Our ‘rule of thumb’ guide to help you get the most out of an adventure to Sri Lanka.
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For us, Sri Lanka is many of the best bits of India condensed into a much more manageable size. It offers beautiful beaches, stunning scenery, tea plantations, golf, wildlife and history that goes back into the mists of time; long before the days it became Ceylon.
There are only a couple of important questions you need to ask yourself before booking a trip to Sri Lanka – What time of year? How long for? Here’s the answers:
What time of year?
Sri Lanka is blessed with the ability to offer you year-round pleasure by virtue of its split climate personality. If you draw an imaginary vertical line down through the centre of this Indian Ocean island’s teardrop shape, then all the beaches on the west and south west coast are idyllic from December through March (the Yala monsoons are from May to September) whereas northern and eastern beaches enjoy beautiful weather from May through September until the Maha monsoon arrives from October to January.
The central areas of Sri Lanka can be accessed and enjoyed all year round and you’ll inevitably include a number of the fascinating sites and sights in any Sri Lanka itinerary.
Generally, highland areas are cooler and more temperate, with a yearly average around 18ºC (65ºF), coastal areas being warmer with average temperatures around 27ºC (80ºF). Weather along the shores benefits from cooling sea breezes, with the sea remaining constant at approx. 27ºC (80ºF) all year-round. Humidity is quite high at around 80% all year.
Perfect – select which month you wish to travel – then choose the side of Sri Lanka accordingly.
How long for?
This might seem silly but it all depends on why you’re going. If you’re going to simply chill (or warm up) on a beach – or to play golf at any of the challenging courses on the island – then your time in Sri Lanka will be dictated by the degree to which you wish to relax, rather than any need to cover all of the sights.
If, on the other hand, you wish to explore all that the island has to offer (well, the side you’ve chosen according to time of year, combined with the central area) then you’re going to need more time – at least two weeks.
There’s a degree of overlap if you return to Sri Lanka in a different season but with a bit of careful planning you can avoid duplicating any of the sights and experiences.
To keep it as clear and simple as possible we’ve grouped your principal choices into three sections – East & Northeast, West & Southwest and Central.
Where to go
East & Northeast
Beaches – We went and recommend that you consider, as far north as Nilaveli Beach, (about 10 kms north of Trincomalee on the northeast coast) as going further up towards Jaffna has neither the infrastructure or accommodation to support comfortable travel, currently.
The beaches here are simply wonderful white sand expanses of peace and tranquility – extending as far south as Trincomalee itself. Snorkeling adventures are available around the coral coast at nearby Penguin Island National Park and this provides a fascinating day out – even if you don’t snorkel.
Trincomalee itself is unremarkable, albeit Fort Frederick is mildly interesting as an old British garrison with the architecture that remains. Of more interest is Koneswaram Temple, which along with ‘Lover’s Leap’ is perched precariously on the cliff top overlooking the town and is a riot of colour and religious illustration, matched only by the sari clad worshipers who visit.
The drive further south along the coast offers a fascinating insight into village and coastal life with its fishing boats, bullock carts and small farms but need not delay you overnight and is best seen when en route to your next destination.
We suggest that you seriously consider Pasikuda Beach, which is not quite halfway along the coast towards Yala National Park.
This coastal area has a broad range of brand new and truly exceptional hotels, boutique hotels and lodges to meet every taste and pocket. Its ‘benefited’ from the fact that the civil war destroyed much of the infrastructure in this area, which has meant that a significant rebuilding programme has rejuvenated and reinvigorated the area. That’s not to say that it looks modern and characterless – far from it. Many of the boutique hotels have been built very much with sustainable development in mind and contribute towards the local welfare and environment.
An offshore bar protects Passekudeh Bay from any heavy swell and ensures safe bathing. We stayed at Uga Bay boutique hotel and have nothing but praise for it and the rest of its group.
Yala National Park, strictly, is on the south east coast but falls into this section by virtue of being open to visitors, normally from November through to September.
Its well known for its leopard population but has a wonderfully broad spectrum of wildlife from crocodiles to elephants, Crested Hawk Eagles to Black Ibis, set in a coastal and jungle environment.
Accommodation choices are plenty and luxury high-end well catered for.
See our review of the northeast and central Sri Lanka here:
West & Southwest
You’ll have flown into Colombo, in the middle of the west coast, whatever time of year you visit Sri Lanka, before transferring to the part of the island you’re staying in.
Colombo. Its a mistake simply to ‘get in and go’, as Colombo, although a city, nevertheless has a few attractions of its own; not least of which are some very pleasant boutique hotels, a golf course and some excellent restaurants.
You might also choose to stop over on your return (especially if flight times dictate) and relax on Negombo Beach to the north which is only about an hour’s drive from the airport – yet another strip of pristine white sand.
Head south towards Galle and you’ll love the rugged nature of the coastline, the superb boutique and larger hotels that sit on the shore, fishing boats under repair at the water’s edge, fish stalls along the waterfront and fishermen on poles still adhering to their age old customs – and the opportunities for whale and dolphin watching in season that are centred around Mirissa on the extreme southern edge of the island. The best time for the Southern (and Western) seas (around Kaliptiya in the northwest) is between November and April, when the seas are relatively calm.
Galle itself is worth some time, especially the Galle Fort area that is a perfectly preserved capsule of Dutch and British colonial architecture encircled by a sea wall that contains a complete village of narrow side streets, great hotels, lovely restaurants and curio shops. You could easily stay here for a day or two just to absorb the character and colour of the town.
Wilpattu National Park. Some miles north of Colombo, we visited this park after a long drive and overnight stay but were disappointed with the wildlife sightings and terrain here. The park had significant insurgence by Tamil Tigers during the civil war, who lived and fought in its forests. They appear to have eaten much of the stock and displaced the rest. The park will no doubt recover in time but it may be a few years yet before we would recommend it as a must-see.
Balapitiya. On the coast near Galle is ideal for seeing and visiting Turtle hatcheries that are undertaking valuable work to preserve the turtle, even if it sometimes looks a little touristy.
White water rafting at Kitulgala, close to Colombo if you’re feeling that you’re chilling out just too much
Windsurfing can be enjoyed northwards along the cast at Kalpitiya, near Wilpattu National Park.
See our review of the southwest and central Sri Lanka here:
Central Sri Lanka
So, you’ve decided to venture further afield rather than just lay on a beach? The central core of Sri Lanka is steeped in history, religion, agriculture, commercial rubber plantations, tea estates, dramatic landscapes, extensive wildlife opportunities, colonial architecture and golf to name but a few.
The journeys between these locations are an education in themselves, as you drive through paddy fields of rice; dripping rows of rubber trees, laced palm trees joined at their apex by threads of rope that workers use to traverse between them; carpentry and woodwork for roof timbers or ornate ceremonial masks and spice gardens that intrigue you with the myriad uses for their leaves, seeds and fruits.
You’ll be spoilt for choice between the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic – a Buddhist temple in the city of Kandy to the extensive Buddhist temple complexes of Habarana and Anuradhapura; once a major city in Sri Lanka and now a fascinating mix of perfectly preserved Stupa, buildings and ruins, together with some of the largest Buddha effigies we’ve seen.
Dambulla caves, hidden behind one of the most gaudy Buddhist temples we’ve seen, house an amazing collection of shrines, effigies and illustrations to Buddha that will leave you dumbstruck at the sheer volume of work and the dedication to produce it.
Visit and climb the towering rock fortress of Sigiriya with its perfectly preserved rock illustrations and precarious stairways on the route up to the top of this ancient kingdom that provides a brilliant insight into the life of its inhabitants and views for miles over the surrounding countryside.
Stay in Nuwara Eliya, an old British Hill Station that is now surrounded by lush tea estates and a wonderful golf course where your own personal caddy coaches you before every stroke.
Horton Plains will occupy you for a day’s hike across wonderful grassland with perilous drops into yawning chasms, bird life aplenty and tracks that weave their way around the montane grassland and cloud forest in the shadow of Adam’s Peak.
Ella. The twisting road from Nuwara Eliya through Ella is simply superb for the wonderful vistas and waterfalls you’ll enjoy that lace the rolling highlands.
Peradeniya. The Royal Botanical Gardens of Peradeniya are famous and you can lose many hours strolling amidst the fascinating foliage and flowers while large translucent-winged fruit bats fly overhead in broad daylight.
Kandy-Nuwara Eliya. For a change of scenery you might choose to take a leisurely train through some lush countryside from, or to, Nuwara Eliya.
Udawalawe National Park has a strong complement of flora and fauna populations and is well managed. Accommodation around the park is a little lacking if you’re looking for high-end luxury but if its the wildlife you’ve come for then you’ll be happy to compromise.
Minneriya National Park. Scene of the ‘Elephant Gathering’ when hundreds of elephants congregate around the remaining water holes and lakes that have drawn them from the now arid areas of the region. A unique sight this isn’t only an elephant migration but an opportunity for the herds, sometimes numbering as many as 400, to socialize, bathe and mate. The park is also worthy of a visit at other times but this is the ‘main event’ between July and September depending on regional water levels.
Sinharaja Forest Reserve. This area of rain-forest isn’t easy to reach or necessarily to travel through – but its worth it if you’re resilient to leeches and accommodation that can often be damp. If that hasn’t put you off you’ll get a great insight into a totally different environment within Sri Lanka.
Pinnawala. Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage is an orphanage, nursery and captive breeding ground for wild Asian elephants located at Pinnawala village. Originally established to save orphaned elephants from the ravages of the civil war, we’re not sure that it hasn’t become just an excuse for a tourist money-making machine and wouldn’t recommend it; albeit thousands enjoy feeding the elephants and walking with them to bathe in the river. Much better to visit The Elephant Transit Home, near Udawalawe, which is approved by Born Free Foundation.
More reviews of our travels in Sri Lanka here:
Larger Boutique Hotel reviews:
Smaller Boutique Hotels reviews:
Cherrie’s Sri Lanka packing list guide: