There’s no doubt in our minds that Sri Lanka is one of our favourite countries we’ve visited so far. It’s rare to find somewhere where every aspect is so wonderful; the food, the people, the wildlife, and particularly the scenery, which ranges from the pristine beaches and towering palm trees of the coastline, to the lush, green tea plantations and jagged mountains of the centre. Sri Lanka has something for everyone. With a country so rich and abundant in things to do and places to see, it can be hard to prioritise if your time is limited. We thought long and hard and have put together our Pocket Guide of our five, favourite experiences from our three week trip!
1. Snorkeling with sea turtles, Turtle Bay (Mirissa)
Whilst we were lucky enough to feed the wild turtles (although now semi-tame due to repetitive feeding) at sunrise on Hikkaduwa Beach, we were completely blown away by a chance encounter with five turtles, while snorkeling a short distance from Mirissa.
After a lazy morning spent sunbathing and playing in the sizeable swell off-shore, we decided to walk up to the far left hand side of the beach to Parrot Rock, hire snorkels (which cost 200LKR or £1 per person) and see if we could spot anything beneath the waves. On the instruction of our snorkel lender and with our snorkels in tow, we headed to the left hand side of Parrot Rock and jumped in.
We were initially quite underwhelmed with the murky water and seemingly limited supply of fish and coral, but continued to swim around the bay until we reached a headland, the other side of which is known as “Turtle Bay”.
Hopes for seeing anything at all, fairly low, we swam out to the reef offshore, desperately trying to keep sight of each other bobbing up and down between the waves. We needn’t have been worried. As the name of the bay suggests, we came across two adult turtles within minutes, peacefully feeding side by side on the ocean floor. We have been lucky before with our sightings of animals in the wild, but we were both stunned watching the pair gracefully swim and feed alongside us for some minutes, before disappearing into the gloom of deeper waters.
Hope renewed, we continued snorkeling, enjoying occasional glimpses of fish and coral below. Only a short time later, we were lucky enough to spot another pair of adults turtles and their baby. Although these three stayed with us for only a short time, presumably cautious due to the presence of their offspring, the few moments we spent with them were so special, it was all we needed.
We were snorkeling for less than an hour that day, but spent the rest of the afternoon and evening chatting excitedly about our encounter. While our snorkel lender told us we had been lucky to spot several turtles (many others that day had seen nothing), when the cost of hire is so cheap and given that there is the possibility of such an authentic sighting, we highly recommend heading out to Turtle Bay and taking your chances if you’re staying in Mirissa! Even the torrential downpour we got caught in on our way back to the hostel couldn’t dampen our spirits!
2. Hiriketiya (Horseshoe Bay)
After hearing from various friends and family that the beaches of Sri Lanka were quickly becoming commericialised, we questioned whether there was somewhere we could go where the coastline was still lush, pristine and mostly untouched, but with enough going on for us to not feel isolated. Hiriketiya, or Horseshoe Bay as it is also known, was our answer.
Horseshoe Bay is still easily accessible from the main coastal road which loops around the island. Simply catch a bus to Dikwella, which is about a 30 minute journey South of Mirissa or 20 minutes from the slightly larger Matara, and once there, jump in one of the tuk tuks who always seem to congregate around bus stops; the ride will take about 5 minutes and should cost you no more than 200LKR (90p).
Horseshoe Bay is known for its outer coral reef, which creates the perfect haven for surfers, particularly beginners, as the bay is also protected by two headlands. On a quieter day, like the one we spent there, the small swell is perfect for swimming, snorkeling, and paddle boarding and the water was the bluest we came in across in Sri Lanka!
In terms of infrastructure, there are a number of beach front bars, restaurants and a couple of more boutique eateries set back amongst the trees. We mainly ate down on the beach and admittedly spent most of our time at The Beach House Bar and Restaurant, where they serve amazing wood fired pizza. However, if you aren’t ready for a break from Sri Lankan cuisine, you’ll easily be able to pick up a curry or some fresh seafood.
Hostels and Guesthouses seem to be popping up in the area quite quickly, but we would still recommend booking in advance to avoid disappointment. We stayed at Hiriketiya Surf Homestay, which was a short walk through the palms to the other end of the beach. The rooms were basic but clean, the family were lovely and they served a wonderful breakfast every morning looking over the bay.
We would say that, if you’re looking for a somewhere where your night will carry until the early hours, then Horseshoe Bay may not be for you. It’s great for some daytime or evening drinks, but the whole place tends to shutdown by about 11pm, unless you get lucky and find yourself at one of the bay’s monthly parties (which take place at Dot’s Bay House), which unfortunately we missed by one night!
As you can tell, we absolutely loved Hiri and highly recommend that you add it to your itinerary! Make sure you give yourself at least a few days there – we wished we had longer!
3. Cooking class, Ella
Perhaps surprisingly, doing a cooking class wasn’t something we had decided we would do before arriving in Sri Lanka, but it ended up being one of our favourite experiences.
As we were staying a short walk away from the centre of Ella, we passed a restaurant called Café Crave every day on the way into town. After stopping there for fruit shakes one afternoon, we noticed a cooking class advertised for 1200 LKR PP (around £6). Both keen to add some of the wonderful Sri Lankan cuisine we had tried to our cooking repertoire, we signed up for the lunchtime session the next day.
Bellies grumbling, we headed for Crave and arrived to the welcome drink of tea or coffee and began the class with Athula – as we were the only two who signed up to that session, we had him and the place to ourselves! Pens and paper were provided for note taking, so we set about cooking the five dishes: dal, pumpkin curry, deviled chicken, aubergine chutney and coconut sambal. Whilst admittedly not the most hands-on class (he did the actual cooking), we helped with the prep and he took us through every step, ingredient and action in such detail, we felt as though we had cooked it all ourselves. Athula was really brilliant and even noticed that we were starving (we kept eyeing up dishes we had prepared hungrily) and prepared us some toast and dal to keep us going until all the dishes were ready to eat.
It soon became clear from the wafts rising from the various pots and pans that the result was going to be good, but we had no idea just how good! Two hours later, we sat down at the table, eager to sample our masterpieces. We were not disappointed. Every mouthful was a perfectly spiced, seasoned and cooked delight. We aren’t exaggerating when we say we repeated the phrase, “I can’t believe how good this is”, every 20 to 30 seconds while we ate. The simplicity of the dishes combined with the balance of flavour was so wonderful, that it was hands-down the best meal we had in Sri Lanka, and we ate some amazing food.
We agreed that we would have paid 1200 LKR each just for the curries, but we had the added bonus of learning the secrets behind such brilliance too! Athula even took our email addresses and assured us that he would send through more recipes for us to try the following month.
Whilst there are so many cooking classes to choose from in Sri Lanka, we think you would struggle to match this one for taste, quality and value and highly recommend you pay Crave visit if you are in Ella and have a couple of hours to spare one afternoon or evening. If not, make sure you do your research before choosing a class, then get to ready to learn, cook, eat and enjoy!
4. Safari, Udawalawe National Park
While you’re in Sri Lanka, visiting one of the national parks and doing a safari is a must. There are a number across the country, the more well known being Yala, Udawalawe and Mineriya. Although the possibility of seeing leopards as well as elephants is higher at Yala, we opted to for the safari at Udawalawe, as many a traveler had told us that it was less crowded, cheaper and generally a more authentic experience.
We stayed at Nature View Safari Bungalow, which is around 10 minutes drive south of Udawalawe town itself and 20 minutes drive from the park entrance. The accommodation was basic but clean and very affordable at 650LKR (around £3.50), with breakfast included and the option of dinner for an extra 500LKR (£2.50). We were able to book our safari directly through the hostel at a cost 4700LKR (£22) each, which included the jeep and driver and entrance to the park. You only pay once for the jeep, so if you can, link up with others like we did to keep the costs low!
Yawning and somewhat sleepy, our jeep picked us up at 5am and took us straight to the entrance of the park. It was a cold and windy ride (not to mention bumpy!), so we recommend you take an extra layer even when the temperature in the day is due to hit 30 degrees. We arrived at park at around 530am and joined the queue of jeeps waiting to enter. 15-20 minutes later, we were in!
We spent around a few hours driving round the park at sunrise, which was absolutely breathtaking. We were met by peacocks, a number of groups of elephants grazing, plenty of water buffalo and some very cheeky monkeys! It is important to remember that there will be other jeeps of people enjoying the sights alongside you, but we didn’t feel this detracted from the experience too much and, as before, we have heard that the situation is far better than at Yala!
Overall, the safari was a fantastic experience and definitely a highlight of our trip. We loved being up close with the elephants, grazing and playing together in their natural habitat; it’s definitely not something to be missed! However, we cannot stress enough that you should do your research before booking on to any tours. This should ensure you find a tour company that are experienced and knowledgeable, who can offer you the most unique and special experience possible!
Note: we had heard of the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, near Kandy, before arriving in Sri Lanka. As a concept we thought it sounded great. However, we now feel compelled to mention that several Sri Lankans and numerous reviews and blogs online tell a haunting tale of the conditions in which the elephants live. The picture perfect shots many tourists take of the elephants playing in the water, don’t show the chains which actually hold the elephants there for many hours at a time. Many others are beaten or chained in isolation, out of sight, showing often extreme signs of stress. While we chose not to go and therefore cannot speak from personal experience, it appears to have become little more than a money-making tourist trap and we would urge you to do your research before visiting. Especially when Sri Lanka offers such amazing opportunities to see these majestic animals roaming free!
5. Pidurangala Rock
Before we arrived in Sri Lanka, we knew we would be visiting the cultural triangle, consisting of Polonnaruwa, Sigirya and Anuradhapura (and several other places around Dambulla and Habarana). The triangle is home to six of Sri Lanka’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including all of those mentioned above, and boasts a large proportion of the country’s historical significance.
Probably the most famous of these is Sigiriya, also known as the Lion Rock. Sigiriya is King Kasyapa’s ancient rock fortress which sits about 20km north west of the large town of Dambulla, in central province of Sri Lanka and stands around 200m high. Both through word of mouth and various reviews, we also became aware of the less well known Pidurangala Rock; a rock of similar size about 1km from Sigiriya, which costs only 500LKR (£2.50) to climb and is far less touristy. Sigiriya, on the other hand, will set you back 4600LKR (£20).
We set up camp in Habarana, which is about 20km north of Dambulla and right in the middle of the triangle. We stayed at Bangawala Guest House, which was a ten minute walk from the town centre and housed several bright and clean ensuite rooms with air con, for the reasonable rate of 3400LKR (£17.50) per night. The day after our arrival, we arranged for a tuk tuk driver to pick us up at 8am and agreed a price of 2000LKR (£10) for the return journey to Pidurangala – one way journey time is about 15 minutes. After the climb we noticed that there were some tuks tuks waiting at the bottom, so we probably could have just jumped in one of them and saved on costs, but we weren’t keen on being stranded there for hours if none were around!
When we arrived at Pidurangala, we were the only people there. It’s important to remember to cover your legs and shoulders when climbing, as, unlike Sigirya, it is home to a small Buddhist temple (if you forget on the day, you can hire a sarong!). The climb itself took around 25 minutes. The first 15 minutes are marked by stairs and are manageable for people of most levels of fitness, however, as you near the top the terrain becomes slightly trickier; there isn’t such a clear path and there are a few rocks and boulders to negotiate. We suggest taking this into account if you are travelling with children or have a lower level of fitness, as the last few minutes are more akin to moderate rock climbing than hiking!
When we reached the top we were one of about 10 others there, which is what really made the experience for us and why it felt so special, particularly as we could see queues of tourists winding up the stairs on Sigiriya from the top! The views of Sigiriya and the surrounding areas were stunning and undoubtedly worth the climb. From every angle the landscape is beautiful, and having such a clear view of Sigiriya from afar brought it home to us what an incredible piece of culture we were witnessing and the lengths so many must have gone to, to engineer and complete such a unique piece of architecture.
The only downside is that we didn’t actually see the fortress itself close up, which we’ve heard is really spectacular. If you’re on a budget, Pidurangala is a great alternative, but given the history of Sigiriya, our advice would be if you have the time and the money, make sure you do both!
Think we missed something or found this helpful? Get in touch!