A jewel of the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka is a fascinating blend of rich culture, exotic wildlife and spectacular scenery – and the food and beaches top off what is surely the perfect island adventure
Words by Rachel Webb
Sri Lanka promises it all – ancient monuments, elephant encounters, rich and spicy cuisine and beaches. Our main problem is how to squeeze everything into what is only the briefest of encounters. And looking at the guide books, we can see that we would need a month or more to even skim the surface of this fascinating Indian Ocean nation.
Since we are combining this trip with a visit to the Maldives – the two are a justly popular combination among honeymooners – we’ve got to pack a lot into a few days. Our guide for an action-packed visit is Red Dot Tours, experts in all that Sri Lanka has to offer and builder of tailor-made trips for time-poor, experience-hungry couples like us.
At Colombo, we check into The Kingsbury, an ultra-modern hotel that offers both access to prime beach and luxury rooms, all with Indian Ocean views. It was the views – and the rooftop bar – that swung it for us, and sitting watching the sunset while sipping an Arrack (the must-try local cocktail), we are very pleased with our choice. This first night is also our first experience of Sri Lankan hospitality and it is to become a hallmark of the trip – there is genuine warmth and friendliness from every encounter, however brief.
“Hospitality becomes a hallmark of the entire trip, there is genuine warmth and friendliness from every encounter, however small”
We had asked Red Dot for restaurant recommendations, since we’ve heard such a lot about the cuisine’s mix of Indian spices and fabulous local produce (especially fish and seafood). So Ministry of Crab, located in Colombo’s Old Dutch Hospital, is where we find ourselves and the menu certainly doesn’t disappoint. This is seafood with bells on (or rather legs, since the side-walking local ocean speciality is the main event). We simply love it, and who knew crab could work so very well in such rich, spicy and tropical combinations?
Our tour itinerary over the few days is – we later admit – ambitious, but no visitor to Sri Lanka can neglect to visit the more famous sites, one of them being the Elephant Orphanage at Pinnawala. The setting is busy – clearly we’re not the only visitors who feel this is a must-see – and with lots of souvenir stalls on the way in, but also more traditional local crafts and clothing. We admire the elephants bathing and leave knowing that, while these babies may be objects of fascination for us tourists right now, they will return to the wild as adults. That night, we stay at the Mahaweli Reach, a lovely traditional Sri Lankan hotel set in lush gardens by the Mahaweli River, where we are greeted with fragrant jasmine petals.
The next day we visit Kandy to see the Sri Dalada Maligawa (Temple of the Tooth), and are awestruck by the gold lotus on the ceiling and overwhelmed by the smell of incense and aura of holiness of this ancient shrine to Buddha. The whole city of Kandy is a World Heritage Site, so even if your ultimate goal is Sri Lanka’s golden beaches, this is definitely the one piece of culture you should shoehorn in somehow.
After paying respects at a holy site, we’ve set ourselves the target of seeing Sri Lanka from the air and Red Dot have booked us on an Cinnamon Air flight so that we can journey to Shangri-La’s Hambantota Resort & Spa, also taking in some wildlife. This turns out to be a genius piece of travel planning since it cuts down on the rather long journey by road, but also gives us an unforgettable view of the landscape.
That night we are immersed in total luxury. Newly opened in 2016 as Sri Lanka’s largest resort, Shangri-La’s Hambantota Resort & Spa sits on a 53-hectare site on the glorious south coast and is is – in one word – paradise. With an adults’ only area of the hotel and all manner of escapades, from juggling lessons and Ayurveda to golf and bird watching offered as part of the diversions menu here, we make a mental note to make a return visit and stay for longer. As with every encounter on this journey, the hospitality is truly exceptional.
“We are immersed in total luxury at Shangri-La’s Hambantota Resort & Spa – in one word – paradise”
After two more action-packed days, taking in whale watching by private catamaran and a visit to Galle – where we even try out a cookery class, Sri Lankan style – we are just about fit to drop on a Maldivian beach. Two things we learn from our all-too-brief tour of this rich island; one is to book a longer trip next time and the second is to book some down time alongside the culture in order to enjoy its blissful beaches that tempted us on every step of our journey.