Sri Lanka is a beautiful place that you should visit in your next vacation. The rolling greens of tea plantations, the endless Indian ocean, the friendly people and the pocket friendly choices for accommodation and food are reasons you should consider it for your next holiday.
Sri Lanka is very well visited by the Indians (due to proximity) and the Europeans (due to its British colonial history and it’s cheap prices?) but not so by Singaporeans. When we were there, we were the few Southeast Asians roaming about and everyone assumed we were from China. Sri Lanka is an up and coming travel destination and my advice is to go there asap before the prices start going up!!
There has been outpouring of investments into Sri Lanka due to the immense potential for growth ever since the civil war ended in 2008. Lots of luxury holiday destinations are being built up and lots of jobs are being created for the Sri Lankan. In fact, Tourism is one of their top national incomes. So go there before it becomes overcrowded like Bali and overly touristy!
However, be warned that it is still a developing country and hence the travel conditions are less than ideal. For example, the roads in the central highlands are extremely winding because they follow the natural contours of the hills, or it is likely that the road leading into your hotel (even if it is a 5 star one) is a dirt road suitable for only one vehicle to pass.
Since Sri Lankan is not very popular in Singapore yet and finding information may be confusing at times, I’ve compiled my To-See, To-Live, To-Eat list, in addition to some advice.
My 8-day itinerary was as such-
arrive at 12am from Singapore
stay overnight at Airport Green Hotel
2 nights in Stafford Bungalows (near Nuwara Eliya)
2 nights in an Ella Airbnb
1 night in Jetwing Yala
2 nights in Hotel Calamander Unawatuna
As you can see, we made a loop travelling from Colombo to the central highlands, then down South before returning to Colombo. If I had to choose my favourite place, it would have been Nuwara Eliya. Maybe because I am more of a green, hilly, mountain-ey kind of person rather than a beach person. Before I start rambling on, let me share with you my lists.
1. Tea plantations around Nuwara Eliya
These tea plantations are on hill after hill as you drive through the Central Highlands. Take your pick as to which plantation you would like to visit. As we were staying in Stafford Bungalows, we had a morning tour around their own tea plantation and also visited the nearby Pedro plantation. Some would charge you for a factory tour, my advice is to just do it once to see the machinery and the processing of tea leaves. It is quite an interesting learning process!
After finishing with the factory tour, you should walk around the tea plantations to see the women plucking the tea leaves. It’s incredibly hard work as they carry 10kg of tea leaves on their back while plucking leaves at lightning speed under the hot sun. A lady showed us her hands and they were all callused up ): And she was only 30 years old. You can take a photo with them, but they expect a fee. I would encourage you to take a photo with them and stop to talk to them for a while, they are really friendly. It’s okay to give them some money also especially because their wages are low, they earn about US$5 for 4h of plucking. They can work in the morning from about 8am -12pm and then afternoon from 2-6pm, so you are most likely going to bump into them!
I would give Finlays tea factory at Ella (near 98 Acres Resort) a miss because the staff were one of the most unfriendly Sri Lankans we met (that is an achievement in itself) and the green tea they produced tasted terrible. Furthermore, you have to pay for the tea-tasting! The Finlays green tea is different from the Japanese green tea we are used to, the aroma is much milder and the stronger ones leave a bitter aftertaste.
2. The beautiful Southern Coastline
Stop and stay at any of the coastal towns just to enjoy the ocean breeze and marvel at the incredible Indian Ocean. I stayed at Unawatuna, which is deemed as one of the most beautiful beaches in Sri Lanka. It had a touristy vibe to it because there were many homestays and seafood restaurants on the beach, but the beach itself was indeed lovely. If you want a nice relaxing beach holiday with cocktails in the evenings and lots of food choices, then Unawatuna is for you. Lots of people were sun-bathing and bobbing in the waters throughout the day. Swimming is not advised because the waves are really strong and there wasn’t a lifeguard in sight.
If you want to learn surfing, you can try it at Welligama where there are lots of surf schools. From the road, we could see lots of beginners tumbling with the waves. If you would like to do whale-watching, you can visit Mirissa. We gave whale-watching a miss because we were concerned about safety, since it was a developing country and the Indian Ocean is a scary place (we are scaredy cats).
3. Moonstone Mines or other Gem Mines
Sri Lanka is rich in semi-precious stones, so ladies, this is an opportunity for your guy to splurge on you. There is a whole range of semi-precious stones that can be found, from pink topaz to the blue sapphire. These semi-precious stones are considered inexpensive jewellery but they are pretty, so they are used as costume jewellery.
If you are driving around Sri Lanka, then there will be mines along the roads for you to visit, or ask your driver to bring you to one (they definitely know a place). Our driver brought us to a Moonstone Mine which was really interesting because they showed us the whole process, from collecting the gravel and stones from 12m underground using a pulley system, to washing and separating the moonstones from the rest of the stones/ sand to cutting and embedding it. The tour ended with a visit to their shop where lots of jewellery were on sale. The prices are definitely much cheaper than what you would get elsewhere (at least for Singapore), with a huge moonstone ring setting you back by about 40USD.
If you do not have the opportunity to visit a mine but would still like to purchase some gems, then it is advisable to go to a reputable shop with a certificate from the government, so that you are assured that the gems are real. Make sure to ask for a certificate when you buy your gem.
1. Stafford Bungalows
One of the most beautiful places I have stayed at in all my travels. The drive to Stafford Bungalows was extremely long from Colombo, especially because Stafford is a 1h drive from Nuwara Eliya. However, the long drive was worth it. Upon entering the gates of the bungalow, you are greeted by the sight of trees, blooming flowers and the tea plantation. The garden was my favourite place to relax at, and the Management encourages guests to do so. They placed comfortable lounging chairs in the garden for you to soak in the surroundings, and serve breakfast and afternoon tea in the garden. One night’s price includes afternoon tea, a 4-course dinner, breakfast and morning and evening walks.
2. Jetwing Yala
When we first entered the hotel, all that we could utter was ‘wow’. The view was unparalleled; you had the Indian Ocean right in front of you at almost every corner of the hotel. Being situated near Yala National Park, it is not uncommon for hotel guests to spot elephants and wild boars roaming around the hotel grounds. Unfortunately for me, the elephants did not come say hi to me, because they already visited the previous night ): Hopefully, you would have more luck!
Also, the facilities were great, the furnishing was modern, the swimming pool was well-maintained and there were beach chairs for you to laze around by the ocean. The dining experience was memorable too! For dinner, we sat under the stars in the open air while feasting on freshly grilled seafood. The hotel prides itself in getting most of its ingredients from their own organic farm and making their own curd. I loved their curd! My greatest regret of the trip was that we only stayed here for 1 night. I would definitely be back!
Even if you aren’t interested in going for the safari, many people still stay here to relax because it is away from the hustle and bustle of beach life and the service is impeccable. In fact, we were not very impressed by the Safari because there weren’t many animals to see. Even though we saw the elusive leopard from afar, most of our time was spent driving around the national park trying to spot animals. There are definitely better Safaris out there in the world, so if you’ve been to one already, I would say, just give this a miss.
3. Airport Green Hotel
Run by a local and recently refurbished 1 year ago, this place was a good resting spot right after we landed at 12am. It is located just 10 minutes away from the airport and has 3 rooms. The rooms are clean, the local breakfast of hoppers and eggs provided was yummy and the owner was very friendly and helpful too!
1. Grand Indian at Grand Hotel, Nuwara Eliya
The best Indian food I have ever eaten.
That statement shall be kept there until I visit India. But this meal was so satisfying. Fresh naan with butter chicken and really delicious tandoori chicken at great prices – what more could you ask for????? You have to try this place if you are in Nuwara Eliya.
Price: $$ ($10-$15 per person)
2. AK Ristoro, Ella
This restaurant is set up by a local who married a Japanese lady, and serves Italian and Japanese fare. We did not try the Japanese fare but we tried their pastas, twice. We came back for two consecutive nights because the pastas were so delicious. Their kitchen is an open one, so you get to watch the Sri Lankan chefs whip up your al dente pasta.
They have lots of sauces / ingredients available but the most memorable combination that we tried were – anchovies and cabbage aglio olio,
Price: $$ ($10-$15 per person)
3. Galle Face Hotel Sea Spray, Colombo
I would travel to Colombo just to eat at this place again, and actually live at the beautiful Galle Face Hotel. As the flights home to Singapore were at a strange timing of 1am, we had the opportunity to dine at the Sea Spray restaurant in the Galle Face Hotel. It was ironic that even though we spent 2 nights along the beach in Unawatuna, the best seafood we ate was actually found in the city Colombo. Another ironic thing is that you can’t find the famous huge Sri Lankan crabs in Sri Lanka because all of them are exported, so what’s left are tiny crabs. Anyway, what I loved about this restaurant was their sides. Their rice was cooked so fancifully, I could just devour the entire bowl. They also serve homemade bread in the shape of fish (!!) with fancy butter. Yum! And of course, the seafood was fresh and the tuna steak was done perfectly with a perfect price of $13.
Price: $$$ ($20-$30 per person)