I’ve totally fallen in love with Sri Lanka. Uncrowded beaches, history, culture, adventure, incredible food – the island has it all. But what really stands out is the people. The characters I met were wonderful, helpful and have a great sense of pride in their country.
Our Kuoni travel expert advised a private car driven by an expert guide is one of the best ways to get to know Sri Lanka – and this is so true. If you have an adventurous spirit like me and my husband, this gives you the freedom to stop if you spot something you want to explore en route; and, because you’re with a local, you can take their advice about the area, choosing the very best places to have something amazing to eat.
After creating our adventure, combining the places we wanted to see, we were soon touching down in Sri Lanka and meeting our driver at the airport. As the city limits started to blend into the countryside, his pride, passion and knowledge of the island became clear as we learnt about Sri Lanka’s heritage, natural history and environment.
All Kuoni driver-guides have to complete a course and pass an exam to be an expert guide. Our driver was particularly good at spotting birds and his passion for wildlife transformed the trip for us. We felt very secure with him, as he was professional, reliable and a very good driver! It’s a luxurious and comfortable way to explore and here are a few stand-out moments from our trip…
We told our driver that we wanted to experience the island’s street food because it’s something we love to do on our travels. It wasn’t long before we had pulled over to taste some fresh pineapple being sold on the side of the road, his fresh crop growing behind him. The chap was chopping them up and serving them with spices right there in front of us. It was just brilliant. That was our first experience in Sri Lanka and it really set the tone for the rest of the week.
We also wanted to try hoppers during our trip, a local Sri Lankan dish. Our driver knew this tiny hut where there were three generations of one family: grandmother, mother and granddaughter, creating egg hoppers with homemade chilli sauce. It was absolutely delicious. Being in the countryside at the side of a long, dusty road, chilling out and chatting to the little girl, created such an incredible atmosphere. It was magical.
It’s really important to spend time getting a sense of the history and culture of Sri Lanka and to understand its ancient civilisations. One morning we set off early and visited Sigiriya Rock Fortress. I climbed all the way to the top, which is a little bit hairy at times if you’re scared of heights, but it’s pretty easy. Just take your time and drink lots of water. It is touristy, but if you get there nice and early you’ll be one of the first people to climb it that day; and then you’ll have the rest of the afternoon to do your own thing. The flexibility of having the car and driver means you can arrange your own times. And if you have an early start one day, you don’t have to the next.
We also visited the temples at Dambulla, which are so beautiful. It’s a bit of trek up to the top but it’s lovely to walk in the jungle and through the canopy, before coming across the monastery with a big banyan tree outside. There are reclining Buddhas carved into the rock of the caves and it’s a working monastery where they have chanting every day. It was such a spiritual and grounding experience.
Flying direct with SriLankan Airlines is the perfect introduction to Sri Lanka. The people who checked in our luggage, the flight attendants and the crew were so friendly; it was totally reflective of the island. Business class was phenomenal and our seats turned into comfortable beds, entertainment was great and the food was, of course, fantastic. We were really well looked after.
Jetwing Vil Uyana is unbelievable and one of the finest hotels we’ve stayed at. The beautiful rooms are all on stilts and surrounded by wetlands. They’re made out of wood and so tactile. Our room had a wonderfully private plunge pool that is hidden by tall rushes, making it feel so secluded. You can hear the birds and wildlife and you feel like you’re in the middle of the jungle. It’s just phenomenal. The communal areas – including the main pool that overlooks the water – are sensational, but the best thing about this place is the food. The meals we had here were the most delicious we had on the entire trip. Everything was top notch and nothing was too much to ask for.
We did an elephant safari in Minneriya National Park, which was a really magical experience. We were picked up from the hotel and then we were off along these beautiful bumpy roads. It was a proper adventure. We didn’t see any elephants for a while and I started thinking, what are the chances? Then, all of a sudden, we caught sight of a few. At one point we pulled over for a little break – there’s a rock in the park where you stop for a cup of tea and a biscuit – and we looked down from the viewing platform.
There were so many elephants and we counted about 30 in that one area, including families with little baby elephants all walking together. It was absolutely adorable. Later we saw more crossing the road, so we must have seen over 100 elephants in one day.
We got a light aircraft flight with Cinnamon Air down to Yala, which was an amazing experience. It felt like we were travelling on a private plane. We arrived at Chena Huts in time for sunset and the coastline looked so beautiful. This hotel is the height of luxury: they’ve thought of everything and nothing is too much trouble. It has these beautiful and spacious cabins scattered over the sand dunes, each with its own pool outside; and you’re right at the edge of the national park, so you can join one of the hotel’s morning and evening game drives.
Within 10 minutes of us getting to our room, a family of wild boar walked past and, the following day, we had monkeys drinking our pool water! They’ve even had elephants walk along the beach at times. The restaurant overlooks the sea and one of our meals was served on the beach, which was lit beautifully under the stars. The game keepers then started a fire right on the sand, which really added to the atmosphere.
We went on a game drive first thing in the morning in Yala National Park. Dawn is a really special time to go anywhere, but particularly into a national park. We saw lots of wildlife including elephants and crocodiles; and Yala National Park is one of the best places in the world to see leopards. The couple we were with on the game drive saw some the day before and I would highly recommend staying in Yala for two or three days to increase your chances of seeing one of these amazing creatures.
Well, we had to go and swim in the sea while we were in Sri Lanka! We stayed at Anantara Peace Haven Tangalle, a bigger hotel with loads of food options. It’s the kind of place that you don’t have to leave if you’re happy staying put. There’s lots of entertainment, especially if you’re with a family. As me and my husband are overgrown children, we enjoyed playing pool for an hour or so together. We also walked to the next beach along and had a lovely meal in a beach shack overlooking the sea. It was a fantastic place to end our time on the island. We’d love to come back one day and I have been telling all my friends and family what a special place Sri Lanka is.
I live my life at 100 miles an hour so it was an interesting experiment for me to go to a place like the Maldives where you have no option but to chill out. However, I think it’s so important to realise that there’s nothing wrong with sitting still for a while. There’s something about being kind to yourself and letting yourself relax, even if it’s only for a week. During our time in the Maldives, I allowed myself to be pampered and looked after. I loved every second of it, it was absolute paradise. The start of our holiday was an adventure in itself; we flew to Diamonds Athuruga on a seaplane, a way of travelling that I have never experienced before.
My favourite spot was the spa, I was probably their number one customer that week so they got to know me pretty well. I think I tried everything on the spa menu at least once. We also went snorkelling a lot and I absolutely loved it. But you didn’t even have to snorkel, we had a water villa and saw sharks and rays swim past our villa. You can see it all around you because the water’s so clear. We also stargazed, watched the formidable sunsets and woke up early, moving our sunbeds to the edge of the deck and watching the colours of the sky changing while listening to the lapping ocean waves. Our Maldivian escape was everything we could have asked for.
This feature was updated on 17 June 2020. The information within this feature is correct to the best of our knowledge at the time of print. Interview by Emma Tibbetts