“Welcome to Sri Lanka!” was one of the first greetings I heard in Colombo, the country's bustling big city. A local graced me with those lovely words from across the street. Not a storekeeper, nor a hawker. Just a person who wanted to pass on a warm hello.
Sri Lanka is a country generally appreciative of tourism, after all the petite country has endured its fair share of hardship and the attacks in April 2019 just added to the list. The toll on tourism has been tremendous on the island state. According to travel consultancy ForwardKeys, average net bookings to and within Sri Lanka fell 186% the week following the attack.
While we don’t discount the fear many travellers feel, we should not allow events like this to deter us from continuing to explore, learn and break down stereotypes. In recent weeks, countries have softened their travel warnings to Sri Lanka, including the UK.
The country has been upset, but continues to be an incredible place to visit. It still tops our Best in Travel for 2019. Read on to discover why.
So much culture and history of a place is written in its food. Some of the best, most creative food is created during periods of poverty like the celebrated national dish, rice and curry. Other dishes show international influence, like Sri Lanka’s take on devilled dishes (meat or fish cooked in a spicy, sweet-and-sour-style sauce with onions and peppers), or dosas (paper-thin pancakes made from rice batter and usually served stuffed with spiced vegetables) which originated in neighbouring India.
Varied, spicy, passionate and vibrant, Sri Lankan cuisine is severely underrated and ready to be explored. Be prepared to savor the jackfruit curries, pepper chicken stews, and crowd-favourite kotthu (roti bread, vegetables and sometimes protein cooked and chopped up on a hot plate).
If you feel like going the extra mile and taking some recipes home with you, sign up for a cooking class with the Matey Hut – authentic to the max, and looking like a backwoods hipster hangout, this tiny restaurant serves up some of the best rice and curry and will teach you how to do it too.
The epic train rides
The trains reach parts of the country that cars, motorcycles or buses simply cannot go, through the depths of the high country, weaving through mesmerising acres of tea fields, and others that run right on the water’s edge, from Colombo, down to the southern beaches.
The breathtaking journey east from Columbo to the Hill Country journeys through Kandy, Nanu Oya and Ella to Badulla. The portion of the trip from Haputale to Ella is considered one of the world’s most scenic train rides.
If you’re lucky enough to board during sunset, you’re in for a memorable ride.
Sri Lanka has few major airports, so trains are the way to go. That is unless you’re ready to brave the long distances on rocky buses.
The beauty of the hills
Tea has landscaped much of Sri Lanka since the 19th century. Brought over by the British in 1867 now, Sri Lanka is one of the globe’s largest producers. A journey into the high country is a blend of beautifully swirling lines of tea fields and wild Sri Lankan forest. Verdant and lush, it heals the souls of city slickers quickly.
Nestled in the hills are settlements that enjoy a little relief from the summertime humidity down at sea level. The towns in this part of the country though close in proximity, have distinctive identities.
Ella is a charming township filled with boutiques and restaurants, surrounded by tea plantations. It is great for walking and most accommodations can give you a map of local paths. Check out Uva Halpewaththa tea factory which offers one of the better tea plantation tours in the country.
Meantime, Nuwara Eliya is often referred to as ‘Little England’ due to its fairytale cottages, racecourse and man-made Lake Gregory, where speedboats zip by. If you’re in the mood to really embrace the British influence try High Tea at the Grand which is served either outside on the lawn or in the open-sided tea lounge.
The incomparable beaches
The beaches in Sri Lanka are a little wilder, where boulders line the shores of secret beaches and palm trees grow without restraint. Some beaches are better suited to surfing, like Weligama, Unawatuna and Hikkaduwa, while others are better for snorkelling, like Mirissa. All, however, are great for sitting back, cracking open a coconut, and enjoying a good book.
Restaurants line most of the western and southern beaches, with waiters touting their establishment’s best seafood catch at the foreshore entrances. Counters outside are filled with fresh lobsters, crabs and assorted species of fish. Get the chefs to cook your selection up with a side salad, potatoes or both. Enjoy the sound of the waves crashing in the dark while you enjoy your meal at a lantern or festoon lit table.
For further reading about Sri Lanka's many wonders:
- Sun, Sand and Sigiriya: tips for family travel in Sri Lanka
- The Arugam effect: taking it easy on Sri Lanka's east coast
- Hiking Sri Lanka's Hill Country
- Responsible animal watching in Sri Lanka