Island of Nice: Sri Lanka

Fellow travelers frequently ask me if there are any places I have been that I would go back to in a heartbeat. Well, Sri Lanka quickly comes to mind (I’m currently planning my third trip there). Which, of course, begs the question: Why?

Here are seven reasons Sri Lanka is on my revisit list for 2015:

1. Peace through tourism. After close to 26 years of civil war (which ended, finally, in 2009), Sri Lanka is like a delicate spring flower unfolding in the warm sunshine after a long dark winter. Tourism is helping to reunite the country by bringing new economic development to former conflict zones, including Trincomalee and other parts of the lesser known eastern side of the island. Now bursting with creative energy, the area is attracting Sri Lankans and international travelers alike.

2. Sustainability. Sri Lanka was among a handful of countries to establish a national ecotourism organization in the late 1990s. Today, local family-owned companies like Jetwing Hotels are leaders in socially and environmentally responsible travel. On my latest trip, I stayed at Jetwing Vil Uyana, which blends community heritage and nature conservation together seamlessly, offering more than two dozen “dwellings” that reflect different ecological habitats. Jetwing Yala, bordering Yala National Park, counts the largest solar power installation in the country among its innovative sustainability practices.

3. Biodiversity. Sri Lanka punches above its relatively small size when it comes to wildlife viewing. It’s as though Africa, India, and Southeast Asia had melded into a one-stop destination. Herds of wild elephants—as many as 400 together, known locally as “The Gathering”—can be seen from July to September. Close-up encounters with rare animals such as the tiny gray slender loris are common at Jetwing Vil Uyana (which played a key role in the species’ comeback). Leopard, buffalo, and sloth bear are found in Yala, along with abundant birdlife. Sri Lanka is considered the best place to see the largest mammal on Earth; blue whales migrate just offshore.

4. Cultural richness. A procession of festivals make Sri Lanka a vibrant cultural wonderland. For instance, the celebration of Esala Perahera in Kandy, Sri Lanka, is a parade of epic proportions lasting ten days and featuring elephants, marching drummers, costumed dancers, and more. The country is home to eight World Heritage sites, including the ancient city of Anuradhapura, which dominated the island for some 1,300 years, and Sigiriya, with its elaborate fortified palace built atop massive “Lion’s Rock” by King Kassapa I in the 5th century.

5. Ease, affordability, and hospitality. With a continent’s worth of things to see and do, Sri Lanka is also surprisingly easy to navigate via public transport, which covers most of the island. What’s more, hiring a vehicle and a private driver is not much more expensive than renting a car back in the States. To say that Sri Lankans are friendly would be an understatement. Warmth and geniality define the local character.

6. Surfability. I’ve been a surfer since I was a kid, and Sri Lanka is a surfer’s nirvana. There are waves year-round, with the west coast generally breaking left and the east coast breaking right. Arugam Bay—which wraps around the country’s southeastern coast, tapering to a point many claim as the best surf spot on the island—offers miles of beach for strolling. Travelers can choose between budget surf shacks or kick it up a notch by booking into Kottukal Beach House.

7. Flavor fusion. If you’re like me, and consider culinary diversity a journey in its own right, you’ll find that Sri Lanka delivers. Influences from Asia, Europe (the island is marked by periods of Portuguese, then Dutch, then British colonization), and the Far East abound. Sri Lankans are masters of spice, starting with cinnamon, which flourishes on the island and infuses many local dishes. Tea aficionados will know that the country known until 1972 as Ceylon grows some of the world’s finest. Not to be missed: “virgin tea” (never touched by a human hand, the fragile leaves are delicately snipped into a basket) from Handunugoda, an organic tea estate. Ask to meet the owner, Herman Gunaratne, a charismatic elder who delights with tales of a tea planter’s life.

Costas Christ is on the sustainable travel beat at National Geographic, which includes his “Trending” column as an editor at large for Traveler magazine. Follow him on Twitter @CostasChrist.

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  1. N_Gun
    September 14, 2015, 6:14 am

    Lash I have to say I can empathise with your plight in Sri Lanka. I too want to experience the thrill of spaceflight but sadly I cannot afford the USD 250,000 price tag. I think it is quite unreasonable that a company like Virgin that makes billions in profits should base their galactic ticket prices on tricky things like overheads, etc instead of making this accessible to the greater public. I feel you completely though my idea of budget is a bit different from yours.

  2. Havneet Pal Singh
    September 13, 2015, 2:37 pm

    I have stayed in Sri Lanka for almost a year in 2002-2003 during a project assignment for my company. At that time, I was neither interested in photography nor travel. But, during that period, I did happen to visit some really cool places that have left an indelible marks on my mind.
    1) One of them being Nuwara Eliya which is a must visit for travel and photography enthusiasts. Travel by road and you would be mesmerized by the awesome landscape of the country. The place is full of tea gardens and driving through them is like a walk into the lap of nature. Plus one gets to see many waterfalls enroute.
    2) Pinnavella is a sanctuary for elephants where they are carefully nurtured. Its enroute to Kandy from Colombo. One gets to see wonderful moments of younger elephants being fed (which is so cute) and then the elephants bathing and playing in a lake nearby.
    3) Trincomallee – A heaven for beach lovers. We spent overnight there at a beach resort. We were told that morning sunrise across the ocean is a treasure to watch and we were at the beach at 5 am to witness it. It was mindblowing.

    We were lucky that the country was under ceasefire during those times which allowed us to move around at will. Its sad the country remained quite dormant due to the civil war that lasted for a couple of decades. But I am sure its catching up fast now. Would love to visit once again.

  3. Natalia
    May 1, 2015, 8:02 pm

    I’m going to Sri Lanka in June, booked my complete holiday package via Magnifique Sri Lanka Holidays .
    Will post an update when I return.

  4. Isuru
    January 18, 2015, 10:35 pm

    @Lash, i read your comment with initial interest and then some degree of horror.

    I find a key purpose of visiting a developing country as a tourist is that in the process of living in better conditions than the locals you can in some positive way contribute to their economy and the preservation of whatever it is that attracted you there in the first place.

    Your idea of what constitutes “budget” tourism seems to me to be somewhat extractive. What did you expect the Sri Lankans to do, let you into their national parks full of wild elephants by foot and without a guide? Let you walk all over 2000 year old cultural artifacts without in some way contributing to their upkeep?

    As far as dietary requirements go, i am not privy to the peculiarities of your eating times, but most people throughout the world eat breakfast, lunch and dinner at fairly standard times and if you are unable to find a substantive (significant) meal for under $2 USD in most places in Sri Lanka you are not very good at looking.

    All but the very poorest of Sri Lankans are very well fed due to an abundance of agricultural produce and a long culture of food production both at a manufacturing and local eatery/restaurant type level.

    If your idea of “budget travel” means you are eating worse than the locals, perhaps you should reconsider overseas travel in the first place. It doesn’t seem to be something you should be expending your very limited finances on ahead of something like say, the basic necessities of life…

  5. Geeky Explorer
    Barcelona, Spain
    January 16, 2015, 4:22 am

    Thing with Sri Lanka is that is overshadowed by the Maldives and India up north. Some of friends have been there and say it’s the off the beaten track paradise. Would love to go!

  6. Lash
    New Zealand
    January 14, 2015, 7:41 pm

    Hello Costas,

    Thanks for your personal perspectives on travel in Sri Lanka. I’m glad to hear you loved it so much.

    I traveled there for one month in May, 2010, soon after the civil war ended. I agree with you on several points you’ve made such as the ease of public transportation and the country’s great biodiversity.

    However, when it comes to affordability and food, it all depends on perspective and budget, which makes a HUGE difference for travel in Sri Lanka I found.

    I’ve been traveling the world solo since 1998 as a budget traveler. Traveling on a tight budget made Sri Lanka quite difficult for certain things. First of all, although it’s true that the country has an abundance of diverse national parks and wildlife(as well as historic sites), accessing all of them is very expensive (from a budget traveler’s perspective). Entry fees to the parks and other mandatory visiting regulations like a required guide and transportation rental make the parks more expensive that US or Europe. In my opinion, for a developing country that is not acceptable. I feel they are taking advantage of tourists with their policies.

    Secondly, finding local food, especially at the times I need to eat, was exceedingly difficult. In fact, I ended up getting sick because of that. I recognized while there that finding great food would not be an issue for travelers on a mid-range to luxury budget. But for budget travelers, finding food is a problem.

    My final conclusion was that Sri Lanka must be a much better experience on a mid-range to luxury budget. and for travelers who don’t mind paying rather exorbitant fees to visit national parks and historic points of interest.

    I did have a great time, over all, aside from the serious food issues, but I was quite disappointed to have to skip so many great places like the national parks and historic sites because of excessive fees. I did not think Sri Lanka was good value for money as a budget traveler. Many other countries pack just as much cultural, natural and culinary diversity as Sri Lanka with much better value for money.

    That’s my perspective on visiting Sri Lanka on a budget, for what it’s worth.

    Best regards, Lash of LashWorldTour

  7. benadict perera
    January 14, 2015, 2:17 am

    I love Sri Lanka.

  8. Damian B
    Melbourne ,Australia
    January 13, 2015, 4:53 am

    This is the must go place and experience the hospitality!

  9. Swin
    January 12, 2015, 9:22 pm

    How true, after the war MR did develop the country and hope this will continue