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Journey into the Heart of Sri Lanka

There's much more to Sri Lanka, other than beautiful beaches, as a visit to the interior shows.

by Rupert Parker
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 If you can tear yourself away from the beautiful coastline of Sri Lanka for a few days, then you’ll be amply rewarded with natural wonders, archaeological delights and huge herds of elephants. Not forgetting the best cup of tea you’ll ever taste. The country is relatively small, about the size of Wales, yet accessing the highlands on winding roads takes longer than you think.

My journey starts at the International airport then runs northeast across the plains to Lion Rock. It then turns south and climbs up into the highlands to Kandy, the old capital. From there it climbs further to the tea lands, home to the finest cuppa you’ll taste, before descending back southwest to the beaches of Bentota.


It’s around four hours from the International Airport to Sigirya, the Lion Rock, rising up from the central plains. This Rock Fortress or “castle in the sky” was a royal citadel for 20 years in the 5th Century. It’s a massive monolith of red stone that rises 200m above ground and the climb to the summit is reached between the giant stone paws of a lion.

View from Sigiriya

On top, the remnants of the upper palace come into view. There’s not much left here apart from foundations, but it must have been impressive. The view from here is stunning, with landscaped waterways and lakes spread out below. On the way down there are well preserved frescoes depicting the “heavenly maidens,” topless ladies floating on the clouds.

Minneriya National Park


There are a number of protected areas in the vicinity and Minneriya, an hour away, is known for hosting one of the largest gatherings of Asian elephants in the world. This spectacular event, known as “The Gathering,” occurs during the dry season, typically from June to October. As water sources dwindle, herds of elephants, converge on the lush grasslands around the Minneriya Tank to quench their thirst and feed.

It has all the ingredients of an African safari as you transfer to special vehicles to journey to the ancient reservoir, built in the 3rd century.  I arrive in late afternoon and am rewarded by the sight of over 250 elephants milling around on the edge of the water, some of them taking the opportunity to have an early evening bath, as the sun sinks below the horizon.


Kandy Lake

Three hours away, in the central hill country, Kandy was the capital of Sinhalese Kings from 1592 to 1815. The town rests on the shores of an artificial lake, surrounded by green hills on all sides, and it’s an attractive place. Stepping into the Temple of the Tooth is like entering a portal to a bygone era. The temple’s history dates back to the 16th century, and was established to enshrine the left canine tooth of Lord Buddha, brought from India.

The temple’s exterior is a profusion of red-tiled roofs and golden spires surrounded by a moat adding to the sense of sanctity. Inside, the main chamber is adorned with breath-taking Kandyan frescoes, colourful murals, and shimmering glass lamps. This is where the sacred relic is kept and worshippers queue to see the monks opening the sanctum twice a day.

Nuwara Eliya

A scenic three hour train ride climbs up through lush green tea plantations to Nuwara Eliya, established by the British in 1846. It’s known as Little England, with houses straight out of Surrey, complete with hedges and manicured lawns. There’s even a race course and of course, a huge golf course with appropriate club house.

The Pedro Tea Estate was established in the late 19th century by Scottish planter, James Taylor. The estate’s colonial-era bungalows and the iconic white tea factory evoke a sense of nostalgia. Outside you can pick tea leaves from the manicured bushes, then inside see the various stages of production – withering, rolling, fermenting, and drying before enjoying a tutored tea tasting.


A long five hour drive, through the mist, down to the south west coast reaches the unspoiled beaches of Bentota. The clear blue waters provide an ideal setting for snorkeling and scuba diving and there are plenty of water sports opportunities here. The Madu River, where it meets the ocean, is perfect for jet-skiing, windsurfing, and parasailing. A boat trip up-river through mangroves and tropical forest offers sightings of many bird species, crocodiles and colourful fish.

The Lunuganga Estate, the former country residence of renowned Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa, is open to visitors. This beautifully landscaped garden is a work of art, featuring a collection of exotic plants, terraced lawns, and stunning vistas. It’s a place where nature meets architecture in perfect harmony. Even better you can stay at the hotel he designed, right by the sea.


INFO: Sri Lanka Travel has tourist information.

GO: Tailormade travel and long-haul specialists, Hayes & Jarvis, offer a range of bespoke tours to Sri Lanka starting from around £1,999 per person for eight nights (excl. international flights). Call their team of travel experts on +44 20 8106 2403.

Sri Lankan Airlines flies daily from London’s Heathrow to Colombo non-stop.

STAY: Aliya Resort and Spa is close to Sigirya and has excellent facilities.

The Kandy House has a handful of rooms in a heritage building with good food.

Heritance Tea Factory is inside a tastefully converted factory in Nurawa Elia.

Cinnamon Bentota Beach has pools, beach and water sports with an array of cuisines.


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