Having visited Sri Lanka many times before, it may have been considered a poor choice for this year’s family holiday. However, due to the Civil War and time restrictions, we had only previously seen the central and southern provinces, leaving the north and east of the country untouched. Seeing these new regions of the country was an incredible and varied experience, displaying the breath-taking topography of the island.
We were lucky to have my Dad who spoke Sinhala and who visits the island annually to be our personal guide, but we found that our drivers knew lots about the island too and were keen to share their knowledge.
The first leg of our road trip took us to Kalpitiya in the North West about 3 hours’ drive from Negombo, where we stayed at the Horizon Kitesurfing Beach Resort. The resort was made up of small cabanas, each with a double bed and an outdoor ensuite bathroom. The staff were very friendly and the location incredible with all the cabanas overlooking the gorgeous pool and with an ocean view, making the rather long wait for food tolerable through strolls on the beach. We saw donkeys and lots of fishing boats at Kalpitya and stopped off at St Anne’s Catholic shrine en route and along the long narrow spit of land bordering the sea and lagoon the dry zone area was dotted with fishing villages and salt pans and featured some very impressive modern wind turbo mills. From the resort the next morning at 4:30am we hopped onto our vehicle to travel to Wilpattu Safari Park. We spent the early morning with our eyes peeled to spot creatures big and small including numerous peacocks; giant squirrel; mongoose; deer; a crocodile; eagles; a huge owl and monitor lizards.
The jeep safari lasts around four hours and is best to go in the early hours of the morning to see most animals. You are also provided with a small breakfast. There was a short break to stretch our legs during our safari adventure where we were surrounded by monkeys who, as we stood and watched the monkeys playing in the trees above our jeeps, jumped right into our jeep and stole our View from Horizon Kitesurfing Beach Resort restaurant breakfast! We decided it was time to resume the safari. After driving for four hours and eyes becoming heavy, we began to mentally end our wildlife experience, but our driver continued around the park until we saw a sloth bear. We all suddenly perked up and watched in amazement as the bear (which is a rare sight even in this wildlife park) came closer to our jeep. It was an incredible creature to see in the wild and rounded up our safari experience happily.
We then headed up to Jaffna and stopped off at the Sacred City of Anuradhapura one of Sri Lanka’s ancient capitals and boasts the world’s oldest tree!
Jaffna is in the very far north of the country and the culture changes quite drastically from down south. Being a Tamil region, everything from the language to the cuisine is very different. It was fascinating witnessing this change gradually having started our journey from Colombo. The climate was a lot hotter up north and dryer, whereas in July and August the west coast is a lot cooler and overcast. Jaffna as a city was particularly interesting as there were remnants of bombed buildings from the Civil War. The city reminded me of India more than Sri Lanka and was noticeably dirtier, smellier, and less developed compared to the South. We stayed at Jetwing Jaffna which was a very comfortable stay, the rooms were large and luxurious, and staff greeted us with tilak immersing us in the Tamil culture. However, the hotel did not have a pool although the other Jetwing in the city (Jetwing North Gate) did. Jaffna Fort was fascinating, but the heat made it difficult to walk around in the direct sun. Jaffna Public Library, having been burnt down in the war was an important place to visit and see how well it has been rebuilt.
The streets and markets were quite frenetic, but all part of the experience. We visited Nallur Kandaswamy Temple which was very impressive. Men have to take their shirts off and photography inside the temple is prohibited, but it was a fascinating experience to witness devout Hindus asking for blessings at the temple and the incredible architecture and artworks.
From Jaffna we took our vehicle across a causeway to a small port where we had the option of a private speedboat or a public boat which we thought was run by the navy. The latter Sloth bear in Wilpattu Safari Park option was of course a lot cheaper, so we decided to go for that but as we boarded the ship, we noticed that it was not run by the navy and there were no seats, just a plank of wood in the middle.
We were fairly surprised but decided to stick with it, however as time went on we were not given lifejackets and then people started to put motorbikes onto the boat making it very unstable and we decided to opt for the more expensive, but private and safe speedboat. Firstly, we went to Delft Island which was an amazing place with a small population and wild horses. The walls bordering properties were made from white coral from the ocean and there were colonial remnants of a Dutch hospital. We then headed to Nagadipa Island which was nearby but a lot larger. We docked onto a pedestrian causeway which led to a Buddhist temple which charged foreigners for entry and with it being so hot and having a good view of the temple without entering it, we decided to forego that exploration.
A friendly Tuk Tuk driver took us around the whole island for a competitive price and spoke about island life which was fascinating. The visits to these islands was a special part of the trip as it was such a different environment to mainland Sri Lanka
For those marine animal lovers, Trincomalee offers a brilliant place to see dolphins and whales in the right season. This was the next leg of our journey to the east of the country. Our hotel, Skandig Beach Resort was in an incredible location with its own private beach. The hotel itself was rather basic with the restaurant more like a University canteen. The rooms were comfortable and had amazing views of the ocean and the pool below, however the bathrooms had a drain-like smell. The hotel organised a whale watching expedition for us, so at 6am we walked down to the private beach expecting a large boat but found two young men with a speedboat. Of course, these boats are not designed to go far out enough to see whales, but we saw lots of dolphins and seeing the sun rise above the ocean was beautiful. For those set on seeing whales, ensure you research reputable providers ahead of time with experienced naturalists and proper vessels.
We finished our tour of Trincomalee with a visit to Fort Frederick to see the Military fort and we also made a visit to the Commonwealth War Graves outside the city.
We headed over to Passikudah in the night to find our hotel Kayjay Beach House which was difficult to locate down numerous winding roads. When we finally arrived, we were told that we shouldn’t stay here by the staff as a guest had a fever which was contagious. They sent us to a partner hotel called Earls Passikudah which I found to be very basic and poorly designed with the bathroom door bashing into the sink as you open it. It was located right next to a bar, so drunk men would linger outside the hotel and parties were going on inside the hotel; more of a backpacker’s gap year stop over rather than a taste of luxury. The next morning, we took a glass-bottomed boat out to a coral reef where we snorkelled and saw the most incredibly coloured fish, this was the highlight of my trip as I had never snorkelled before and the schools of fish were breath-taking.
Our last leg of our road trip took us to Habarana where, in the middle of the road in the night, we saw a wild elephant! We stayed at the Ambasewana Hotel which was extremely rustic in feel with palm thatched cabanas with double beds and a very natural welcome message on them. Again, there were outdoor bathrooms and you were completely immersed in the jungle. The staff were very friendly and cooked us an amazing traditional breakfast of hoppers, which we enjoyed in a private gazebo and it really felt like we were living the Sri Lankan experience. On our way back to Colombo we climbed Sigiriya Rock and we all had a Sri Lanka Village experience travelling on a Bullock Cart, an Oruwa boat and tuk tuk. We visited a cadjan mud hut where we watched coconut palm plaiting, and delicious roti and sambol being made, which we also ate with a fragrant and refreshing hibiscus flower tea.
After Sigiriya, we visited Dambulla Cave Temple with its myriad of caves and Buddha statues and Golden seated Buddha. Our trip also included a visit to Polonnaruwa Sri Lankas 2nd Ancient Capital and we were fascinated by the remains of a thriving culture with beautiful palaces, stupas and the famous Gal Vihara Buddha statues too. This was a brilliant place to end our trip as we had seen the modern cities of Colombo and Jaffna, the nautical islands of Delft and Nagadipa, the coastal resorts of Trincomalee and Pasikudah, and the rustic jungle experience of Habarana. The number of activities you can do in Sri Lanka is mind-blowing, making it such a brilliant destination as there is something for everyone. Our group of six included me (21) my brother (17), mum and dad and two of our family friends from the UK (in their 50s). I’d like to thank Magical Paradise Tours and would recommend anyone of any age and any interest to visit this island of varied adventure.