Colombo & Negombo
The capital of Colombo is an exciting city on the rise. Filled with colonial houses, art-deco buildings and new high-rises that sit among parks, waterways and tree-lined avenues, Colombo is a city of contrasts that deserves your time. Thirty minutes north is Negombo, a large coastal town close to the international airport. Its predominantly Catholic residents have earned the town its nickname ‘Little Rome’, and there are some lovely Gothic churches to see. Negombo’s lively fish markets, vast lagoon and network of old Dutch canals are a picturesque introduction to the country.
WHERE TO STAY
The Wallawwa, Colombo
The Wallawwa is not your typical airport hotel. Set in 200-year-old tropical gardens just 15 minutes from Sri Lanka’s main international gateway, this award-winning 18-bedroom hotel offers incredible food and a jungle pool and spa, all in the grounds of an atmospheric 18th-century manor house. The Z Spa is the place for a post-flight massage, while Monsoon serves dishes such as beef rendang, prawn sarong and char kway teow (stir-fried rice cakes). It’s the ultimate place to start, or end, your Sri Lankan holiday in style.
Sri Lanka’s central and southern region is made up of forested hills and mountains. Most of this vast region, collectively known as the Hill Country, is defined by the country’s rich tea industry. This beautiful area – which also goes by the name Tea Country – is home to culture-rich Kandy, with its Temple of the Tooth, Peradeniya Botanical Gardens and the British Garrison Cemetery. To the north east lies the Knuckles Range, a trekking destination with magnificent views. To the south, highlights include the striking Castlereagh Valley; Nuwara Eliya, the island’s highest elevated town; and the Nine Arch Bridge in Demodara.
WHERE TO STAY
Camellia Hills, Dickoya
Castlereagh Reservoir is an island-dotted lake surrounded by steeply rising hills planted with neat rows of vivid green tea, around 18km from the market town of Hatton. Hidden among the emerald scenery are century-old tea factories, waterfalls, colonial-era churches and colourful Hindu shrines. Guests can live the life of a modern-day tea planter at Camellia Hills, a luxurious five-bedroom boutique bungalow hotel. From its valley-side perch, the views of the reservoir and surrounding tea-wrapped hills are spectacular. These views are best from the al fresco sofas around the open fire, and the pretty garden pool.
Goatfell, Nuwara Eliya
Perched among tea bushes on the Concordia Estate, Goatfell is a former superintendent’s residence on an elevation above Nuwara Eliya. This boutique property is home to just four en-suite bedrooms. This intimate experience is extended throughout a stay, from butler service to the restaurant’s menu, which draws on seasonal vegetables grown on site and by the hotel’s neighbours. Both the log-fired sitting rooms and the swimming pool offer panoramic views of the expansive tea fields below.
Nine Skies, Ella
Nine Skies, near the hippy hangout of Ella, is built on a grand scale. The renovated five-bedroom hotel is set within several acres of private gardens – complete with a croquet lawn, swimming pool and sun deck – and features wonderful views across the valley towards the working tea factory and famous Demodara loop. Although the property dates back to the colonial era, guests will feel right at home with contemporary facilities, butler service, fine dining and great views across the valley from the garden pool.
Tea Trails, Hatton
Tea Trails spans 2,000 acres of Tea Country and comprises five colonial-style bungalows plus a private one-bedroom cottage, each built between 1888 and 1950. Dotted around a trail along the banks of Castlereagh lake and down into the Bogawantalawa Valley, each of the bungalows has been sensitively restored. Summerville, located on the banks of the lake, has the air of a country cottage; directly opposite, Castlereagh bungalow has more of an eclectic style. Guests have the option to kayak between the bungalows for lunch, if they wish.
Galle & The South Coast
South-coast Galle is a fascinating destination complete with a 17th-century fortress, iconic Test cricket ground and charming beach framed by coconut palms. Galle’s many beaches offer different vibes: from bar-filled Unawatuna and whale-watching hotspot Mirissa to quieter bays such as Dalawella, Talalla and Hiriketiya. The swell off Sri Lanka’s south coast makes it surfing territory – bays such as Weligama and Kabalana are great spots to learn. Guided bicycle trails take guests deep inland, through rural villages, nature reserves and ancient temples. Galle is also a gateway to the southern rainforests, as well as low-country tea plantations, spice gardens and cinnamon estates.
WHERE TO STAY
Fort Bazaar, Galle
Fort Bazaar is a handsome merchant’s home turned boutique hotel with 18 stylish guest rooms and contemporary interiors invoking a Middle Eastern vibe. We like the look of the 15 courtyard-facing rooms and three upper-floor suites, which are all furnished with four-poster beds and modern amenities. Church Street Social, the in-house restaurant, is Galle’s most vibrant dining room. The contemporary setting is matched with the history of the area and its Arabic influences. This is reflected in the modern menu, which features elements of traditional Moroccan, Turkish and Middle Eastern cuisine.
Cape Weligama, Weligama
On a spectacular cliff-top site, just south of Galle, Cape Weligama is an elegant resort overlooking the bay of Weligama, which is famed for whale watching. Highlights include a crescent-shaped cliff-top infinity pool; treatments in the newly revamped spa using products made from local teas and spices; and a beachside dive centre, which also offers a range of whale experiences on board Cape Weligama’s ten-passenger speedboat and catamaran.
Yala National Park
Yala National Park is the second largest national park in Sri Lanka and the most visited. It is home to a plethora of flora and fauna, two pilgrim sites and the highest density of leopards in the world. Guests can explore the park on a guided safari and attempt to spot wild elephants, sloth bears, Sambar deer and those elusive Sri Lankan leopards.
WHERE TO STAY
Wild Coast Tented Lodge, Yala
On a pristine beach on the fringes of Yala National Park, Wild Coast Tented Lodge combines the comforts of a luxury hotel with a back-to-nature wilderness safari camp. The 28 tented ‘cocoon suites’ feature vaulted ceilings and offer panoramic jungle views from double-height glass façades. The interiors fuse colonial details with contemporary design, from freestanding handmade copper bathtubs to four-poster beds. Four secluded beach-facing suites offer private plunge pools, while a further 16 suites cluster around water holes, attracting a variety of local wildlife which guests can view from the comfort of their private deck.
Balapitiya & The West Coast
Sri Lanka’s west coast is beautiful. Balapitiya sits just to the north of Ambalangoda, amid a swath of golden beaches. This stretch of coastline, particularly around Kosgoda, is a vital nesting ground for Sri Lanka’s five species of marine turtle, while the Madu Ganga River Estuary near Balapitiya offers mangrove-fringed islands and exotic wildlife. Further inland you’ll find the magnificent homes and gardens of renowned Tropical Modernism architects Geoffrey and Bevis Bawa.
WHERE TO STAY
Kumu Beach House, Balapitiya
Kumu Beach House is a contemporary beach hotel in Balapitiya. Home to ten bedrooms, this is a chic property which comes with open-air living and dining areas, and a generous lawn with an infinity swimming pool. Balapitiya’s sandy beach is footsteps away and guests can enjoy a river safari across the Madu Ganga, sailing past local villages on stilts and vibrant beachside markets before stopping off at a local turtle hatchery, which protects various species of sea turtles that inhabit the Indian, Pacific and Atlantic oceans.
James Jayasundera, Founder & MD of Ampersand Travel, shares his advice on booking a trip to Sri Lanka…
Sri Lanka is renowned for its unspoiled beaches and sprawling, leopard-populated national parks, but the surprisingly modern architecture, vibrant food and art scene, and rich cultural sites hidden among the cool, colonial Tea Country adds to the country’s individual aesthetic. For first-time visitors, we usually propose a classic route which meanders north from the tea plantations to one of the national parks for a safari, before ending on the palm-fringed south coast. This way you’ll get a real taste of Sri Lanka and tick off the key highlights.
There are optimal times to visit the island. It’s difficult to predict the weather patterns in Sri Lanka given it is an island that receives a range of weather fronts moving in from the Indian Ocean throughout the year. As a rule of thumb, there are two monsoons that affect Sri Lanka: the Yala Monsoon hits the south and west coasts from May to September; the Maha Monsoon hits the north and east coasts from October to January. As such, we normally recommend January until the end of April as the best time across the island.
It’s really easy to get around. Sri Lanka’s Tea Country is wonderfully connected by train, but for the most part travellers will need a private driver to navigate the roads. They’ll drive you from A to B, but will also bring the destination to life with their knowledge. These days, connectivity around the island is better than ever, with seaplanes cutting hours out of long drive times, replacing them with short scenic flights.
2020 will be a great time to visit. Tourism in Sri Lanka has really suffered because of the terror attacks at Easter, but now the country is back on its feet, and hotels and tour operators are ready and well-equipped to welcome new visitors. Hotel prices have also become more competitive. Sri Lanka is a year-round destination and offers something for everyone, from beaches to jungle. Despite the rapid increase in popularity over the past decade, there are still plenty of unspoilt locations across the island.
Flying from the UK? Colombo International Airport is the main airport. For the UK and Europe, Sri Lankan Airlines flies direct from London or offers good connections from a number of European hubs.
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