Shalindra Henegamage from Pledge Holidays in Colombo is excited. “Since a roadshow we did in Australia last year,” he says, “we’ve seen more and more Aussies arriving in our country, and not just for cricket tournaments. People want to experience our culture, our history, our sightseeing and of course our food. And they’re looking for a change from more familiar destinations”.
He’s right. Sri Lanka has so much to offer, from its coastal attractions to the hill country
packed with everything from tea plantations to ancient cultural sites and wildlife parks. And now, access is much easier thanks to Air Asia connections to Colombo via Kuala Lumpur, where a stopover on the way home is good for last-minute shopping.
Pledge Holidays claim to be “the new kid on the block” with emphasis on tailor-made itineraries for small groups and couples rather than big group tours. In our experience, this is the best way to see all the things that interest you while getting the best value from wholesale rates. Here are a few suggestions:
THE CENTRAL REGION
To gain an understanding of Sri Lanka’s long and turbulent history, Polonnaruwa
and Sigiriya are must-visits, the former for its Buddhist rock carvings and the latter,
a massive rock with a 5th century palace/fortress on the top which you can see in its well-preserved glory by climbing a mere 1,200 steps. We did, and it’s worth it, especially at sunset. Both are World Heritage sites. Then of course there’s Kandy with its famous Temple of the Tooth, thought to be a relic of the Buddha.
THE HILL STATIONS
Nuwara Eliya is where the British colonial families would escape to in the peak months of summer; it’s the region where they replaced the Dutch coffee plantations with tea. “The hills are alive” with tea bushes covering the mountain landscape as far as the eye can see. Tea tasting is on the agenda here with a visit to a factory; followed by a night or two at a British institution, the Grand Hotel which hasn’t changed much in 150 years except for the addition of air conditioning, not really needed in the cool climate. Our favourite corner of the hotel is the billiard room and bar, where Bala is happy to show amateurs like us how to play.
NATIONAL PARKS AND WILDLIFE
There are several places you can go for a safari-type experience to see elephants in the wild; and Yala has the world’s largest concentration of leopards roaming free. We were fortunate to spot one of these beautiful cats up close and personal from our guided 4WD tour… seeing one is a random event and not everybody is so lucky. Apart from those “Big Two”, there are deer, sloth bears, wild boar, hyenas, buffalo and exotic birds galore.
Staying at the Jetwings Yala Resort near the park entrance, on the coast, may end up being a surprising experience when an inquisitive elephant pays a nocturnal visit to the hotel’s Reception desk…looking for an upgrade to a larger room, perhaps!
GALLE AND THE SOUTHERN COAST
This is where you can really relax for a few days at a stylish resort like the quirky boutique Owl & The Pussycat Hotel, just 10 km. from the old Dutch Fort area. The owner, who lives in Italy, has an unerring eye for fashion, art and hand-crafted furniture. She named the property after a nonsense poem by Edward Lear… the concept of an owl and a cat sailing away “on a pea-green boat” to get married gives a hint of the fun to be enjoyed here. And the superb food.
The capital is the logical place to do some last minute shopping for jewellery (sapphires in particular) and handicrafts before flying out…and an incomparable experience awaits at the venerable Galle Face Hotel. Opened in 1864, this is one of the hotel world’s true icons, now completely refurbished with all modern features combined with typical British Colonial architecture and loyal staff, including the Doorman with 51 years service (his predecessor welcomed guests for 74 years, a world record).
The easiest (and cheapest) way from Australia is on Air Asia X to Colombo via Kuala Lumpur. Try their Premium Flat Bed Class which is really good value if you have trouble sleeping sitting up on aircraft, and you’ll also be able to use their transit lounge in KL with free wifi, food and soft drinks (beer is extra).
Pledge Holidays can provide customised itineraries including car and driver packages and hotel arrangements. Warning: you can self-drive, but inadvisable…and with a professional driver you’ll be fully insured.
Photo credits Nicole Tujague