Sri Lanka’s unspoilt environment and variety of landscapes offer all sorts of possibilities for outdoor and activity holidays. Water-based activities like diving and surfing are well covered, while there are plenty of other ways to get active, ranging from mountain biking and trekking to ballooning and yoga. As for spectator sports, if you’re lucky enough to coincide with a match, a trip to watch Sri Lanka’s cricket team in action – always an occasion of huge national excitement – is an absolute must.
Of all the legacies of the British colonial period, the game of cricket is probably held dearest by the average Sri Lankan. As in India and Pakistan, cricket is undoubtedly king in the Sri Lankan sporting pantheon. Kids play it on any patch of spare ground, improvising balls, bats and wickets out of rolled-up bits of cloth and discarded sticks, whilst the country virtually grinds to a halt during international matches, with excitable crowds clustered around every available radio or television set.
Although the national team is a relative newcomer to international cricket – they were only accorded full Test status in 1982 – they’ve more than held their own since then. It’s in the one-day game, however, that Sri Lanka has really taken the world by storm, capped by their triumph in the 1996 World Cup, when their fearsomely talented batting line-up – led by elegant left-hander Aravinda da Silva and the explosive Sanath Jayasuriya – blasted their way to the title (a feat they almost repeated during the 2007 and 2011 World Cups, when they reached the final).
Not surprisingly, the success of the Sri Lankan team has proved an important source of national pride and cohesion. Although Sinhalese players have traditionally dominated the squad, the Tamil population has provided perhaps Sri Lanka’s finest ever player, Muttiah Muralitharan (or “Murali”, as he’s often popularly known). One of the world’s most lethal spin bowlers, Muralitharan retired in 2010 after capturing an astonishing 800 wickets in test cricket, a record which is unlikely to be broken for many years. Other star players include world-class batsmen Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara, both of whom currently average over fifty in test matches.
Watching a match
If you get the chance, it’s well worth taking in a cricket match, particularly a one-day or Twenty20 – the vociferous crowds and carnival atmosphere are a world away from the rather staid ambience of most English cricket grounds. The island’s principal Test-match venues are the Sinhalese Sports Club in Colombo, Pallekele International Cricket Stadium in Kandy and the cricket ground in Galle. One-day and Twenty20 internationals are mainly held at Kandy, Galle, the Premadasa Stadium in Colombo, and the new cricket stadiums in Dambulla and Hambantota. Tickets for matches are available from the relevant venues. Note also that many of the tour operators we recommend, Red Dot Tours in particular, offer cricketing tours to Sri Lanka. For more on Sri Lankan cricket, check out w srilankacricket.lk.
Many of the waves that crash against the Sri Lankan coast have travelled all the way from Antarctica, and not surprisingly there are several excellent surfing spots. The outstanding destination is Arugam Bay on the east coast, the one place in Sri Lanka with an international reputation amongst surfheads. Other leading surf spots include the south coast village of Midigama, nearby Medawatta (on the edge of Matara), and Hikkaduwa. Boards are available to rent at all these places. Various places in Arugam Bay and Hikkaduwa arrange surfing trips around the coast, sometimes combined with visits to other attractions. The surfing season runs from April to October at Arugam Bay, and from November to April at Midigama and Hikkaduwa.
Whitewater rafting and other watersports
The island’s premier spot for whitewater rafting is around Kitulgala, where the Kelani Ganga river comes tumbling out of the hill country, creating boulder-strewn grade 3–4 rapids. You can either arrange trips locally or plan something in advance – reputable local operators include Jetwing Eco Holidays (w jetwingeco.com), Action Lanka (w actionlanka.com) and Adventure Asia (w ad-asia.com), all of whom can also arrange kayaking and canoeing.
Sri Lanka’s watersports capital is Bentota, whose lagoon provides the perfect venue for all sorts of activities, including jet-skiing, speed-boating, waterskiing, inner-tubing and banana-boating – windsurfing is also particularly good here. You can also arrange watersports in Negombo through the Jetwing Beach hotel and various other ad hoc operators. Kitesurfers head either to Negombo or to Kalpitiya peninsula, which offers superb wind conditions and a mix of sea and more sheltered lagoon. Wakeboarding is also beginning to take off. Negombo is one of the main centres, along with Hikkaduwa.
Diving and snorkelling
Sri Lanka isn’t usually thought of as one of Asia’s premier diving destinations, and although you probably wouldn’t come here specifically to dive, there are enough underwater attractions to make a few days’ diving a worthwhile part of a visit –w divesrilanka.com offers a handy overview of what’s available. Sri Lanka is also a good and cheap place to learn to dive, with schools in Bentota, Beruwala, Hikkaduwa, Unawatuna, Weligama and Uppuveli – see the relevant Guide accounts for details. Diving packages and courses are good value compared to most other places in the world. A three-day Open-Water PADI course goes for around $375, and single dives for around $30.
The west coast has a well developed network of schools and dive sites. Marine life is plentiful, while there are also some fine (and often technically challenging) underwater cave and rock complexes, and a string of wrecks. Diving on the east coast remains relatively less developed, although that is changing rapidly with the opening up of new sites and some superb wrecks, including that of the Hermes, near Batticaloa, a 270m-long aircraft carrier sunk during World War II and lying at a depth of 60m.
The diving season on the west coast runs roughly from November to April, and on the east coast from May to October; pretty much all the island’s diving schools shut up out of season, although if you’re really keen and don’t mind diving in rough seas with poor visibility you might be able to find someone willing to take you out.
There’s not a lot of really good snorkelling around Sri Lanka: little coral survives close to the shore, although this lack is compensated by the abundant shoals of tropical fish that frequent the coast. The island’s better snorkelling spots include the beach at Polhena, Pigeon Island ant Uppuveli and, if you don’t mind the boats whizzing around your ears, the Coral Sanctuary at Hikkaduwa.
Sri Lanka’s huge trekking potential remains largely unexploited. The hill country, in particular, offers the perfect hiking terrain – spectacular scenery, marvellous views and a pleasantly temperate climate – while trekking through the wildlife-rich lowland jungles can also be a deeply rewarding experience. A few of the tour operators we’ve listed offer walking tours. Alternatively, good local guides include Sumane Bandara Illangantilake and Ravi Desappriya in Kandy, and Neil Rajanayake in Nuwara Eliya. In addition, shorter guided walks are often organized from eco-lodges and eco-oriented hotels, some of whom have resident guides to lead guests on walks.
So long as you avoid the hazardous main highways, cycling around Sri Lanka can be a real pleasure, and the island’s modest dimensions and scenic diversity make it great for touring, especially the hill country, with its cooler climate, relative lack of traffic and exhilarating switchback roads. The major caveat is safety: as a cyclist you are extremely vulnerable – bus and truck drivers consider cyclists a waste of valuable tarmac, and as far as they’re concerned you don’t really have any right to be on the road at all: be prepared to get out of the way quickly (in fact, it’s generally safest to get off the tarmac completely and ride along the dirt shoulder). You are at risk not only from traffic coming from behind, but also from oncoming vehicles overtaking another vehicle, who will think nothing of forcing you into the ditch, even though they’re on what is technically your side of the road.
Bikes are available for hire in most tourist towns (alternatively, just ask at your guesthouse – they’ll probably have or know someone who has a spare bike knocking around, or who will be prepared to surrender their own to you for a small price). In some places it’s also possible to hire good-quality mountain bikes. Costs vary wildly, but will rarely be more than a few dollars a day, often much less.
A number of the operators we’ve listed offer cycling or mountain-biking tours, usually including a mixture of on- and off-roading and with a backup vehicle in support. Other good options include Ride Lanka (w ridelanka.com), Jetwing Eco Holidays (w jetwingeco.com), Action Lanka (w actionlanka.com) and Adventure Asia (w ad-asia.com).
Yoga and meditation
Yoga isn’t nearly as established in Sri Lanka as it is in India, although many of the island’s numerous Ayurvedic centres now offer classes as part of their treatment plans, and it’s sometimes possible to enrol for them without taking an Ayurveda course. Otherwise, your options are pretty limited. Serious students of yoga might consider signing up for a stay at Ulpotha (w ulpotha.com), a wonderful rural retreat in the Cultural Triangle near Embogama (not far from the Sasseruwa and Aukana Buddhas), attracting leading international yoga teachers; prices start at around $1300 per person per week inclusive of accommodation, meals and tuition.
Meditation courses are mainly concentrated around Kandy.
Balloon trips are offered by various companies, offering a spectacular bird’s-eye view of the island. Most flights are around the Cultural Triangle, particularly in the Dambulla and Sigiriya area, though flights are also sometimes offered in other areas, particularly the south coast. Flights generally last roughly an hour and cost around $165 per person. The leading operator is Adventure Asia (w ad-asia.com), who pioneered ballooning in the island. Other operators include Air Magic (w airmagic.lk) and Sun Rise Ballooning (w srilankaballooning.com).
Horseriding day-trips and longer tours can be arranged through Sri Lanka Horse Safaris (w horsesafarissrilanka.com) at various locations around the island, including Dambulla, Sigiriya, Nuwara Eliya, Tissamaharama, Kalpitiya and Bentota. Prices are around $200 per person per day.
Sri Lanka has three gorgeous golf courses, at Colombo, Kandy and Nuwara Eliya; a number of operators offer special golfing tours.