Ignácio Maza, executive vice president of Signature Travel Network, recently returned from his first visit to Sri Lanka, a country with a brutal Civil War past that is only now being recognized as a top travel destination, due in part to its array of eye-catching beaches. Here, Maza sums up his journey to the South Asian island nation.
Marco Polo once said that Sri Lanka was “the finest island of its size in the world.” After a visit, it’s easy to see why. This teardrop-shaped island off the coast of India has much to offer sophisticated, curious travelers in search of new experiences. During my recent two-week trip to the country, I visited Colombo (Sri Lanka’s largest city), archaeological sites, the tea-growing highlands, Galle and the western coast.
|Maza at the Relais & Châteaux Tea Trails. The resort is perched in the heart of Ceylon Tea country.|
Sri Lanka’s star is rising for a number of reasons. First, the long domestic conflict with a separatist movement ended in May 2009 and the island is now at peace. Second, tourism is booming and there are many new upscale hotels under development. Finally, new domestic air services will drastically cut down the travel time to key destinations.
The country’s major ancient cities are clustered in a region called “the cultural triangle.” Travelers interested in archaeology, history and Buddhist art will be amply rewarded with many sites in this area. The 800-year-old site of Polonnaruwa contains the most impressive and best-preserved ruins, including the beautiful sculptures of Gal Vihara. Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka’s first royal capital, houses soaring brick towers over 1,500 years old. The Dambulla cave temples contain statues and spectacular frescoes. Sigiriya, my favorite site, is a 5th-century citadel built on top of a massive rock 1,100 feet high, which can be climbed through a series of steep staircases. The ascent is worth the effort and the views from the top are priceless.
Meanwhile, the verdant city of Kandy, the spiritual and cultural heart of the island, is home to the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, the most important pilgrimage site for Buddhists.
Travelers will also want to visit the tea-growing region of Sri Lanka, which is indescribably green and lush (think endless emerald carpets of tea plantations, and forests clinging to mountain ranges).
Galle, the colorful and exotic 500-year-old fort city first settled by the Portuguese, is a fascinating blend of colonial architecture.
There are also many national parks, home to hundreds of elephants, as well as leopards and endemic species of flora and fauna. Two popular parks are Minneriya and Yala.
|The Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage was established in 1975 as an orphanage and breeding ground for wild elephants.|
Where to Stay
Hotel options are rapidly expanding. Seven new resorts, including a Shangri-La, Six Senses and Jetwing (member of SLH), will open in the next 24 months.
In Colombo, the top choice is Tintagel, an intimate luxury hotel within a historical mansion, boasting contemporary design and exceptional service. If your preference is a large, full-service property, book Cinnamon Grand Hotel.
In the north, the new Ulagalla Resort is on a 58-acre estate and has a renovated colonial main building surrounded by 25 free-standing modern chalets, each with private plunge pools and more than 1,000 square feet of space. Two other options in this region are Jetwing Vil Uyana, a unique retreat with individual bungalows built over rice fields and lakes, and Habarana’s Cinnamon Lodge, a larger, full-service property with a more traditional décor.
|Sigiriya Rock is known for its ancient frescoes, reminiscent of the Ajanta Caves of India.|
In Kandy, Clingendael is a mountaintop haven. The hotel comprises five spacious suites overlooking valleys and lakes below. Tee Tip: Golfers staying at the property have access to a private golf club nearby.
Tea Trails, Sri Lanka’s only Relais & Châteaux member, is made up of four estates that are 4,000 feet above sea level and surrounded by working tea plantations. Note: Do not miss meeting a master tea expert, who will show you the wonders of making tea—all the way from plucking the leaf to how it ends up in your cup.
In Galle, the top choices are Amangalla, a superbly restored colonial hotel in the heart of the walled city, and celebrated architect Geoffrey Bawa-designed Jetwing Lighthouse on a site overlooking the Indian Ocean. Beyond Galle, the best resort on the southern beaches by far is Amanwella—think ultramodern and luxurious.
Sri Lanka is not easy to navigate, so a high-quality destination management company is essential, such as Walkers Tours, with whom I traveled. The company can handle individuals, families, unique experiences, groups—and just about any itinerary you can imagine. Walkers makes all the arrangements on the ground, including hotel reservations, guides, restaurants, drivers and activities. Best of all, it provides you with expert advice when planning your trip. For inquiries, contact Shanitha Fernando.
|Suites At AmanWella are mostly situated on the hillside with views of the coconut grove and ocean.|