You can feel it almost instantly. The thickness of the air carries the culture of a warm and colorful people. As you take your first step out of Colombo airport onto Sri Lankan soil you are immediately transformed.
We begin our journey on a scenic five-hour car ride to search for elephants and climb Sirigiya in the Habarana region. The first sixty minutes of this ride will be spent navigating through the bustling streets of the nation’s capital of Colombo. The roads lined with small shops are painted in colors as vibrant as the trinkets inside them. It takes the eyes a moment to adjust to the eccentric palette of the city. From the wardrobe of people walking on the street to the sheer color of the vegetation and the sky, these themes immediately strike you.
The busy of the city slowly transitions into the peace of the land. About two hours into your journey you will come into a landscape of solid green hills, rice fields and the lives of simple vendors selling local produce at every mile. Stop at a few of these stands to refresh yourself with goods like a drink of the native king coconut, mini bananas in abundance, and betel leaves for chewing. These native leaves are often offered as a mark of respect and auspicious beginnings, but be wary, betel is notorious for painting the teeth red and can give you a buzz equivalent to that of six cups of coffee. Let’s just say it should not be tried more than once.
Sirigiya, Ancient City, Elephant Safari, and Ritigala Ruins
A few more moments on the scenic route and you’ve finally arrived at your haven in Habarana, the Cinnamon Lodge. This five-star royal retreat will be your base for the next few days. The resort spans a beautiful 37-acres of what was once a chena cultivation, but has now been rebuilt on the same structural foundations found at the nearby Ritigala ruins. Your accommodations here will be luxurious private cottages amidst 38 species of exotic birds, 2 species of primates, and many other peaceful neighbors. During down time you will find yourself wonderfully lost in leisure napping amongst monkeys in hammocks or treating yourself to some much needed pool and spa time.
While relaxation is a right of passage in Sri Lanka, the sites around Cinnamon Lodge are not to be missed. Plan for two active days to cover an elephant safari at Minneriya National Park, a journey up the stunning Sirigiya and a rainforest visit to the Ritigala Ruins.
It is a rare and beautiful thing to witness elephants in their natural habitat. Get on your chic safari gear, into an ever-so appropriate open-air 4×4 and out in the wild. At Minneriya you will get up close and personal with these amazing mammals against their native backdrop. The landscape alone is worth the ride, but a moment with an elephant in nature is something you’ll never forget. Make sure to ask for an early morning or sunset safari, as elephants shy into the shade during the heat of the day.
The toughest yet most rewarding part of your trip to Sri Lanka will happen at Sirigiya. The 200m climb (up narrow stairs), 370m above sea level, will take you to a place so peaceful and stunning, you’re imagination couldn’t fathom it. The massive rock was actually a former palace created for King Kasyapa. Sirigiya, dubbed ‘Lion’s Rock’ has many intricate facades to discover. Upon entry of the UNESCO site, you will be graced with an extensive network of fortifications, vast gardens, ponds, canals, alleys and fountains. These grounds are amongst the oldest landscaped gardens in the world. It is said that King Kasyapa had 500 women of different nationalities at his disposal at the palace, all of which would bathe together in the garden ponds.
After wandering around these mystic quarters you will reach the start of the climb. At the almost halfway point, you will encounter a winding staircase that will lead you to ancient cave paintings. These drawings depict busty women in intricate headdresses, and legend has it were placed there as a form of ‘adult entertainment’ for soldiers guarding the palace. Another few steps and you will have reached the main entrance to the palace. The stunning entryway was designed in the form of a huge stone lion, and its paws still remain for you to admire. One hundred more short strides and you are finally at the top. Time to enjoy!
While Sirigiya might leave you exhausted, it’s time to gather up some energy for a tour of the Ancient Cities. This expansive treasure is bountiful with intricate cultural landmarks and historic sites. Here you will see enough stupas to fill the qouta for your entire trip. Incase you don’t know, a stupa is a mound-like structure used for meditation by Buddhist monks. Some are white, some have color, some are brown, but all are beautiful. The Ancient City itself consists of three complexes. Within these wonderful areas you will find the oldest tree in the world, dating 2322 years old, hundreds of friendly monkeys frolicking around, ruins of old housing and temples, and of course, stupas. Quick tip; everyone in the Ancient City wears white out of respect for their religion.
Your last adventure in the Habarana region is a trip to the rainforest. While a rainforest excursion is already unordinary, this will really be no ordinary trip to the rainforest. The purpose of your visit to this archaeological site, other than to bask in nature, is to discover ancient ruins. Ritigala is a former Buddhist monastery dating back to 1st century BCE. The ruins span around 24 hectares of thick Sri Lankan nature. A few steps off the beaten path, and you might not find your way back to it. Your journey through these ancient ruins will tell the story of where these Buddhist monks used to bathe, dine, read and pray. Make sure to stop at one of the waterfalls for a pure and awakening swim in fresh waters.
It’s officially time to say bye to Habarana, and while we’re sad it’s over, there are always far better things ahead than we leave behind.
Dumballa Cave Monastery, Spice Garden, Kandy Botanical Gardens
Before you get to your next official destination, there are a lot of things you can’t go without on the way. Just when you thought Sri Lanka couldn’t possibly get more diverse, you find yourself at Dumballa Cave Monastery. A quick but steep hike up the hill will take you to hidden caves carved into rock. Each cave is filled with different buddhas that serve as places for different kinds of prayers. Whether you are religious or not you can’t help but feel the essence of spirituality here. Who knows, you might get inspired to make a prayer of your own!
Continue with a visit to the Highland Spice Garden. Discover the finest of Sri Lanka’s local produce and the medicinal uses for each element. They use cardamom as medicine for your gums, tumeric as a natural hair remover and cancer prevention, aloe vera to treat burns and so many other interesting practices. Leave the Highland Spice Garden with a few natural ointments to take home and be on your way to a healthier you.
The final stop on your journey to the tea plantations is an unforgettable stroll through the Kandy Botanical Gardens. Forget Central Park, Hyde Park, or whatever famous park you know, Kandy Botanical Gardens beats them all. Walk amongst double king coconuts, native bamboo, and almost libraries of some serious Sri Lankan plants. Under the heat of the sun locals lay, play, and relax the day away. There is something different about the air and aura here. It leaves you perfectly relaxed and blissfully in-tune with nature.
Kandy Tea Plantations
The real reason you leave the heat and hustle of Habarana is for cooler and calmer pastures in Kandy. A winding road up the rolling hills of Kandy will take you back to British colonial times. Located on a 100-year old tea factory, the lush Taylor’s Hill boutique hotel is a timeless testament to British culture in Sri Lanka.
The Taylor’s Hill hotel is named after James Taylor, a British explorer who introduced commercial tea production to the region. Picture a classic colonial-style home converted into a sophisticated five-bedroom hotel. The elegance and attention to detail here at Taylor’s Hill is unparalleled. Enjoy a game of tennis or croquet, tea on the lawn, or lounging by the stunning infinity pool overlooking the green hills of Kandy. The only thing better than the hotel itself is their culinary offerings. Everything they serve is grown on hotel grounds and homemade, and everyday a new menu is crafted based on the freshest ingredients they have. Breakfast consists of options like a spicy Sri Lankan omelette, fresh fruit plates, insanely good smoothies and more. Your next meal will arrive at Afternoon Tea with the best rosemary cake and brownie you’ve ever tried, and of course teas fresh from the plantation. A different set menu is created for dinner each night, beautifully accompanied by an array of crafted cocktails.
Beyond your stay at the chic Taylor’s Hill you should also take the short tuk-tuk ride to the Loolecondera tea plantation and factory. Here you will witness over 100 years of history. The plantation grounds and factory remain almost exactly the same as they were all that time ago. Whether or not you’re interested in learning about the history of tea in Sri Lanka, it’s worth a visit just to admire the unspoiled countryside.
On you’re way out of Kandy you must make an impromptu elephant excursion at the Pinawalla Elephant Orphanage. Watch the largest land mammals bathe in the river and play in nature. Sit at a café overlooking the river to enjoy freshly squeezed juices against a backdrop laden with elephants and greenery. It is the absolute perfect way to finish your stay in this region.
A four-hour drive later you’ll find yourself in Galle Fort, also known as heaven on earth. This coastal town has a history as colorful as its scenery. The fort itself was built first in 1588 by the Portuguese, and extensively revived by the Dutch during the 17th century. It is now a architectural and archaeological heritage site which has kept it’s beauty for more than 400 years. What they didn’t know 400 years ago was that it would become a global hotspot in 2015.
Chic travellers from around the world flock to Galle for it’s pristine beaches, luxury boutique shopping and world-class cooking. Your home base during your stay here will be at the Galle Fort Hotel. This iconic building was originally a Dutch mansion and warehouse. It was then refashioned for the Maccan Markars, a renowned family of gem merchants. Galle is also famous for having some of the most beautiful gems and jewelry craftsmanship in the world. At the Galle Fort Hotel you will stay in two-story loft rooms with stunning finishings. But you’re not in Galle to stay in your rooms.
There are so many things to see in this charming town. The cobble stone streets are lined with small buildings and boutiques in every color you can imagine. Taking a stroll through Galle Fort is like taking an old black and white film and putting it into color. The history is evident through every crevice on every street. You could spend hours simply walking around the town, but you can’t miss out on all the enchanting places Galle Fort has to offer.
Here are a few of our Galle Fort favorites:
*All photography by Editor Natalie Stoclet