Sri Lanka is a tropical and incredibly diverse island off the southern tip of India that can offer holidaymakers everything from pristine sandy beaches to ancient Buddhist temples and lush green hills dotted with tea plantations to wildlife safaris. Its tourism industry suffered major setbacks from its 20-year civil war, which ended in 2009, as well as devastation from the 2004 tsunami.
But it’s getting back on its feet and a slew of luxe new hotel openings are putting it back on the map. Here are 10 reasons why you should visit the ‘pearl of the Indian Ocean’ this year.
Sri Lanka has a blissful tropical climate that offers winter sun to us northern hemisphere dwellers. It’s also varied, so you can go from sunbathing in the dry heat of the southern beaches to the cool breezes of the Hill Country on the same holiday. But you’ll need to plan your trip carefully if you want to avoid its two distinct monsoon seasons. The main south-western monsoon brings rain to the popular South West between May and September, whilst the dry season in this region runs from December to March. In the less-visited North and Eastern parts of the island, the weather is influenced by the north-eastern monsoon, which brings wind and rain between October and January, with drier weather between May and September. December to March is the most popular time to visit.
Lovers of a good cuppa will be in their element in Sri Lanka: the cool Hill Country is covered with tea plantations on every available slope. Opt to stay with Ceylon Tea Trails (teatrails.com), which has four luxury bungalows connected by walking trails through stunning tea gardens. The Ceylon area covers 2000 square kilometers and produces 300 million kg of Ceylon Tea per year – make sure you rouse yourself to climb the famed 2250m Adam’s Peak holy mountain for a sunrise to remember.
The beaches in the south and west are the most buzzing right now on this teardrop-shaped island. Known unofficially as the ‘Sri Lankan Riviera’, the beaches are a majestic golden-tan color, fringed with swaying palm trees and backed by orchards, rice paddies, and lowland tea plantations. The southern beaches around the colonial town of Galle are the most paradisical, but if you’re after something a little wilder, head west.
There has been a spate of exciting new hotel opening in Sri Lanka, which is helping to boost it as a destination, especially for honeymooners. First up is Tri (trilanka.com), the country’s first contemporary, sustainable luxury design hotel, which has 11 unique suites flanking the serene Lake Koggala. Cape Weligama (capewelligama.com), which opened in 2014, should also be on your hit list: 39 villas occupy a lush 12-acre plot on a spectacular clifftop on the south coast, alongside an infinity pool and three excellent restaurants.
Sri Lankans are an incredibly kind, smiley and welcoming lot – travelers often return home saying they are hands down the nicest people in the world. Every man and his dog will talk to you on the street, but you won’t be hassled like in nearby India.
In the capital Colombo – which is well worth staying a night in – you can buy label Western clothes at a discount as well as bring home teas, spices, and brightly colored clothes. It’s also a fantastic place to pick up precious gemstones.
You’ll go wild for the food, which has been shaped by its colorful historical and cultural past. Must-eats include: curd and treacle, a dessert made using buffalo milk curd and dusted with coconut; hoppers, which are like a battered pancake, cradling everything from eggs and veggies to sweet treats; and of course, Sri Lankan curries, seafood and King coconuts.
Sri Lanka is jam-packed with world heritage sites that you should make time to visit if possible. These include: the Sacred City of Kandy, a famous pilgrimage site for Buddhists in the centre of the country, et on a plateau surrounded by mountains; the old fortified town of Galle, which was founded in the 16th century by the Portuguese on the southwestern tip of the island ; and the Golden Temple of Dambulla, a cave monastery with Buddhist mural paintings and 157 statues that has been a sacred pilgrimage site for 22 centuries. In short, anyone with a historical inclination will find Sri Lanka, which was colonized by the Dutch, Portuguese and British, fascinating.
It’s not just tea and traditions, Sri Lanka is slowly making a name for itself as a hot surfing destination and is touted as being like ‘Bali 20 years ago’. Head to Arugam Bay on the east coast during the summer months (April to October) for the best surf. For a more high-end stay, check out the new Soul and Surf (soulandsurf.com) experience on the south coast, where you stay in lush villas and enjoy a soul-nourishing mix of surf, yoga, and massage. Adrenaline junkies will also find lots of whitewater rafting opportunities in Kitugula, where Bridge Over the River Kwai was filmed.
Sri Lanka is one of the best places in Asia for seeing wildlife with an abundance of leopards, elephants, and birdlife. If you want to spot leopards, head to Yala West National Park, which is six hours from Colombo and easily combined with a surfing trip to nearby Arugam Bay. If wild elephants are more your bag, try Uda Walawe National Park, which is four hours from the capital and near the tea trails.