Sri Lanka is deceptive. On a map of the world it appears to be tiny, but the moment you arrive you’ll realise that within its diminutive borders it packs in an astounding array of attractions, landscapes and climate zones – with countless activities to boot.
Unless you have a couple of months at your disposal you can never hope to tick off all the country's highlights in one go. To make the most of your time, here are five trip plans that will help even the most time-strapped traveller to see the best of Sri Lanka.
1. For wildlife-spotting
With a huge variety of habitats and wildlife, Sri Lanka is one of Asia’s great wildlife-watching destinations. Start your safari in the dry woodlands and lakes of the huge and peaceful Wilpattu National Park, which is known for its sloth bears and herds of spotted deer.
Cut across the country to Minneriya National Park, which annually (in August or September) plays host to the largest meeting of Asian elephants anywhere in the world.
Drive down to Yala National Park, which is regarded as one of the best places in Asia to see leopards. En route stop at nearby, and little-visited, Bundala for gorgeous scenery and thousands of birds. Carry on along the coast to Mirissa where you can head out to sea in search of blue whales.
Finish up by heading inland again to the steamy, bird- and insect-filled rainforests of the unique Sinharaja forest.
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2. For tea trails
Sri Lanka’s Hill Country is swathed in a vast carpet of rippling tea estates – and one of the most enjoyable ways of exploring the region is by focusing on everyone’s favourite morning cuppa. Kickstart your tour by getting some background knowledge at the Ceylon Tea Museum, which is located just outside Kandy.
With your wealth of new knowledge, immerse yourself in the colonial tea planter’s life by treating yourself to a night or two in a luxury converted tea estate bungalow, such as those offered by Ceylon Tea Trail.
Next head over to the tea town of Nuwara Eliya. While in town, don’t miss High Tea at The Grand Hotel. For the night, book a room at the Heritance Tea Factory, a boutique hotel made out of the shell of a tea factory.
End your tour by taking a look at where the stuff is made. Arrange a visit to the Uva Halpewatte Tea Factory, which is located just outside Ella.
3. For beaches and watersports
Renowned far and wide for the beauty of its beaches, Sri Lanka is a dream destination for watersports enthusiasts. Start your trip at the gorgeous sands of Bentota, where you can take to the waters with catamaran sailing and waterskiing.
Hop south from Bentota to brash Hikkaaduwa, which is home to surf breaks and surf schools as well as a marine national park for snorkellers and divers. Carrying on south, and approaching the base of the island’s teardrop you’ll reach Midigama. A huge surf scene has developed around this small village, but nearby Weligama is much more suitable for beginners.
Heading around to the southeast coast, Arugam Bay has a world-class right point break that draws in surfers from far and wide. From here head northeast, where clouds of colourful fish entertain divers and snorkellers off Pigeon Island near stunning Nilaveli beach.
To finish your trip, cut straight back over the island for some world-class kitesurfing at the emerging beach resort of Kalpitiya.
4. For spellbinding views
It would be hard to think of a country more arrestingly scenic than Sri Lanka – but even here some views are better than others. On the west coast, watching the sunset from the ramparts surrounding the old city of Galle is practically compulsory.
From here, head further down to the southern tip of the island. From the lighthouse at Dondra, Sri Lanka’s southernmost point, you can scan the horizon for breeching blue whales.
Over on the east coast, there are commanding views over the age-old harbour town of Trincomalee from Swami Rock.
From here, travel inland away from the coast. The famous Sigiriya Rock has the remains of a ruined royal palace on its summit and views over further ancient monuments.
Another inland favourite, the Hill Country seems to be made up of nothing but fabulous viewpoints.The laidback traveller town of Ella is the starting point for the enjoyable half-day hike to the top of Ella Rock, where you'll be rewarded with remarkable views down toward the coast. The views from World’s End in the Horton Plains National Park – another Hill Country highlight – are perhaps even more impressive and the hike over Alpine moorland is a real treat.
Finish with the best viewpoint of all – join throngs of Buddhist and Hindu pilgrims watching the sunrise from atop the holy mountain of Adam’s Peak.
5. For a trip back in time
Sri Lanka is peppered with the reminders of thousands of years of civilisation. To delve into the island's history start off in Kandy, the cultural capital of Sri Lanka. The focus of this lakeside city is the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic. Every day thousands of Buddhist pilgrims from across Sri Lanka come here to pray at the shrine said to contain one of the Buddha’s teeth.
Head north to the cave shrines of Dambulla which are brushed all over in stunning Buddha images. Afterwards, climb into the clouds at the lofty citadel of Sigiriya, which is perched upon a rock that towers 200m above the surrounding plains. Carry on to the sprawling 12th-century ruins of Polonnaruwa, another former royal capital that is today famed for the artistic quality of its ancient stupas and shrines.
Finish off at Anuradhapura. With its fields of ruins and fascinating living religious sites, this is perhaps the most intriguing ancient place to visit in Sri Lanka.
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