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Iceland is having a bit of a moment. The ‘land of fire and ice’ has been firmly on peoples’ radars since its massively disruptive volcanic eruption in 2010 (who knew that it was so close?), and interest was peaked after this nation of just 320,000 people dumped England out of the Euro 2016 football tournament.

Iceland had been on my bucket list ever since I got a cheap flight back from the United States, via Reykjavik, in 2012. I had been to New Zealand – my favourite country in the world – about six months earlier, and the scenery on offer flying into Iceland evoked memories of lush valleys, vast glaciers and imposing mountain ranges.

Fortunately for me, a break in between jobs offered me the perfect opportunity to visit Iceland for 10 days in August. I was travelling with a friend and we soon set our hearts upon driving a full loop of the island. Whilst we knew we didn’t have enough time to see everything that this small but incredibly diverse country had to offer, we knew that a road trip of the island would certainly give us a flavour of what Iceland was all about. Local food and beer, hiking, whale watching, Icelandic horse riding, waterfalls and glaciers were all on our ‘to-do’ list, and after a bit of planning, our final plan involved a clockwise circuit taking in:

  1. Reykjavik 
  2. The Golden Circle
  3. Akureyri
  4. Husavik
  5. Myvatn
  6. Seydisfjodur
  7. Hofn
  8. Vik
  9. Thorsmork National Park

Below is further detail of what we did, where we stayed and some tips for your own adventure.


1) Reykjavik (2 nights)

After a three hour flight from London, we landed in Keflavik. Keflavik is about an hour from Reykjavik – Iceland’s capital city – and this is where most international flights arrive. There are endless shuttle buses to ferry you straight from the airport to Reykjavik and our driver dropped us off essentially outside our accommodation – great service!

We arrived in Reykjavik in mid-afternoon and spent the afternoon wandering around the city. It is very clean and quiet, and situated on the coast, with the harbour area offering wonderful views across the bay. There are a few museums and the you can get some great views from the top of the cathedral, but most enjoyment is to be had having a stroll through the town and enjoying some local beers. Happy hour varies from bar to bar, but generally consists of 2-4-1 on alcohol which is well worth it as a pint costs about £7/8.

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Reykjavik cathedral

We stayed in a simple but clean Air BnB for two nights which was about a 10 minute walk from the Old Harbour area. There are a few cheap hostels, as well as more expensive hotels, so you shouldn’t be stuck for options.

We ate at Sægreifinn which is down by the harbour and comes highly recommended in several guidebooks. The restaurant is small and basic but serves the most incredible lobster soup and an array of wonderfully fresh fish skewers. Minke whale steaks are available for the more curious travellers…!

2) The Golden Circle

No trip to Iceland would be complete without doing the famous ‘Golden Circle’ tour which takes in the highlights of Thingvellir National Park (tectonic plates), Gullfoss waterfall and a massive geysir. We did this as an organised tour, but you could easily do it as a DIY road trip from Reykjavik. Gullfoss was the highlight and one of the best waterfalls in all of Iceland. The tour stops for lunch at a very expensive restaurant near the geysir, so it’s worth taking a packed lunch.

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Gullfoss waterfall

3) Akureyri (1 night)

The next day, we woke up early and set off on an epic 400km drive to Iceland’s second city: Akureyri. We had left ourselves a day to get up to the north of Iceland, and since we stopped perhaps every 10 minutes to take photos, this was a good decision. The landscapes are bleak, but stunning in their remoteness. Driving on the Route 1 highway which circles the island is never dull. We stopped off at the horse farm at Lýtingsstaðir where we went on a 60 minute ride through the barren countryside on short and stout Icelandic horses.

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Driving worthy of Top Gear!

Akureyri is a small town, with a population of just 18,000 people. You can walk around the centre of town in about 20 minutes and there’s lots of cosy places to eat and drink. Its possible to do whale watching tours from the harbour year, though we decided to travel onto Husavik to do this.

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Church in Akureyri

4) Husavik (1 night)

An hour’s drive away from Akureyri, Husavik is a tiny fishing town overlooking Skjalfandi Bay – the prime location for embarking on whale watching cruises. On the way, we stopped off at Godafoss waterfall. As you drive through the bleak Icelandic countryside, hues of dark greens, greys and browns are suddenly pricked by a burst of ice blue, as Godafoss comes into sight. Whilst not as tall as others in Iceland, the is perhaps the most beautiful, and it’s possible to scramble down to the water’s edge to get a close-up view.

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Godafoss waterfall

After checking into Husavik Guesthouse, we made our way down to the harbour to sign up for a cruise. Unfortunately, it was very windy/choppy so there were no cruises running that day, so after a warming hot chocolate in a nearby cafe, we decided to drive 45 mins or so out of Husavik to Ásbyrgi. There is a good visitor’s centre here which lists several day walks, and we opted for one which gave as the best view of is one of the horseshoe-shaped Ásbyrgi canyon, with sheer cliff faces up to 100m high. The drive back to Husavik was mind-bogglingly beautiful, with a sunset perfectly silhouetting the sea on for the whole journey.

Back in Husavik, we went for dinner at the town’s best restaurant – Naustid. Despite being expensive, we had an excellent dinner (try the skewers!).

The next morning we got up and were greeted with a beautiful morning; perfect conditions for whale watching. We boarded the boat and got into our warm gear (part of the ticket price) and set out into the Greenland Sea.

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Skjalfandi Bay

The boat ride itself was very pleasant and we soon had eyes on Puffin Island – an unoccupied, mountainous crop of land in the middle of the sea. Now we just needed some whales! After some time, a whale surfaced and out boat raced closer to get a better look. This happened several times, as the whale teased us before diving back down out of site. In the end, we got a few decent glimpses, but not quite the picture postcard tail-shot. Wildlife watching is always going to be hit and miss – we were a bit unlucky, but it’s definitely worth giving at a go.

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Puffin Island

5) Myvatn (1 night)

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Detifoss waterfall

Leaving Husavik, we made our way to the lake town of Myvatn. After dropping our bags off at Dimmuborgir Guesthouse, we headed towards the epic Detifoss waterfall – Iceland’s biggest. The landscape en-route turned from earthy greens and browns, to lunar blacks and greys. On arrival, there is a large carpark and a couple of trails to Detifoss, as well as to the smaller but still impressive, Selfoss. Detifoss is enormous – 100 metres wide and 44 metres high – and the power and noise emitted by this force of nature was astounding. It’s an essential visit on the waterfall trail of Iceland.

On the way back towards Myvatn, we stopped off at the sulphur lakes, with hot gases shooting out from the earth. The stench given off was horrific and I wouldn’t advise on spending long here! This thermal site is what gives the Myvatn nature baths their heat…and pong.

Near the centre of Myvatn is the Grjotagja cave which contains a 42 degree hot spring and was used for the Game of Thrones scene between John Snow and Ygritte (“you know nothing”…). Close-by is the Hverfjall crater – a gigantic cone of black volcanic rock and as – which you can climb to the top of. The views over Myvatn are breathtaking, especially at sunset. Just down the road is the Dimmuborgir National Park, where a range of trails weave in and out the other-worldy formations of black rock. Definitely worth a wander for a hour or so.

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Hverfjall crater

We visited the Myvatn nature baths at night time. The air was freezing but the water is very warm (you’ll never want to get out) and there is a sauna too. The baths give off a strong sulphuric smell, but it was a worthwhile experience and a cheap alternative to the Blue Lagoon.

6) Seydisfjodur (1 night)

Most people who visit Iceland tend to only go as far as Myvatn; we wanted to loop the entire island, so continued across to the town of Seydisfjodur which sits within a fjord at the start of the spectacular eastern coastline. If you visit at the right time, visit Borgarfjörður Eystri en route to see a circuit of puffins.

We stopped off for coffee in the town of Egilsstaðir, before traversing the Lagarfljót river to Hengifoss waterfall. It’s one of the highest waterfalls in Iceland, measuring 128m, falling from the plateau into a magnificent gorge. There is a colorful rock face surrounding the waterfall showing different layers from volcanic eruptions in the period when Iceland was formed. It’s about a 30 minute up-hill walk to the waterfall, but it’s well worth it and the top affords more spectacular views.

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Hengifoss waterfall

After Hengifoss, we drive up and over the mountain which leads to Seydisfjodur. The descent into the town, along a windy track into the fjord, was very scenic and we stopped several times to take pictures. We stayed at the Hafaldan Old Hospital – great accommodation. We didn’t have a huge amount of time here, but bought a couple of Icelandic ales and climbed a hill to watch the sunset over the fjord. There’s little other to see and do here than admire nature’s beauty, though I suspect there were some good walks in the surrounding area.

7) Hofn (1 night)

The drive from Seydisfjodur to Hofn, down the south-eastern coast of Iceland, was perhaps the best day of driving I have ever done. The coast is a sequence of fjords, each inlet different in scale and composition. You will find yourself stopping the car at every turn as you marvel at the scenery, so don’t rush. We stopped for a coffee at Djupivogur – a tiny hamlet with a harbour – though you will want to take a packed lunch with you from Seydisfjodur as there’s little on the way.

We actually drove past Hofn to go to the Jokulsarlon lagoon – known as the ‘lagoon of the glacial river’ – which is exactly as it sounds: a large, freezing lagoon filled with icebergs. The boat trip on the lagoon was good, though not amazing.

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Jokulsarlon lagoon

Retracing our path, we headed to Hofn, which is one of the larger towns on the southern side of Iceland, though very small by most standards. We stayed at the House on the Hill which was very pleasant, and after a walk through town, ate at the splendid Pakkhús restaurant. There are a couple of very good (and expensive) restaurant in Hofn, and we treated ourself to an excellent meal here. Well worth it.

8) Vik (1 night)

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Skaftafell glacier

Carrying on clockwise round the island, we stopped of at Skaftafell glacier to do a glacier hike. This was good fun for a few hours and wasn’t too busy. There are several companies who all offer the same thing for a similar price. You will need to wear hiking boots as you need crampons, and they also provide helmets, harnesses and ice-axes. En-route, we completed the ‘Viking challenge’ – drinking water from a spring whilst completing 10 press-ups on your ice-axe…not that easy!

We continued on past yet more amazing scenery, finally arriving at the small town of Vik. Vik is famous for its black sand beaches, and despite the fact that it was rainy and windy, we wrapped up warm and ventured out onto the empty beach. We stayed outside for a few hours, writing in the sand and staring out over the wild sea. There wasn’t much else to do in Vik and the choice of restaurants wasn’t great – the cheapest option was a £12 bowl of soup from a canteen. Nevertheless, it’s well worth a visit .

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Vik’s black beach

9) Thorsmork National Park (1 night)

Leaving Vik, Route 1 takes you to Skogafoss and Seljalandsfoss waterfalls. Skogafoss is very beautiful, and you can climb up a sleep slope to the top of the waterfall. Seljalandsfoss is bigger, plunging into a large pool, and you can walk behind it. Seljalandsfoss is also the place to leave your car parked to journey into Thorsmork National Park, where some of the best hiking in Iceland lies.

We locked the car and jumped onto the big, off-road bus that would take us on the slow and bumpy ride into the park. On the way, we stopped off to see the Eyjafjallajökull volcano which erupted in 2010, causing havoc across the European airspace. After about an hour and a half, we arrived at the Volcano Huts where we would be staying for the night. There’s a mixture of accommodation, and we opted to stay in the cheaper bunk houses, which were basic but comfortable. This is a popular place for hikers to stay, and reception had a range of suggested hiking routes. After some deliberation, we opted for the Tindfjöll Circle hike, which took around 6 hours. It was an epic hike, which started at the Volcano Huts, climbing into the hills, traversing along the valley, and then returning down the dry riverbed. The scenery was dramatic and stunning (see below), and we only passed a few others on the route, which added to the sense of isolation.

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Tindfjöll Circle hike

Our hike took in part of the multi-day Landmannalaugar hike, which is meant to be one of the best hikes in Iceland – one for a return visit!

The next morning, we had to get a bus back to Seljalandsfoss at about 11am, so we scrambled up to the rocks overlooking the Volcano Huts, which offer a stunning view over the desolate valley. When we got back to our car, we made the journey back to Reykjavik, having completed an epic 1,300km trip around the Iceland. That evening, we treated ourself to fish and chips by the harbour, and a couple more beers. The perfect end to the trip of a lifetime!


I’d been very excited about visiting Iceland, and the reality surpassed my expectations. It is a country of jaw-dropping beauty, with a vast array of landscapes. The best thing about Iceland is that is has something for everyone – hikers will be in heaven, whilst those who are less mobile can witness some of this planet’s most dramatic scenery from the comfort of their car. This is a five-star destination – what are you waiting for?

Speak to any traveller and ask them which country is a ‘must see’ in the next few years, and Cuba will come in the top few (if not top) every time. Despite Obama’s efforts to restore relations with the country in 2016, tourism from the United States has yet to kick-in, though change is happening quickly in Cuba. Tourism is providing a massive boost to the Cuban economy; the average worker earns $50 a month, yet letting out a room in their home (or ‘casa’) can make them $30 per night. Raul Castro (Fidel’s brother and successor) has sought to introduce a sprinkling of market forces (don’t say it too loudly…) into the Cuban economy, for example allowing private restaurants to proliferate. I’d be fascinated by Cuba for a number of years, and was lucky enough to visit in November 2017 having bagged bargain flights (via Paris) on Jack’s Flight Club.

Background details

Our itinerary followed a typical route around the North West of the island, and I think we got it 90% right – more detail below.

Flights: We flew in/out of Havana, though I would recommend flying in/out of Varadero or Cayo Coco if you want some proper beach time.

Accommodation: Cuba has a series of casa particulars – homestay – which cost $25-35 per room, per night. They rarely have websites, but each casa will have links with other casas in others towns, and they will book ahead for you. Every casa we stayed in was clean and in good condition – all had a/c and most had fridges filled with drinks which was a nice touch. Breakfast was always $5 extra, of varying quality.

Food and drink: Food was very average on the whole. I’ll pick out a few of the better places below. Drinking, on the other hand, is great! Rum cocktails (everything is rum here, due to the abundance of the state manufactured Havana Club) were $1-5 each which means that it’s very easy to have a casual pina colada with your lunch, or drink Cuba libres all night without breaking the bank. We realised too late, but you can eat at state-run restaurants which serve big plates of food (e.g. pulled pork and rice) for a couple of pounds. These places don’t have normal menus, just a list of the day’s offerings on the wall. Ask around for ‘non-tourist’ restaurants; Havana is your best bet.

Internet: There is no internet in Cuba unless you buy cards in the main parks ($1-2 per hour) – it’s a great place to escape from your phone! I’d really recommend downloading the maps.me app in advance so that you can access street names. I imported some recommended map ‘pins’ which showed off some of the best bars, restaurants and attractions – we used this every day, so I’d recommend doing this too – much easier than using Lonely Planet.

Cash: Tourists use $CUC which is linked to the US dollar and is dispensed from cash points in most towns. It’s worth taking some sterling to exchange when you get to the airport to ensure you have cash on arrival, but we didn’t have any problems getting cash. If you can, exchange some Cuba pesos and you will be able to barter with taxi drivers (locals pay much less for transport) and buy food from state-run restaurants (see above).

Transport: We weren’t clear about transport before we arrived in Cuba, but we ended up pleasantly surprised. It’s very easy to get around and not too expensive. Casas can organise a collectivo which is a direct taxi from your casa to your next casa. These ranged from rust-buckets to decent cars with a/c. Either way, these are always quicker than the Viazul buses and always the same price, if not cheaper. Once you get to a town, you can get around with cheap taxi rides.

Havana (2 nights)

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We stayed in the Old Town which, with smartened up cobbled streets and colonial-era buildings, is a lovely place to wander. We did a tour of the city in a 1950s Chevrolet (approx. $25CUC for an hour) and went to the Museum of the Revolution which, in all honesty, is pretty rubbish, so it’d be worth reading up about Cuba before you visit the country. Parque Central is a good place to people watch. You can see the key sights in a day or two, so no need to rush around.

Eat/drink: El Chanchullero (the garlic fish was excellent). The guidebooks will tell you to visit places such as El Floridita – we didn’t bother as they were always busy and overpriced, so unless you’re a massive Ernest Hemingway fan, it’s much more exciting to wander into a random local bar.

Vinales (3 nights)

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Vinales is just a few hours taxi ride away from Havana, and it’s definitely worth visiting for a few nights. The town itself is small and non-descript, but there is lots of beautiful countryside where you can walk and cycle. We hired bikes (don’t pay more than $5CUC for the day) and cycled 30 mins to the Indian Cave where you do a short boat trip through the cave – pretty cool! The prehistoric murals are a bit bizarre, so better to explore the wider area. We did a hike (everything is organised at InfoTour in town) which last several hours, taking in lush countryside, a bat cave and tobacco plantations. You can buy some cigars directly from the farmers here. They claim they’re Cohibas (the best brand), though without the labels, it’s hard to know. Either way, they’re very cheap, so it’s a good chance to try one. Our guide was really informative and funny, and taught us a lot about the Cuban way of life. Other tours visited a honey farm too.

Eat/drink: There’s lots of choice on the main street – the best food is at the Italian restaurant (I can’t remember it’s name, but it’s in Lonely Planet – I had chocolate rabbit which was pretty tasty!). We also ate at the organic farm which is about 30 mins walk from town – we had a huge dinner which was very good value, though apparently it’s worth visiting for lunch as the views are fantastic.

Cayo Jutias (day trip from Vinales)

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This is a stunning beach 1 hour from Vinales – you can do a day trip booked from InfoTour or you can hire scooters and ride there (though be warned: the roads are full of potholes). The sand is white and the sea is bright blue – everything you expect from a Caribbean beach. Turn left and walk to the far end of the beach and there is a shack which sells BBQ lobster and pina coladas – it even had a Cuban band playing when we went there!

You can also do a day trip to Cayo Levisa which is more expensive, but equally beautiful. With hindsight, we wished we had done this as well rather than kick around for another day in Havana at the end.

Cienfuegos (1 night)

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You only need one night in Cienfuegos, but we had a good time here and it’s on the way to Trinidad from Vinales (about 4 hours). It’s a French colonial town – very different from the Spanish influence in Havana. We stayed in a fantastic casa with high ceilings. There’s not lots to do here, but we had a wander through town and down the malecon to see the sunset.

Eat/drink: We spent the night at the Yacht Club where there was a big locals night – lots of rum and dancing! Sunday seems to be the busy night, though worth checking with your casa.

Trinidad (4 nights)

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Trinidad was a real highlight and we stayed here for 4 nights as our first few days had been quite hectic. It’s a beautiful colonial town which has been well preserved. You can wander round in a half-day, and it’s worth going up the towers in the museums to get some good views of the town (you can also climb up the big hill which overlooks the town). It was the most touristy place we saw, after Havana, but it’s easy enough to manage.

We did a trip to a slave plantation watch tower (interesting), as well as to the Cubana waterfall (1 hour walk each way, with a refreshing dip on offer – great for hangovers!). We also did a day trip, cycling to Playa Ancon (beach). It’s an easy, 45 minute cycle and you can hire bikes in town. The beach is clean and it’s a nice place to relax for the delay. Try and sit in a quieter place to avoid being sold a coconut every 5 minutes. Oh, and definitely leave by 4pm latest…we left at 5pm (sunset) which meant we got bitten to smithereens by mosquitos and ended up cycling back in the dark, with an endless pummelling of insects – not the ideal end to a good day!

In the evenings, everyone head to ‘the steps’ to watch locals do salsa ($1CUC).

Eat/drink: Plenty of choice here. Le Botija was the best (if expensive) and served huge Cuban dishes. Take your pick of rooftops on which to enjoy a mojito, with virtually every place playing salsa/rumba music. We did the ‘rave in a cave’ which was good fun.

On the way to Trinidad (1 hour from Cienfuegos), we stopped at Rancho Luna to go diving. I read/heard that the diving is better here than at the much feted Bay of Pigs, though whilst the coral farms were big, there weren’t many fish. Alternatively, you could go via El Nicho waterfall which looks beautiful. After Trinidad, friends of ours stayed here in the Tope Collante National Park for a couple of nights, which is a great place to do a couple of walks and to visit some more waterfalls.

Santa Clara (1 night)

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Santa Clara is an important city in terms of Cuba’s revolutionary history – it was the first city to be taken in the revolution. As such, ‘El Che’ rests here (you can visit the mausoleum and there is a massive statue). That said, there is very little to see here and so it’s not really worth making the visit for more than a few hours as a stop-off on the way to Havana/the coast. It’s 90 mins from Trinidad. If you have a bit of extra time, try and get down to Santiago instead.

Havana (2 nights)

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We headed back to Havana for our final 2 nights as we wanted to see some more of the infamous Havana nightlife. It took about 3 hours from Santa Clara. We had lots of fun at the Fabrica de Arte which is one of the most popular nights in Havana and has several rooms playing different types of music. Eat before you go – there isn’t much choice for food/drink around here.

For a change from the Old Town, we stayed in Centro Havana at a beautiful case called La Casa de la Concordia – highly recommended and directly opposite one of Havana’s best restaurants (Obama ate here). We wandered around for a couple of days and checked out the castles on the other side of the river. We also headed to Coppelia Ice Cream which is a bizarre, state-run ice cream shop, where you can get a bowl of ice cream for pennies. Who said socialism was no fun!?

If you’re flying to/from Havana, there’s no need to come back here again at the end – you can just get a taxi from the airport wherever you’re staying. As mentioned above, we wish we’d spent more time on the beach. Varadero isn’t far away, though we didn’t go there.


Overall, I’d give Cuba 4/5 stars. It was genuinely fascinating to see Spanish, Caribbean and socialist influences combined. The Cuban people were very friendly and the standard of accommodation was good. Travelling around was easy and the variety on offer means that everywhere you visit is interesting.

Best bits: Cocktails, live music everywhere, northern beaches, Vinales countryside.

Worst bits: Food. Despite being pretty, Havana Old Town is getting quite touristy – not horrendous, but don’t plan on spending loads of time here.

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:

  1. Colombo
  2. Kandy
  3. Nuwara Eliya
  4. Ella
  5. Udawalawe National Park
  6. Tangalle
  7. Mirissa
  8. Galle
  9. Negombo

I shall now give you a bit more detail as to my experiences.


1) Colombo

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.

2) Kandy

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Kandy Lake

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.

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Nanu Oya to Ella train

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.

4) Ella

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Ella Gap

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.

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Ella Rock from Little Adam’s Peak

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.

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Elephants in Udawalawe NP

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.

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Medilla beach

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!

7) Mirissa

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.

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Mirissa Beach

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.

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Galle lighthouse

9) Negombo

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
  • Dambulla
  • Polonnaruwa
  • Trincomalee
  • Sigiriya

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.