With this guide to Sri Lanka, you’ll discover hidden gems that aren’t in the guidebooks
From wellness retreats in Asia to alternative beach holidays, Lightfoot Travel is in the know when it comes to all things vacay related. One of the top trending travel destinations pre-COVID (and it’s top of our list for post-COVID holidays!), Sri Lanka is a stunning country full of colours, characters and cuisine just waiting to be discovered. Explore far and wide with this guide to Sri Lanka.
The off-the-beaten-path guide to Sri Lanka
After a time of turmoil and devastating setbacks, Sri Lanka, located off the southern tip of India, is starting to shine again as one of the most beautiful, diverse, natural and captivating places on the planet. Try boat safaris, surf at secret beaches, visit indigenous local tribes, breathe in fresh tea-filled air, try not to drink too much arrack and – most importantly – go soon, before everybody realises how special Sri Lanka is.
1. Where to find culture and calm: Kandy, Hill Country
Head into the centre of Sri Lanka and you’ll find yourself surrounded by a lush green landscape and the rolling mist of the Hill Country. Fans of total escape combined with a strong brew will be in their element here.
Tea plantations stretch as far as the eye can see, and the UNESCO World Heritage city of Kandy is at the heart of them. Packed with history and culture, visit the golden-roofed Temple of the Sacred Tooth, roam the Royal Botanic Gardens of Peradeniya, stroll around Kandy Lake or just unwind in the numerous cute cafes and bars.
Stay: Santani is a stunning wellness retreat offering spa programmes tailored to whip your health and lifestyle into shape. Immersed in Kandy’s tea plantations, it encourages total calm alongside fresh food, an infinity pool, and a yoga shala which showcases the changing colours of the sunrise as you practice.
2. Where to enjoy beaches and surfing: Arugam Bay, East Coast
Sri Lanka does not disappoint in the beach department, and while the South is well publicised, it’s the East where those-in-the-know go. Offering a more authentic and less glitzy scene than its coastal counterparts, the soft curl of sand at Arugam Bay is the new spot for surfing.
Join a surf class, then hit the waves with a guide who’ll patiently assist as you attempt to stand upright while still remaining cool. The bay is also a top spot for non-surfers and families thanks to its village vibe, friendly restaurants and easy-going atmosphere.
Stay: Jetwing Surf is a quirky eco-friendly stay near Arugam Bay. Slap-bang on the sand, the chic cabanas are low-key yet lovely and there’s a restaurant, terrace and sea-facing pool (so you can just watch the surfers if you’d rather not join in!).
3. Where to slow life down: Ella, Central Highlands
The mountain town of Ella is where time practically stops. Small in size but big in charm, there’s lots to do to unwind. Get out in nature with hikes to Little Adam’s Peak and Ella Rock, visit the famous Demodara Nine Arch Bridge and relax by some of the 400 nearby waterfalls.
Meanwhile, the pretty streets of Ella are packed with great cafes, bars and restaurants if people-watching is your thing. The best way to arrive? On the train from Kandy, often voted one of the best train journeys in the world, and one which will whisk you past incredible laid-back landscapes.
Stay: At Goatfell, a gorgeous bungalow dating back to the early 20th century. Set your alarm to rise early to witness the tranquil morning mist clinging to the hills, then return to the cosiness of your room complete with fabric throws, rugs and four-poster bed.
4. Where to go local: Kurunegala, North Western Province
Just 40 minutes out of the city of Colombo is Horathapola Estate – 50 acres of serenity within the rural surrounds of Kurunegala towards the West coast of the island. Go on walking trails, explore by bicycle, experience buffalo-cart riding, try cooking classes, learn about wildlife and walk out with your guide to meet the friendly locals. Beyond the estate’s foliage you’ll find organic gardens where fruit and vegetables, herbs, spices and rice are grown organically and sustainably, supporting families in the nearby village.
Stay: The one bungalow nestled within Horathapola Estate is a grandiose return to the Sri Lanka of 200 years ago, indeed some of the antique furniture is as old as the property itself. Rooms are huge and brim with colonial style, and there’s a large saltwater-pool, perfect for swimming off an afternoon tea.
5. Where To Go Off-Grid: Gal Oya National Park, Eastern Province
If no phone signal, nobody else and nothing but nature sounds like a dream to you, head to the southeast of the island where Gal Oya National Park will lift you right out of real life and into a wilder side of Sri Lanka.
This rarely visited national park is teeming with Asian elephants, leopards, sloth bears, water buffalo and birds, and as it’s also home to Sri Lanka’s largest lake, the Senanayake Samudraya Lake, you can safari by jeep and boat. If you miss humans, the Veddha clans – the indigenous people of Sri Lanka – still live in the Nilgala area of the park and excursions can be arranged.
Stay: Super-serene, Gal Oya Lodge in Gal Oya National Park is the place to disconnect thanks to the peaceful surroundings and lack of mobile network within 20 minutes of the property. A smattering of back-to-nature bungalows with outside bathrooms dot the landscape, and there’s a restaurant serving spicy dishes to warm you up, and a pool submerged in long grass to help you cool off.