Lone in the Indian Ocean, a mere teardrop off of India’s south-eastern tip, is a tiny yet tantalising island.
Sri Lanka, often referred to as “the gem of the Indian Ocean”, is quite unlike anywhere else in the world. Jaw dropping scenery, an abundance of wildlife, beguiling cultures and defiant humanity. Sri Lanka was described by Lonely Planet as “a country revived”, and named Best in Travel for 2019. Find out below why we wholeheartedly agree, and why Sri Lanka takes the crown as Livingstone’s Travel Magazine’s Destination of the Month.
With tropical rainforests, dramatic cliffs, hidden waterfalls, lush plains, and paradisiacal beaches, a holiday to Sri Lanka starts with the perfect backdrop…
The scope of nature on this relatively small island is beyond surprising, it’s truly remarkable. A scattering of tea plantations, verdant jungle set atop rolling hills, and natural landmarks that carry some of the island’s most interesting history, are all among the scenic grandeur that Sri Lanka offers.
There’s Adams Peak. A tall, distinctively pointed mountain that doubles as both a natural landmark and world-famous pilgrimage route. Boldly venture to the summit to catch an unbeatable sunrise, or simply marvel from below as the fog gently saunters across the peak. Over in The Hill Country, rolling hills spread for miles and miles, carrying some of the island’s many tea plantations. Here the weather is cool(er), and the mountains scattered with lakes and waterfalls.
Then, there’s Sigiriya Rock Fortress. This UNESCO World Heritage Site, also known as Lion’s Rock, is both stunning and imposing. Carrying with its might a somewhat controversial piece of history. The striking landmark is surrounded by attractive gardens, rippling ponds and marvellous frescoes. And if you can make it to the top, you’ll be rewarded with panoramic views of the dense jungle below.
Elsewhere throughout Sri Lanka are idyllic beaches, rustling palms, and beautiful marine life thriving beneath the water’s azure surface. A haven for divers and snorkelers, Sri Lanka boasts the highest biodiversity per 10,000 square kilometres in all of Asia. And approximately a quarter of its flora and fauna species are endemic, so you really won’t find anything like it anywhere else in the world.
With such bountiful nature, comes some quite incredible inhabitants. And so, Sri Lanka is said to be one of the best countries in Asia for spotting wildlife.
Much of the plains – ten percent of the whole island, in fact – has been turned into National Parks. Presenting visitors with the opportunity to get up close to some of the amazing resident wildlife; elephants, leopards, buffalo, deer, mongoose, wild pig and more, can all be spotted roaming in their natural habitats.
Yala National Park is the place to spot big cats, as it is home to the highest concentration of leopards on earth. As well as elephants, monkeys, crocodiles and aquatic birds, to name but a few. But it’s not the only option; Wilpattu National Park offers an exceptional safari experience, with around thirty species of mammals, as well as countless birds, reptiles and amphibians.
If elephants are your thing, there’s Minneriya National Park, home of the magnificent ‘Elephant Gathering’ phenomenon. During the dry season, when the region’s water supply reduces drastically, elephants are known to congregate around the rich and fertile grasses of the Minneriya reservoir. At times, herds as large as 300 – 400 elephants can be seen. A sight to behold.
It’s not just Sri Lanka’s green areas where amazing wildlife abounds. At the right time of year, you can go whale and dolphin watching from Mirissa harbour, where you can catch a glimpse of these majestic animals breaking the surface. If you’re lucky, you may even spot a turtle or two, too! And no matter where you are, remember to look up; Sri Lanka is home to hundreds of bird species which when passing overhead, create the most mesmerising display of colour and noise.
TOWNS & CITIES
With such a vastness of nature to behold, you would think an island of Sri Lanka’s size wouldn’t have the capacity for bustling cities. Think again.
Sri Lanka is home to some truly beautiful towns and cities. Including its largest, Colombo; once known as ‘the garden city of the east’, Colombo’s shady tree-lined boulevards and grand old mansions reference its colonial roots, while luxury hotels, excellent restaurants, vibrant nightlife and retail opportunities bring it well and truly into the 21st century.
Galle, on the other hand, is considered to be Sri Lanka’s most perfectly preserved colonial town. The Galle Fort enclosed by towering bastions is where you’ll find the old Dutch town, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a town of great beauty. The historic fort is surrounded on three sides by the ocean, and its old streets are awash with classic architecture, and boutique shops, cafes and hotels owned by local and foreign artists, writers, photographers, designers and poets.
Then, there’s Jaffna, the northern capital of Sri Lanka and the centre of Sri Lankan Tamil culture. Here the streets are filled with crowds of cyclists and the distinctive sound of Tamil music blares from cafés and shops. The town, reflective of Sri Lanka’s diverse culture, combines colonial villas, fine Hindu temples, grand churches and a star-shaped Dutch Fort. North of the town is the Jaffna peninsula with a cluster of miniature stupas, hot springs and the Point Pedro Lighthouse that marks the northernmost point on the island. To the west of the town, in the shallow waters of the Palk Strait, are a series of islands home to more churches, forts, temples and shrines.
And that’s just the beginning. There are over 50 cities in Sri Lanka, each offering something unique by way of culture, history, beauty, or all of the above.
Channelling diversity in all shapes and sizes, Sri Lanka’s indigenous cultures are no exception to the rule.
Rich in history, religion and outside influence, Sri Lanka’s beguiling cultures are as much a reason to visit as its aforementioned cities and landscapes. The island has been colonised three times and, despite becoming independent in 1815, remnants of Sri Lanka’s Portuguese, Dutch and British colonial pasts are still evident throughout the island’s cultures, from the language and cuisine to customs such as high tea.
Sri Lanka encompasses four religious groups: Bhuddists (predominantly), Hindus, Muslims and Christians live side-by-side in harmony, granting each other peace and respect. There are also three official languages and an annual calendar of almost 30 public holidays. And while fishermen on stilts and palm-scaling toddy tappers may lead people to assume Sri Lanka are somewhat ‘behind’ the western world, it in fact showed astounding modernity by electing the world’s first ever female prime minister.
But, despite a myriad of different traditions, religions, languages and influences, it’s Sri Lanka’s welcoming people that make a lasting impact on many visitors. After almost 30 years of civil conflict that brought the country to despair, the warmth and friendliness of Sri Lankan people defies all odds, and is the metaphorical cherry-on-top of a country already full of charm and character.
A CULINARY KALEIDOSCOPE
Sri Lanka is a land of many different cultures, ethnicities and religions. And along with its diverse traditions, comes an impressive and enticing national menu.
This island, rich in nature’s bounty, has a unique gastronomic heritage that combines native ingredients with influences from around the world. Spice gardens, tea plantations and fish and vegetable markets, Sri Lanka, among its many treasures, is a culinary kaleidoscope.
Dutch colonialists, foreign traders and Sri Lanka’s South Indian neighbours have all helped to shape the Sri Lankan cuisine of today. Along with its history as a Spice Producer and trading post over several centuries. It is truly a food lover’s delight, offering dishes rich in flavour and fragrance, often in the form of rice and curry- Sri Lanka’s national dish.
And no mention of Sri Lanka’s culinary landscape can pass without the mention of tea. There are countless plantations across the country, but the scenic town of Nuwara Eliya is the centre of the tea growing industry. It is is a wonderful example of Sri Lanka’s British colonial history. Known as ‘Little England’ due to its association with Britain’s favourite beverage.
BEACHES, LEISURE & LUXURY
Culture, history, nature and otherwise aside. For many, it is the relaxed side of Sri Lanka (idyllic beaches included) that is the most alluring.
While friendly locals, fantastic cuisine, inexpensive prices and a tropical climate (with a cooling sea breeze) make the recipe for a perfect holiday, a character, boutique or luxury hotel can add a finishing touch to your taste. The flawless, palm-fringed beaches then, are the icing on this island’s cake. The picture-perfect waters and gentle waves are perfect for snorkelling and surfing. While the pristine golden sands invite you to simply relax and appreciate the sublime surroundings.
Sri Lanka, unbeknownst to many, is also a golfer’s paradise. It is home to some of the oldest and best golf courses outside of the UK. All offering a superb challenge and the opportunity to tee off in tropical climes. Amid some of the most stunning scenery in the world. For avid golfers and hackers alike, Sri Lanka presents a golfing experience not to be missed.
And finally, when the sun sets, the island awakes. Nightlife, like many elements of Sri Lanka, differs quite dramatically from one region to the next. But on the whole, the island is as alluring by night as it is by day. Late night drag racing events, street night bazaars and street food markets, even atmospheric evenings of star-gazing on the beach. Sri Lanka may not be well known for “nightlife” in the traditional sense. But whether the sky is filled with sun or stars, blink and you might just miss something.