Where else can you see the world’s largest land creature, the elephant, and the largest sea creature, the blue whale, on the same day? Rich in history and natural beauty and home to a magnificent coastline, it’s a top tourist destination for the year and was named one of Conde Nast’s “Destinations to Watch” as one of the hottest new travel destinations. In addition, Sri Lanka’s people are warm, generous and welcoming.
Colombo was a good starting point for our tour of Sri Lanka. It is a vibrant city with flavorful food markets that are hectic and bustling. An interesting place to explore is Pettah, the bustling bazaar. It is ethnically mixed with Buddhism, the primary religion, followed by Hinduism, Islam and Christianity. A popular and inexpensive mode of transportation in the area is the tuk-tuk, a three wheeler motorized vehicle that can weave in and out of traffic much faster than the cars and trucks. It’s a lot of fun and gives the rider an experience of local life.
Leaving Colombo, we headed to Yala National Park for an animal safari. We traveled in jeeps on unpaved roads throughout the preserve. Our viewing included elephants, birds, crocodiles, sambhur deer with three antlers, wild buffalo, boar, and last but not least, a leopard perched in the trees. Outside of our wooden cabins monkeys, boar and other animals played. Approximately 130 bird species woke us up in the early morning.
A roof-top restaurant for dinner gave us incredible views of the ocean and jungle while playful monkeys turned over chairs and grabbed a banana from our hands. Indeed, they need better manners! Dinners consisted of rich dishes with delectable curries of meats and vegetables. No meal is complete without wattalapan, Sri Lanka’s answer to crème caramel. Sri Lankan food is all about fresh herbs and spices. A favorite breakfast consists of hoppers which are friend pancakes with syrup from the kitul palm. Another popular one is the egg hopper, a coddled egg in a fried dosa nest made of rich flour, coconut milk and yeast. Fresh papaya, mango, and pineapple are so sweet they melt in your mouth.
Shortly after leaving Yala Park, our bus broke down en route to the historical town of Galle. Since most of the oil leaked out of the bus, we got off and found a shady spot under the trees. Everyone took it in good humor with no complaints. Our guide said we were the best tourist group he ever had. Cell phones were invented for this exact experience and we had a replacement bus within a couple of hours.
We proceeded on a glorious winding coastal drive past cliffs and dunes. Huge breakers pounded the palm fringed shore. Our next stop was Galle, the major city on the southern coast with a lovely natural harbor. We strolled around the lighthouse, harbor and stopped for cold ginger beer at Pedlar’s Street Café. The old Dutch fort is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Many families have resided there for generations and are a mix of Sinhalese, Dutch Burghers, and Muslims.
Continuing on the coastal road, we stopped at Mirissa, the best base for whale watching. This secluded crescent shaped beach is the perfect place to sit back, relax and forget about life a million miles away. Sri Lanka’s most stunning sunsets and sunrises can be viewed from this small beach. Beaches are not crowded and surfing is popular. Fishermen perched on high stilts showed their expert fishing skills as we drove along the beach. We boarded an old fishing boat with great anticipation. Beyond our wildest dreams, we managed to see six Blue Whales while eating a box breakfast and watching the sun come up.
A short drive down the road brought us to the Turtle Hatchery where the eggs are left in the nests on the beach until they are hatched. This allows the young ones to go to the sea in a natural and protective way. Turtles come ashore, lay the eggs, close their nests, and go back to the sea. Large Albino turtles were of special interest. Their light color marks them for predators so they are usually kept at the hatchery. Baby turtles are kept for three days in holding tanks until their bellies are completely formed and then they are released into the sea.
Our all time favorite was a visit to the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage that cares for abandoned and wounded elephants. The elephants roam freely around the sanctuary area. Never are you likely to see so many elephants at close range. They are controlled by their mahouts (keepers), who ensure they feed at the right times and don’t endanger anyone. A total of 85 elephants live here, as well as 23 babies born as part of the captive breeding program. The most popular viewing times are when the elephants are taken to the river for feeding and bathing. Most of the 60 or so young elephants become working elephants once they grow up.
Being an island-nation with over a thousand miles of coastline, one does not expect to see much more than beaches. But take a short drive inland to the central highland’s mountains and see the stunning region that makes Sri Lanka famous for its tea. Tea is as much a pastime for Sri Lankans as it is for the British who introduced it to the country in 1867 and started the love affair that continues today. Driving north to the highland country, we headed for Kandy. The hill country lives in a cool, perpetual spring. Everything is green and lush with large tea plantations hugging the higher slopes.
A ride from Colombo to Kandy is one of beautiful scenery over a winding road with refreshing waterfalls and historic sites. We stopped along the way to tour the spice gardens at Matale and the guide explained how each tree and plant is used for food preparations. Cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, vanilla beans, cardamom and black pepper are just a few available for sale.
Our destination is approaching: the historical hill capital of Kandy. To the Buddhists of Sri Lanka, Kandy is one of the most sacred sites as it is the home of the “Dalada Maligawa”—Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic of Lord Buddha. The tooth is said to have been snatched from the flames of Buddha’s funeral pyre in 543 BC, and smuggled into Sri Lanka during the 4th century AD, hidden in the hair of a princess. After visiting the temple, we attended a colorful cultural performance of music and dance.
Our last stop in the hill country was Nuwara Eliya, the “Little England” of Sri Lanka. It is the coolest place on the island and reminiscent of an English spring day. You will see evidence of the British influence, houses like country cottages or Queen Ann style mansions. Victoria Park, in the middle of town, is a perfect place for a walk or picnic or for watching rare birds. We stayed at the stately old St. Andrews hotel and sipped wine in the evening in front of a large roaring fireplace to warm us up.
What vacation would be complete without local shopping? A wide and beautiful variety of batiks are sold all around the island with the most original in the west coast towns. Gems are also very popular and there are countless showrooms all over the country. Sapphires are the primary gem and the government operates a free testing center in Colombo. Be sure to bargain!
Beautiful beaches, animal safaris, tea plantations, ancient temples, elephants, turtles and leopards. What a wonderful and variety-filled holiday – all on one small island. And I cannot say enough about the warmth and hospitality of the Sri Lankan people with their captivating smiles. Their resilience and kindness are Sri Lanka’s greatest assets. Despite a history of civil war and the setbacks of 2004’s tsunami, Sri Lankans are determined and optimistic. They’re proud of their heritage, eager to see you smile, and quick to return a smile when you do.