You can visit much of Sri Lanka on a single trip, but to see it all would take a lifetime. Despite being smaller than the UAE or Scotland, it boasts a diversity of culture, environment and experience that makes it suitable for all manner of holidays.
Explore jungle ruins, play cricket on deserted beaches, watch leopards stalk prey on a safari, hike up a mountain or relax in a luxury resort – in Sri Lanka you can do it all.
Choosing the right time to go depends on your agenda. A couple of monsoons hit different parts of the island at various times of year. While beach breaks and city tours of the south and west coasts make it less suitable in the summer, this is a better time to see Kandy in the central region.
The Uda Walawe National Park isn’t really close to the main tourist hotspots of Kandy, Colombo or the seaside town of Galle, yet it is a must-see for safari lovers. It’s best-known for the herds of elephants that roam the lands along with buffalo, crocodiles, deer, leopards and the occasional sloth, if you’re lucky.
Get on track
Make the journey from the airport in Colombo to the hill station of Kandy and you will be treated to one of the world's great train rides. Guarantee space by taking a luxury carriage and enjoy the view of jungle, tea plantations, rice fields and more greenery than you've seen in a long time.
If you need a Sri Lanka fix but are put off by the summer’s downpour by the beach, then Kandy shows a different side to the island. Lanka's second city is like a lush, green mountain (but not high altitude) retreat. The lake provides a centrepiece and on its shore sits the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic – a building of cultural and architectural importance.
Sri Lanka has been embraced by yogis and surfers with both groups appreciating the wide open beaches and easy-going vibe. Make the southwest resort town of Galle your base for beach and coastal activities. Realistically speaking, the seaside areas on this part of the island should be avoided during the summer, but if you’re determined to hit the beach, or if you’re making plans for later in the year, a tour provider such as Soul and Surf has plush all-inclusive packages.
Foodies will not be disappointed with the variety of cuisine available throughout Sri Lanka. You can still see a few traces of the former Dutch rule, but it is southern India that has had the strongest influence. Jackfruit, coconut or fish curries are common, and street food such as egg hoppers (thin pancakes with a fried egg centre) or kottu roti (stir fried meat and veg scooped up with bread) are highly recommended.
Where to stay
Like many capital cities, Colombo can be hectic and overwhelming. Getting out of the city and finding peace on the island is recommended, but as you are likely to fly in and out of the capital, treat yourself by splashing out on this chic retro hotel. The enormous suites of the 200-year-old Moorish-style house have won design awards and the elite service and style are a luxurious base from which to explore the city.
Earl's Regency Hotel, Kandy
The mountain views from this luxury hotel are reason alone to check in; simply sitting on the balcony and looking at the jungle is a pleasure in itself. Being located in the island’s central region makes it a sensible platform from where to explore. But if you’d rather just stay put and relax, the lagoon-style swimming pool and rejuvenation spa are suitable for a single-location retreat.
Galle Fort Hotel
An eccentric and award-winning hotel that attracts artistic guests wanting to combine comfort with culture. Falling perfectly into the category of boutique property, the former gem merchant's mansion dates back to the 18th century and is a UNESCO-recognised building within close proximity of the sea.
From Dubai, Flydubai, Sri Lankan Airlines and Emirates fly to Colombo in about four and half hours. Sri Lankan Airlines and Etihad Airways connect Abu Dhabi and Colombo with a flight time of around four and a half hours. If leaving from Doha, Sri Lankan Airlines and Qatar Airways operate a service to Colombo, with the journey taking just under five hours.
Train and bus service between towns is frequent but tends to get very crowded. If you're making short journeys, just jumping in a taxi and making a single trip is the best approach. It is not uncommon, however, to hire a driver for a full day or even a week if you're planning to make multiple stops or plan to travel longer distances. Negotiate a fee in advance and you will find this to be not much more expensive than hiring a car with no driver.
Tuk-tuks are motorised three-wheel vehicles that operate as transport across much of Asia, including Sri Lanka. A kind of covered motorcycle, they zip in and out of traffic and are frequently used to get around. So popular are they that the annual Lanka Challenge road trip has become a yearly road race for intrepid travellers wanting to see the island from inside their own tuk.
The annual festival of Esala Perahera is a lavish celebration with dancing, fire-breathing, music, circus-style performances and, er, decorated elephants. Between August 8 and 18, temples, hotels, restaurants and just about any open space in Kandy will have a carnival atmosphere and grand decorations to mark moments of traditional significance. Cultural activities such as music and dance recitals with stunning costumes will show off the very best of Kandy and it is arguably the best time to visit the higher mountain regions of Sri Lanka. Be prepared for an explosion of colour and get your Instagram filters at the ready.