My Guide to Southern Sri Lanka

In January I found myself back in Sri Lanka, on a solo trip that I purposely designed to be slow, relaxing and peaceful. The last (and first) time I visited this lush, green island was in the fall 2015. At that time, a friend and I made our way around the island in a whirlwind, self-guided tour that left me exhilarated but exhausted. This time around I decided that things would be different, and so I planned a trip focusing more on wellness and less on culture. What I didn’t realize at the time of planning the trip was how much I needed this type of escape! 

Elephant in Yala National Park

I had been back home, on the east coast of the US, for about 6 weeks since returning from Italy. During that time, I had (at first blissfully) fallen into a state of too much Netflix and too little exercise. As the weeks progressed, I found that I couldn’t get my hot yoga groove back on, was eating lots of unhealthy food and started getting thick around the middle. Combine all that with frigid temps outside, and I found myself in a fairly deep rut. Once the new year rolled around, I was bloated, cranky and ready to hit the road again. 

 The beautiful and uncrowded beaches of Tangalle

The beautiful and uncrowded beaches of Tangalle

The warm temps, fresh foods and generally chill vibe of Sri Lanka all proved to be perfect cures for my general malaise. As I toured around the island, I could feel myself re-setting: my energy returned, I was sleeping better, my sugar cravings subsided. It’s amazing what whole foods and Vitamin D can do for the mind, body and spirit. 

Why go back to Sri Lanka? Well, one of the things I like best about the country is that it still remains fairly undiscovered. Unlike many SE Asian countries such as Thailand or Vietnam, Sri Lanka hasn’t been invaded by mass tourism yet. Based on some very unscientific research  (i.e., me listening to peoples’ accents), the largest number of tourists I came across were from eastern Europe and Britain. In fact, my driver told me that I was only his 2nd American client in 3 years (and I think his other American client may have been a friend of mine who I recommended).

The other key selling points for me when deciding to return to Sri Lanka are the kindness of the people living there, the delicious food, and the beautiful landscape. The people are really wonderful, hard working and so friendly. Most speak English, which isn’t a deciding factor for me, but when traveling alone makes navigating around much easier. As for the food, Sri Lankan cuisine is a delicious cross between typical Asian and Indian, with a heavy emphasis on fresh vegetables. 

 Family selfie on Little Adam's Peak

Family selfie on Little Adam's Peak

For the most part, the beautiful beaches of Sri Lanka are exactly as I like them: empty! And although it is an island, the Sri Lanka landscape offers rolling hills filled with tea plantations, rain forest, national parks and rocky tops. There are only a few places in the world that I have visited that are as green as Sri Lanka. Although I moved at a fairly slow rate, during my 2 weeks around the southern half of Sri Lanka, I was still able to experience plenty of sun, sand, hiking, culture — and elephants!!!

 Tea plantations cover much of the land in the middle of Sri Lanka

Tea plantations cover much of the land in the middle of Sri Lanka


Here are my highlights of southern Sri Lanka - ANDIAMO!!

 

Galle

Having left a big snowstorm on the east coast of the US behind, I landed a half day later than I was supposed to as a result of flight delays and missed connections. I had arranged through my hotel for a driver to meet me at the airport in Colombo and drive me straight away to Galle, in the southwest corner of Sri Lanka (about a two hour drive).

The town of Galle sits prettily on the Indian ocean. The Dutch colonial fort area is full of boutiques shops, cafes and locally run hotels. It’s a small, quaint town and proved to be the perfect place to get over my jet lag and start to re-warm my bones.

 The landmark 18m high lighthouse in Galle, from 1938 and still in use today

The landmark 18m high lighthouse in Galle, from 1938 and still in use today

I didn’t do much during my two full days in Galle… mostly I walked along the fort walls, wandered in and out of boutiques in the heat, ate Sri Lankan curries and drank iced tea. Although there are lots of westerners in Galle now, I still love my first few days in a foreign country and revel in the sights, smells and tastes of a culture so different than my own.

Tangalle

Tangalle is my ideal tropical beach destination: palm fringed and nearly deserted! I stayed for 5 nights at the wonderful Anantara Peace Haven resort in a private villa, with it’s own infinity pool. Yes, I was truly spoiled. I’m not a “beach vacation” kind of girl: I get antsy and bored fairly quickly if there’s nothing to do but sit. That wasn’t the case in Tangalle though. Every morning I practiced guided meditation and yoga with the onsite yoga instructor - a lovely way to start any day.

 The beach at Anantara Tangalle Peace Haven resort

The beach at Anantara Tangalle Peace Haven resort

I also spent the better part of 2 days on safari seeing my fair share of elephants, peacocks, buffalo, deer, and birds. Tangalle is located less than 2 hours from both Udawalawe and Yala National Parks. I spent a day on safari in each park. If you decide to go, set your expectations accordingly - these safaris are far less exciting (and more crowded) than those in Africa. However, if you love elephants like I do, it’s worth a visit to at least one while you are on the southern coast (I recommend Udawalawe over Yala if you are staying in Tangalle).

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Ella

After 5 nights of bliss, I left my resort at sea level to head to the hill-country town of Ella. This one street town is full of locally run guesthouses and cafes, and has a definite hippy vibe. It’s what I imagine Kathmandu was like back in the day, but on a much smaller scale.  Budget level tourism is the lifeblood of Ella, and there are few (if any) upscale accommodations. Don’t use that as a deterrent though - it is a wonderful place to kick back for a few days and enjoy some hikes through tea plantations to temples, waterfalls and viewpoints.

Little Adam’s Peak is a hike that’s not to be missed. It’s fairly easy, and therefore fairly popular. You can access the trailhead using a side street that bisects the main street in town. It’s about a 15 minute walk from the town center to the trailhead. The trail winds up a few hundred stairs, butting up against tea plantations along the way, providing stunning views of the hillside. Once you get to the “peak” with the two Buddha statues, I recommend continuing on down and over to the adjacent peak where there are equally as amazing views and far fewer people.

Views from Little Adam's Peak

On another day I walked to Nine Arches Bridge, and my timing was perfect to see the famous Sri Lanka train come across the bridge. It’s an easy walk from town, along the same road that takes you to the Little Adam’s Peak trailhead. Keep walking past the trailhead and on the left you will see signs that lead you down another path and through some forest to get to the bridge. On my return, I simply walked along the railroad tracks which led right back into town.

The train ride between Ella and Kandy

Often called the most beautiful train journey in the world, the train ride between Ella and Kandy does not disappoint. I spent 6 hours staring at lush rolling hills full of tea plantations, colorful people and the occasional Buddhist shrine. They even allow you to sit in the open car doors, just don’t tell my Mom!! This train journey is without a doubt one of the top things to do in Sri Lanka.

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Travelers note: I had my hotel reserve me a first class ticket a few weeks in advance as the train gets very crowded. First class assured me that i would have an assigned seat in an air conditioned car, but didn’t stop me from hanging out of the door between cars. If you don’t fancy a 6 hour train ride, many people get off at Nuwara Eliya and spend time exploring the local tea plantations before continuing to their next destination by car.

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Kandy

I have really mixed feelings about Kandy. Although it is home to one of the most holy Buddhist temples in Sri Lanka, otherwise it doesn't hold much appeal in my opinion. It’s fairly chaotic and loud, and not necessarily in a cool way.

You can’t really miss the Temple of the Sacred Tooth, it’s golden roof shining above the other buildings around. This large complex houses Sri Lanka’s most important Buddhist relic – a tooth of the Buddha, although you can’t actually see the tooth itself because it’s inaccessibly kept in a gold stupa inside the main building. What you can experience, however, is the power of worship emanating from the rooms filled with flower offerings and devotees. It gets pretty crowded inside with both tourists and locals; make sure to dress appropriately when you visit or you won’t be allowed in.

It is possible to take the train all the way from Ella to Colombo and not stop in Kandy at all. Alternatively, you could visit Kandy as a day trip if you are staying near the tea plantations. I spent two nights in Kandy, and if you are short on time, this is one town that I would consider cutting from your itinerary in order to add some of the more evocative cultural sites.

Colombo

I ended my trip in Colombo, but really only to spend the night before my flight the next evening. On the recommendation of friends, I had a late lunch at Ministry of Crab, which was fantastic. I highly recommend a stop here and some shopping in the surrounding boutiques. It was the perfect way to end my trip!


Logistics: The Details

If you are a first time visitor to Sri Lanka I would recommend adding some of the key cultural sites found in the middle of the country to your itinerary, specifically Anuradhapura, Sigiriya, Polonnaruwa and Dambulla. They are all wonderful and the only reason I chose not to re-visit them on this trip was because I was moving at a slower pace and only planned to spend two weeks in the country.

Transportation:

I knew that I wanted to have complete control over the pace and timing of my visit - and unlike in other countries, I was not adventurous/crazy/ballsy enough to drive myself around Sri Lanka! I didn’t want to hassle with public transportation either, so in advance I organized a local driver to be with me throughout my trip. I used the same service as during my last visit. I arranged everything in advance via email and paid in cash (local currency) along the way. Message me if you are interested in the contact info for the driver service I used. 

Where I stayed (click on the name of the hotel to be hyperlinked to their websites)

Galle: The Bartizan

There are plenty of boutiques hotels in Galle and I chose The Bartizan based on the recommendations and photos posted by a travel blogger on IG. The location right on the ramparts was ideal; the staff was attentive and wonderful (which is a theme in Sri Lanka); and the included breakfast was great. While I would recommend a stay here, there are so many options in Galle that I would personally try a new place next time. When doing your research, any boutique hotel in the old town would be a good location, as the main area you want to visit is very compact and quaint. 

Tangalle: Anantara Peace Haven Resort

I wrote a long review of this luxe resort on Trip Advisor, but in a nutshell, my stay here was near perfect in every way. The staff throughout the resort was incredibly sweet and very attentive, and made me feel quite spoiled. I was able to enjoy daily morning meditation and yoga; the food at the restaurants was delicious; and the pool area was great. If you are looking for a relaxing, luxury beach resort in the south of Sri Lanka, Anantara Beach Haven is an excellent choice. I was very sad to leave and plan to return the next time I am in Sri Lanka! 

Ella: Zion View

I had stayed at Zion View before, so I knew that people stayed here not for the accommodations (fairly basic rooms), but for the outstanding views. I was here for 3 nights and my stay at Zion View was fine, but honestly it was a bit of an adjustment having just come from a luxe resort at the beach!  (side note: while hiking I had noticed these great looking cottages that hung on the hillside overlooking Little Adam’s Peak. Upon investigation I found a resort called 98 Acres. I ended up getting three hours of spa treatments there (for $100 USD) and having lunch on their terrace with amazing views. Definitely worth looking into if you are visiting Ella and looking for higher end accommodations: I’m honestly not sure how I missed this place when doing my research!

Kandy: Elephant Stables

A quick 10 minute car ride outside of Kandy takes you up the hill to this colonial building turned boutique hotel. It’s a nice and quiet refuge from the noise of Kandy, with a chef who prepared some interesting dinners, a nice breakfast included in the room rate, and an infinity pool.

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