I first fell in love with Sri Lanka when I went there after the terrible tsunami of 2004, as an aid worker to help those affected in the south around the city of Galle. What astonished me the most then was the amazing generosity and community spirit of the Sri Lankan people; despite differing religious or political views, they welcomed me in like a member of their family, shared what little they had with me and made me feel like I was home, despite being over 7,000 miles away from London.
When I returned several years later, with my family, much had changed but I was keen for my family to fall in love with Sri Lanka like I had.
We stayed at the 5* resort, The Blue Water in Wadduwa, 20 or so miles from Colombo, but thanks to the roads (and crazy Sri Lankan quadruple overtaking) this takes longer than one might think in a taxi. The hotel is hidden away, across the railways tracks, near the waterfront; the hotel is luxurious with open planned vistas out to the gardens and the Indian Ocean. There is the scent of incense in the air and fresh flowers lining the corridors and communal spaces, truly a sanctuary from the hustle and bustle of modern life. Our room was very spacious with en suite facilities and a huge balcony overlooking the pools, palms and ocean: some of the best sunsets I saw in Sri Lanka were from this very balcony. The food was also pretty amazing, with the choice of either the cafe, the poolside bar or the onsite restaurant, which does a buffet style service for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
The buffet for dinner was a different cuisine theme every night but also offers Sri Lankan food alongside other well known dishes from across the globe, my favourite was the fish curry, but I warn you the Sri Lankans like their curries hot! The facilities are also 5*, with several pools, games room, air conditioned gym and a Spa all onsite, but the best facility the Blue Water offers is the private beach: no claiming ones territory needed here with a towel, there is a beach warden who finds you a spot and gets you your towels and sun bed, and if that was not enough there are waiters constantly touring the beach and poolside in case you need a beverage and cannot muster up the energy to walk the 200 or so metres to the bar. All in all, The Blue Water is a wonderful hotel, with all the facilities one could need in a 5* resort and the staff are extremely helpful and friendly, the cook even taught my sister and I how to make the infamous fish curry.
While we were staying in Wadduwa, we decided to take a tour of the island with a local guide. You can ask at the Hotel for recommendations or check with the Sri Lankan Tourist Board for recognised tour guides. Our trip was to take us south first to the Turtle Hatchery at Kosgoda, a local family run hatchery that rescues baby turtles and rears then to a healthy age to then release in to the wild, many different breeds can be seen here including leatherback, loggerhead and hawksbill. Next stop was the Mask Museum of Ambalangoda, in Sri Lanka masks are an important part of culture and tradition, with masks for all occasions including ones to heal the sick and to drive away evil spirits. The museum has a wonderful collection and you can see the workshop where the modern masks, which can be bought in the shop, are made.
We then made our way to Hikkaduwa, where I had been many years before and witnessed the destruction of the tsunami, but now the fishing village has a new lease of life with many restaurants and shops along the spectacular beach. We stop for spot of lunch – here in the south there is some wonderful seafood, all caught that day locally. Before leaving we see the famous stilt fisherman, who fish from long stakes which are driven in to the seabed, the stakes are handed down from father to son and are therefore highly valued, the best time to view the fisherman is dusk or dawn due to the tides.
We make our way to Weherahena Temple in Matara, this temple boats a very large tiled Buddha, truly a spectacle to behold: remember to respect any temple you visit in Sri Lanka, irrespective of your religion, and remove your shoes before entering. Our last stop before dinner and our bed for the night was Dondra Head, where there is an impressive lighthouse which you can climb, should you wish. Being somewhat of a wimp whe it comes to heights, I opted to stay on terra firma and instead view the amazing views of the coastline from a safer vantage point. We then made our way to Yala National Park, the largest national park on the island and the home to some amazing species of flora and fauna. We were staying at the Chaaya Wild Hotel within the park itself, with rangers to take you from hut to the main lodge, which housed the restaurant, bar and swimming pool, and back again. Do venture up to the top of the main lodge where the roof top bar is, the views from here at sunset are truly breathtaking and you can hear the atmospheric calls from the dark forest beyond. We bedded down for the night as the safari started at dawn, unaware that a herd of elephants passed through the camp and past our hut that night.
The next day started early, as the best spotting is done at dawn. We had a jeep with a driver/guide who took us around the park, finding the best locations to see the native species of birds and animals. The most difficult yet spectacular sight in Yala is the leopards, a unique species to Sri Lanka that are larger than mainland species, you can also see elephants, sambar deer, spotted dear, sloth bears, wild buffalo, wild boar, crocodiles, several species of monkey and birds including the green bee-eater and wild peacocks. After our amazing tour of Yala and several hundred photos later we made our way to out of the reserve, north, into the mountains to Nuwara Eliya in the Central Highlands to see the famous tea plantations of Ceylon.
Sri Lanka is famed for its tea, and all the plantations are located in the lush, green highlands of Nuwara Eliya, here you can see rows and rows of tea bushes as far as the eye can see, tended by Tamil woman picking the leaves for processing. You can visit many of the tea factories to see how they make the fresh leaves in to tea, and you can purchase tea in all its guises from the factory shops, they are excellent value for money so do not be stingy if you are a tea lover. From here we made our way down to Kandy, the famous location of the Tooth Temple or Sri Dalada Maligawa, where what is believed to be a tooth of the Buddha is preserved and ardently revered. Here we stayed in the Earls Regency Hotel overlooking the picturesque Kandy Lake. The hotel is situated on a perfect vantage point with fantastic views of Kandy and the rolling mountains beyond. We relax in the luxurious facilities of the hotel, dining in the Far Pavilion Restaurant then took refuge in the bar before calling it a night.
We woke bright and early to take in the culture of Kandy, the second largest City in Sri Lanka. The Tooth Temple is impressive; bright white with guilt gold, it glimmers in the hot sunshine. Security is high around the temple due to its importance so be prepared for a bag search and, as always, you must remove your shoes. While it is totally worth the visit to see the spectacular architecture and colourful interiors, beware the resident monkey population. After the temple, and our last stop before we were back in The Blue Water, we travel to Pinnawala Elephant Sanctuary. The sanctuary is a government run institution to protect and look after abandoned or orphaned offspring of wild elephants as well as injured elephants. Try and time your visit to witness “bath time” (10-12 then again at 2-4) when the rangers take the elephants down to the river for a wash, this is truly a sight to behold, with elephants of all shapes and sizes making their way down to the water. You can feed the baby elephants if you wish and there is a shop on site to buy your elephant themes gifts, including recycled dung paper! After Pinnawala we finally make our way back to Wadduwa and the sanctuary that is The Blue Water hotel, exhausted, yet overwhelmed by what we saw, ate, and smelled on our amazing tour of Sri Lanka.
While in Sri Lanka we also made two day trips, one to the southern City of Galle and one to the Capital Colombo. Galle has been shaped by its many occupants from the Portuguese to the Dutch and then finally the British who used it as Sri Lanka’s primary port before moving this to Colombo in the 19th century. As a result, the city has many different styles of architecture, from Dutch churches with their gothic overtones to the harsh British military architecture of the port and fort. We travelled to Galle by train from Kalutara which is an experience in itself as the trains are old British stock and therefore somewhat run down. My advice is to get 1st Class ticket as these have slightly better seats and “air conditioning” (fans on the ceiling).
Make sure you see the old town, which is contained within the walls of the fort; narrow roads winding down to the front where the Galle Fort lighthouse looks out to the Indian Ocean and beyond. Colombo has a much more modern feel, having been modernised through the centuries to be a hub of industries and services. There is a very British feel to Colombo, with the buildings like The Galle Face Hotel which are of the British colonial style, even the greeting comes from a man dressed in his military finery adorned in medals. All religions are represented in Colombo from the colourful Hindu temples to the candy stripped mosques of the Muslim faith, everyone is very welcoming and wants to show you round their places of worship, again be respectful and remove your shoes and cover your arms and legs. Some of the best shopping, if that’s your thing, is to be found in Colombo, with designer shops to traditional merchants of exotic wares, like silks and spices.
Sri Lanka is a historical, cultural and spiritual journey with amazing sites to behold, wondrous food to savour and friends to be made wherever you go. Sri Lanka is beautiful, and you feel the island with all of your senses and this is thanks to the Ceylon sapphire that is the Sri Lankan people, truly my extended family.