Most i-escape staff have visited this beautiful little island nation at least once, and we all plan on returning. Here’s why
Although it’s been a ‘hot destination’ for some years now, Sri Lanka is still very much on the up. New expat-run hotels are springing up across the country, creating a buzzy international vibe, particularly in the south. Airports have been upgraded, there’s a spanking new highway from Colombo to the south coast (halving the drive time), plus loads of cheap domestic hopper flights. Right now it’s a fascinating time to visit. Here’s 4 reasons why:
It’s got everything
Colonial splendour, golden beaches fringed by swaying palms, thrilling wildlife, knock-out food, Buddhist temples, buzzy towns, epic surfing, lush tea plantations, and some of the most beautiful train journeys in the world.
Flying to Sri Lanka costs less than you’d think (from £360 return from London) and it’s a brilliant country for cheap and chic accommodation.
As exotic as India but far less daunting (India-lite, if you will), one of Sri Lanka’s main charms is the lack of hassle. Tuk-tuk drivers ask politely if you need a ride – and don’t push it if you say no, while the locals are genuinely pleased and intrigued you’ve come to see their country.
Because you’ll get sun-kissed beaches, clear blue waters and amazing value for money — if you time it right. Remember, Sri Lanka’s weather is surprisingly complex. Confusingly, 2 monsoon seasons hit different sides of the island at opposite times! January-April is considered the high season for the south coast, whereas January-August is better for the Hill Country.
Which month is best?
Our advice? Visit mid-December. The monsoons will have stopped and you’ll find great deals before the Christmas rush. The next best window is the fortnight following New Year’s, when prices drop again, before the manic high season starts (mid-January).
Will I like it?
You’ll love it! Sri Lanka has something for everyone. Romanticswill adore the insanely beautiful boltholes for all budgets. Families and friends can plump for a gorgeous boutique rental; most are staffed so you won’t have to lift a finger. History buffs will revel in the colonial tea estates and Unesco-listed ancient kingdoms. Foodies will relish the incredible curries and the fusion street snacks. Sporty types can surf the breaks at Weligama or hike up Adam’s Peak at sunrise. Nature-lovers will go wild for elephants and the elusive leopard, while kids will delight in the turtle hatcheries and family safaris.
How do I get around?
If you’re on a tight schedule, we recommend a car & driver for the whole trip. It’s cheaper than you think, plus it’s like having your own guide (our driver was a fountain of knowledge when we visited). If you’re watching the pennies, go by train. It’s incredibly scenic and surprisingly comfortable. Local travel is best done by tuk-tuks, and Uber has reached the main towns!
Where should I stay?
Sri Lanka is fabulous all over, but we recommend these 5 must-visit places, each with a brand-new hotel:
1 Hiriketiya Bay
Why: An idyllic below-radar gem in the far south with a mesmerising coastline. Horseshoe-shaped Hiriketiya has the golden sands of touristy Mirissa and Unawatuna, but almost none of the crowds.
Stay: The Saffron Houseis a stylish staffed villa for 4-8 set in acres of topical gardens, an easy stroll to Hirikeyiya Bay, and within reach of laid-back beach restaurants. Perfect for families, surfers (including beginners) and escapists.
Price: House rental from £341/night
Why: Unesco-listed Galle Fort, lined with grand colonial buildings and ancient churches, has undergone a renaissance in recent years to become a hip, cultural hub. Today, its cobbled streets are teeming with quirky boutiques and hipster cafes, as well as centuries-old jewellery stores spilling with gems. Don’t miss a sunset walk along the ramparts.
Stay: Brand-new spa hotel Wirdana Spa & Villas near Galle draws its peace and practices from Tibetan monks: gongs gently toll, and their singing-bowls meditation is unique on the island. Treat yourself to indulgent massages, dine on inventive Asian fusion food, and savour the peace.
Price: Rooms from £136/night
3 The Cultural Triangle
Why: A World Heritage hotspot, the Triangle’s geographical expanse covers the ancient capitals of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, the cave temples of Dambulla and the awe-inspiring rock fortress, Sigiriya.
Stay: Set amongst former rice terraces, Water Garden Sigiriya offers gorgeous villas (1-2 bedrooms) with private plunge pools, plus views of mighty Sigiriya from every angle.
Why: The commercial capital is a city of contrasts: a melting pot of races and religions where elegant mansions sit cheek-by-jowl with cacophonous markets and tower cranes loom over sandy beaches.
Stay: Maniumpathyis an exquisite heritage hotel in the heart of Colombo with welcoming staff and just 8 beautiful rooms, plus a tranquil pool. It’s a perfect sanctuary from the city buzz, but ideally placed for exploring.
Price: Rooms from £197
Why: This lovely town in the south is an easy tuk-tuk from Galle. Blessed with a glorious coastline, and famed for its stilt fishermen, here’s you’ll catch a glimpse of real Sri Lankan life.
Stay: Peaceful inland hotel Tabula Rasa Villa is amazing value and a perfect first (or last) stop on a busy tour of the island. Run with friendly warmth by a Dutch couple, you’re a tuk-tuk from gorgeous beaches (see the stilt-fisherman at Koggala!) and Galle Fort, but you might just want to snooze in the sun, read, and swim in the lovely pool.