The teardrop isle in the Indian Ocean reverberates with the unspoilt idyll of its 1,790-kilometre palm-fringed coastline, lush forests, cascading waterfalls, emerald-green terraced tea estates and ruins of ancient civilisations. Sri Lanka's tropical allure is finally coming into its own, and how!
Its faraway mystique drew King Solomon and Ibn Batuta. Its treasures like ivory, peacocks, jewels and cinnamon lured the Persians, Arabs, Greeks, Romans, Malays, Indians and Chinese. And its strategic maritime locale attracted Dutch, Portuguese and British colonisers. Today, Sri Lanka is fast evolving as a magnet for the intrepid traveller seeking a mix of culture, wildlife and adventure, set in the backdrop of untouched tropical bliss and off-the-grid remoteness. Imagine aromatic crab curries and leisurely ayurvedic therapies in safari residences nestled in dense rainforests; tented suites tucked between palm trees; and colonial tea planter bungalows set in rolling emerald tea plantations. Can you resist the call?
The gateway to the exciting expedition is the multi-ethnic seaside capital, Colombo. Dive straight into the eclectic jumble that is made up of swanky hotels, colonial-era buildings, bustling street markets and scenic golf courses. A walking tour of the historic landmarks and lively market district Pettah is a great way to immerse into the vibrant city's soul. From the commercial Fort area to the candy-ish Red Mosque and the revered temples like the 19th-century Gangaramaya Temple, there's enough to capture the keen eye. Don't miss the Sri Lankan Parliament Building in Kotte, a stroke of genius by 20th-century master architect, Geoffrey Bawa, giving the illusion of a floating palace with collonaded pavilions with striking copper roofs.
The real drama awaits away from the capital, deep into the very heart of the pearl-shaped island. Brace for time travel of epic proportions as you partake in a private hot-air balloon morning ride gliding over the scintillating UNESCO-tagged Cultural Triangle. Ruin hunters are in for a visual treat with millennia-old stupas, rock fortresses, palaces, pleasure gardens, ancient battlegrounds and storied sites of Sigiriya, Polonnaruwa, and Anuradhapura.
Later, you are being called to switch into adventure mode with some of the most exhilarating wildlife safaris on the planet. Drive through the rainforest to spot herds of elephants at the grasslands of Udawalawe National Park, which is home to around 400 pachyderms. Continue the hunt at neighbouring Yala National Park, Sri Lanka's number one leopard sanctuary, boasting of one of the highest leopard densities in Asia. Then calm down your heightened senses with an indulgent Lankan meal and a languorous nap at your uber-luxe glamping site in the thick of the jungle.
Succumbing to old-world charm is a no-brainer in the second city of Sri Lanka, Galle. The fortified UNESCO World heritage site is a living memory of a colonial trading port with its star-shaped fort enclosed by 3-km stone sea walls. Fall in love with the vintage character of the cobbled roads and browse for knick-knacks in quirky stores. Stroll past the Dutch-Lankan mansions with sloping red-brick-roofs, decorative doorways, shuttered windows and pillared verandahs. Loiter in the large central square where children play cricket and peek into the Gothic cathedral and daydream by the white lighthouse till the sun sets the sky aflame.
Finally, embrace Ceylonese serendipity with a passion. Ride the surf in Hikkaduwa, witness the timeless tradition of stilt fishing at the Unawatu beaches and fulfil gastronomic cravings with flavourful crab curries with sambal at beachside shacks under swaying palms. And realise that there's a second trip on the cards because you've just got started.
One Galle Face: Head for the most prominent shopping mall in the country, and its most scenic address, owing to its location against the Indian Ocean. There are seven floors housing an array of stores by international high street brands like Aldo, Skechers, Giordano, Adidas and Mango, and high-end labels like Mont Blanc and Omega. Go all out with your list.
Dutch Hospital Shopping Precinct, Colombo: This trendy shopping and dining precinct flaunts a brand new avatar and distinct character after its transformation from a 17t-century colonial hospital. Upmarket shops cover a wide variety from clothing and jewellery to handicrafts and artwork. Fine restaurants with outdoor seating overlook the large courtyards, which are earmarked for live performances and art exhibitions.
Arcade Independence Square: Another colonial-style shopping precinct is a favourite hotspot and prominent landmark of the city, featuring outdoor sitting areas, promenades, fountains and flowerbeds. Twenty-four retail stores include both local and global high-street brands to cater to every need. There is also a cineplex for 3D movies.
Paradise Road: Pick up stylish products from this exclusive homeware store, including hand-painted porcelain crockery, minimalistic linen, rustic furniture pieces. Their quirky cushions imprinted with Sinhalese alphabets can instantly perk up an eclectic room.
Barefoot: This homegrown designer store in an old villa is a local institution with its bright hand-loomed linen, cushions, lampshades, albums, notebooks, crafts, bags, and toys. Handwoven silk and cotton clothing blend classic Sri Lankan style with a fresh twist. Stock up all you can.
Museums & the Arts
Colombo National Museum: Reserve an afternoon for this Neo-Baroque building to update yourself with Sri Lanka's royal history. Displays range from ancient art, carvings and sculpture to colonial-era weaponry, 19th-century reproductions of English paintings of Sri Lanka, and antique demon masks. The highlight is an opulent throne made for King Wimaladharmasuriya II in 1693.
Galle National Museum: Three galleries Located in one of the oldest remaining Dutch buildings within the Galle Fort hold exhibits from the Portuguese, Dutch and British occupation during colonial times. The displays of tortoiseshell jewellery, Beeralu lacework and Dutch period furniture are incredibly fascinating.
Kandy National Museum: Pore over a curated collection of royal regalia from pre-European Sinhalese life in this museum, including thrones, weaponry, jewellery, coins and tools. The most impressive artefact here is Rajasinha II's golden crown. Don't miss the displays with ancient leaf manuscripts and traditional costumes.
Ceylon Tea Museum: Housed within the Hantane Tea Factory in Kandy, this recently refurbished museum has exhibits on tea pioneers James Taylor and Thomas Lipton as well as memorabilia related to antique tea-processing. Stop to see the 19th-century colonial generators, rollers, dryers, fermentation tables and sorting machines. Double the fun if you are a fan of the beverage.
Restaurants & Bars
Ministry of Crab: Housed in Colombo's historic Dutch Hospital building, this restaurant is a nod to all things crustacean. Feast on fine native seafood, including prawns and oysters. The signature lagoon crab (served four ways - chilli, pepper, garlic or curry) is a hot favourite with locals and visitors alike.
The Gallery Café: Geoffrey Bawa's former office at Paradise Road is an alfresco courtyard eatery with a pond covered in lily pads. Monthly rotating exhibitions add a touch of artistry. The stylish yet relaxed space is perfect for simple, well-cooked Sri Lankan dishes accompanied by classic cocktails. Those with a weakness for sweets should satiate themselves with a selection of 30 options on the dessert menu.
Curry Leaf: The ocean-facing Hilton Colombo restaurant is a go-to for authentic Sri Lankan food from 'street stalls', including traditional dishes like string hoppers, Pittu and Kottu Rotti. One of the favourites dishes to enjoy here is the cashew curry. For something more substantial, consider the lavish seafood buffet.
The Lagoon: Book a table by the floor-to-ceiling windows with a pleasing view at this restaurant at the Cinnamon Grand Hotel. Order the fresh catch of the day and have the dish cooked to your taste.
Upali's by Nawaloka: Taste time-honoured recipes like a vegetable curry that dates back 2,000 years at one of Colombo's best-loved Sri Lankan restaurants. Tables at the roof terrace reward with views over Viharamaha Devi Park. Say goodbye to calorie count and swoon over the gooey signature dessert. Reservations are required to avoid disappointment.
Spot the world's largest mammal, the Blue Whale, off the coast of Sri Lanka. Ditch the boat to hire a seaplane at Mirissa, a small town located in the Matara District, 150-kilometres south of Colombo. Watching the gentle aquatic creatures put up a water show, splashing their enormous fins in the water and shooting blowholes is a once-in-lifetime ocean adventure. Increase your chances by picking a slot from December to March
Splurge on a Ceylon blue sapphire is favoured across the world for its naturally vivid colour. Pick a dazzler like cornflower, peacock, royal, velvet or indigo and a popular cut like cushion, round, oval emerald, pear, hearts or marquise. If it was good enough for Princess Diana's engagement ring, it is good enough for you!
Explore the terraced estates of Sri Lanka's revered tea country, which gifted the world Ceylon silver tip tea. Start with the sacred Buddhist shrines of Kandy before heading to Haputale Mountains, where Sir Thomas Lipton launched his tea empire. Pamper your tastebuds with an array of exquisite teas and launch into a factory visit for a tour of tea production. More exhilaration awaits in a train journey that snakes through tea plantations, lush forests, vast rice paddies, tumbling waterfalls and the 91metre-long, 24metre-high Nine Arch Bridge. Picnic at the Kukul Oya Waterfalls, brave the hanging bridge of Narampanawa and hike a 2000-metre plateau to the spectacular drop at World's End in Horton Plains National Park to complete a surreal day.
Make it a night to remember in Vistas Rooftop Bar of Mövenpick Hotel Colombo. Signature cocktails here include the Achcharu (with sweet and spicy raw mango, black pepper and chilli flakes) and Gal Pol cocktail (using the finest local Arrack). Unwinding is a breeze with the sultry jazz music and sea views of a flaming sunset in the highest bar in the country.
Sri Lanka is just a tad larger than Ireland … and boasts rainforests, beaches and stunning, historic cities. The country has a clutch of fabulous, luxurious hotels that suit every experience :
The BusinessClass.com guide to the best luxury hotels in Sri Lanka:
Bandaranaike International Airport is about 35 kilometres from Colombo, and it should take less than an hour by private car or taxi. Avoid the hassles of public transport by hiring a car and driver to navigate the island in comfort. Cinnamon Air and Helitours offer connecting flights from Colombo to other parts of Sri Lanka.
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