My sister and I spent a month traveling India together in 2013 and have been trying to recreate that trip ever since. Sri Lanka looked similar. On a map, it’s India’s cuter, smaller neighbor. There’s curry. And cool temples and hikes and ELEPHANTS. Flights are cheap.
So off we went…18 hours of flying (+ a layover in Doha airport where they had amazing Greek salad).
I am usually Polly Positive about all travel (see: all other posts) but Sri Lanka was tough for me to love. Here’s what we did, and what I’d do differently:
DAY 1: Colombo to Galle. Land at Bandaranaike International Airport at 3am, drive directly to Galle. There was no traffic and it still took us 2 hours longer than everyone said it would. This, is the theme of Sri Lanka. Nothing is close. Everything is way, way farther than you’re told it will be. Check in to Niyagama House (rated #1 hotel in Galle on TripAdvisor). We loved it though its distance from town while nice (it was set on the outskirts in this peaceful, lush green forest) was also unfortunate because I think we missed out on really getting to know the area. However, the food was incredible.
Highlights from our first day include: breakfast at Galle Fort Hotel, massages at Galle Fort Spa (AMAZING) and lunch at AmanGalla (try to sneak in and see the pool). Take a tuk-tuk and explore the outer Galle area (fruit and veggie markets, fisherman villages). The actual Galle Fort is underwhelming.
DAY 2: Galle. Wake up early (jetlaggg), meditate on Niyagama House roof as the sun rises, take the 3 mile walk around the property and then do aerial yoga with the proprietress who is a certified instructor and, with advance notice, will schedule private sessions.
Visit Unawatuna Beach which everyone says is a GORGEOUS beach. We walk back and forth trying to find the gorgeous beach, thought we were at the wrong place, but we weren’t soo…not that gorgeous. We get massages at The Sanctuary Spa which are not the technical best of our 5 ayurveda massages but there’s a great vibe, with services done in tree houses while the beach breeze blows in. We then check out the area’s famous pagoda + Buddha, drank coconuts, etc. The whole area has a backpacker-y vibe without the energy or the actual backpackers. Another theme of Sri Lanka is that no one is there. It all feels very deserted.
For dinner, take a cooking class at Lucky Fort or Niyagama (we did it at Niyagama, it was yum.)
DAY 3: Galle to Tangelle. We stay at Buckingham Place. It had amazing reviews, and I can’t comprehend why. It was bad. Cold. Dark. Sterile. And the food was gross. It was straight from a horror movie, in the middle of nowhere and, par for the course in this country, had no other hotel guests. Our reason for being there was to explore beaches, more specifically Tangelle Beach, which turned out to be 3 hours away. I would say skip this whole area but, in Tangelle’s defense, we got cloudy weather. The reason to go? The AmanWella is there. The palm trees and view on this stretch of land are probably the most-photographed in Sri Lanka. We had a yummy lunch on the property and hung on their pretty stretch of sand. By ourselves.
You could also go at night to see the turtles hatch in Rekawa but we passed when we read it was “like watching paint dry”.
DAY 4: Tangelle to Udawalawe National Park to Ella. We woke up at 4:30am to take the two hour drive to Udawalawe National Park. Literally just typing Udawalawe gives me butterflies! The elephant safari here is the HIGHLIGHT of our trip/my life. 600+ elephants roam free (the only place there are more is in Africa) and they’re everywhere. We watched them bathe, saw soo many babies and they played within feet from our 4-wheeler. If you can find our guide Nandu he is an angel. He is doing his part to conserve the park – he picked up litter everywhere and was so respectful of the elephants. He knew each and every one of them just by sight. “She is just like you, madam,” he said when we came across a 32 year old female.
The safari is supposed to be 3 hours but we are so obsessed we do two back-to-back safaris so we basically spend the whole day in the park. My sister thinks a 3rd safari is overkill. I would have slept there. I would actually still be living there. The first safari is awesome because it’s dawn – so lots of animals – but also more crowded with vehicles. The second safari is really quiet; we watch the elephants bathe and see jackals devouring a baby buffalo. We also go further into the park to areas that people don’t usually see.
Afterwards we drive straight to Ella. About 4 hours – I don’t have to tell you that it’s supposed to be shorter but lest you forget… We stay at the Mountain Heavens hotel. We really want to stay at 98 Acres but we’ve booked nothing ahead of time and it’s sold out. So maybe that’s where everyone is in Sri Lanka?
DAY 5: Ella. In the morning we realize that we really like Mountain Heavens (don’t get it confused with Mount Heaven aka what we heard referred to as “mount hell”). The hotel was nice – small and cute and the view is insane. Best in all of Ella. We love Ella! Have cake at Little Folly and hang out with the owner. Take one of his walks. Go see the train – it’s so cute, like a little toy. Get massages at Suwamadura but only if you’re ok with super creepy rub downs. It is a full (full!) body massage.
Buffet dinner at Zion View. You have to preorder it – and leave a deposit – earlier in the day. It was good – very clean and lively with a great view.
DAY 6: Ella to Central Province. Spend the morning at 98 Acres – have lunch, relax, read etc. Then on to Taylor’s Hill, a bed & breakfast I had come across in my endless research and decided we HAD to visit. It’s an old English tea plantation farmer’s home and I picture us walking through tea fields and enjoying hot mugs of it in the afternoon.
It is going to be the perfect break on the 6 hour drive to Kandy except it is literally *terrible*. Partly because we cheap out and hire a non-English speaking driver who is a freak. In the first 5 minutes he makes us friend him on Facebook, mentions Obama and tells us our laughs are beautiful and then does not understand another word we say including “please stop for a picture”, “how far away are we?”, “where are we?” and “STOP THE VEHICLE”. He gets very, very lost. It takes us 6 hours just to get to central province (instead of 3).
Sidenote: It would have been cool to stop in Nuwara Eliya on the way (we didn’t because of above driver mishap). It’s an interesting town that they call “little England” but not really worth a night because why be in England when you’re in Sri Lanka? FYI it’s also freezing in this one little specific area, about 20 degrees colder than the rest of the country – we could feel it just through the windows.
Taylor’s Hill is pretty. But something you could do anywhere in the world, like Vermont. Doing it over, we’d stay another night in Ella and get more massages. Or take the train somewhere just to experience the country’s train travel.
DAY 7: Central Province to Kandy. Wake up have a leisurely morning at Taylor’s Hill. Visit the James Taylor tea plantation. Or don’t because it’s not that exciting. Drive to Kandy. Stay at Theva house. Pre-order the 17 spice curry dinner. Watch the sunset from the hotel, it’s absurdly beautiful. Whatever you do, don’t get pink eye and go to the public hospital on a Sunday, like I did.
DAY 8: Kandy. Visit the temple of the tooth. Visit a tea factory, or don’t because it’s also not that exciting, visit the large walking Buddha (we liked this!) and the Royal Botanic Gardens which is the Central Park of Kandy. Very pretty – bring a book! Have dinner again at Theva House because the special rice and curry is that good.
DAY 9. Kandy to Colombo. Usually I hate when people tell you to pass on the place where the airport is (i.e. I’ve spent time in Guatemala City, Bangkok and a million other places that people have implored me to skip) but really, you can totally bypass Colombo. Promise.