Sri Lanka is a spiritual country where Buddhism is the main religion of the Sinhalese, although there are significant Hindu, Christian and Muslim minorities. Evidence of these many religions is everywhere on holidays in Sri Lanka, from fabulous ancient Buddhist shrines and towering Hindu temples, to the many personal shrines found on street corners.
Most Sri Lanka holidays start in the capital of Colombo, a port located on the ancient spice route and today an eclectic mix of modern and old. As you leave the city, most visitors stop at Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage for close-up views of Asian elephants, which are much smaller than their African cousins and with different shaped ears and heads. Here you can participate in bottle-feeding an infant, before walking down to the river to watch them bathe with gusto.
Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle is located in the centre of the country and is a mix of ancient cities, fortresses and temple caves, many of which are now World Heritage Sites. A real highlight on holidays to Sri Lanka is ascending the 1,200 steps to the top of Sigiriya Rock, a breathtaking fortress in the sky also known as Lion Rock. It was a 5th century fortress and later a Buddhist monastery, so a deeply spiritual place with ancient rock paintings and incredible views. Don’t miss the small museum at the entrance. On holidays in Sri Lanlka, the cave temples at Dambulla are also astonishing, with no fewer than 150 magnificent Buddhas from the first century BC. It is one of the best preserved of all the temples in Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka’s most significant shrine is the Temple of the Tooth, situated in the hill capital of Kandy in the centre of the island. Here there is a tooth relic of the Buddha, held in a golden casket that is displayed to the public three times a day during the pooja ceremon - a must see on holidays to Sri Lanka. The annual Festival of the Sacred Tooth takes place in July and is one of the country’s most lively and vibrant celebrations. Kandy’s Peradeniya Botanical Gardens are also well worth a visit on holidays in Sri Lanka. Ask your hotel to pack you a picnic lunch to enjoy here, and don’t forget to visit the orchid house.
If you have time to travel further afield on your Sri Lanka holiday, the ancient city of Anuradhapura was founded in the 4th century on the mountain peak of Mihintale and is today a World Heritage Site, with many huge circular white-domed stupas. Here you can walk under the canopy of the sacred Bodhi tree, grown from an offshoot of the tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment. At over 2,200 years it is the oldest historically documented tree in the world.
Polonnaruwa was the capital of Sri Lanka from the 11th to 13th centuries, following the fall of Anuradhapura, and is another World Heritage Site complete with enormous Buddha statues - not to be missed on holidays in Sri Lanka. The Buddha at Aukana is the tallest and most magnificent, undamaged ancient statue in all of Sri Lanka. Remember to dress conservatively on holidays to Sri Lanka and remove your shoes when entering temples.
Yala is the most famous of Sri Lanka’s national parks as leopard are found here in the highest concentration in the world. But do not expect this Sri Lanka holiday to be a safari in the African sense, as the wildlife is sparser and the people more numerous. Notwithstanding this, the bird life is magnificent and nothing compares with the thrill of spotting a magnificent leopard in the wild. Wilpattu National Park in the north also has high concentrations of leopard, but they are more difficult there to spot because of the denser vegetation.
Sightings of wild Asian elephants on holidays to Sri Lanka are among the best in the world at parks such as Udawalawe in the south, with an elephant orphanage that is less commercial than Pinnawala. On holidays in Sri Lanka you can expect good sightings of water buffalo, sambar and spotted deer, langur and macaque monkeys, as well as many other smaller mammals. Sloth bears are also present but are much harder to see.
Further north at Minneriya National Park, in August and September elephants migrate along a corridor from neighbouring parks to feed on the fresh grass on the lakebed. This remarkable annual event is known as 'The Gathering' and is well worth including on holidays to Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka is a country of a thousand lakes, so birdlife is outstanding including migrants, water birds and raptors. You will see the splendid peacock and the Jungle fowl – the national bird – pretty much everywhere on holidays to Sri Lanka. Horton Plains National Park in the central highlands is the place to go for beautiful walking and birding. Sinharaja Forest Reserve in the southwest is a virgin rainforest and another birding hotspot and World Heritage Site, ideal for birding on holidays in Sri Lanka. The ocean around the south coast is also a magnificent wildlife arena and is home to the mighty blue whale, sperm whale and lively dolphin.
All Sri Lanka holidays should include a visit to a tea plantations, and on the way to Yala National Park you can travel through the lush tea-producing hill country around Nuwara Eliya, whose Ceylon tea is amongst the most famous in the world. An option here to take the scenic local train from Kandy, rather than a road transfer, for an interesting cultural experience on your Sri Lanka holiday.
For a complete contrast on holidays to Sri Lanka, consider adding an extension to Jaffna in the far north of the country. This is the heartland of the Hindu Tamil people, who have their own language and cuisine, including delicious mango delicacies. This region is dotted with many towering ornate Hindu temples and the cultural links to India are very much in evidence.
Sri Lanka holidays have always been known for their Indian Ocean beaches and there are over a thousand miles of white sandy beaches from Beruwela, Bentota and Hikkaduwa in the southwest, to palm fringed Trincomalee and Pasikuda in the northeast, where the best scuba diving and snorkelling is found.
On the south coast, historic Galle Fort is a World Heritage Site that is best explored on foot on holidays in Sri Lanka. If you want privacy and exclusivity, a beach extension in the Maldives is another option, albeit considerably more expensive.