December 2018 saw the family head to Sri Lanka for a two week trip. The general break down was to start with the “cultural sights” then cool down in the hill country before finally chillaxing by the beach. What follows is our itinerary along our reflections and tips.
Days 1 through 7 (Cultural Sights): Our flight arrived late in the evening so we just wanted a place close to the airport to crash for the night before heading off in earnest the next morning.
What we did over the next few days was visited Anurdapura, Pollonnaruwa, and Sigiriya. These are all historic places, replete with UNESCO World Heritage status, and a glimpse into the early civilizations inhabiting Sri Lanka. Definitely lots of temple gazing and learning about the past.
On reflection these are spectacular sites no doubt but if you have young kids then the temple gazing gets old real quick. Not to mention every entrance fee is about the equivalent of USD 10 to 20 so if you are budget conscious it starts to add up. Also, each day’s drive is about 3 to 4 hours depending on the traffic.
Our hot tip is make sure to hit Sigiriya as soon as you can in the way early morning (aim to be there by 7:00) – otherwise the stairs up get crowded and you spend hours cooking in the hot sun just to make it up the rock. We also did an elephant safari in Minneriya National Park, and while you get to see the elephants up close it is not an experience I would repeat. Picture 30 jeeps all driving single file and then trampling through the grass at the first sighting of an elephant.
Days 8 through 10 (The Highlands): After being “templed out” we looked forward to the cooler climes of the Sri Lankan mountain towns of Nuwar Eliya and Ella.
What we did is drove to Kandy first and spent a night there. During the day we visited the temple of the sacred tooth, botanical gardens, the university, war cemetery, and generally meandered about. Kandy is a smaller town but still with a hustle and bustle feel to it. It is also, allegedly, the place to buy gems and batiks – though I wouldn’t know about this first hand. We then made our way to Nuwar Eliya – our first hill town with a pleasant lake in the center and a throw back to the days of the British Empire – complete with high tea and British red letterboxes. The next day we took the train to Ella which is a must do experience. After chugging through the hills (about 3 hours) with amazing views we reached Ella, a charming verdant village, surrounded by tea plantations with lots of little paths to hike around for days. Ella is for relaxing, reading, breathing fresh mountain air, and slowing down. Probably my favorite spot in all of Sri Lanka.
On reflection Kandy is ok. Though more of a staging area/trading post type town before you make your way up to the highlands – if time is an issue I would skip Kandy and make the longer drive directly to the smaller hill towns. They are worth spending a few days in to properly relax and not just drive through them. The train is also a highlight!
Our hot tip is that if you are spending the night in Kandy, then Vista House Kandy is definitely the place to spend the night. The house is situated on a hill overlooking Kandy, and the owners are super caring and cook up delicious breakfast (and other meals on request). All the rave reviews they are given online are definitely justified. Make time for visiting the Horton Plains from Nuwar Eliya – the “World’s End” hike is definitely worth it but leave Nuwar Eliya by 6am to get to the park headquarters early and avoid the crowds. Also make sure you book train tickets early as it fills up quick.
Days 11 through 15 (Beach Time): Long hikes and chilly nights meant we were ready to hit the beach and warm up a bit.
What we did was head to Mirissa from Ella (another 3+ hour drive). The plan was to surf, eat, surf, sleep, and repeat. The beach in Mirissa is stunning, book-ended by towering palm fronds and reef breaks. There are also lots of restaurants right on the beach, surf rentals, and easy access to supermarkets and ATMs. If you would like to learn how to surf then take a Tuk Tuk up to Weligama (10 minutes and 3 USD fare round trip) as it has a gentle sandy bottom and kinder waves – or if you don’t like crowds then stop at Pelani beach instead. Our 5 days passed in a flash and we loved every minute. On the final day drive to the airport we left around noon and headed up to Galle which has an old walled fort harking back to the days of the Dutch influence. Then a brief but recommended stop at the turtle sanctuary, lunch, and onwards to the airport via the highway. From start to finish this trip took about 7 hours – meaning that if your flight leaves around noon or later it is doable to stay the night at the beach and then drive straight to the airport.
On reflection the beaches in and around Mirissa are really well suited to surfers. Even if you aren’t surfing, the waves that reach the beach are powerful and with large swells so not ideal for small children. We stayed at the Paradise Beach Hotel which is located right on the beach and has nice pool and lounging facilities.
Our hot tip is to spend a night in Galle’s old town. We didn’t but wish we had.
To wrap it all up we loved our two weeks in Sri Lanka. It reminds me a lot of Ethiopia. The people are hospitable and kind, the landscape is varied and stunning, though still a little rough around the edges which gives it that traveler’s mystique. We organized all our travel in Sri Lanka through Michelle Tours (link here) as they were highly recommended by multiple collegues. Mr. George, the proprietor, is a very good communicator and able to provide advice to tailor itineraries to individual needs, and the prices to match your budget. Were we to go back we would go through Michelle Tours again for sure. A pdf version of our actual itinerary is linked here.