The opportunities for happy living are greater in Ceylon than anywhere else I’ve been so far.
Sri Lanka, the Resplendent Isle, the Pearl of the Orient. Splendid temples, ancient ruins, welcoming people and flavourful food are all to be found within this small country. Search the jungles for elephant, leopard and water buffalo, walk among tea plantations and waterfalls to rainforest-covered peaks and take a spectacular train ride through the highlands. Top it all off with some time on the dazzlingly white and often untrod beaches.
When to go
As most travellers will spend their time in the highlands and on the south and west coasts, the best time to visit Sri Lanka is from December to March.
At once multicultural, cosmopolitan, dynamic, sprawling, sometimes charming and often anarchic, Colombo also has tumbledown cafés with great local food, Buddhist shrines, multi-coloured Hindu temples, colonial churches, crowded bazaars, shady boulevards and modern chic in the form of stylish eateries and galleries. The city is booming: Fort is having its colonial architecture restored, while Pettah is all markets and unbridled commerce.
One thousand years of history are on display at Anuradhapura, one of the great cities of history, known as far afield as ancient Greece and Rome. Huge dagobas (stupas), tall brick towers and crumbling monasteries and temples dot the landscape. Some of the latter remain in use as holy places where ceremonies give Anuradhapura a certain vibrancy.
At the Royal Rock Temple of Dambulla five magical caves are packed with Buddha statues and decorated with some of the finest murals Sri Lanka has to offer. Climb up and enjoy some superb views over the surrounding lands.
Perhaps Sri Lanka's most famous site, the 200-metre high cliffs at Singiriya lead to a flat-topped summit, on which sit the ruins of an ancient capital. Visit it early morning to witness spectacular views of mist rising up from the surrounding forests.
800 Years ago, Polonnaruwa was a thriving commercial and religious centre, one of the great urban centres of South Asia. Within a century though it had been abandoned to the jungle, where it lay virtually unknown, for seven centuries. The extensive and well-preserved remains give a great insight into the city that once was.
Set amidst steep green hills and centered on a beautiful lake, Kandy's unique music, dance and architecture make it the undisputed cultural capital. Discover colourful houses, spontaneous street markets and the famous Temple of the Tooth, the country’s most important religious shrine.
Adam's Peak is revered as either the place where Adam first set foot on earth or where the Buddha left a Sacred Footprint as he headed towards paradise. Whichever it is, the peak has attracted pilgrims for more than 1000 years during the pilgrimage season (December through May). Climb at night aided by the lights of thousands of lights, and see the sun rise over the hills below.
The Hill Country
Sri Lanka's Hill Country offers a cool, green contrast to the beaches and coastal lowlands. Hills covered in tea plantations and forests, rise up to rugged peaks where waterfalls tumble into the mist below. Up here you can hike and raft, enjoy stunning views, attend a cultural ceremony and snuggle up by a log fire at night. Nurawa Eliya is known as Little England, while the train ride to Ella and the views from World's End are stunning.
Yala National Park
Dry woodland and patches of grasslands, overlooked by viewpoints on rocky outcrops, and a stunning array of plants, birds and wildlife, make Yala National Park Sri Lanka's most rewarding wildlife reserve. It is one of the best places in the world to spot leopard.
The one place on the south coast you should not miss is Galle - an old trading post full of colonial buildings, mansions, mosques and churches. At the heart of the city of Galle lies the Fort, the old Dutch quarter. Surrounded on three sides by the ocean it is a working community and home to plenty of offices, schools, boutiques and cafes. Amble around the streets lined with Dutch-period homes, many of which still have their original street-facing verandas and red-tiled roofs, and be transported back in time.
Miles of sandy beaches make for a great relaxed end to your visit. Tangalle has pretty coves and great temples in its hinterland, while Mirissa is the best place to see whales. Kalutara is conveniently close to Colombo and, like Bentota, has upmarket hotels.
Catch a game
Cricket is Sri Lanka's national sport, so learn the rules and spend an agreeable afternoon watching a game of cricket, G & T in hand.
Climb a peak
Adam's Peak has attracted pilgrims for more than 1000 years. From December through May you can join them and climb the steep trails at night aided by the lights of thousands of lights, to see the sun rise over the hills below.
Galle's Fort, the old Dutch quarter, is Sri Lanka's best preserved colonial town. Spend an afternoon ambling around the streets lined with Dutch-period homes, poking into little boutique shops and cafes and just see where your feet take you.
Spot a leopard
Board a jeep and ride the tracks in Yala National Park where the highest density of leopards in the world makes this one of the finest places to see them.
Cultures as varied as Dutch, Portuguese, South Indian, Malay, Arab and British influenced Sri Lankan cuisine resulting in a long list of tasty choices. Kotthu rotti, curries, vadai (deep fried snacks) and fresh seafood are but some of the highlights.
Find a bird
Get out your binoculars and take a stroll through the countryside. With 235 resident and 200 migratory species, Sri Lanka is one of the finest birdwatching destinations in the world.
Visit a temple
Thousands of years of history influenced by the four major world religions has left Sri Lanka with many a beautiful temple. From small ornately carved village shrines, to Kandy's famous Temple of the Tooth, a visit to a holy place should be on every itinerary.
Climb to a fortress
Take an early morning hike past lily-pad-covered moats, water gardens and quiet shrines and up the steep staircases leading to the top of Sigiriya. Your reward is a spectacular vista of mists rising from the forests far below.
Watch a whale
Board a boat and head out on the high seas. Sri Lanka sits right next to the annual migration of blue and sperm whales between the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea. December and April are great months to see whales (the months in between only slightly less so).
Hit the beach
Miles and miles of sandy beaches make for a great relaxed end to your tour of Sri Lanka. Crack open a coconut, find a hammock and snuggle up with a good book. Tangalle, Mirissa, Bentota and Kalutara have some of the best beaches.
Feast at a festival
Some say Sri Lanka has more festivals than any other country in the world and you may witness Buddhist parades, complete with elephants, dancers and drummers, or Hindu festivals, at any time during the year.
Being locked up in a steaming vessel may not look all that inviting, but follow your Aryuvedic steam bath with a massage, and you will come away renewed and rejuvenated.
Ride the rails
Travelling by train from the Hill Country to the surrounding lowlands is a spectacular ride. Within 90 minutes your drop 800 metres as the train travels through cloud forest and tea plantations, offering breathtaking views along the way.
Cycle the backroads
Saddle up and follow the quiet backroads of Sri Lanka. Chat with the locals and stop to smell the flowers. Cycling enhances your senses, slows the world down and brings it into focus.
Sri Lanka Discovery
Tour code: VSDI
Why we love this trip: in two weeks you can pack in all the highlights of beautiful Sri Lanka
Places visited: Dambulla, Sigiriya, Giritale, Polonnaruwa, Anuradhapura, Kandy, Adam's Peak, Hill Country, Nurawa Eliya, World's End, Yala National Park, south coast beaches, Galle
Signature Experiences: catch a game, climb a peak, go colonial, spot a leopard, glorious food, find a bird, visit a temple, climb to a fortress, watch a whale, hit the beach, feast at a festival, Ayurveda, ride the rails, cycle the backroads
Length: 14 days
Included meals: all breakfasts, 1 lunch
Transport: van, train
Departures: Set small-group dates and daily private departures year-round
Customizable? Yes, price on request
Price: Small group departures priced from $2140
Tour code: VHSL
Why we love this trip: a one-week overview of the best of Sri Lanka
Places visited: Giritale, Polonnaruwa, Sigiriya, Anuradhapura, Dambulla, Kandy
Signature Experiences: catch a game, go colonial, spot a leopard, glorious food, find a bird, visit a temple, climb to a fortress, feast at a festival, Ayurveda
Length: 8 days
Included meals: all breakfasts
Departures: Set small-group dates and daily private departures your-round
Customizable? Yes, price on request
Price: Small group departures priced from $1370
Cycle Sri Lanka
Tour code: ECSL
Why we love this trip: join the locals and saddle up on this exciting ride along all the best places Sri Lanka has to offer!
Places visited: Sigiriya, Dambulla, Polunnaruwa, Hill Country, Kandy, Nuwara Eliya, Ella Gap, Buduruvagala, Kataragama, Yala National Park, south coast beaches, Galle
Signature Experiences: catch a game, go colonial, spot a leopard, glorious food, find a bird, visit a temple, climb to a fortress, watch a whale, hit the beach, feast at a festival, Ayurveda, ride the rails, cycle the backroads
Length: 15 days
Accommodation: hotels & guesthouses
Included meals: all breakfasts, 10 lunches
Transport: van, bicycle
Departures: set small-group dates July - April
Customizable? We can run this tour for private groups - price on request
Price: Small group departures priced from $2720