Adam’s Peak (Sri Pada)
The pilgrimage season begins on poya day in December and runs until the Vesak festival in May. In season, pilgrims and tourists alike make the climb up the countless steps to the top. At other times, the summit’s temple can be unused, and is often obscured by clouds.
Lovely Arugam Bay, a moon-shaped curl of soft sand, is home to a famed point break that many regard as the best surf spot in the country. It’s a tiny place, with a population of a few hundred, and everything is dotted along a single road which parallels the coast. So in other words, the epitome of the laid-back beach scene that first drew surfers and sun-seekers to Sri Lanka.
If you’re not a surfer, there are plenty of other draws: beachfront guesthouses, oceanside restaurants and a mellow, swing-another-day-in-a-hammock kind of vibe that’s totally removed from the brash west-coast beach resorts. Arugam Bay also makes a great base for several adventures in the surrounding hinterland. During the low season (November to April) things get extremely quiet and many places close altogether, but it can also be a serene time to visit, with few tourists and verdant landscapes.
Minneriya National Park
The dry season, from April to October, is reckoned to be the best time to visit (as by then water in the tank has dried up, exposing grasses and shoots to grazing animals). Elephants, which can number 200 or more, come to feed and bathe during what is known as ‘the Gathering’; and flocks of birds, such as little cormorants, painted storks, herons and large pelicans all fish in the shallow waters.
The park entrance is on the Habarana–Polonnaruwa Rd. A visitor centre near the entrance sells tickets and has a few exhibits about the park’s natural history. The initial 40-minute drive (along a poor dirt road) into the heart of the park is through dense forest, where wildlife sightings are rare. But then the landscape opens up dramatically, and the views across the tank are superb. Early mornings are generally best for birds and late afternoon for elephants.
Sinharaja Forest Reserve
The Sinharaja (Lion King) rainforests occupy a broad ridge at the heart of the island’s wet zone. The only way to get about the reserve is by foot, and excellent park rangers (at the park entrance) or freelance guides (available through local hotels) can lead you along slippery trails, pointing out the wealth of stunning plant, bird and animal life.
Recognising its importance to the island’s ecosystem, Unesco declared the Sinharaja Forest Reserve a World Heritage Site in 1989.Sinharaja is bordered by rivers: the Koskulana Ganga in the north and the Gin Ganga in the south.
The reserve comprises 189 sq km of primary and modified forest, measuring about 21km east to west and 3.7km north to south. It was once a royal reserve, and some colonial records refer to it as Rajasinghe Forest. It may have been the last redoubt of the Sri Lankan lion.
Rising dramatically from the central plains, the enigmatic rocky outcrop of Sigiriya is perhaps Sri Lanka’s single most dramatic sight. Near-vertical walls soar to a flat-topped summit that contains the ruins of an ancient civilisation, thought to be once the epicentre of the short-lived kingdom of Kassapa, and there are spellbinding vistas across mist-wrapped forests in the early morning.
Sigiriya refuses to reveal its secrets easily, and you’ll have to climb a series of vertiginous staircases attached to sheer walls to reach the top. On the way you’ll pass a series of quite remarkable frescoes and a pair of colossal lion’s paws carved into the bedrock. The surrounding landscape – lily-pad-covered moats, water gardens and cave shrines – only add to Sigiriya’s rock-star appeal.
Just offshore – you can walk out to it at low tide – is this tiny island. It looks like an ideal artist’s or writer’s retreat, which indeed it once was: novelist Paul Bowles wrote The Spider’s House here in the 1950s. The island was developed in the 1920s by the French Count de Mauny Talvande who perched his mansion on the tiny rock. You can stay or dine on the island with advance planning; five staff are allocated to cater for your stay.