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It seems as if there is not enough time in the world to unlock all the treasures of Sri Lanka. A mere six years after a devastating 25-year civil war and over a decade since the 2004 tsunami, the island is thriving socially and economically as the only southeast Asian country on the global Human Development Index. This has been aided by the dramatic rise in tourism over the past ten years.
From the second you fly into the dense palm-tree forests of Colombo to the moment you leave this tropical paradise, you will feel at ease with the friendly locals who are proud to show you their country. The endless opportunities and sights Sri Lanka has to offer include lush plains and temples in Sigiriya, as well as tea plantations and crystalline waterfalls in the mountainous town of Ella. The east coast is home to the Yala National Park, the surfing beaches in Arugam Bay and the traditional fishing villages in Trincomalee.
May through October is the best time to travel the Central Province and up the eastern coastline. The country’s good infrastructure makes for hassle-free travel between destinations. Whether it’s by train, bus or taxi (we recommend booking taxis through a local company instead of a hotel) these journeys alone are a magical way to witness the beauty of the island.
Aliya Resort & Spa Audangawa, Sigiriya
Nestled in the rural countryside of Sigiriya, Aliya Resort & Spa is a tranquil retreat overlooking the ancient Sigiriya Rock, known locally as the ‘eighth wonder of the world’. ‘Aliya’ is Sinhalese for elephant (the sacred animal of the country) and the hotel’s minimalist décor reflects the island’s love for this gentle giant. The attention to detail, like floating lotus flowers and beautiful elephant engravings throughout the resort, make this the perfect place to acclimatise once arriving in Sri Lanka.
The rooms are luxurious and spacious, with stone balconies overlooking the land (rooms towards the back of the hotel offer the best views). For an alternative experience, try your hand at ‘glamping’ in one of the 18 luxury tents available. Situated amongst the forest, these deluxe tents are a good option if you want to feel totally secluded.
Although it’s hard to tear yourself away from lounging poolside, climbing Sigiriya is a must. Be sure to go as early as possible to beat crowds, queues and the heat. Finish each day with a delicious dinner on Aliya’s balcony, overlooking the sparkling pool, and listen to the sound of monkeys darting through the trees.
Rooms from £96 per night including breakfast.
Aliya Resort & Spa is a 4-hour drive from Colombo’s Bandaranaike International Airport.
- +94 662 040400
- Go to Website
98 Acres Ella
High in the hills, looking out onto Adam’s Peak and Ella Gap, is 98 Acres, a unique hotel made up of private villas nestled in the mountains.
The deluxe rooms are particularly special with large jacuzzi tubs overlooking endless tea plantations. The hotel’s swimming pool feels more like a mountain waterfall with crystal clear water and a mesmerising view.
During the day, bathe with the locals in the Ravana waterfall or take a trip to the tea plantations and sample the finest Ceylon tea. If you don’t fancy eating dinner in the hotel, get a tuk tuk to the charming, tranquil town of Ella, full of wandering travellers and home to plenty of little restaurants.
The breathtaking view of mountainous Ella can be experienced from most of the guesthouses in this popular travellers’ town. If you’re looking for an alternative hotel, Misty Hills is also a beautiful work-in-progress guesthouse, the perfect place for authentic charm in the hills
Rooms from £122 per night.
Travel to the idyllic town of Ella either by the scenic train from Kandy through the tea hill country, or by car from Sigiriya in four to five hours.
- +94 572 050050
- Go to Website
Cinnamon Wild Yala National Park
If you’re looking to be at one with nature look no further than this luxury safari resort. Cinnamon Wild (soon to be named Cinnamon Lifestyle) is the only hotel situated within Yala National Park. Yala is the second largest national park in Sri Lanka, with only a fifth of the land open to the public for safari trips. With dense forest, lagoons and open plains, the park is filled with animals such as elephants, monkeys and sloth bears.
At Cinnamon Wild, there are no barriers between you and the surrounding wildlife, and you might be surprised by an elephant or two walking past your villa (staff are on hand to escort guests after dark). There are 60 jungle villas and 8 ocean villas in the resort and unless you’re desperate for the sea air (guests are not able to swim in the rough ocean here) we would recommend a jungle villa. The rooms are elegant safari lodges with huge wet rooms, luxurious beds and balconies (mosquito nets are included).
Spend the morning sipping on a king coconut and relaxing by the pool, looking out onto a lake filled with water buffalo, crocodiles and pelicans. In the afternoon, take a safari with one of the expert naturalists and try your luck at spotting a rare leopard. Watch out for the famous tusked elephant Gamu, who takes a shine to tourists and is known to pop his head into jeeps.
When you’re back, head to the rooftop bar for tasty cocktails (we recommend the wood apple daiquiri). Take in the sunset before sampling some of the local Sri Lankan cuisine such as rotti, curries and hoppers at dinner. There is an à la carte option for dinner, but the buffet is so impressive there is no need to go for this.
Rooms from £146 per night including breakfast.
Yala National Park is closed from 7 September to 7 October for the dry season.
- +94 112 306600
- Go to Website
Surf N Sun Arugam Bay
If you want to sample the world-renowned beaches and infamous party scene of Sri Lanka, head to the surfer’s paradise Arugam Bay. Set back slightly from the beach you will find Surf N Sun, the perfect base for your stay.
There are eight huts at Surf N Sun, our personal favourite being the villa with a garden view. Everything about this place oozes serenity, including morning and evening yoga classes for guests, the smell of incense and jingling wind chimes.
The communal bar and dining area is so relaxing you could happily spend an afternoon here with your book, but you do not want to miss out on the beaches. Book a surfing lesson in the school attached to the hotel, where you will be whisked away to one of the beaches and taught to ride the warm waves. For dinner, try the fresh tuna and various other seafood options at the hotel’s restaurant. Start the rest of your night with a ginger watermelon martini or a mango daiquiri made by the resident barman.
At night, Arugam Bay comes alive with beach bars and clubs. Mambo’s is the place to be on a Saturday night, with the island’s finest DJ’s playing house music until 9AM. If you’d rather just relax, there are countless beaches and coves you can travel to by tuk tuk, and the bay is home to some of the best food on the island.
Garden Villa from £45 per night.
Arugam Bay is roughly a three-hour costal drive from Yala.
- +94 776 065099
- Go to Website
Jungle Beach Resort Trincomalee
To continue your journey up the east coast of the island, travel about five to six hours to Trincomalee, famous for its whale and dolphin watching. During the civil war, Trincomalee was too dangerous for tourists to visit but now hotels are popping up around the charming area, including Jungle Beach Resort, just 25km from the town.
Each private villa of the resort feels like a tropical tree house. You can choose from lagoon, beach or jungle-facing chalets, all complete with private verandas and huge glass windows. Spend the day lounging on the beach or treat yourself at the spa before eating seasonal and local dishes cooked up by Head Chef Brandigam Kumara and his team.
Ask the hotel staff to guide a tuk tuk to the unspoilt beaches along this part of the coast, some of the most beautiful on the island. The tiny fishing villages, many of which were destroyed during the tsunami, have recovered beautifully, white sandy beaches are lined with palm trees with barely a footprint in sight. Take a walk through the port, where you will find boats filled with all manner of fish, gearing up for the market.
Take an early morning trip to go whale watching; you might be lucky enough to see blue or humpback whales, but, if not, plenty of dolphins are guaranteed to dance around your boat. Pigeon Island is also famous for its snorkelling, but if you can’t face leaving the serenity of the jungle, simply relax by the lagoon sipping on a cocktail.
Rooms from £158 per night.
Continue your journey up the east coast of the island for about five to six hours to reach Trincomalee.
- +94 265 671000
- Go to Website
Uga Residence Colombo
Arriving into the manic hustle and bustle of Colombo will be quite a culture shock after the serenity of the east coast. To find a calm space in the storm escape to Residence, the latest resort from the hotel group Uga Escapes, which opened for business in March. Residence is a classic 5-star luxury resort complete with a swimming pool to escape the stifling heat.
The rooms are opulent but not over the top; head for one of the 11 suites for a private courtyard to relax in. The restaurant serves delicious fresh fish and seafood accompanied by an impressive cocktail menu. Plus, room service is 24-hours. What more do you need?
Rooms from £100 per night.
By car, it takes roughly six hours to get to Colombo from Trincomalee. If you want to avoid the roads, try one of the short flights from Cinnamon Air, which charters air taxis on routes across the country. Colombo airport is 45 minutes by car.
- +94 115 673000
- Go to Website
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