TWO WEEK TRAVEL GUIDE TO SUMPTUOUS SRI LANKA
WOW. Of all the destination guides we've brought you over the years of Travel Twins, this, good friends, is number one.
If you're looking for the ultimate tropical holiday with a mixture of sight-seeing, beach, relaxation, alongside great food, kind people, all within a limited budget - book your flights now.
We flew with Qatar Airways, stopping over in Doha. It's not a terrible journey (7 hours to Doha, then 5 hours to Colombo) and you can go direct with Sri Lankan Airlines instead, but we chose Qatar due to flight timings which neatly coincided with work.
Our trip was 12 days long. It definitely felt long enough to properly switch off but if you have more time to while away, I will drop some suggestions in at the bottom for extra stopovers. Or you can do the route a bit slower than we did.
Prior to arrival we booked a driver through Ksham Ranasinghe firstname.lastname@example.org who is fantastic at communicating with you by email before your holiday. I wanted to hit the ground running and Ksham organised to meet us at Colombo airport so we could get going immediately. He might not be the very cheapest quote around but I would really recommend him. He can also help book hotels, train tickets, safaris, tea plantations...
We landed at Colombo airport at about 6pm and jumped straight in the car to Kandy, in order to catch our train early the next morning.
I wouldn't recommend where we stayed (!) as we went for cheap and no frills. But there are plenty of options on Booking.com.
First thing the next day our driver dropped us at the station to catch our train to Ella. Ksham had pre-booked the tickets for us in 2nd class (better than first because there's no air-con, so you can sit with the windows open) and the driver helped us find our way to the right train carriage.
The train ride to Ella is truly a bucket list trip. The scenery, the sights, the sounds. What a wonderful introduction to this jaw-dropping landscape. Having arrived in the dark it was a delight to see the palm trees whizzing past and get a flavour of the colours, the smells and the sounds.
It's a fairly long journey, about 5-6 hours. You can shorten it and get off earlier or jump on later. But we wouldn't change how we did it. The longer route gives you plenty of time to take in absolutely everything.
Arriving in Ella was easy, our driver met us at the station and drove us to our hotel. Again as we were only staying for one night we went cheap and cheerful. We stayed at Ella Heritage. It's clean and close to the centre of town, and the staff are very helpful.
From here we headed straight out to walk Little Adam's Peak. The whole route takes about an hour and i'd recommend wearing trainers (unlike the lady we saw who was bravely tottering down in wedges). And you're keen for a shot of adrenaline, there's an awesome looking zip wire halfway up.
For the honeymooners, who perhaps want a little more luxury, head to 98 Acres Resort, we dropped in for a sunset drink on the terrace. Their panoramic view is the best in Ella!
After sunset we walked back down into town to the very popular Cafe Chill. For me it's a reassuring sign when you have to wait for a table. So don't be put off if it looks packed. We had a great night here - the cocktails, the food (order Sri Lanka rice & curry) and the vibe. Make sure you sit upstairs.
Early next morning we pulled our trainers on once again. This time to head to Nine Arch Bridge, a lovely 25 minute walk from the centre of town, or a short tuk-tuk. Nestled into the dense jungle, the bridge is quite a sight when you first spot it. We were lucky and stayed long enough to see the night train come past just before 9am. But it's worth checking when the next train is due as there can be long gaps.
YALA NATIONAL PARK
After this excitement, and a million photos, we hotfooted it in the car down to our next hotel, Koragaha Lodge.
It is a lovely boutique spot, with only five chalets, but boasts a great pool and very kind staff. We had already booked our safari guide through Ksham but I would also be tempted to book through Koragaha because they have very knowledgable safari staff who also work at the lodge.
The afternoon was spent in Yala National Park chasing around in a truck trying to spot elephant (successfully) and leopard (not so successfully). It was a great trip but with the large caveat that if you've done big African safaris, this will likely not impress. It was slightly uncomfortable "chasing" animals around the park. One leopard sighting suddenly attracted a queue of trucks in which we had to queue for over half an hour...! The elephant herds though were plenty and we were lucky enough to get extremely close to the action. A true thrill.
Heading back to the sanctuary of the lodge was joyous. We took a dip in the pool and had a delicious dinner. The menu isn't extensive and they don't serve alcohol (though you can take your own) so be prepared for a quiet and early night with a good book. And listen out for visiting bull (male) elephant during the night - apparently they are often spotted in the village.
After a couple of days of "touring" we were by now very ready to hit the beach. We'd been recommended by a friend to visit Tangalle, and we're so glad we did.
We stayed at Ananya Beach Resort which is a lovely, simple hotel with the cleanest and clearest pool i've ever seen and it serves fantastic seafood and cocktails. Truly amazing value and it feels very exclusive being right at the end of the beach, next to the lagoon. Though beware of crocodiles...
We didn't do a great deal whilst we were here. We flopped onto the sun-beds to get our first few days of tanning chalked off, ate delicious meals, played cards and slept well.
There are activities in the area, such as turtle-watching, but we didn't try them.
A must, must visit is Goyambokka Beach. Without doubt the most beautiful and un-touched beach we went to in the whole of Sri Lanka. There was hardly anyone else there the day we visited. Walk down to the far end of the beach from where you get dropped off by tuk-tuk and enjoy the ram-shackle beach bar and free sun-beds.
Note the waves are quite big in Tangalle so we found it hard to swim here. Not at all suitable for children or those less keen on swimming.
GALLE FORT AND UNAWATUNA
We were agonising about our next stop - Hiriketiya or Unawatuna. Although geographically it didn't make sense, we found last minute availability at what looked to be an incredible villa, so we jumped for Unawatuna. And boy we were not disappointed.
Scrolling on Booking.com the night before we left Tangalle, we came across Villa Space. The taxi or tuk-tuk journey up the steep hill is extreme, but upon arrival you enter the most tranquil oasis, which you couldn't possibly imagine existed as you drive into Unawatuna along the bustling high street.
Owned by a lovely group of Ukrainian friends, who founded a chain of restaurants called Lovely Uncle, the villa was built only a couple of years ago since they love escaping the cold and harsh Kiev winters for the heat and downtime Sri Lanka offers.
The villa itself is absolutely stunning. Though it is new, it feels as though it has been there many years. It is a no expense spared build with amazing antique shop finds wherever you look. The menu has been put together by Vova Tashaev, a Ukrainian chef, who regularly adds to and amends dishes based upon his latest experiences and research within Sri Lanka. The food here was without doubt the best we had the whole trip.
Aside from Villa Space (though it would have been tempting to spend all our days sat by the pool) there are some wonderful beaches nearby to visit, and of course, Galle Fort.
First we headed to Wijaya Beach to visit the world-famous Giant Turtles. I was a little skeptical (after our Yala experience) that this would be another traumatic animal chase. Much to my surprise, and relief, it was an extremely enjoyable experience. One moment you can be sunbathing, reading your book, the next you can be paddling with these stunning creatures. Rent a snorkel and you can gently follow them around the shallow water watching them go about their business. Breathtaking.
As the heat of the day subsides, this is the best time to jump in a tuk-tuk and head for the historic Galle Fort. It is beautiful to walk around the perimeter, spot Galle Cricket Ground, and sit and watch the sunset. Afterwards, while away some time wandering the streets of the fort exploring the shops.
Once your step count is high enough and you need a rest, i'd recommend The Fort Printers for cocktails and dinner. It sits within a beautiful old printing building which has been restored in the past 13 years to a boutique hotel. The interior design is gorgeous and the food (lobster tacos) is excellent. Afterwards, if you can manage it, have a scoop of Isle of Gelato for the tuk-tuk ride home.
Next on our list was a short tuk-tuk ride to Weligama, the surf capital of the south.
Here we checked into the Island Suite at Ceylon Sliders. It's a brilliant example of tropical modernism architecture (google search Geoffrey Bawa if interested) and the room was spacious with a fabulous balcony, great for a spot of morning yoga.
The vibe here is very much laid-back surf culture and you definitely succeed in relaxing. Weligama beach is a short walk, where you can hire surfboards and take surf lessons, but the cafe and rooftop bar is excellent, we really rated everything we ate and drank here.
For other dining options we tried Locale Gastrobar which does a huge, delicious lunchtime panini.
If you walk further into town there are plenty of places to eat. The Hang-time Hostel is pretty much the mid point of the town so anything around there is quite buzzy for an evening out.
If you can drag yourself away from the easy and kind beginners surf (perfect for me!), Mirissa Beach is just around the corner. It is another beautiful beach on the Sri Lankan coast. A little bit busy for me but I think by the time we arrived here I was getting very picky...!
The final point on our whistle-stop tour was a place i'd been desperate to try for a few years now - especially after months of lockdown drooling over their website - Soul and Surf. The original S&S was setup in Varkala, India but such has been the success of this enterprise, there are now three locations, including southern Portugal.
S&S have nabbed a wonderful corner of Ahangama. The layout of the space at the beachfront hotel (they also have a jungle retreat for those more dedicated to surfing and souling) is perfect. The rooms are simple yet spacious and cool for those hot hot days. The yoga space on the roof is the height of tranquility (there are classes morning and night). And the little beachfront spot they have all to themselves is perfect for a relaxing swim.
The food menu is outrageously good, closely followed by the experimental cocktails. Getting back from an early morning surf class - with one of their brilliant instructors - it's a joy to feast upon the many breakfast options of fresh fruit, overnight oats, hoppers, coconut rice... the best way to start the day.
If you do manage to drag yourself away from this divine spot, i'd recommend Kabalana Beach, which is great for beginners surf. For sunset drinks we stumbled across The Lighthouse, which was truly spectacular and if we'd had any more nights left, we'd have gone again.
It felt like we didn't really touch the sides with this gorgeous town. I think you could happily stay for weeks - and we met many people staying there for plenty of weeks and even months. I had hoped to visit Cafe Ceylon and The Kip, but alas, another time.
Dipping my toes into Sri Lanka for a mere 12 days really does leave me wanting much more. I cannot fault this as a holiday. It's energetic if you need some adrenaline (surfing, hikes, zip-wires) and calm if you need to chill out and breakaway from real life (yoga, elephants, beaches).
It's a place I will definitely be going back to soon. Especially since I have a few more places on my list which I just couldn't fit in the first time: Hikkaduwa, Hiriketiya and Colombo. And that's before I even start thinking about the North and East of this special island.