It wasn’t on the cards for us to go to Sri Lanka. I mean, it REALLY wasn’t – for starters it wasn’t our idea to go, we only booked as our friends who we normally celebrate NYE with were going, and even when we’d booked it, the holiday fell through at the last minute due to overbooking. We persevered, with visions of beaches and island cocktails and eventually found ourselves boarding a Srilankan Airlines flight the day after boxing day.
I’m so glad we did!
Sri Lanka is a major discovery for me. I’m fairly well travelled – India, Thailand, Middle East, Maldives, South America, North America are amongst the far away destinations visited. But Sri Lanka is something else completely. I hadn’t done any research at all – this was a very lazy holiday booking. Normally I spend days (weeks even) pouring over websites, Lonely Planet, magazines, TV documentaries, familarising myself with cultures and places of interest. Not so this time, we literally rocked up at our local town, Aluthgama, barely even knowing what the local currency was.
So imagine my utter delight to discover an island full of beaches, monkeys, mangroves, architecture, monuments, temples, turtles, colonial forts, crocodiles, culture, silk, sunsets and of course delicious food. And thats just the 50 odd square miles that we visited in the South of the island.
I’m going to attempt to give you an overview of our visit in this blog post. There will be another post dedicated to our visit to Lunuganga, the incredible, wonderful, beautiful estate of renowned Srilankan architect Geoffrey Bawa. I’m going back to Sri Lanka just to visit his other buildings and gardens!
We stayed in the South West of the island, best known for its beautiful sandy beaches.
I love the remoteness of Bentota beach. Its separated from the mainland by a strip of water, the Bentota river. The greenery is amazing, I felt a million miles from anywhere.
Sunsets were a major highlight. We took a daily stroll down the beach to the local temple and wandered back through the warm ocean as the sun melted into the horizon.
Our local town was a hub bub of tuk tuks, street markets and tiny shops. We wandered into the main street (accompanied by a handful of locals attempting to be our official ‘guides’!), picked up some beautiful silk scarves for around £3 each (I am sure thats about ten times what a local would pay, but at such low prices we were happy to support the businesses) and stocked up on some snacks in the local supermarket (which also sold Ferrero Rocher and Marmite of all things).
A day trip to the world heritage fortress city of Galle was another highlight. Built by the Portugese in the 16th century and handed to the British in 1796, the bastion houses some beautiful colonial architecture.
We stopped for lunch on the terrace of a dreamy little hotel called Fort Bazaar. Their restaurant, Church Street Social, offers a delicious menu of fresh food and local delicacies. I’m still dreaming of the coconut spiced soup, the best I’ve ever had.
After lunch we took a wander around Galle. Its far more cosmopolitan than the other towns we visited, with boutique shops and galleries to pick up local souvenirs, including the recently converted old Dutch Hospital which now houses a collection of restaurants, cafes and shops.
Of course Sri Lanka is famous for its spices but we resisted the temptation to bring some home, especially as the shop was closed 🙂 (but the smells were incredible).
We stopped off for a mid afternoon iced coffee in The Galle Fort hotel – a fantastically colonial style interior, where we watched a group of monkeys swinging on the telephone wires.
Wildlife was a big feature for our trip. The rivers are teaming with all sorts of creatures and lucky for us we had an eagle eyed local to explore the Bentota river and its cathedral-esque mangroves.
We visited a turtle conservation centre, although I’m sceptical that it was completely authentic. Apparently they have to buy the turtle eggs from fishermen who dig them up from the beach – to prevent them being illegally stolen for turtle soup. So there were lots of baby turtles that visitors can release into the sea at set times. The centre had a number of turtles in ‘rehab’ including a beautiful but very sad albino. We were encouraged to touch all the turtles which again, seemed wrong as surely it increased the chance of contamination/ infection for the injured turtles. As we drove down the coast I spotted dozens of ‘conservation’ centres, all with albino and disabled turtles… I do hope the government intervenes and sets some regulations in place to stop these beautiful creatures from being exploited.
We ate dinner at Paradise Road The Villa on two occasions and it was just stunning. The stylish interiors are divine, food delicious and the staff so knowledgeable and friendly. The hotel grounds and pool are to die for – and there is a very unusual quirk in that the local railway line runs right through the garden. So twice an hour the train chugs past on its way to Galle. This might be offputting for some, but we found it part of Sri Lanka’s quirky, charming character.
There is so much more that I could write about this beautiful island. The people are delightful – charasmatic, gentle and sweet. The weather was perfect during our trip – we had a few afternoon storms in the first few days, but after that it was glorious sunshine and a comfortable temperature of around 30 degrees.
The country is fast catching up on tourism since the end of the 25 year civil war in 2009 and mourning the devastating loss of 30,000 people in the 2004 tsunami. The government rolled out a strong tourism strategy in 2016 and looks set to continue its growth in 2017.
We’re keen to visit the North of the island and the ancient rock fortress of Sigiriya, the colonial tea plantations and the cultural triangle, the national parks and the temples.
Watch this space!
PS. Our flight from London to Colombo was just over ten hours outbound and nearly twelve inbound. Next time I’d fly into Dubai or Qatar to break up the journey. Srilankan Airlines are not one I’d recommend, the seats were cramped and the staff not overly helpful…. Emirates or Qatar Airlines both sound like a better option.