Don’t have three weeks to spend traipsing across Sri Lanka? It’s possible to pack most of Ceylon’s heritage sites into a one-week itinerary—and there’s even time to squeeze in some beach time.
Due to a limited train network, it’s near impossible to tour Sri Lanka without hiring a car. Sure, you can drive yourself, but ballsy motorists and a lack of consistent signage may have you running for a professional. Luckily, Sri Lanka has a developed system of hired drivers, with several websites to choose from. A good bet is travel service Khiri Travel (khiri.com), which charges around US$400 per week and can also help with your itinerary.
Top tip: You can get a free SIM card at the immigration counter. Even the most grumpy looking officer will pass you the tourist pack.
Days 1-2: Galle
Must see: A 1.5-hour drive south from Colombo is the city of Galle, home to Galle Fort. A UNESCO heritage site that dates back 400 years, the fortress has a convoluted history—this strategic trading port switched hands between the Portuguese, Dutch and British, and that mixed architectural influence is still very much apparent in the pillared verandahs, cobblestone streets and Baroque-style churches. The best way to explore Galle is via the narrow alleys on foot, stumbling upon the Dutch Church, spice warehouses and a lighthouse by the sea.
Where to Stay: With sky-high ceilings, four-poster beds, sunset G&Ts and the best Sri Lankan breakfast in all of Galle, Amangalla (from US$750. 10 Church St., Galle Fort, (+94) 91-223-3388, www.amanresorts.com) is a don’t-miss experience. Sitting on prime real estate within the fort itself, this lovingly restored colonial property has been meticulously maintained and you can expect excellent service, a secret-garden style pool and peaceful spa.
Days 3-4: The Southern Coast
Must see: Home to crystal clear water and countless stretches of sand, Sri Lanka is an overlooked beach destination. Pull off anywhere along the coast for a quiet dip, or find some of the best surf and dining options along Mirissa Beach. Get your paws on a coconut, bliss out in a hammock and wake up with the rising tide.
If you can time your trip for January or February, you have a good chance of seeing the blue whales of Sri Lanka breach or lay about in the sun. Ask your hotel to set it up for you upon arrival. Tickets usually cost about US$90 per person for a five-hour, rough-and-tumble journey out to sea—book through your hotel or through travel agents like Khiri Travel.
Where to Stay: A new resort from the prestigious Ceylon Tea Trails group, all-inclusive Cape Weligama resort (from US$570, 46/38 Nawam Mawatha, Colombo 2, (+94) 11-774-5700, www.capeweligama.com) is manicured to the max, with golf cart transfers and spacious garden villas that share semi-private pools. The whole place is perched atop a cliff, so sunset drinks by the crescent-shaped pool is a must.
Days 4-5: Tea Country
Must see: Part of the beauty of traveling through lush, green tea country is that it’s totally okay to do absolutely nothing. Of course, you can take a guided walking tour through the tea plantation, go mountain biking, or walk down through the local villages… or you could kick back on the terrace, enjoy freshly brewed tea from the local estate and breathe in the fresh air.
But if you must get out and about? Established back in 1841, Mackwoods Tea is one of the biggest names in Sri Lanka. The company has 17 plantations across a total of 27,000 acres, including the Mackwoods Labookellie Tea Centre and Factory in Nuwara Eliya (A5, Nuwara Eliya, (+94) 52-223-6306, www.mackwoods.com). After taking a free tour of the factory, pull up a seat in the cafe and enjoy a slice of chocolate cake alongside a pot of black tea.
Where to Stay: The newly renovated Mandira Bungalows (from US$300, various locations. (+94) 11-7-529-529, mandirabungalows.com) has three locations across tea country, all with refurbished 19th century colonial interiors, open-air terraces, English gardens and old-school charm. Service is warm and welcoming, and there’s an in-house chef who prepares killer curries. Do note that it’s BYOB, so stock up before you hit the hillsides.
Days 5-6: Kandy
Must see: The city of Kandy in the center of the country was once the capital of the Sinhalese Kingdom, and is now a UNESCO world heritage site. The Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic (entry Rs1,000 (US$7.50), Sri Dalada Veediya, Kandy, (+94) 81-223-4226, www.sridaladamaligawa.lk) is an imposing temple that’s home to one of Sri Lanka’s most important shrines: a tooth of the Buddha kept in a gold casket.
About a 10-minute drive from the city center, the 147-acre Royal Botanical Gardens (Peradeniya Rd., Kandy, (+94) 81-238-8088) have been Sri Lanka’s pride and joy for centuries. The peaceful grounds cultivate over 4,000 species of flora, including a whole house of orchids and 200 species of coconuts.
Where to Stay: Tucked away on a hillside about 2km outside of Kandy, the glass-facades and open-air terraces of Theva Residency (from US$158, 11/B5/10-1, Lane 6, off Upper Tank Rd., Kandy, (+94) 81-738-8296-99, www.theva.lk) afford fantastic views over the countryside. Catch one of Sri Lanka’s spectacular sunsets over cocktails and a contemporary European meal at Theva Cuisine, which sprawls across an open deck. There are just 15 rooms—all with unique decorations and contemporary artwork.
Days 6-7: Dambulla
Must see: Looking up at the astounding Sirigiya, aka “Lion Rock” (entry US$30), gives you one of the most memorable views in all of Sri Lanka. From below, the flat-topped rock juts out against an otherwise flat plain, reaching 500 meters into the sky. Dating back to the 5th century, this UNESCO world heritage site was once a royal fortress—complete with hand-written poems on the stone walls, gardens, moats and more.
Another UNESCO site in the area, the Dambulla cave temples (Dambulla, (+94) 66-228-3605) require a bit of a hike—but they’re worth it. This mountainside temple complex is the best preserved in Sri Lanka, with more than 80 caves, together containing over 1,500 paintings and statues.
Where to Stay: To enter Kalundewa Retreat (from US$284. Kalundewa Rd., Dambulla, (+94) 775-205-475, kalundewaretreat.com), you’ll drive down a dirt path flanked by mango trees and rice paddies. There are just six bedrooms—three of which are large private chalets—dotted across the landscape, so you wake up to nothing but green fields and mountains for 100 acres.
Getting there: Many flights arrive and depart after midnight. Consider spending your first and last nights in a hotel near the airport. The Wallawwa(from US$175. Minuwangoda Rd., Katunayake, (+94) 77-363-8381, www.thewallawwa.com) is a renovated colonial manor that’s only about 15 minutes from the airport with great food, booze and service.