Judith Baker explores many underrated sights in her insider guide to Sri Lanka
The beautiful country of Sri Lanka is back in business after years of political upheaval, disruption and of course COVID 19. Tourists can now expect a warm welcome in a land filled with cultural, natural and luxurious surprises. For this guide to Sri Lanka, I took a tour around some of Sri Lanka’s lesser-known spots, staying at previously unvisited boutique hotels and experiencing new hiking trails and city tours.
The Sri Lankan capital Colombo is brimming with energy and optimism visible in its new openings, stylish shops and colourful streets. Although tourism has taken a battering, I saw no evidence of shortages or queues for fuel. I took a Sail Lanka sunset cruise to get a perfect view of the changing cityscape while sipping a local sundowner. Port City is a huge expanse of reclaimed land which is being transformed into a high-tech city which will eventually be home to businesses, homes, hotels and a marina.
Looking along Galle Face Green it is reassuring to see that the lovely colonial Galle Face Hotel is still there alongside modern high-rise hotels. But Colombo also has charming new boutique properties such as Zylan Luxury Villa in the exclusive Colombo 7 district. Zylan is a beautiful oasis close to the heart of the city with six bedrooms adorned with striking artwork created by the owner. There is Zen Japanese restaurant here as well as a stunning rooftop pool and bar. The calming ambience of the property was enhanced by a meditation session after breakfast.
As well as seeing the city’s famous sites such as Independence Square and Old Parliament Building visitors have the opportunity to explore less well-known Colombo by taking a Forgotten Colombo Jeep Tour. Hopping into a retro Land Rover we career through the streets to see sights including the old lighthouse, Slave Island area and historic Grand Oriental Hotel before pausing in food street Aluthkade to sample some of the tastiest paan in the city.
The night is still young, but things are hotting up at Elevate, the city’s tallest bar with views over the striking Lotus Tower. Down to earth in fashionable Park Mews we find Drunken Lankan (a.k.a mixologist Ash Handi) who creates amazing cocktails spurning any imported spirits and using only local ingredients in an entertaining performance. I find the local Rockwell gin tastes just as good as any London gin and the Sri Lankan national spirit Arrack makes a great base for an Arrack Sour.
Thanks to major improvements, the highway from Colombo to Galle means a quick and easy journey to the 16th-century city by the sea.
Galle Fort with its cobbled walkways was built first in 1588 by the Portuguese, and then extensively fortified by the Dutch during the 17th century. As well as its archaeological sites it is as home to some exclusive shops, galleries and bars. I explored the fort using a new audio App, My Balamu, which tells interesting stories behind the atmospheric site at various stops along the route.
Galle’s Unawatuna area is as lively as ever, with rows of colourful stalls and beach bars filling up with tourists for evening cocktails. I stay in the Tabula Rasa Resort, just a short drive from the beach and set in its own lush tropical grounds. There is a monkey in the tree outside my room, which has an inviting plunge pool with views over the trees down to the sea. From here I can cycle or tuk tuk to nearby villages watching people working in the paddy fields and spotting wild peacocks. Like many properties, Tabula Rasa has only recently opened after the period of uncertainty and is rolling out a warm welcome to visitors.
Pekoe Trail and Kandy
Next year will see the opening of the 185-mile Pekoe Trail, and the first of 22 stages is already complete. Pekoe’s official trailhead is at Kandy but there are many entry and exit points across dramatic countryside, villages and towns. We pass through trails originally used to transport tea spotting beautiful birds, wildlife and – beware! the occasional leech.
After an exhilarating hike lunch at the charming Coffee Bungalow is a welcome stop. Built as a coffee planter’s home in 1860 and converted into a hotel in 1960, it has seven suites decorated in colonial style, many with antique furniture from the owners’ own collection. It is just 15 minutes’ walk from Kandy, Sri Lanka‘s second-largest commercial city. From the hotel’s pretty terrace and pool, I can see the city’s most famous sites, the Temple of the Tooth shrine and the scenic Bogambara Lake.
Colombo image (C) Balou46 Other images (C) Judith Baker and Miguel Cunat.
Tell Me More About this insider guide to Sri Lanka
For further information on the places mentioned in this guide to Sri Lanka and other tours like this in Sri Lanka please visit Secrets of Ceylon
Sri Lanka Airlines flies to Colombo from London Heathrow.
Rooms at Zylan Luxury Villa start from £100
Rooms from Tabula Rasa Resort from £247
Rooms at Coffee Bungalow from £247
Visit the official Sri LankaTourist board for more about this guide to Sri Lanka and more in-depth country information.