I owe Sri Lanka an apology. There. I’ve said it. For some years now, friends have been recommending the island nation for the perfect getaway, but I’ve pushed for vacays in Scotland or Italy instead. Sri Lanka didn’t seem as exotic — not really a ghar ki murgi, but close enough to suffer from the daal barabar syndrome. Thank the Lord for enforced summer holidays, poor planning on my part and visa difficulties because, had it not been for all three, I’d never have ended up in Sri Lanka this year.
They say a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step and, let’s be honest, an almost-immediate online visa is a superb first step. That threshold crossed, it was all about defining an itinerary. In a country like SL, identifying where you want to go can be quite a challenge. When you get used to looking at it like a tiny verdant teardrop at the bottom of your relatively-enormous nation, you’d be forgiven for thinking you can crisscross the country and see it all, over a 10-day period. Fact one, you can’t. From the beaches of Bentota to a dozen or more national parks and from the UNESCO world heritage sites of Galle and Kandy to the modern, super-chic stores of Colombo, you cannot pack it all into one holiday — there’s simply too much to see!
The best way to begin is to draw up a travel wish list that reflects your preferences. Weigh architectural marvels against balmy beaches, lush tea estates against interacting with affable elephants and rustic homestays against luxe hotels (like the beautiful boutique property Sonam Kapoor checked into on her last visit). Personally, I must always answer the call of the ocean, so settling into a suite at the Vivanta by Taj Bentota — where the ocean whispers you to sleep — seemed a foregone conclusion. Truth be told, there’s an image of their seafood restaurant S.H.A.C.K that I’ve chanced upon several times over the years (and reproduced here for you), which has always left me longing to visit. I must confess I don’t eat any seafood, but who could resist that spectacular sunset and endless horizon — a view so extraordinary, that even this perfect picture falls short.
But I digress, so let’s get back to the all-important itinerary. Where to go in SL often depends on when you plan to travel. I am told the best time to visit the West and South coasts and hill country is from December to March, while the best weather on the East coast is from April-May to September. We visited in early May, when the monsoon had only just begun, and ignored the advice I’ve just shared with you. Instead of heading East as recommended — to Pasikudah, Nilaveli and Arugam Bay — we flew in to Colombo and drove straight to Bentota. We were told it would be unbearably hot but, compared to Mumbai’s sweltering sun, it was (excuse the pun) a breeze. Of course it helps to be greeted by warm smiles and warmer hospitality, and the people of Sri Lanka served both up with unmatched generosity everywhere we went.
So, for the first leg of our journey, we set up base at the perfectly plush Vivanta by Taj Bentota. Our mornings were religiously allocated to swimming and feasting on the breakfast buffet’s amazing egg hoppers. With sunny-side up eggs fried into them, these rice-flour crepes fortified us for adventures anew each day. A turtle hatchery was the first order of business and while Bentota has several, we visited the Turtle Research Project, where a rare albino green turtle christened ‘Michael Jackson’ is the resident star. Follow in our footsteps, or pick another hatchery if you please, but don’t miss the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hold a baby turtle in the palm of your hand.
Ticking off the usual ‘things to do in Bentota’ list, we hopped on a river cruise and even went wild in the water sports department on thrilling high-speed jet skis. The former is a family friendly, age-no-bar activity; while the water sports are strictly for adrenaline junkies.
If you hire a trusty driver-guide to navigate you through it all (as we did), you can enjoy the luxury of flexible timings and adaptable itineraries. Perhaps best of all, you can stop off at local eateries anywhere you like and sample Sri Lanka’s remarkable cuisine. Randholee, a stone’s throw from our hotel, was a delicious discovery — their thali already has me dreaming of a delectable encore on my next visit. That said, the Sri Lankan food at the Vivanta was outstanding too and, if there’s one lesson worth learning from my experience, it is to eat the local fare as often as possible.
A day trip to Galle is another must-do. While you will be hard-pressed to shop in Bentota, you’ll be spoilt for choice in Galle — and the incentive to go Galle-wards is far greater if you love colonial architecture. From the Galle Fort and Lighthouse to the Old Dutch Hospital, this idyllic area is a sensory treat that is made all the more exciting by the way it encompasses colonial and current. Exit a cathedral built in the 19th century to enter an a la mode gelateria; or shop up a storm at Barefoot and Odel’s Luv SL, both housed within immaculately maintained heritage structures. For its incredible view of the Indian Ocean, make it a point to eat at the Jetwing Lighthouse hotel’s Cardamom Café before you bid adieu to this amazing city.
Over the next few days, we packed in several other experiences — all of which I’d recommend without hesitation. In a single day we travelled from Bentota to Negombo, stopping off for some up close and personal time with the pachyderms at the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, before alighting in Kandy to visit the Temple of the Tooth Relic. Both men and women are expected to dress appropriately for their darshan at this sacred spot (a shrine that houses the tooth of Lord Buddha), so remember to wear jeans or trousers — shorts are unacceptable. While in the ancient city of Kandy, head up to their viewing deck for a panoramic picture of this UNESCO world heritage site, with the jade green Kandy Lake set like a crown jewel at its epicentre. It was on to the suburb of Peradeniya from here, where the Royal Botanic Gardens far exceeded our expectations. Renowned for its collection of orchids, it was in fact the Giant Javan Fig Tree that rooted us to the spot — awestruck into immobility.
The next leg of our journey had us nestled in Negombo. Goa regulars will find the Poruthota Road stretch is reminiscent of bits of Baga, with back-to-back bars and restaurants. Our favourites were the grab-and-go style Greek Grill, the Swiss family-run Restaurant Bijou and the legendary Lords, but for anything more elaborate, Colombo is close enough.
To be fair to the Sri Lankan capital, we traded Colombo’s sociocultural sites for shopping; with Noritake being a big draw. As it turned out, local homeware store Paradise Road pipped every other outlet to the post and left me wondering how to convince the Fernando family that owns it to open up an online store with international delivery immediately.
For the ‘eat, pray, love’ inspired traveller, Sri Lanka offers it all. It is scenic, slow, splendid and imminently savourable. This is a sacred spot on the subcontinent where vehicles actually pause for pedestrians at crosswalks and, while that may sound silly to someone flying in from Netherlands, if you are heading here from New Delhi, you will certainly appreciate it!
Image Credits: Sudhir Kamat; explorelanka.com; Vivanta by Taj Bentota; jetwinghotels.com