I started writing this blog soon after our holiday to Sri Lanka but forgot all about it, and after some time it felt too onerous to go back to a holiday many months ago and write about it. It was made even more difficult by the fact that we moved soon after to Ireland and got busy settling in and travelling around Ireland. More than a year later, a friend of mine asked me for information about Sri Lanka and that turned out to be a blessing. I wrote him a detailed email and have now converted that into a blog post, with a few adjustments for the medium, and with a lot of pictures.
We had been thinking of going to Sri Lanka for a holiday for many years but it kept getting postponed. We finally did it, and were left regretting not doing so sooner. We had heard many great things about Sri Lanka – the beaches, the mountains, the forests, the food, the people, the tea. Sri Lanka exceeded our expectations on all fronts.
We had a week, plus the two book-ending weekends, for a total of 9 days. That enabled us to cover a good variety of places, although there is still so much more to see in Sri Lanka. After much research, and consulting with Sri Lankan friends, we decided upon this itinerary:
Day 1: Land Colombo (evening); stay at Mount Lavina Hotel
Day 2: Drive to Kandy in the morning; Stay at Primrose Inn Kandy
Day 3: Drive to Nuwara Eliya; Stay at Heritance Tea Factory
Day 4: Take the train to Ella from Nuwara Eliya; Stay at The Secret Ella
Day 5: In Ella, take photos of the picturesque Seven Arches railway bridge
Day 6: Drive to Yala National Park; Stay at Cinnamon Wild Yala
Day 7: Drive to Unawatuna; Stay at Thaproban Beach House
Day 8: In Unawatuna; drive to Galle and spend the evening there
Day 9: Drive to Colombo; Stay at Galle Face Hotel
Day 10: Leave from Colombo
The picture below puts that itinerary in context of Sri Lanka. We only covered the South-Western part of Sri Lanka. Except for Ella and Unawatuna, we only stayed a night in each place. We were constantly on the move but it did not feel hectic, and we got to see a lot of Sri Lanka.
All the hotels we stayed at were wonderful and that made the holiday that much more enjoyable. Some I would classify as must stay (budget permitting) and others are good.
Colombo – Mount Lavina Hotel. It was a long drive from the airport. We only planned to stay the night there and leave for Kandy the next morning. It was a long drive from the hotel to the highway to Kandy as well. So, logistically a very poor choice for us.
Colombo – Galle Face Hotel. We stayed here on our return. A hotel with a lot of grandeur, an interesting history going back to 1864, great food, and wonderful hospitality. They have a simple yet elegant flag-lowering ceremony as the sun sets over the western coast of Sri Lanka. We enjoyed many cocktails on their grand verandah in the afternoon, and then in the garden in the evening.
Kandy – Primrose Inn. A home-stay in a house belonging to a gentleman who goes by the name G.B, and has spent many years living abroad teaching English. It was wonderful listening to his experiences. It’s a simple place, G.B uncle is a delight, and it’s easy on the budget.
Nuwara Eliya – Heritance Tea Factory. From simplicity to luxury. This is a converted tea factory at a beautiful top-of-a-hill location with excellent views. The food was great, we got wonderful service, and I really enjoyed spending the evening at their beautifully appointed lounge bar snacking on some yummy bar snacks.
Ella – The Secret Ella. This hotel has a feel of being in a homestay at a plantation. My wife absolutely loved it. A great selling point is that there is a good view of the famous Seven Arches Bridge, and getting to the bridge is a short hike away. They also had delicious food and wonderful service (getting to be a common theme)
Yala – Cinnamon Grand Yala. Another amazing property that I highly recommend. It’s blended into the forest with no fences, and is right next to a watering hole where we spent hours just watching afternoon turn to evening to dusk to sunset, watching the colours change, and the many animals and creatures come and go. It’s the kind of place where you need an escort to take you to your cottage after dark because animals and snakes routinely pass through the property.
Unawatuna – Thaproban Beach House. Unawatuna has many local hotels with excellent ratings. Any hotel with good reviews and a good location will likely be excellent. This one was very good, and right on the beach. They have a beach-side restaurant with fresh and delicious seafood. The beach itself is vast and clean.
I would not be exaggerating in saying that our holiday wouldn’t have been as wonderful as it was if it were not for Mr. Nilanga Wijerathne. I have described my experience with him below and am sharing his details here, with his permission.
Phone: +94 77 143 6443
We found a transport arranger through a friend’s referral. We wanted a 3-row seating vehicle for added comfort, but they only had a sedan, a regular SUV, or a large van (11-seater). The price was the same for the SUV and the van so we went with the van. It was more like a mini-bus but we had an amazing time in it, listening to Thunder, Believer, Havana and Country Roads over and over.
The choice of the van turned out to be very fortuitous because the driver was Mr. Nilanga, and he only drove the van then. He is an amazing amazing guy. First of all, he’s an excellent driver – not in a hurry, driving safe and steady, very attentive, will stop whenever/wherever you may like, always a happy smiling face, will give lots of local tips without getting overbearing, will find eating places for you once he knows what you are looking for and a lot more. He has stayed in touch after our trip and says hi regularly over WhatsApp just to stay in touch. He recently started his own travel agency so I would definitely recommend going with him.
He picked us up at the hotel in Colombo and dropped us at the airport at the end of the trip. One of the days when he was free and not driving us, he even went and got us some yummy fish pickle that his wife had made. The total cost for the transport for 10 days was around 530 USD (the charges are a combination of a per-day charge with included distance, a per kilometre charge beyond the included distance, and if the hotel doesn’t provide driver accommodation then a fixed charge for the night). Very economical for a family, or large group, unless on a limited budget.
If you do contact Mr. Nilanga then please tell him I said hi.
Highlights / Things To Do
There’s a lot of information online so I won’t go into too much detail here on popular spots but will focus on listing out some of the places we enjoyed, and our unique and memorable experiences.
Kandy: Kandy Lake, Buddha Tooth Relic Temple
In / On the way to Nuwara Eliya:
Ramboda waterfall – we didn’t know about it; Nilanga stopped there on the way and it was great.
Labukelle Tea Factory – They give free tea to drink, you can buy cakes to eat with it, they do a mini-tour of the process and then you can buy tea. Many well-known brands across the world buy tea from them and sell it under their name, or use it in their blends. Buying tea here is quite expensive but the tea was good
Gregory Lake – nice place for a walk around the lake.
The Grand Hotel Nuwara Eliya – their high tea is quite famous and worth the visit. It’s an old colonial hotel with an excellent collection of teas and lovely scones, sandwiches, pastries, and other finger food as part of the high tea. They also have a nice children’s play area
Heritance Tea Factory – the hotel we stayed at. It has a lovely lounge bar. I enjoyed the local spirit called Arrack – it’s distilled from the sap of the coconut flower and has gradation in quality similar to Brandy (VSOP etc.). The bar had good bar snacks. They also have a cute but small children’s park at the back and we went for a short walk in the hill around the hotel.
From here we went to Nanu Oya Train Station where we took the train to Ella. A small cute charming railway station reminiscent of railway stations in the hills in India.
It’s also a nice small hill station-y place. The main attraction is the seven arches railway bridge. Very photogenic especially if you time it such that the train is on the bridge. When we were there the train times were – 9:15(blue), 1150 (brown), 1240 (not sure), 1330 (single carriage brown) but best to reconfirm with the hotel staff.
There’s a viewpoint at The Secret Hotel Ella which has a good view from very high up of the bridge. If not staying there it’s also a great place for a lunch or drinks in their lovely garden with mountain and forest views.
There’s a small shack called Nisee Juice Bar on the walk from The Secret Ella towards the bridge. You can get views from there and can then off-road a short distance down the hill and get on the bridge itself for more pictures. On the way back, we took a tuk-tuk that cost us SLR 1,200.
We walked to Adam’s Peak in the evening. The walk goes through another hotel a short walk across the main highway from The Secret Ella. It’s a short uphill trek with great views.
We did some train watching again the next morning (from Nisee)
Yala National Park is known for its wildlife and safaris. We couldn’t do a safari as the zone near where we were going was closed for regeneration. The safari can be booked online. Important to note that it is not safe to drive through the forest after dark as there is a big danger of elephants, so you need to reach the hotel before dark.
We reached the hotel (Cinnamon Wild) by afternoon, checked-in, settled-in, and then as dusk started to settle, spent a long time at the machaan (viewing structure) at the watering hole watching the animals – my most enjoyable experience of the whole holiday. We got to see crocodiles, boars, buffaloes, birds, and a beautiful sunset.
Unawatuna – beach walks, drive to Galle market, to Galle fort, buy spices, or just laze around on the beach. It is also a popular spot for diving.
Galle Face Hotel – We only spent an evening here but thoroughly enjoyed it, sipping cocktails and enjoying the cool breeze on the verandah and the lovely view of the sea. The flag-lowering ceremony mentioned previously was a memorable experience.
Other Useful Info
1. You can get a sim card at the airport. I would recommend getting Mobitel. I found the reception to be better than the other one I had bought (can’t remember which one it was)
2. It is advisable to carry USD as they are the easiest to exchange. Large payments can also be done in USD in many places.
3. Get Sri Lankan Rupees also – this will have to be done in Sri Lanks, either by exchanging USD, or by withdrawing from an ATM. Cash will be needed in most smaller places. Only larger shops will accept cards.
4. Booking the train ticket was a little tricky. It could only be done by someone with a Sri Lankan mobile phone or by going to a ticket office. We used a website that offers the booking service. They took our order and did the booking for us. They charge a premium over the actual ticket price but it’s still quite inexpensive. They met us at the airport to hand over the tickets.
5. Food is awesome everywhere – in the large hotels, and even more in the small local places. If you go with Nilanga, he’ll find the right ones for you. Vegetarian options are abundant.