Sri Lanka Magic
A journey through Sri Lanka shows off the island's natural gems, from verdant forests and exotic wildlife to pristine beaches and tranquil waters.
A designated biodiversity hot spot of the world, Sri Lanka is where leopards roam freely as the top predator in the jungles, sprawling mountainscapes are home to Ceylon tea, and life stops for cricket. ‘Many moons ago on a safari, we fell in love with one of the last great outdoors of Asia,’ says Chamintha Jayasinghe who started a bespoke travel company, Ayu in the Wild Holidays, with her husband Rajindra, after years of exploring this uniquely beautiful land. ‘When your holiday is designed by people who head out at dawn to look for journeys that travellers wouldn’t find themselves, it can mean the difference between a good trip and a great one.’
There are countless opportunities for discovery on the Indian Ocean island with eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites – where ruins of royal kingdoms, rock carvings and Buddhist stupas are evidence of a deeply rooted culture – and Ayu in the Wild Holidays navigates the land effortlessly, ensuring every traveller experiences a personally curated journey.
We asked Chamintha and Rajindra to take us through a tour of Sri Lanka with Ayu in the Wild Holidays.
Into the West
Ayu in the Wild Holidays creates a special brand of bespoke holiday, giving immersive experiences that connect travellers with life on this island. It inspires its visitors with personally curated experiences of outdoor Sri Lanka, most of which are not in any guidebook. This starts the moment you land at the airport, where you’re met by your official chauffeur. The coastal city of Negombo is minutes away and soon you’ve headed off down the west coast of the island, where it’s all about small-town beach living – from the abundance of fresh seafood to the sandy coastline.
A first night is best spent at the ultra-serene Jetwing Lagoon. The Negombo lagoon laps up right next to this hotel, which means tranquillity is hard-built into an experience here. On sunny days, you might be found languishing on the loungers next to the pool or visiting the Ayurveda and Spa for an indulgent treatment. Rooms are swathed in an earthy palette of brown, cream and white, with that crisp sort of bed linen you’re inclined to nosedive into after a day of doing a lot of … well, nothing.
Contemporary style is found in the 139 rooms and suites of the Heritance Negombo hotel, where Ayu in the Wild Holidays ends its eight-night tour. Accommodation at this modern hotel is chic and sophisticated, with rooms that celebrate the area’s heritage. It’s the perfect place for a little refresh before a long haul back home, but first, it’s time to explore Colombo. The cosmopolitan and commercial capital of Colombo is no longer a pit stop on your way to other, more alluring parts of Sri Lanka. As you drive through the alleyways in the old quarters, you begin to realise that this island is a potpourri of religions, livelihoods and influences that colour the island’s life.
A two-hour drive from Colombo is the quintessential beach town of Hikkaduwa. Fringed by a verdant brush of palm trees, the busy beaches are host to bat-and-ball-warring friends, snorkelling families and spread-eagled sun-worshippers. The opulent Villa 46 is one of these beautiful attractions. Located a short way from the bustling beachfront, it’s a private space owned by Sri Lankan cricketer Marvan Atapattu (it was named after his personal test cricket number). Four luxuriously appointed en suite bedrooms – named Araliya, Orchid, Nelum and Manel – boast supremely comfortable king-sized beds and seating areas. Free time can be spent poolside or in the communal lounge while catching up on a bit of reading.
The Southern coast is just one slice of the island’s amazing 1 340km coastline, where you can find picturesque beaches and take guided boating safaris to spot blue whales. Explore the eclectic 400-year-old Galle Fort with its sweeping views of the Galle International cricket stadium, and see how locals meander alongside jewellers, artists, foodies and writers within its historic walls.
A drive through the coastal towns leads you to the jungles of Sri Lanka and an adventure waiting to be discovered at the luxurious Jetwing Yala, the beacon of the deep south. Set amid untamed nature and sweeping sand dunes, the hotel is committed to sustainable practices. A private game drive through Yala National Park is a treat, especially when there are leopards on the prowl. Your own personal Ayu in the Wild Holidays guide will offer insights into the nesting and breeding habits of birds, the social behaviour of elephants, the predatory lifestyles of the cats and incredible titbits about sloth bears, crocodiles, monkeys, wild buffalo and more. There’s a reason why this island, which is just over three times the size of the Kruger National Park, is one of the best destinations for wildlife outside Africa.
One of the world’s most scenic train rides will whisk you through the beautiful cloud-covered hills of the Central Highlands to the Heritance Tea Factory in Nuwara Eliya, the only tea factory in the world to be converted into a hotel. Housed in the factory’s old lofts (where tea leaves were laid out to dry), the hotel rooms retain their heritage with original wooden features, locally sourced furnishings and big windows, which once aided with the drying of the leaves and let in plenty of natural sunlight. Guests are able to book a dinner in the converted railway-carriage restaurant as well as hand-pluck their own tea (both of these are offered as optional extras).
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The secrets of the last Royal Kingdom of Sri Lanka await you in Kandy as you join throngs of people to offer a poojah at the beautiful Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic – Sri Dalada Maligawa – where the sacred tooth relic of Lord Buddha is enshrined in golden caskets. Appropriately majestic, the 100-year-old Mountbatten Bungalow is believed to be one of the residences of Lord Mountbatten. It infuses Victorian charm with a twist of modern comforts and the splendour of a bygone era transcends into every corner of this boutique hotel and lush gardens.
The real secrets of this island, though, are in the very hospitable Sri Lankans’ humble abodes, in which you learn the arts, crafts and customs of the ancestors. The kind, welcoming people are the soul of this island. English, even a smattering of it, is widely spoken making conversations easy. Even if not a conversation, everyone is quick with a smile and a helpful suggestion. This island of 20 million also has rhythm. In Kandy, a famed local dance teacher whose ancestors have been dancing for centuries in the annual Kandy Esala Perahera to pay homage to the tooth relic in one of the world’s oldest processions, will teach you the art of drumming and dance in person.
Up in another royal kingdom in Sigiriya, you can mix up aromatic spices in a wood-fired kitchen to learn how to cook a delicious Sri Lankan curry. Waking up at dawn is easy when you’re off to trek to the Sigiriya Lion Rock fortress, built by a king in the 5th century 600 feet up in the sky. Sigiriya lies in the North Central region where you can safari between July and September to witness the world-famous elephant gathering billed by the Lonely Planet as one of the world’s best wildlife spectacles.
The sun sets on your island trip at an ecolodge bordering two streams in Sigiriya. The Back of Beyond Dehigahaela is utterly Sri Lankan and food for your soul. Treehouses and boulder cottages, equipped with just the right comforts are hidden in the forest around a magical lotus-filled pond with darting kingfishers. Wander down to tumbling streams and climb up to your personal treehouse to contemplate on this mystical island with one of the world’s oldest living cultures, where your holiday was about connecting with an island, her people and their ways.
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This Sri Lanka itinerary was put together by Ayu in the Wild Holidays. Run by Chamintha and Rajindra Jayasinghe, the company offers bespoke travel experiences in which you’re able to travel deeper and see how locals really live.