Sri Lanka is one of those countries that makes you immediately want to pack all your belongings and relocate. This tiny tropical paradise packs a punch – with rainforests and sun-soaked beaches, endless jade-coloured tea plantations and atmospheric ancient temple ruins. Not to mention the food. Or the amiable locals. Or the moody leopards. All about a stone’s throw from its capital, Colombo. Oh, and you can get a visa on arrival
WORDS: ALISHA WADIA
Galle for Culture
An easy coastal drive south of Colombo, Galle has history, beaches, a bohemian vibe, a UNESCO stamp and colonial charm. Sri Lanka’s second city, Galle was once its main port. Begin with the winding lanes of the UNESCO World Heritage Galle Fort, built by the Portuguese and fortified by the Dutch; this is the city’s bustling heart, with a community still living within its walls. Peppered with Dutch architecture, sleek cafés and trendy boutiques, the picturesque old town is ideal for a stroll. The floor of the Dutch Reformed Church is covered in gravestones from Dutch cemeteries, and the National Maritime Archaeology Museum that details the port city’s nautical past was once a 17th-century Dutch spice warehouse. Trudge up to Flag Rock, at the southern end of the fort, and be rewarded with stunning views of the bay. If you’re feeling adventurous, plunge into the waters like the plucky locals! And, if you can manage it, catch a match at the Galle International Cricket Stadium, one of the prettiest in the world, with great views of the Indian Ocean and Galle Fort.
Galle’s a great shopping haunt too, and there are treasures waiting to be found. A converted railway storehouse, the Old Railway Café is a store with contemporary handmade clothes and quirky crafts, and a cheerful café that serves fresh salads, soups and cakes. Look for stylish home goods at Barefoot or browse through the posh eateries and shops at the restored Old Dutch Hospital, a colonial landmark. Galle is also famous for its gemstones, and you can find a fine collection of semiprecious jewellery at Laksana. After you’ve rambled about the ramparts, rest your legs at Crepe-ology, a laidback, kid-friendly, rooftop café that specialises in mouth-watering sweet and savoury crepes.
Treat yourself to a night at The Fort Printers, built in 1825, which once housed printing presses; today, the interiors are airy and elegant with stylish rooms. Its restaurant dishes up fresh seafood and Med-inspired fare, as well as Sri Lankan rice and curry, all prepared with local organic produce. Right by the sea, the Amari Galle has tasteful, modern rooms, with breezy ocean views. Factor in the private strip of beach and an outdoor pool, and it makes for perfect beach living.
Galle is also a great base if you want to explore the golden beaches off Unawatuna, go snorkelling in Hikkaduwa, photograph the stilt fishermen of Weligama, or go looking for whales in the waters off Mirissa.
Yala National Park & Uda Walawe National Park for Wildlife
It’s a longish drive towards Hambantota from Colombo, but it’s a drive that brings you within spitting distance of elephants and a park with one of the highest leopard densities in the world.
Yala National Park is Sri Lanka’s most famous wildlife spot, and one of the country’s largest national parks. And it’s the place to spot leopards. Yala cocoons a fantastic landscape dotted with salty lagoons amid open grasslands, sudden patches of sandy beach, and rocky outcrops that shelter every sort of wildlife –sunning crocodiles, bemused spotted deer, tribes of monkeys and gangs of buffalos, fat elephants and shaggy sloth bears. With all those watering holes, there are also about 200 species of migrants. Unspoilt as it is, Yala is also one of the country’s most popular parks, so brace yourself for the crowds. Book your safaris directly, or ask your hotel to arrange them for you.
Eat and sleep at Jetwing Yala. Spread over 50 acres, it offers attractive rooms with bathrooms large enough to house an elephant, and a swanky infinity pool. The best part: beach access and dramatic Indian Ocean views from almost everywhere.
If you like your animals big, you’ll love the parades of elephants shuffling through the savannah-like grasslands of Uda Walawe in astounding numbers – this is one of the world’s best places to see elephants in the wild. Wide-open grasslands and light vegetation make it easy to spot these lumbering beauties, steeping themselves in water bodies or cheekily snapping up tourists’ breakfast boxes. There’s also mongoose, jackals, sambar, monitor lizards, and the rare leopard. Birders, look out for northern migrants among the local bee-eaters and crested hawk eagles. Coo at squeak-inducing, sweet-faced baby elephants at the Elephant Transit Home. An orphanage and rehabilitation centre that cares for injured and abandoned pachyderms before releasing them into the wild, it’s only a 15-minute drive from the park’s entrance. Visit at feeding time, and watch the rambunctious little ones practically scoot out of line for milk.
Built on a former coconut plantation,the Shangri-La’s Hambantota Resort and Spa is luxurious and spacious, with 300 rooms set in 145 acres of lush greenery. With attentive staff, modern amenities, a very plush, drool-inducing Ayurveda spa, three pools and a golf course, this family-friendly resort is perfect for relaxation. Of the property’s restaurants, Sera specialises in Southeast Asian eats, while Bojunhala is an all-day multi-cuisine option.