The civil war is mostly over, and Sri Lanka is now stable and safe — and as beautiful, tropical, and friendly as ever. The conflict was primarily in the north, and our itinerary will have you roaming the south for adventure (elephant safaris), history (colonial fort towns, old Buddhist temples), rain forests (and mountains and tea plantations), and gorgeous beaches. It’s pretty much the best place we’ve ever been.
The island is far from everywhere, so you’ll want to stay about ten days. Jet Airways flies from the U.S. to India and connects to Colombo. (And why don’t all airlines serve curry?) For the best weather and the calmest seas, go between December and April. August and September fall between the monsoon seasons, but our October rainstorms lasted only a few minutes (and made for great photos). Small roads means it takes a while to get around, but the passing scenery is entertaining and captivating: water buffalo in rice paddies, men biking in plaid sarongs, palm trees as small as you and as tall as buildings. When you get thirsty, stop at a grubby lean-to along the road and get the guy to machete open a king coconut. Everyone says it’s the best hangover cure. (Check out our Sri Lanka photo gallery.)
To decompress from the flights, spend a night near the airport at The Wallawwa. Otherwise, head inland to the Kandy District and The KandyHouse, the eight-room hotel that was once the 1800s home of a ruling family, to spend a few days visiting the too-cute Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage, the bird-rich Peradeniya Botanic Gardens, and the brilliantly named Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic.
Tea for Two
Next stop, the mountains of tea country. Until 2004, Sri Lanka was the world’s biggest tea exporter (cuppa Ceylon, indeed), and touring a plantation is really interesting and beautiful. Rest your head at Dilmah’s Tea Trails, a hotel of four colonial bungalows that used to house estate managers. Castlereagh has the best views; Tientsin has the most beautiful gardens.
Now you can go to the beach. The swank Amanwella compound consists of bungalows scattered across a coconut grove outside Tangalle. The service is Amanawesome, but prices are more affordable than Aman’s usual rates (a rare civil war perk). Force yourself away from the blissful beach to visit Udawalawe National Park. You’ll see monkeys and peacocks, but elephants are the main event. Please tip your guides well: They’re all volunteers. Also great is the ancient Mulgirigala Buddhist temple complex. Brave the ascent up the mountain and you’ll be rewarded with insane views and a blessing from one of the monks in residence on the way down. Farther west around Weligama Bay, Mirissa Hills is a gorgeous art-filled home in the hills on a working cinnamon estate.
The Tap of the World
Sri Lanka is incredibly chic, very India meets Vietnam. (You’ll hear architect Geoffrey Bawa’s name a lot.) But the most breathtaking place to stay is Taprobane, a five-bedroom house on a tiny private island just off the coast. There’s no ferry: You wade through the Indian Ocean, carrying your clothes above your head (yes, really). The mythology speaks for itself: Founded by a descendant of a Napoleonic general, it used to be the residence of Paul Bowles, as well as fashion icon Isabella Blow. Now it’s part of the chic hotel chainlet Taprobane Collection, which also includes The Sun House and The Dutch House in Galle. If you don’t stay at the hotels, at least go for dinner and be on the lookout for Henri Tatham, the fabulous manager.
Walled fort town Galle was colonized by Arab traders, then the Portuguese, then the Dutch — and all left their mark. Amangalla may be the ultimate colonial fantasy, you’ll note, as you sip arrack sours on a rattan lounge chair at sunset, in recovery from the Ayurvedic consult and baths treatment at the exquisite spa. If the delicious hoppers at breakfast get you in the culinary mood, take a cooking lesson (click here for an easy curry recipe). And spend time with Olivia Richli, the kind and gorgeous general manager (who helped us plan this amazing itinerary), and ask for stories about Nesta Brohier, the grand dame who used to live in the hotel (with her much younger lover), and about taking in hundreds of locals left homeless by the tsunami. Richli can also help arrange a tour of Handunugoda Tea Estate, where you can watch glove-clad women clip white tea leaf by leaf with small scissors and learn how it is harvested, dried, and aged. Handunugoda brews make great souvenirs, as do bottles of arrack, but for something longer lasting, pick up handwoven napkins and coconut shell serving spoons at Barefoot. Galle Fort Hotel is a more budget option, but the perks at Amangalla are worth the splurge.
Really, there’s only one downside to Sri Lanka: Eventually, you have to leave.
Photos: Courtesy of The Wallawwa; Courtesy of Tea Trails; Courtesy of Amangalla.