The Pearl of the Indian Ocean
Sri Lanka may not be the first place that comes to mind when you ponder traveling to Asia but perhaps it should be. The small island-nation off the Southern tip of India is the oldest, continuously practicing Buddhist country in the world. It boasts 8 UNESCO world heritage sites - including the Temple of the Tooth, considered by to be the most sacred of Buddhists' temples - gorgeous and varied landscapes - think golden, pristine beaches and rolling hills of tea leaves - as well as some of most impressive wildlife viewing outside of Africa (elephants, leopards and blue whales, oh my)!
I had the opportunity to visit Sri Lanka this past November with one of my Virtuoso onsite partners, Sri Lanka In Style, and it was one of the best trips I’ve ever taken! Like most advisor educational trips it was far busier and jam packed than an itinerary I would create for a client (we stayed at 9 hotels, visited 16 others and covered over ⅔ of the island in 10 days).
Though a 30-year civil war (which ended in 2009) kept many tourists away, it has seen an exponential increase in visitors over the last several years and will not stay secret for long. It is still far less touristy than many of Asia’s other hotspots and reminded my greatly of Bali the first time I visited almost 25 years ago.
We began our trip in what’s called the cultural triangle where we climbed Sigiriya, an ancient rock fortress dating back over 2000 years. Pouring rain couldn’t keep us from reaching the top and admiring the 360 degree breathtaking views. We also visited the ancient cities of Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura and photographed a 60+ herd of elephants at Minneriya National Park.
We then made our way to Kandy town, the last ancient kingdom of Sri Lanka and home to The Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic (said to house the Buddha’s tooth). Kandy was an absolute delight. A charming mix of urban sounds and colonial design. Touring the city’s expansive botanical garden with a private guide, shopping for spices at the local market and being treated to a private cultural dance experience at The Kandy House hotel were true highlights.
It is impossible to separate Sri Lanka from it’s world famous Ceylon tea and it remains the world’s second largest exporter of tea (behind Cchina). From Kandy we took the train up to tea country - where we admired the breathtaking views from the privacy of our own vintage, art deco train coach which we hired and hitched to the back of the normal passenger train - an experience I can arrange for clients as well and one that shouldn’t be missed! As we made our way from the train station at Hatton to our hotel we began to catch glimpses of the famous tea-pluckers. Each tea leaf is picked by hand.
The a destination is so much more than a hotel - sometimes a hotel does such a marvelous job of capturing the essence and history of a place, it becomes a destination in unto itself. Ceylon Ttea Ttrails is such a hotel. They are actually a collection of five converted bungalows restored from old tea plantations. Upon arriving you are met by your butler and shown to your private room after discussing your dietary preferences and creating a personalized menu for your stay. You can relax in the living room where you can pour yourself and old-fashioned (or call on your butler to make it for you) or take a walk about the property. A stay at Tea Trails is an absolute must in Sri Lanka, it is one of the top 3 hotel experiences I’ve ever had. Availability is severely limited so advanced planning is necessary.
Sri Lanka is famous for having the densest leopard population on earth and there is no better place on the island to see leopard than Yala National Park. We opted to stay right near the entrance of the park in a comfortable tented camp. There are more luxurious accommodations close by as well.
Though we did not see leopard (rangers reported that about ⅔ of visitors do!) we had a fantastic game drive where we admired wild peacocks, crocodiles and boar.
From Yala we headed to the Southern Coast to check out Sri Lanka’s famous beaches and catch a glimpse of the iconic stilt fisherman. We stayed at another knockout property, Cape Weligama and took advantage of their water sports hut. We spotted blue lobster and giant sea turtle while snorkeling in the Indian Ocean.
It is important to note that Sri Lanka has different monsoon seasons depending on the coast. Visitors in the fall and winter can enjoy the Southern beaches, while summer visitors can head to the Eastern Coast to get their beach fix. In addition, the Maldives are a very short flight away and makes for a perfect pairing.
We ended our trip in the 15th century walled city of Galle at the gorgeous aman property Amangalla. We wondered the dutch colonial streets where we shopped for souvenirs, and observed local life.
Sri Lanka is a perfect destination for those looking for a unique, culturally immersive experience. It has many luxury accommodation offerings and enough sites and activities to easily pack a 2 or 3 week itinerary. Interested to hear more or ready to plan your South Asia holiday? Reach out, I’d love to chat.