafting, beautiful day treks, yoga, Ayurveda, surfing, kite surfing, great shopping and some of the most spectacular boutique accommodation I’ve come across anywhere in the world. It has the beautiful and atmospheric Galle Fort, which is now a hive of trendy cafés, art galleries, chic boutiques and restaurants.
Despite all that it holds, it is a relatively small island, just 1/3rd the size of the UK, meaning that the distances are manageable, therefore no matter how many of the experiences that appeal to you, it is easily possible to combine them within a two or three week stay. In short, in one trip, it offers something for everyone and a wonderful array of surprises at every turn.
Honeymooners are drawn to the romance of a tropical island and the opportunity to balance luxury stays with diverse experiences including scenic picnics, waterfall swims, cookery classes, tea factory visits and wildlife safaris and, in season, whale watching. Active travellers are drawn to its opportunities for surfing, kite surfing, deep sea diving and rainforest treks. Wildlife enthusiasts love the diversity of its wildlife both on land and offshore, and its bird watching; whilst those looking to rest and recuperate take advantage of its wellness treatments, Ayurveda and Yoga and scenic walks. Families find that there is something for all age groups and it gives the kids great kudos in the school rooms.
Ready to discover more? Below are my ten top reasons to visit Sri Lanka.
Tropical climate all year round
Yes, no freezing winter nights, cold lashing rain or thick frosts. Sri Lanka is perennially warm and sunny, making it the perfect escape from our short, cold winter days. Can you imagine New Year on a palm-fringed beach? I know I can. And, although this part of the world is in the monsoon belt, Sri Lanka has two monsoons, which affect different parts of the country at different months. So, there are warm and rain free destinations all year round. The southwest monsoon is between May and July, which leaves the north rain-free, and the northeast monsoon is between October and January, which leaves the south ready to be explored. Perfect!
I’m not a beach person but even I get tempted by Sri Lanka’s offerings. It is an island ringed by spectacular beaches, catering to all types of traveller. There’s the classic backpacker hangout of Hikkaduwa, Unawatuna Beach has great affordable boutique stays, a fun, laid back nightlife and is located close enough to the array of shops and cafes of Galle Fort to keep you entertained. For honeymooners, some of its more secluded beaches like Dickwella fit the bill together with plenty of other secluded coves. Are you into surfing or would you like to learn? It’s choice of surf beaches have something for beginners to experienced surfers alike, Aurugam Bay being a popular option and the beaches to the north west of the island at Kalpitiya have become a firm favourite for the kite surfing fraternity. Whatever your preference, turquoise waves lapping at the waters edge, a spectacular sunset and a chilled cocktail in hand are guaranteed to be the perfect way to end the day.
Sticking with the coastline for now, the waters surrounding Sri Lanka are regularly frequented by whales, dolphins, turtles and an astonishing selection of marine life. Whale and dolphin tours are operated during the season, and it is possible to be surrounded by a whole pod of dolphins leaping in the waters around the boat. I would always recommend searching for an operator who operates these tours responsibly. In addition there are beaches where turtles come to lay their eggs and special turtle hatching centres. Inland Sri Lanka has a surprising variety of microclimates and landscapes, which mean that Sri Lanka’s national parks, of which there are 22, offer wonderful variety of flora and fauna which guarantee its status as a wildlife-lovers paradise. There are wild elephants, sloth bear, leopards, and the red slender loris as well as over 500 species of birds. Yala National Park is the best known, which houses over 30 leopards and another firm favourite is Udawalawe National Park, the best by far for seeing wild elephants.
*It is important to note that wildlife spotting can be seasonal and so it is essential to check your dates of travel if wildlife is a key reason to visit.
Whether discovering the retail pleasures of the capital Colombo, with its malls and trendy boutiques, to bargaining with the hawkers on the beaches, from marvelling at the array of fruit in a village shop to perusing the art galleries in Galle Fort, Sri Lanka will give you ample opportunity to shop shop shop! Throughout the island there are handicraft shops, the traditional designs will become familiar including the mythical figure of the Makara which has, “The front of an elephant, and the feet of a lion, ear of a pig, the body of a fish living in water, having teeth turned inside and eyes of those of hanuman and a nice tail.” It is one of the most popular and is often worked into paintings, brass work, boxes and silverware. Ritual masks, vibrant and occasionally alarming are also popular as are the less obtrusive batik and handloom textiles, lace, and wood carvings.
Do you prefer something that sparkles? Sri Lanka produces the widest variety of precious stones among any of the world’s gem producing countries. The array includes rubies, blue sapphires, garnets, moonstones, aquamarines and topazes being just a dazzling handful. Naturally, having this dazzling array of jewels, the island has a history of jewellery-making, so you can have your jewel designed into a one off, custom made piece!
Delectable spices and an extensive coastline combine with past foreign influences to ensure that the food that you will sample on the island will leave lasting memories on the palate. Sri Lanka is often referred to as the island of curry and rice and indeed, this is the base for many favourite Sri Lankan dishes. The Ambul Thiyal is a particularly good one for fish lovers, with the main ingredient being sautéed in a blend of spices and mixed with sour fruit. Speaking of which, the fruit really explodes with flavour here and some of the more delectable varieties include the ever-popular mango, sweet, sweet pineapple, more varieties of banana than you can count and papaya. However, be prepared to discover some new varieties too; the less well known but distinctive sapodilla, mangosteen, rambuttan, woodapple, custard apple and beli.
Other firm favourites on the Sri Lanka menu are hoppers, bowl shaped pancakes and filled with curry, vegetables or eggs which are, believe it or not, a popular breakfast dish. But, if you don’t fancy curry for breakfast, try the buffalo milk curd, granted it doesn’t sound appealing when put like that, but think Greek yoghurt drizzled with palm treacle and you won’t be far wrong!
The Cultural Triangle
As famous as India’s Golden Triangle, Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle is a treasure-trove of royal cities, ancient monuments and Buddhist temples that will satisfy the most demanding culture vulture. The key destinations are the island’s three historic capitals – the hill capital of Kandy, the first Sinhalese capital of Anuradhapura and the medieval capital of Polonnaruwa but it doesn’t stop there! Within these fascinating destinations are the spectacular rock fortress of Sigiriya, one of the most iconic destinations on the island, Dambulla, a cave temple like no other and the Buddhist centre of Mihintale. It is easy to become totally absorbed in this regions fascinating and ancient history and the stories therein however, if it all gets a bit much, escape to the wildlife reserve of Minneriya renowned for its thriving wild elephant that gather here for the water held in the park’s centrepiece lake.
We drink it every day, but have you ever stopped to think about where the tea that goes in the bags that makes our morning cuppa comes from? One of Sri Lanka’s many features are the verdant, jade green, acres upon acres of tea plantations. The seemingly uninterrupted carpet of green is interspersed with the vivid colours of the saris of the tea pluckers and surrounding mountains, shrouded with mist in the early mornings. Discover how your favourite brew is made, how it is just the top two leaves and a bud are plucked, dried, rolled and ultimately made into our favourite way to start the day. Former planters bungalows have been turned into luxury boutique stays where one can hike to waterfalls, enjoy picnic lunches, enjoy delicious food, or simply plant yourself on a shady veranda and while away the day. Perfect.
Buddhist Heritage, Ancient to Modern
Buddhism is at the heart of cultural holidays in Sri Lanka, it has and continues to play a key role in the country. Centuries-old temples hold a large piece of Sri Lanka’s history and more often than not, feature phenomenal architecture. Over 90 per cent of Sri Lankans being Buddhist and the four leaves on their national flag represent both those of the sacred Bo tree, and the four pillars of Buddhism: which translate as Kindness, Friendliness, Equanimity and Happiness. No matter what your beliefs, it is hard not to be struck by the serenity, spiritualism and committed service of Buddhist monks seen at many of the country’s temples.
Yoga, Ayurveda & Spas.
Although synonymous with India, Sri Lanka has managed to effortlessly incorporate yoga and Ayurveda into its wealth of offerings to the traveller. It offers an abundance of affordable ayurvedic spa’s in heavenly locations, which make the detox process a whole lot less painful! We are all mostly familiar with Yoga and its health benefits and many hotels offer daily classes and longer retreats are also possible, but you may be less familiar with Ayurveda. It is one of the world’s oldest holistic (“whole-body”) healing systems, developed more than 3,000 years ago in India. It is based on the belief that health and wellness depend on a delicate balance between the mind, body, and spirit. Its main goal is to promote good health, not fight disease. Many people, particularly Europeans have latched on to its wonderful rejuvenative and restorative purpose and treat it as the human equivalent of servicing a car, booking in for a 2 week treatment every couple of years. However, treatments can also be geared toward specific health problems which focus on treating the cause and not the effect.
And Last But By No Means Least – The Accommodation.
I don’t think that any country has quite grasped the boutique hotel concept quite as well as Sri Lanka, they do it superbly and there are wonderful offerings over the whole island. I have explored the island both from a luxury travel perspective and discovered a whole array of accommodation from old colonial hotels and tea plantations to chic and trendy smaller hotels and private villas and wonderfully authentic adventure hideaways and glamorous mud huts! I’ve also researched the island from a more affordable perspective, seeking out those wonderful gems that are not only fabulous but totally affordable. From beach stays to city chic, kite surfing camps to private villas to luxury wildlife lodges, the accommodation in Sri Lanka will leave you thinking that you truly have arrived in your own little piece of paradise.
Philippa Kaye is author of Escape to India