Experience an incredible adventure through the south of Sri Lanka


By Emma Oxley

It’s not difficult to see why Sri Lanka is known as the “Pearl of the Indian Ocean.”   Despite its troubled history, the island nation has emerged as a leading holiday destination, boasting tropical modernist architecture on Bentota Beach, boho chic in Galle, safaris by wild seashores, tea plantations in the hills, and a sacred Buddhist temple in Kandy.  I toured the southern half of Sri Lanka in a swift ten days – and can’t wait to return.

Cinnamon Hotels lead the five-star hospitality scene in Sri Lanka and thus my journey began at Cinnamon Bentota Beach, a seductive location between lagoon and the Indian Ocean. Architecturally, it is one of the most important works by Geoffrey Bawa, Sri Lanka’s pioneer of tropical modernism. The gleaming white Fauze Bar is a geometric stretch beneath a ceiling clad in multicoloured batik.  Pools and lush plants abound, as the landscape merges with the interior. Wide corridors are open to the elements, and the artistic ceilings are imprinted with giant ferns. Geoffrey Bawa’s own home and gardens are nearby, and a visit is an inspiration.

Throughout the resort, exquisite mimosa and frangipani drop casually from the trees where chipmunks jump in the branches. The serene Spa Ceylon sits in a Sri Lankan courtyard-style house, with a menu of Ayurvedic rituals, which I recommend to completely rejuvenate you after a long flight.

With a private driver – the classic way of touring – I set off on my island itinerary.  My first stop, just over an hour away, was Galle, a 16th century fortified city. This UNESCO World Heritage site is stamped with colonial character – a stronghold in turn of the Portuguese, Dutch and British. But ultimately, Galle is Sri Lankan, with giant banyan trees, tuk-tuks, sapphire sellers and spices.  The 2-kilometre stroll around the fort walls offers beautiful sea views, and locals and tourists take a front row seat on the south bastion for the 6pm sunsets.

There is a plethora of “Sri chic” boutique hotels in Galle. Mine was the Fort Bazaar, a former merchant’s house with a giant Banyan tree at its centre and a street side veranda where you can eat hoppers at breakfast and sip gin and tonics in the evenings beneath a whirring fan. Galle also hosts an annual literary festival with an exceptional line up of high-profile authors who all love Sri Lanka. A date for next January, perhaps?

Two and half hours driving east, and I arrived at my Yala safari base, Cinnamon Wild. It is stylish with a true sense of place. The resort is set on a lake teeming with crocodiles, which you can spot from the swimming pool, and a visiting elephant had apparently strolled through the night before. The pool is a welcome place to chill after a dawn safari and there’s a fabulous roof terrace for star gazing after dinner.

From the terrace of my suite on stilts, I could see and hear thunderous surf pounding the sands. A helpful sign says if pursued by an elephant to throw your torch to distract it – another idea is run!

At night, a young boy guided me back to my room in case we encountered wildlife. He swung his light through the trees revealing monkeys curled up in the branches with sleepy tails dangling down. Before dawn, the cheeky gang jumped up and down on the roof, but fortunately tired of the game after twenty minutes and let me go back to sleep, cocooned within the soft sheets. The interiors of my room seemed inspired by the safari camp of an affluent hunter, with zip-up wardrobes and teak and tin washbasins. It was both stylish and atmospheric.

On safari in Yala Game Reserve, you may be lucky enough to spot elephants, a supine leopard or lolloping wild bear. Everywhere you look, there is a glorious display of birds; wild peacocks which are native, painted storks, iridescent kingfishers, vibrant green bee-eaters, and Brahminy kites. The scene around the watering holes was an avian Eden.

I then drove north to Ella where I caught a delightful antique train to Nuwara Eliya, via Pattipola – the highest station in Sri Lanka. This is an unmissable journey. The narrow-gauge tracks, lush with greenery, wound through spectacular countryside, passing scenic waterfalls and small farms all the way up to the hill stations.

Plantation country is dotted with colonial bungalows, with white picket fences, pristine lawns and perfectly pruned roses. Amidst the regimented rows of deep green tea plants, women in bright saris were busy picking the top three leaves and tips. Most visitors to the area take a sunrise trip to Horton Plains National Park and walk to World’s End, an 880-metre-high ledge above a stunning gorge. The park is strangely reminiscent of Scotland, especially where the scenery emerges from the mist. Along the two-hour rugged path are signs stressing efforts to stamp out invasive species – they’re referring to the bracken and gorse planted by the over-zealous Lady Horton, the Governor’s wife in the 1800s.

I then drove the three hours to reach the former Kingdom of Kandy. This was a lazy way to observe village life, weaving around the sleepy street dogs, more numerous than tuk-tuks in the road. Kandy is home to the Temple of the Sacred Tooth, custodians of the Buddha relic retrieved from his funeral pyre. The annual Sri Dalada Perahara is a magnificent spectacle, where the sacred tooth is paraded through Kandy on the back of an elephant, heralded by troops of traditional dancers.

There is a wonderful Cinnamon Hotel in Kandy full of tropical personality, being right on the Mahaweli River and enveloped in lush greenery. But I elected to stay at The Elephant Stables Hotel, situated on a hilltop. Here you can float in a pool with the city sprawling below with its muted sound of car horns. At night, the views of the giant Buddha illuminated on the Bahirawakanda Hill are splendid.

My fascinating journey from seashore to hilltops ended in the capital, at the Cinnamon Lakeside Colombo Resort, with its prime position above the water and fabulously attentive staff. As I sipped a drink by the pool, I really couldn’t think of a more perfect way to culminate my Sri Lankan adventure.

Emma’s trip to Sri Lanka was arranged smoothly by Walkers Tours.  To make an enquiry and book your own trip, visit www.walkerstours.com.

Subscribe for More