The Perfect Itinerary For a Week in Sri Lanka

One of 2019's hottest destinations is the richly layered island of Sri Lanka.

Remy Bernhardt, Nina Brooke, Dayle Kavonic, Supplied
Sri Lanka | House and Leisure
Mamma Shanti guest house in Ella.


Here’s the thing about Sri Lanka: it doesn’t necessarily grip you on arrival. The commercial capital, Colombo, which lies just south of Bandaranaike International Airport, is a colourful, cosmopolitan place, but it offers little hint of the wonders that rest beyond its bounds. The real charm of the island unfolds in waves as you wind your way inland, passing roadside stalls, smiling school children, temples and tuk-tuks, as the journey unwraps dense forests and misty peaks, valleys and streams like precious gifts.

Sri Lanka Days 1-3: Ella

Sri Lanka | House and Leisure

It would seem all roads that snake away from Sri Lanka’s shoreline ultimately lead to Ella, a delightful town in Hill Country that, being fairly centrally located, is a fine first stop. Once a sleepy village hugging a single road, the area has, in less than two years, exploded outwards, thanks in no small part to its position at the end of the legendary train route from Kandy further north. Its main artery is cheerful and bustling, and home to cafés, bars, curio shops and traditional Ayurvedic spas, but if you prefer a little breathing space, it’s best to base yourself a few minutes outside of town amid the alluring silence and intense greenery of the tea plantations.

For complete seclusion, there’s Mamma Shanti, a guest house and yoga retreat run by a young South African woman, but if you want to be closer to the main attractions – Ella Rock, Little Adam’s Peak and Nine Arch Bridge, an engineering marvel – book into a Deluxe Cabana at Ella Flower Garden Resort. Opportunities to hike abound, and you can’t depart without stepping inside a working tea factory: Dambatenne is a favourite and lies just 6km below the famed Lipton’s Seat lookout point. For dining with a view, there’s nowhere better than the restaurant at 98 Acres Resort & Spa. At this sophisticated hillside property, you can also enjoy one of Sri Lanka’s finest massages while gazing out at an endless ripple of peaks and vales.

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Sri Lanka Days 4-6: Hiriketiya Bay

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While the highlands serve as Sri Lanka’s cool, emerald yin, the nation’s coast is its balmy, easy-breezy yang, and it would be close on sinful to leave this part of the country off even the tightest of itineraries. But here’s a vital word of advice: don’t chase the tourist pack to the likes of Arugam Bay or Hikkaduwa; instead, journey south from Ella to the often-overlooked cove of Hiriketiya. Hidden somewhere between the more established coastal towns of Tangalle and Mirissa like a carefully guarded secret, this idyllic bay has managed to hold tight to its rampant natural beauty while also welcoming a smattering of civilisation – a few boutique hotels and a handful of beachside eateries and bars. Mangrove swamps and tropical jungle thrive amid local residences and villas, and a dense brush of coconut palms skirts a horseshoe-shaped curl of sand – the cup for swim- and surf-perfect waters.

In Hiriketiya, you’ll wake to the calls of peacocks and parakeets. You’ll break bread – or, more likely, a spicy dal curry and coconut roti – while watching toque macaque monkeys (they are endemic to Sri Lanka) leap from rooftop to branch. And then, around mid-morning, you’ll roll onto the beach, where you’ll probably remain, seesawing between cocktails and ocean dips until the sky turns salmon and the shoreline restaurants switch on their fairy lights. Dozy as it may be, the area is base to a fair amount of evening activity – there’s live music at Dots Bay House almost every weekend, for example – and as the community here is rather small, it’s a great place to engage with the locals, who deal in warmth, optimism and generosity.

Handy Hiriketiya Tips

  • Travel to Hiriketiya via taxi from Ella’s main road – rates are fairly reasonable.
  • Stay at Jasper House, Salt House, Verse Collective or Mango House, where management will cook up a curry-centric Sri Lankan feast for dinner on request.
  • Dine at the Salt House restaurant (try the mahi-mahi fillet), Dots Bay House and The Grove, and pick up traditional Sri Lankan roti and kothu street food at the Roti Hut.
  • Book a morning yoga class at Salt House or Dots Bay House, and a surf lesson through one of the small academies based on the beach.
  • Pack mosquito repellent (this is a tropical paradise, after all), a torch (for walking around at night) and a good book.  
Sri Lanka | House and Leisure
Surfers on the beach at Hiriketiya Bay.
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Sri Lanka Day 7: Galle Fort

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Less than 100km west of the bay and a two-hour drive south of Colombo is Galle Fort, edged by the Indian Ocean and the city of Galle. The proximity of this historic town-within-a-town to the airport makes it an ideal final destination on a Sri Lankan trip, as does its reputation as the best place to shop on the island (leave the buying to last, right?).

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the fort feels like an ancient European city frozen in time. The crisscross of slim streets and alleyways, the fortified walls and bastions, the clock tower, the lighthouse, the colonnades – they’ve all been preserved (or restored) since the Dutch first occupied the area in the 1600s.

The only change has been the conversion of colonial homes and administrative buildings into a vibrant selection of boutiques, cafés, ice cream parlours and accommodation. Jewellery shops grace almost every corner, and you could easily get lost within the walls of stores like  Exotic Roots, Barefoot, The Three by TPV and KK The Collection, where you can pick up locally made textiles, artworks, hand-painted pottery, crockery, glassware, clothing and other collectables.

When the heat starts to overwhelm the senses – it tends to lie over the town like a blanket – seek relief in any of several courtyard restaurants and coffee shops. And later, as the day cools, you’ll find a sea-facing bar upstairs at the Dutch Hospital shopping precinct the perfect resting place from which to contemplate the peace that settles over the fort, and the island it calls home, when darkness begins to fall.

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Sri Lanka | House and Leisure
Mamma Shanti guest house in Ella.