Local insights in Sri Lanka: our local experts share their top tips

Sri Lanka, the ‘Pearl of the Indian Ocean’, has long tempted travelers to its sunny shores. We caught up with our local experts for some top travel tips and the lowdown on coronavirus.
Aerial shot of old lighthouse in Galle Fort. Photo: samuraisunshine/Shutterstock
Aerial shot of old lighthouse in Galle Fort. Photo: samuraisunshine/Shutterstock

White-sand beaches, ancient temples and stunning landscapes: Sri Lanka has it all. It’s little wonder the gorgeous island, cast adrift from the south of India, has skyrocketed to the top of travel lists around the globe. We touched base with our local experts – Justyna, Hazan and Gayathra – to gather some local tips for travelers to Sri Lanka, as well as garnering insights into the isle’s experience of coronavirus.     

Justyna in one of the secret spots around Kandy, Sri Lanka. Photo: Justyna's private archive 

Over to our local experts

Q: Sri Lanka has topped many ‘top travel destination’ lists over the last couple of years. In your eyes, what makes Sri Lanka so special and why should travelers come and explore the island?

A: First of all, Sri Lanka is a relatively small island, but has a great variety of things to offer – travel for just a few hours and you’ll find yourself in completely different scenery (and a different climate!) Sri Lanka has a range of attractions to sate even the most demanding traveler, from its fascinating 3,000-year-old history and cultural sites that stretch back to ancient times, through beautiful beaches (including quiet, virgin shores), to stunning nature and wildlife, with mountainscapes, rainforests, rolling tea plantations, beautiful national parks and many endemic species. Sri Lanka is also home to the eighth World Wonder and no fewer than eight Unesco World Heritage Sites. But the real value of this gorgeous island, and the most important reason for its ranking as one of the top destinations in the world, lies in the people – their warmth and hospitality is something truly special. A recent example of this is the generosity Sri Lankans showed during the current pandemic, looking after the tourists who got stuck here during the lockdown. These unfortunate travelers received huge help and support from the local community. Of course, we also can’t forget about the delicious cuisine, which is based on local ingredients and the various spices that Sri Lanka is known for – yummy! 

Nine Arches railway bridge, Sri Lanka. Photo: aksenovden/Shutterstock

Q: What are your favorite spots, and the best hidden gems, in Sri Lanka?

A: Galle Fort and the surrounding area is a firm favorite – it’s a really special and interesting place that offers a mix of culture and history, beautiful, picturesque beaches and stunning nature. It also provides the opportunity to meet local people; if you let yourself get lost in the village area inland, you’ll have the chance to meet Sri Lankans outside the tourist trade – only by interacting with such people will you get to know what Sri Lankan warmth and hospitality really mean. 

Thalpe Beach is a very quiet and peaceful spot – since swimming is not recommended here, you hardly meet anyone else, which means the most magnificent sunrises and sunsets. It’s a narrow beach but has such charm that it’s hard to describe with words…

Gal Oya National Park with Gal Oya Lodge is another place where you can experience the beautiful nature of the island. Again, these are virgin lands, with no real tropes of tourism yet (there’s no Wi-fi or phone signal, and no big hotels) – only the sounds of the wildlife. 

Next, Pidurangala Rock is a ‘must-visit’ for watching sunrise, and to see famous Sigiriya Rock from the best perspective. Some people say it offers even better views than Sigiriya itself.

There are also some incredibly memorable places to stay, such as Ellerton Bungalow, a real hidden gem in Sri Lanka. Enjoying a stunning location, you can spend days looking out over one of the country’s most breathtaking views while listening to chants emanating from the nearby Buddhist temple and the sounds of nature. But the icing on the cake is the staff: owners Iromi and Luca are absolutely wonderful people who personally look after their guests and create a really homely atmosphere. 

Elephants in Udawalawe National Park. Photo: Heinz-Peter Schwerin/Shutterstock

Q: As a tour operator based in Colombo, what kind of trips and services do you offer and what type of travel do you recommend?

A: Our services include accommodation and land transport, as well as domestic flights, guide services, excursions and complete logistics-management services. When it comes to the type of trips we offer, we have no limitations here and can tailor something special to each type of client: from budget travelers to ultra-luxury jetsetters to adventure junkies – our offerings range from guesthouses to luxury boutique hotels and even tree houses, camps and lodges for people who look to spend their holidays closer to the nature. We would definitely recommend a train trip – we can obviously organize that too – as Sri Lanka is one of the most spectacular countries for train travel in the world. We can always accommodate any special requests – for example organizing cycle tours or assisting in any sporting event (like the Colombo marathon or Ironman 70.3 and many more).

Thalpe Beach. Photo: Justyna, Sri Lanka local expert

Q: What kind of wildlife and cultural experiences do you consider ‘must-do’ for travelers to Sri Lanka?

A: We would recommend at least one safari, either by jeep (plump for a less-busy national park like Wilpattu) or by boat (for whale and dolphin watching). Releasing a baby turtle from one of the turtle hatcheries is also something really special. Visiting Elephant Transit Home in Udawalawe National Park will give you the chance to watch the feeding or bathing of baby elephants. We were one of the first Sri Lankan companies to join the World Animal Protection organization, and are against riding elephants or visiting the elephant orphanages which don’t release them into the wild once they are able to do so. 

Another must-do experience is a train ride, which we mentioned above, as well as taking a dip in a waterfall – but only in a safe place, of course. We have to remember that some waterfalls can swell rapidly and may not be safe! Climbing Adam’s Peak to watch sunrise is another unforgettable and mystical experience. Lastly, be sure to have tea at one of the smaller/boutique tea factories, where traditions are still kept from generation to generation. It’s a completely different experience from visiting a huge tea factory, which can get very busy, full of other tourists. 

Buddhist monks from the local temple, Ellerton. Photo: Justyna, Sri Lanka local expert

Q: Covid-19 has impacted the travel industry greatly. How do you see Sri Lanka moving forwards to welcome back tourists, especially on the back of the Easter attacks last year and the country’s efforts to promote tourism again?

A: Having experienced two consecutive years of misfortune, Sri Lanka faces a bigger challenge than most other countries. However, the best thing about the country is its people, who stay strong no matter what. As history has shown many times over, Sri Lankans always have the power to bounce back. The tourist sector is currently surviving on local bookings and government support, while many initiatives have been undertaken in order to make use of the current situation somehow and get ready for the moment when Sri Lanka is back open for travel, and to promote it in the meantime. One such initiative saw international travel bloggers inside the country travel around Sri Lanka to explore new areas and unearth new hidden gems – many of which turn out to be still undiscovered, such as wineries on the north of the island. A completely different example is a newly appointed Advisory Committee on Tourism, whose role it will be to draw up a framework and come up with proposals for opening the country to travelers again. The committee will need to provide for the safety of tourists as well as local people, but also work in the short term to find an alternative means of livelihood for those dependent on the tourism sector. 

Lion Rock from top of Pidurangala in Sigiriya, Sri Lanka. Photo: Jose Coso Zamarreno/Shutterstock

Q: You also offer tours to the Maldives, a country currently open to travelers. Which are your favorite islands in the Maldives and what’s the best way to experience them?

A: Our favorite is Ari Atoll, one of the largest in the Maldives. It includes 100 islands, 20 of which are completely dedicated to tourist development. It is the best diving/snorkeling location in the Maldives, and the atoll is a pelagic paradise. Unlike elsewhere in the Maldives, where most snorkeling and dive sites are protected by a reef, Ari is known for its thilas (submerged pinnacles), both inside and outside the central atoll lagoon, acting as an aggregation site for plenty of marine life. Ari houses some of the best resorts in Maldives, but you can opt for a lovely cruise here as well.  

 Aerial view of Maldives Ari Atoll. Photo: Markus Mainka/Shutterstock

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