Palm-fringed beaches and rugged mountains: Why beautiful Sri Lanka offers tourists the ultimate undiscovered island paradise

  • Impossibly scenic Sri Lanka is rammed with sandy beaches, beautiful national parks and a myriad of Hindu temples
  • MailOnline Travel landed in Colombo, took a train to Kandy then travelled to lofty Sigiriya and the rugged east
  • Last stop was Gal Oya Lodge, hidden away close to the untrodden Gal Oya National Park, home to elephants




From the honking traffic in the chaotic cities, through the myriad of Hindu temples, to the palm-fringed beaches and breathtakingly beautiful national parks crawling with exotic animals, the diverse island of Sri Lanka is packed with variety. Our first stop was the gateway to the country: the bustling capital of Colombo. The combination of the energy-sapping heat, beeping Tuk-Tuks and congested streets make it a rather bewildering place to arrive but a whistle-stop tour of the sprawling city provides a fascinating snapshot of life in the frenetic heartbeat of Sri Lanka.

The diverse island of Sri Lanka is home to around 5,800 elephants – Tom was lucky enough to see this adult male on his last day

It was truly stunning sight to sit and watch the majestic creature grazing on the riverbank in the Gal Oya National Park

The little visited Gal Oya National park is a wonderful place to see the Asian elephant, and they can be spotted via boat or jeep safari

We ate that evening at the superb Ministry of Crab, owned by legendary cricketers Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara, located in the city’s buzzing financial district. The crab is cooked as exquisitely as a Sangakkara off-drive and is beautifully presented in the capacious, aromatic restaurant. The following morning we took the train to Kandy along the track built under British rule. It is a wonderful way to reach the historic city. As the train chugs through the urban sprawl to the lush green hills, it gives a glimpse of the country’s wonderfully varied scenery.

While in Kandy home to the greatest bowler ever, Muttiah Muralitharan, affectionately known as ‘Murali’ we stayed in the stunning Theva Residency. Perched high above the city, it is away from the bustling centre but only a short Tuk-Tuk drive away from the thick of the action. The spacious rooms boast impressive views over the city and Richmond Hill, all of which can be enjoyed from the comfort of the bathtub next to the enormous windows. Below the rooms, a spectacular wet-edge pool overlooks the valley and we were lucky enough to have the fabulous pool area to ourselves for the duration of our stay. As well as a generous selection of complimentary local teas, Theva offers an appetising range of exotic cocktails best enjoyed while soaking up the picture-perfect sunset.

Kandy, which encompasses Sri Lanka’s last independent kingdom, is the country’s second city and the dusty streets and open market stalls are chaotically crammed with people and hooting traffic. It is also home to Sri Lanka’s most important religious shrine, The Temple of Tooth, which was almost too crowded (especially with the sun beating down) to enjoy. Elsewhere, the Peradeniya Botanical Gardens, while having many beautiful spots, is rather scruffy and unremarkable in comparison to the many other delights of this enchanting island.

Chugging along the train track built under British rule, the journey from Colombo to Kandy shows the country’s wonderfully varied scenery

Perched high above Kandy, Theva Residency boasts stunning views – and sunsets – across Richmond Hill (pictured) opposite

The beautiful pool area at Theva Residency boasts stunning views across the valley and Sri Lanka’s second city below

Theva Residency is a private and luxurious hideout in the hills of Kandy and the pool area is a perfect place to unwind

Rooms at Theva Residency, just outside Kandy, boast spectacular views across the valley and the beautiful pool area below

Breakfast and dinner are served in this lovely dining area, which is a fabulous spot to watch the sunset over Richmond Hill opposite

From Kandy we made our way to Sigiriya, the russet rock that towers 600ft above the arid dry-zone plains. Chauffeured by our charming and sports-mad driver Jim, we stopped off at the Luckgrove Spice Garden in Matele, which gave a fascinating insight into the herbs and spices used in Sri Lankan cuisine. Further north we called in at Dambulla, famous for its cave temples. In the heat of the day, the steep half-an-hour walk up to the temples was punishing but the views at the top both inside and outside the temples made it worthwhile. All five temples are unique in their own way, each lovingly decorated with beautiful murals.

The descent was rather less sweaty but involved a stand-off with a monkey after purchasing a box of fresh mangoes. Needless to say, the monkey emerged victorious and gleefully chomped down our lunch. Kandy’s Peradeniya Botanical Gardens- the country’s largest garden stretching out across 147-acres – is home to many monkeys

At one time these beautiful botanical gardens were reserved exclusively for Kandyan royalty – but now attract millions of visitors annually (left) and on Tom’s way down from the cave temples, this monkey (right) stole the box of mangoes he bought and ate them with glee

In Sigiriya, we stayed at the magnificent Jetwing Vil Uyana, situated in the shadow of the historic rock fortress. The fabulous eco-friendly hotel in its idyllic setting has drawn inspiration from the local, rural traditions. Guests are housed in individual thatched huts modelled on Sinhalese dwellings. The cabins are both homely and grand and each comes with its own blissful ice-cool plunge pool.

This superb hotel is the perfect place to unwind and enjoy the calming sounds emanating from outside the cabins: the tuneful chirping of the birds, the buzz of the crickets and the rustling insects in the reeds. Facilities at Jetwing include a spa reached via a timber boardwalk over a lake and the most wonderful wet-edge swimming pool. There are also a number of excursions laid on, including a loris trail with resident naturalist Chaminda Jayasekhara. Breakfast and dinner are served in a beautiful open dining area overlooking the swimming pool and the lake (which has a crocodile gliding around in it) and surrounding landscape.

From the menu, the selection of fresh fish on offer is a particular treat. Vil Uyana is perfectly positioned to climb ‘Lion’s Rock’, which is best done at either sunrise or sunset to avoid the jostling hordes of tourists and unforgiving sun. It is a steep ascent and vertigo sufferers might struggle with certain aspects of the hike, but the views at the top stretching out for miles, certainly make it worth the effort. All five temples at Dambulla are unique in their own way, each lovingly decorated with beautiful murals

In Sigiriya, Tom stayed at the magnificent Jetwing Vil Uyana, which has drawn inspiration from the local, rural traditions

The stunning rooms at Jetwing Vil Uyana come with their own bath tub, as well as a private balcony and plunge pool outside

The hotel is constructed on a wetland system with lakes and reed beds to form a private nature reserve, allowing dwellings to be built in and over water, paddy field, forest, marsh and garden surroundings

The fabulous eco-friendly hotel, in the shadow of the russet rock, has a resident crocodile gliding around in the lake

The crocodile comes ominously close to the edge of the boardwalk at the hotel located amidst reed beds and paddy fields

Jetwing Vil Uyana is a wonderful private nature reserve consisting of a wetland system with lakes and reed beds

Facilities at Jetwing include a spa reached via a timber boardwalk over a lake and the most wonderful wet-edge swimming pool

A fantastic view combined with equally brilliant food, the Apsara is the place at which to enjoy breakfast, lunch and dinner a la carte

Jetwing Vil Uyana, is set in idyllic surroundings near Sigiriya and is home to an array of exotic animals including this majestic peacock (left), while food is served in the Apsara, which has a beautifully decorated mural (right) at the far end

The steep ascent up the rock is energy-sapping but the views at the top stretching out for miles, certainly make it worth the effort

Polonnaruwa was the second capital of Sri Lanka after the destruction of Anuradhapura in 993. It comprises, besides the Brahmanic monuments built by the Cholas, the monumental ruins of the fabulous garden-city created by Parakramabahu I in the 12th century

We then headed East, which is still finding its feet following the end of the Civil War in 2009.

Before the outbreak of the war, in 1983, the area was an up and coming tourist destination with lively bars and restaurants dotted along its unspoilt rugged coastline. The government is investing time and energy into restoring the area to its former glory. This has seen many resorts spring up along Pasikudah Beach and we stayed in one of these at a newly built hotel, Anilana Pasikudah for two nights. The gleaming hotel has an attractive foyer that looks out over the inviting pool, beach and sea which provides guests with that immediate ‘wow’ factor.

During our stay, Anilana was virtually empty which meant we had the luxurious facilities to ourselves albeit the resort felt eerily quiet, with more staff than guests. With the temperatures now pushing 40 degrees, even the palatial pool was tepid which made it difficult to find relief from the blazing sun. Pasikudah Beach offers stunning views (and sunsets) along the coastline with the Bay of Bengal as the majestic backdrop but it is not as beautiful as Trincomalee further north or Kalkudah Bay, a short journey south. Given the paucity of eateries in sleepy Pasikudah, it was fortunate the food in Anilana was flavoursome, moderately priced and with generous portions.

The fiery-hot Jaffna prawn curry was a particular highlight. Built in 2013, the Anilana is a stylish hotel, attractive on the eye and the ultimate relaxing getaway but after two days in the scorching sun, we were quite happy to move on. The hotel has an attractive foyer that looks out over the pool, beach and sea which provides guests with that immediate ‘wow’ factor

The resort stretches out onto the rugged coastline and there are numerous sun-loungers to recline on under the shade of a palm tree

The view from a sun-lounger at Anilana Pasikudah when cows were led along the beach, with the Bay of Bengal behind

Anilana Pasikudah has an inviting (albeit tepid) swimming pool that stretches out onto the beach and Bay of Bengal

The elegant rooms at Anilana have modern fittings, high ceilings, spacious bathrooms and luxurious beds

Our final stay, in Gal Oya Lodge, was without question the highlight of our trip.

Tucked away on the northwestern edge of the magical and untrodden Gal Oya National Park, this hidden lodge is a real gem. It was set up by boyhood friends Tim Richards and Sangjay Choegyal (as well as John Balmond, the son of world famous architect Cecil) who ‘fell in love with the place’ during an extensive tour of the country. Gal Oya was an untapped area in terms of tourists and so they set about building a lodge in the jungle which involved them camping in tents for nine months without running water or electricity. Their dedication to the project has paid off and their love for the beautiful surroundings really comes across when you speak with them (theirs was the only lodge in Sri Lanka to receive a platinum award for their efforts to help the environment).

The superbly constructed wildlife lodge is made up of nine eco-friendly rooms (two more are currently being built) made from local natural materials that boast the most incredible open bathrooms. The central hub is a cool, relaxing area with mara-tree slab tables, a swimming pool and views overlooking monkey mountain (a punishing but rewarding climb!)

The walk up monkey mountain, which involves a 5.30am wake-up, is worth the punishing hike as the views at the top are sensational

The steep walk up monkey mountain is worth the effort as it boasts sweeping views across the stunning landscape

A journey to the top of the steep mountain is one of the many trips and activities offered by magnificent Gal Oya Lodge

After the challenging start to the day, guests can relax in the lodge and enjoy the view of the mountain they have climbed

Tom’s guide, Uncle Pera (left) takes a break at the top of monkey mountain and (right), a hoopoe in the Gal Oya national park

Spread across 20 acres of private forest, Gal Oya Lodge is hidden away and is the perfect place to connect with nature

Guests at Gal Oya Lodge are housed in spacious individual cabanas, with a peaceful sitting area at the front and superb open bathrooms

The capacious and comfortable cabanas are all constructed from natural materials that have been locally sourced

The private villas all have their own large sitting areas to enjoy the surrounding landscape and local wildlife

The rooms come with enormous open bathrooms, which is a blessed relief after a sweat-inducing hike up monkey mountain

The fabulous and largely untapped national park, in Sri Lanka’s east, can be explored by boat

Staff at Gal Oya prepare a breakfast picnic for guests on the river after a morning exploring the park by jeep

Organised by the lodge, there is a host of awesome activities to choose from, led by the fantastic crew at Gal Oya, comprising Adrian, Shamm and Arun. We started with an evening tour of the local indigenous community (the Veddha) led by the deputy chief of the tribe, who explained their use of medicinal plants, ancient hunting grounds and historic cave dwellings. The following morning we made the short trip into the national park, home to rare birds (such as the blue face malkoha, painted francolin, hoopoe and Indian peafowl), spotted deer, wild boar, monkeys, and, most excitingly, elephants.

Despite the tireless efforts of our driver and guide, Shamm, we did not see any elephants on our first venture during the day and so went back again in the evening for a specially arranged visit. The transformation between day and night in the park is quite remarkable and it is a thing of beauty to sit under the starry night sky and take in the wondrous variety of sounds of the jungle, including the hooting of a collared scops owl, the chirruping of crickets and flickering lights from fireflies. As we left the park for the lodge, we heard a crash in the foliage and the driver immediately killed the engine, switched off the lights and told us to remain silent.

For only yards to our left came the trumpeting call of an elephant, which was a thrilling if nerve-racking experience. We remained motionless as the elephant trampled through the plantation, a few feet from the jeep, before it sidled away and we exited the park. It was a remarkable way to close a spectacular day. After the gruelling hike up monkey mountain with local guide ‘Uncle Pera’, aged 50, who walked the entire way (over sharp rocks and scrubland) barefoot and without breaking sweat, we explored the national park via boat safari.

Under the clear blue sky we bobbed along the lake, taking in the mesmerising views and the beautiful sight of birds including white bellied sea eagles gliding gracefully across the sky until a guide excitedly pointed and shouted ‘Elephant’! And there it was in the distance, a majestic 20-year-old male grazing on the riverbank. We steered the boat as close as we could and sat for half-an-hour watching the elephant, as the sky turned a wonderful shade of red.

It was truly stunning sight and a fitting finale to our stay on the paradise island.


Our return flights – on SriLankan Airlines – cost 478 each.

Theva Residency standard deluxe rooms cost between 76 and 105 for a night, while the most expensive penthouse suites cost between 196 and 303 depending on season and availability. For more information click here1.

Jetwing Vil Uyana cost between 288 (in the garden dwelling) and 439 (in the forest dwelling) a night and the hotel is currently offering a 3 for 2 offer, until October 31. For more information click here2.

Anilana Pasikudah double rooms cost 180 a night. For more information click here3.

Gal Oya Lodge costs 107 a night for a two-person bungalow and 172 for a villa.

For more information click here4.


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