Sri Lanka has the perfect combination of white sand beaches, lush green mountains, ancient temples and bustling towns, all within close proximity of each other so you can travel slowly and savour the experience.
Last July I spent three wonderful weeks in Sri Lanka with my husband and teenage son. With family in tow, there’s no point rushing from sight to sight trying to see it all. For a carefree, harmonious and memorable trip, factor in staying at a new place every few days and exploring it in depth.
What worked for us was staying in simple accommodation in beautiful surroundings close to the sights we wanted to see. Our bases were a palm tree-filled resort at Negombo, the ocean front at Colombo, the high mountains of Kandy, the culturally rich Sigiriya area, the sprawling ruins of ancient Anuradhapura and the tropical beaches near Trincomallee.
Distances are short, so when you do travel you won’t need to waste a whole, precious day doing it. Here are some of our highlights:
Chilling out in Negombo
Negombo is the nearest town to the International Airport. Within half an hour of arriving in the country, you can be lazing on the beach, drinking coconut water and soaking up the tropical warmth of this laid-back town.
A good way to acclimatize and get your bearings is to head off on a birdwatching boat trip down the Old Dutch Canal and into the wetland lagoon. As we relaxed with our feet up, our friendly guide steered us through a maze of mangroves and tangled vines to get up close with colourful kingfishers, parakeets, cormorants, herons, ducks and the occasional giant lizard.
Another option in Negombo is to explore the local fish markets. A feast for photographers, the beaches are covered with drying fish and squid, colourful fishing boats and a chaotic, smelly market.
Hanging with the Locals in Colombo
There is no better way to slow travel than hang out with the locals and do what they do.
In Colombo you are spoilt for choice. Immerse yourself in the colourful, bustling markets at Pettah where vendors cart huge loads of carefully balanced pineapples or bunches of bananas on their heads. In the dark clothing bazaar you will meet some real characters happy to bargain with you.
An authentic taste of Sri Lanka can be experienced by riding on Colombo’s public transport. We headed down to Mt Lavinia – Colombo’s beach escape about 30 minutes south of the city. We hopped on a bus to be met by blaring music, a bright TV screen and Hindu entities decorating the interior. Next the open air train trip took us along the wild and scenic south coast past little shanty homes, fishing boats and swaying palms. This is the same train line that was hit by the 2004 tsunami, causing great loss of life – over 40,000 people in total in Sri Lanka. A tragic time in Sri Lanka’s recent history. At Mt Lavinia we cram into a tiny tuk tuk which takes us to the crashing waves of the beach where we walk along chatting to the stray dogs and local fishermen.
At dusk in Colombo you can mingle with local families at Galle Face Green where people come together to watch the sun set over the Indian Ocean, play cricket, fly kites or feast on tasty fried crabs from the street stalls. It is an amazing spot to unwind and people-watch.
Sri Lanka’s jungle-clad mountains, gushing rivers and peaceful lakes are a haven for local wildlife.
Minneriya National Park is the site of a great wildlife spectacle called “The Gathering”. Hundreds of elephants congregate to graze on the green grass around the lake during the dry season. Hiring a safari jeep at dusk will give you the best chance to admire the elephants as well as water buffalo, storks, flocks of birds, black-faced monkeys and the elusive leopard – a truly memorable experience.
At Pinnewalla Elephant Orphanage you can observe elephants splashing in the river, rolling in the mud and throwing sand. The elephants appear happy and well fed.
Exploring the Cultural Triangle
A must see in Sri Lanka is the fascinating temples, statues and cave art found in the centre of the island.
The cave temples at Dambulla showcase stunning paintings and statues of Buddha, some up to 2000 years old. The caves are set under a giant rock on a forested hill with naughty monkeys that ambush the unwary visitor for their flower offerings. Be warned!
For those with a head for heights then climbing up the 1200 steps to Lion Rock at Sigiriya is mandatory. At the flat summit you will be rewarded with breathtaking views of distant hills, terraced gardens and deep green ponds.
The ancient cities of Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura are dotted with old monasteries, sacred tombs, huge dagobas and derelict bathing ponds. Get in early to avoid the heat of the day and the crowds of locals and tourists that descend on these popular sites.
Beach bumming in the north east
Trincomalee was off-limits to tourists for many years due to the civil war in Sri Lanka. It is now emerging as a relaxed holiday destination with beautiful beaches to the north and a local charm of its own.
The white sand beaches of Uppuveli and Nilaveli are dotted with thatch umbrellas, beach bars, dogs and cows. A holiday nirvana for beach lovers! The Aqua Inn at Uppuveli has a cool backpacker’s vibe with delicious food, funky music and a café on the beach.
Boats can be charted to take you out to Pigeon Island National Park. Snorkeling over the colourful, shallow reef will reward you with the sight of fluorescent corals, tropical fish and bizarre shaped jellyfish. Sunbaking on the rough coral beach or scrambling over the orange boulders that surround the bay is a nice way to take it all in.
Slow travel means soaking up the ambience of where you are traveling. Sri Lanka is the right choice if you want to slow your pace, wander through a village, meet the locals, linger over a long lunch, enjoy an Ayurvedic massage or just absorb the beauty of the world around you.
This is a guest post by Liz Noble.
Liz Noble is a Sydneysider with a passion for photography and a love of nature, dogs and adventure. Her favourite trips include exploring Africa, caravanning around Europe, backpacking in India, sailing the Aegean and immersing herself in Asia. Despite travelling to more than 50 countries, Liz is always planning her next escape – usually somewhere hot and exotic!
She runs a blog,