Being a teacher, the Easter holiday provides the perfect opportunity to get away for a substantial period of time. March/April also happens to be the best time of year to visit many tropical countries, so having heard many positive reviews, I decided to visit the island of Sri Lanka for 10 days in April 2016. I had about 10 days to play with, and whilst Sri Lanka is relatively small – it’s only about the size of Ireland – I wanted to make sure that I got the right balance between seeing a variety of places and not getting totally exhausted by moving onto a new town every day. The loop that I picked promised to bring a mixture of cool hill-towns with lush tea plantations, one of the world’s most scenic railway journeys, stunning beaches and mouth-watering seafood, and colonial towns. Here is the timetable for my trip:
- Nuwara Eliya
- Udawalawe National Park
I shall now give you a bit more detail as to my experiences.
I touched down at Bandaranaike International Airport at around 4pm and jumped straight into a pre-booked taxi to Kandy – Sri Lanka’s second biggest city. It was 3 hours away and there was some pleasant scenery en-route.
Tip: When you arrive in Colombo, hop in a taxi or on a bus straight away as there isn’t much to see or do in Colombo.
I went to Kandy because I wanted to get the train down to Ella, but many people come to Kandy as a destination in its own right. It’s a fairly pleasant place to spend a day or so, though I wouldn’t do any longer than this. I went to the market and the Temple of the Tooth in the morning, then wandered around the lake after lunch. In the evening I went to a traditional Sri Lankan dance show which was fairly impressive. There are some botanical gardens and a tea factory about 30 minutes away and the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage is about 1.5 hours away. The gardens are meant to be nice but I think it’s better to visit a tea factory in Ella (see below) and to see elephants in their natural habitat in Udawalawe NP (also below).
Eat: The Midland Deli restaurant serves up really good curry and rotis for a couple of pounds. The guidebooks recommend The Muslim Hotel but I thought the food here was pretty disgusting!
Sleep: I stayed at the Hanthana Jungle View Holiday Home for two nights which was a family run B&B up on the hillside overlooking Kandy. This B&B was pleasant and very clean, with a decent breakfast. Although it looks close to the town on the map, it’s actually a 30 minute downhill walk away (you have to get a tuk-tuk back up as it’s a steep hill).
Tip: Take a pair of socks to the Temple of the Tooth because the stone floors get boiling hot without shoes on!
3) Nuwara Eliya
I wanted to get the train from Kandy to Ella, however there were no tickets for the first leg of the journey from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya (the station is called Nanu Oya) so I got a 1.5 hour bus instead. The journey to Nuwara Eliya was very beautiful as the bus climbed through the tea plantations to the town dubbed ‘Little England’ as it’s where British colonialists would come to escape the sweltering summer heat. I didn’t have time to stop here for long but it seemed like a relaxed place to stay for a day or so. There is a well-manicured park and some good hikes in the surrounding hills.
I got the train from Nuwara Eliya to Ella which I’d read was one of the most scenic train journeys in the world. It didn’t disappoint. The train chugged at a leisurely pace through the tea plantations and through a number of quaint train stations and pictureesque villages. Locals came through the carriages selling spicy peanuts and other snacks. It took 3.5 hours in total and was a wonderful experience – a must do for anyone coming to Sri Lanka.
Tip: Book your train tickets in advance to make sure you get a seat. I’d strongly recommend getting a ticket in 2nd class. Don’t bother with A/C and 1st class as the windows are all open in 2nd class so it’s lovely and breezy and means that you don’t have to take pictures through a glass window. Even better, grab a seat on one of the doors between carriages – these are left open for the entire journey and mean that you can sit with your legs dangling out of the train, whilst watching the world go by.
Ella is a popular hill town and I was keen to visit in order to undertake some hiking. There are two well-known hikes in the area: Ella Rock and Little Adam’s Peak. Ideally you need at least two days in Ella as it’s best to do both of these hikes early in the morning. Ella Rock was about a 2 hour round trip (though guidebooks suggest that it’s more like 4 hours – yet another Lonely Planet myth!) and involved a pretty strenuous 30 minute ascent. I got a bit lost so paid a local man to guide me to the top. Little Adam’s Peak took about 1.5 hours and was a much gentler walk, apart from steps at the end. The path is also much clearer so no guide is needed. Both hikes are worthwhile with stunning views from the top. To extend the Little Adam’s Peak walk, you can visit the Demodara Nine Arch Bridge which is about a 1.5 hour round trip. I didn’t have time for this, but it’s meant to be well worth it.
Whilst in Ella, I also paid a visit to the Halpewatte Tea Factory. It’s a working factory and the tour was really interesting and included tea tasting at the end. It’s about a 15 minute tuk-tuk journey from Ella and the tour lasts about 30 minutes. Definitely worth it if you have an hour spare.
Eat: Ella is well known for its excellent home cooking. I had two delicious buffet meals at the Zion View Guest House and the Rawana Holiday Resort – well worth it. For lunch, the high street has plenty of cafes serving up cheap and tasty rotis. My favourite was the coconut and honey roti I had at the Roti Hut.
Sleep: I stayed at Hotel Laura which had the most incredible views of Ella Gap (see above), though the rooms were very warm (no A/C). I’d probably recommend staying elsewhere, but definitely pick somewhere on the hill.
Tip: Make sure you leave your hotel no later than 8am for the two hikes, as leaving later runs the risk of the clouds coming in and ruining your view.
5) Udawalawe National Park
Having agonised over whether to visit Udawalawe National Park (with the potential to see lots of elephants) or Yala National Park (with the potential to see leopards), I opted for the former as I’d heard that Yala had become overcrowded with tourists and that sightings of leopards wasn’t guaranteed. And anyway – what could be more Sri Lankan than a herd of elephants!? Udawalawe NP was an is an easy 1.5 hour bus ride down from Ella (change at Thanamalwila). The journey cost me about 50 pence and there is really no need to get a taxi.
There isn’t much to do in the town and everyone is here to see the elephants. The tours start very early (no later than 5.30am) and the entrance to the park is about 15 minutes drive from the town. If your hotel doesn’t offer tours then there are trucks and guides that you can hire at the park enrance. All of the trucks are open top and follow a similar route around the park. I was on a 3 hour tour and this proved to be the perfect length of time.
Within 10 minutes of being in the park, my truck had come across a group of 6 elephants and we sat in out truck, with the engines off, admiring these amazing beasts from about 10 metres away. Later, we saw about a half a dozen more elephants near a watering hole and a huge bull elephant who did a mini-charge at the truck to exert himself, stopping just a couple of metres away – that certainly got the heart racing. We also saw a number of colourful birds and a herd of water buffalos, as well as as some beautiful scenery.
It was a magical few hours and you certainly won’t leave disappointed; elephant viewings are guaranteed. Make sure you visit Udawalawe on your trip. The tour and park entrance cost about £30 in total.
Eat: I stayed in my homestay for dinner. Most homestays provide a huge Sri Lankan breakfast after the tour. Stock up on a few snacks if you’re likely to get hungry on the tour.
Sleep: I stayed at the Silent Bungalow which was recommended on Trip Advisor. This was a very cheap and basic homestay with excellent home cooking. Whilst it was clean, the rooms were very hot (despite the fans) so I’d pick somewhere with A/C if possible.
Tip: There is no point paying lots of money for a tour as all of the trucks follow a similar route. The only real difference is that you’re be in a newer truck, but save yourself some money and pick a cheapie!
6) Tangalle region
Most people go to Sri Lanka in search of their dream beach, and after some research I settled on the Tangalle region to find mine. The hotel I stayed in was on Medilla beach which was a hot and barren stretch beach. This stretch of coastline is unsafe to swim in, but it had a rugged beauty to it and was largely empty. I walked East along Tangalle beach to the headland, and West along Mediketiya to the rocky outcrop. The eastern section was very empty and made for some good photos; the western section was a bit dirtier and had some pretty shoddy hotels along the main road running parallel to the beach. On reflection, I probably wouldn’t recommend going to Tangalle unless you’re a keen photographer. Whilst it can look idyllic It’s incredibly hot with little shade and without anywhere to swim. The accommodation and food options are also pretty limited. This is largely a consequence of the tsunami that hit in 2004 and the area still feels like it’s recovering, with only a small number of tourists.
Eat: There are several restaurants on the beach front and you can sit at a table on the beach with the waves lapping the shore and flame lanterns providing you with light – all rather idyllic! I had the buffet at Sandy’s Cabanas which was delicious. A good lunch was a bit harder to come by – I had noodles at the Ganesh Garden Beach Cabanas which were very average. Try and find somewhere serving dhal and rotis if possible as it’s hard to go wrong with this.
Sleep: I stayed at the Serein Beach Hotel which was by far the best hotel in the area. It’s very smart with a good breakfast (make sure you book the Sri Lankan breakfast in advance). That said, the rooms were very hot without any A/C.
Tip: Wear plenty of sunscreen and avoid the sun during peak hours – it’s ridiculously strong!
Having not been able to swim in Tangalle, I was desperate to find a beach where I could cool off. Unawatuna sounded overdeveloped so I headed to Mirissa which has a long, clean stretch of beach. It still has some powerful waves, but these are great fun and lots of people enjoy themselves on body boards. You can also surf here.
In the evening, the beach cafes put out dozens of tables and lanterns and it’s a wonderful spot to sit with a beer, watching the sunset, with the waves lapping the shore only a few metres away.
Eat: The food options on the beach appear to be the same everywhere you go, with lots of poor attempts at recreating Western or Chinese dishes, so stick to local food where possible. In the evenings the restaurants lay out a whole table of fresh fish which you can pick to have cooked. Sadly this isn’t cooked in front of you, and the chefs manage to turn good fish into something rather disappointing, serving it up with bland coleslaw style salad and chips. As such, whilst the restaurants on the beach are very scenic and great for a beer during sunset, I’d hunt out an alternative in the town if you’re after something of better quality.
Sleep: I stayed at the Bon Accord B&B which was fantastic! Spotlessly clean, nice beds and great A/C. They gave me a frozen flannel and fresh juice on arrival which was a lovely thought. However the best part of the stay was the breakfast which consisted of 5 or 6 different courses, from hoppers and homemade onion chutney, to eggs and seasonal fruit salads. Stay here if you can!
Tip: If staying at Bon Accord, ask for a room that isn’t on the road as the traffic can be quite noisy.
8) Galle Fort
I stopped at Galle Fort on my journey from Mirissa to Negombo. The port has Portuguese influences heritage and is a pleasant place to wander for half a day. There are lots of nice churches to look at and you can wander along the city walls. I visited on a bank holiday so most things were shut, but there is a good range of accommodation and restaurants. It’s also a good place to buy gifts.
If you need to stay near the airport then Negombo is actually much closer than Colombo. I stayed here for one night as I had an early flight to catch the next day – the airport is only a 15 minute tuk-tuk away. Negombo and its beach are nothing special and you shouldn’t plan on spending any time here. They do run sailing trips on Negombo beach which looked quite fun.
Eat: I had a great meal at a restaurant called Petit which was recommended to me by my B&B host. I had some really tasty coconut fried prawns and a fresh soda and lime. Much recommended.
Sleep: I stayed at Sweet Lanka which was an excellent B&B with great A/C and in a quiet and safe location. The host even made me a packed breakfast to take away with me which was a kind touch.
Overall I’d give Sri Lanka 4/5 stars. I thought it was stunningly beautiful and relatively unspoilt. It is a cleaner, condensed version of India and is perfect for seasoned travellers as well as people looking for a short break. The lack of malaria is a huge benefit and means that you can visit with some fairly basic vaccines. The food was generally very good and you should avoid Western food where possible. A/C is pretty essential during the hotter months and if you’re getting a taxi anywhere, you should opt for a car with A/C. That said, the buses are super cheap and reliable.
The highlights were Ella and the train ride there from Nuwara Eliya. Mirissa was a nice beach to relax on for a couple of days. I’d avoid spending much time in the cities, though Galle Fort is worth visiting for half a day.
Of the places I didn’t visit, I’ve heard really good things about:
- Arugam Bay
These would be ideal on a loop of the North and East coasts. I’d definitely recommend visiting Sri Lanka. If you can afford it, there are some incredible, top-notch hotels on offer which would make this the perfect destination for a special birthday or a honeymoon.