An old friend contacted me earlier this week asking for advice on where to go and what to see in Sri Lanka. In replying to her, my love for this gorgeous country – the victim of a recently ended 20-year civil war and the 2004 tsunami – was rekindled, and I realized I had a post in me that should have been shared long ago.
I visited Sri Lanka twice while I was living in India, once on assignment to review Avani Kalutara, the second time with my parents and Pete. After months in India, Sri Lanka seemed incredibly peaceful, with all that lush landscape to explore and pristine beaches to swim in. The people were more relaxed, the pace of life slower, and the traffic much less aggressive. It’s a place I’d advise people to visit before India, a kind of “India for Beginners”.
And so, here’s my pick of which beaches to bum on, waterfalls to chase, ancient temples and secret gardens to explore and hillside tea trails to follow in Sri Lanka, the “pearl of the Indian Ocean”.
This little gem, tucked away on Sri Lanka’s southwestern coast, gives you the best of both worlds: the churning Indian Ocean on one side and the calm waters of the Kalu Ganga River on the other. It’s just a ten-minute sandy stroll away from Bentota, a quiet surf beach ringed by lush foliage, behind which gorgeous boutique hotels like Club Villa are hidden where you can stop in for lunch. Kalutara is also just a ten-minute tuk tuk ride away from the world’s only hollow Buddhist shrine, Kalutara Vihara, one of the most important Buddhist sites in the country. Can I hear you say “triple threat”?
Waterfalls and secret gardens
During my stay at Kalutara, the sweet German manager of the hotel I was reviewing took me on a drive to see the Thudugala Waterfall. We managed to get hideously lost and drove through the most lush, dense jungle for hours, passing coconut and rubber plantations and remote jungle villages where we met the sweetest, most gentle locals.
It was well worth the effort though; my belly still flips when I think about standing beneath those dramatic, powerful falls.
On the way back we stopped off at the beautiful Brief Garden, about ten kilometres inland from Bentota. Walking through the stately gates, we immediately felt as though we’d stumbled into a scene from The Secret Garden. The gardens are filled with cannonball trees and frangipanis, and surround the erstwhile home of Bevis Bawa, the eccentric elder brother of famous architect Geoffrey Bawa and a rather flamboyant gay man. In one section of the garden we discovered this lovely old bell, which we were told Bevis used to ring when he wanted his local “boys” to come and, ahem, service him. There are some pretty naughty homoerotic sculptures scattered throughout the garden, and beautiful artworks from Australian artist Donald Friend, who came to the estate for a week and stayed for five years.
Magical Galle Fort
The UNESCO World Heritage protected Galle Fort, about an hour’s drive from Kalutara, had my family and I completely enchanted. An 18th-century Dutch walled town lying alongside moden Galle, it’s filled with narrow streets lined with tumbledown colonial buildings, teeny cafes and wine bars and über fancy hotels. Hotels like Galle Fort Hotel, a former merchant’s house that’s the Australian owner magicked into an 11-suite hotel a few years ago. We stayed there for a couple of nights and felt as though we were staying in a particularly attentive family’s opulent home.
Our time in Galle was spent lazing by the hotel pool or on the small beach just outside the impossibly thick granite ramparts (which kept the 2004 tsunami waves at bay, thank God), shopping at gorgeous boutiques (the vibrantly coloured, locally made clothes and homewares at Barefoot are unmissable) and sipping champagne at Amangalla, the first Amanresort in the world to be located in a town. TAKE US BACK.
I won’t lie: the insanely winding drive to Nuwara Eliya’s famous tea plantations (about five hours’ drive from Galle) had us groaning with motion sickness so severe we completely missed the beauty of it. Except for my dad, who quite rightly remarked from the front seat that Sri Lanka’s tea country is like “one big, manicured garden.” Thankfully, our nausea was completely forgotten the moment we arrived at Tea Trails’ Norwood Estate.
This classic colonial bungalow, which was originally built for British tea estate managers in the days of the Raj, is still a working tea estate and is one of four bungalows that have been restored by Dilmah. We visited the tea factory on our estate, walked along the narrow paths of the tea gardens which were dotted with shy but friendly tea pluckers, and sat for hours, champagne in hand, gazing out over the otherworldly views.
Sigiriya Rock Fortress
From Galle Fort, Pete and I hired a driver to take us the three hours to Sigiriya Rock. We arrived late in the afternoon so woke before sunrise the next morning to climb it. We’re fit, we’re young, but ascending the 1,200 stairs to get to the top was tough, and pretty hair-raising. Luckily we had these beautiful frescoes of apsaras (celestial nymphs), set in a little alcove in the side of the rock and painted 1,600 years ago, to distract us along the way…
…as well as this insane gateway.
The view from the top was absolutely mind-blowing. In the 5th century, King Kasyapa built his palace up there and you can still see its foundations, including what might be the world’s most dreamy pool. Once the king passed away, Buddhists used it as a monastery until the 14th century. The most perfect spot to meditate in the whole world, I think.
We spent our final day in Sri Lanka exploring the Golden Temple of Dambulla, a UNESCO protected cave monastery that has been a sacred pilgrimage site for 22 centuries. It’s the largest, best-preserved cave-temple complex in Sri Lanka, filled with stunning Buddhist murals and statues, and was the perfect place to farewell this enchanted, frangipani-scented land.
READ MY REVIEW OF AVANI KALUTARA HERE
SEE MY SRI LANKA PHOTO GALLERY HERE