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Culture vultures

Best things to do in Sri Lanka

Zoe Betchley July 26, 2017

Cultural heritage, stunning wildlife and pristine beaches – Zoe Betchley, Destination Manager tells us why she loves Sri Lanka, the Emerald Isle of the Indian Ocean.

Zoe has toured Sri Lanka extensively, from bustling cities and towns including Colombo, Negombo and Bentota, to the tea plantations of Nuwara Eliya and further south to Galle. Her favourite beach is Passikudah, a white sand retreat that’s perfect for snorkelling. She fell in love with the Turtle Farm and Hatchery at Kalutara and the elephants at Udawalawe National Park. One day she hopes to see the Minneriya elephant gathering.

Sri Lanka Fast facts:

Time zone: GMT +5 hours
Flight time: Approx. 12 hr 30 min.
Best time to go: Year round
Currency: Sri Lankan Rupee
Language: Sinhala, Tamil, English
Signature dish: Kottu roti, Dhal or fish curry
Surprising but true: Yala National Park is said to have the highest concentration of leopards in the world

“The first thing to consider when visiting Sri Lanka is how much time you have to spend in this amazing country. This is a classic Indian Ocean island, encircled with beautiful beaches and dotted with relaxing hotel retreats. There is so much to do and see that you’ll want to spend as much time exploring the Emerald Isle as possible. For me, touring is the best way to get the most of this country. Although Sri Lanka is about half the size of England, it has a wide range of landscapes and cultural experiences.

Sri Lankan people         

Speak to anyone about Sri Lanka and they’ll mention the smiling faces of its people. This isn’t a marketing tactic. Predominantly a Buddhist country (around 70% of the population), Sri Lankan people share the principle of being loving, kind and respectful of everyone. You’re therefore almost guaranteed to be at least met with a warm smile along your travels and of course the Sri Lankan greeting of “Ayubowan”, wishing you long life.

For me, the warm welcome began when I met my guide and driver, Gamini. He was one of the most passionate, knowledgeable and friendly people I’ve had the pleasure of meeting in Sri Lanka. Without a guide on your trip there’s a risk of missing out on so many insights. More importantly, they can understand what you really love and want to see. For me, it was elephants.


Rich in protected national parkland, a Sri Lankan safari is a must-do activity and I experienced my first safari at Yala National Park. The excitement of seeing elephants roaming free just an arm’s length away was unbelievable. I sat, observed and studied these beautiful animals in their natural habitat and it took every ounce of self-control to not blurt out: “LOOK” at my guide when I spotted alligators, deer, endless numbers of bird species and even a glimpse of the Sri Lankan leopard. Head further north to Minneriya and you’ll see around 300 elephants gather at the watering hole in the dry season (August - September). This remains high on my wish-list.

Sri Lanka’s wildlife doesn’t stop on land. Take to the ocean and snorkel or dive the shallow reefs and shipwrecks off the coast of Passikudah. I was fortunate enough to spend an afternoon snorkelling, which I personally believe rivalled many marine experiences I’ve had in the Maldives.

If underwater adventure isn’t your thing, how about on the water? Humpback and Blue whales can be spotted off the south coast between November and April and over on the east coast in Trincomalee between May and September.


I may not be a historian, however, place me in Sri Lanka and I suddenly think I am a member of the crew of Time Team. I find the history of ancient civilisations absolutely fascinating and the World Heritage Site of Polonnaruwa, is no different. We started in the archaeological museum and it was great to see the preserved artefacts that had been found throughout the centuries. We then headed off to the ruins where Gamini brought to life stories of old. A trusted guide is invaluable here.

Sri Lanka’s ancient ruins

Polonnaruwa is the second most ancient city (Anuradhapura being the first) and was first named as the islands capital in the 11th century. The vast ruins of the palace includes religious buildings, theatres, roads and statues and you walk the same steps, touch the same walls and look at the same carvings that someone would have seen over a thousand years ago.

You can easily spend a couple of days here, but if time won’t allow, just over an hour away is the ancient fortress of Sigiriya. Often mentioned as the “eighth wonder of the world” it dates back to the 5th century AD and soars 200 metres above the surrounding jungle where the ruins of an ancient temple and gardens can be discovered. The 1200 steps to the top lead to views that will take your breath away.

Tea plantations

For a contrasting landscape head to the hill country of Nuwara Eliya. Also known as Little England, the hills, lake and cooler temperatures remind me of the winding roads of New Zealand’s South Island. Climbing and turning the winding corners and spotting waterfalls and green hills covered in tea plantations as far as the eye can see, before reaching the town with its local post office, its red telephone box and The Grand Hotel with its own croquet lawn – you feel like you’ve stepped back in time. A relaxing morning kayaking on the lake followed by afternoon tea and picking your own cup of Ceylon’s finest offers a lovely contrast to the sultry conditions offered by lower-lying areas of Sri Lanka.

I love people-watching and the Temple of the Tooth is the perfect spot to absorb the culture of Kandy. I walked around this beautiful temple that is always busy no matter what time of year you visit. Surrounding the temple is a calming lake and gardens; perfect to take some time out and sit and watch the world go by, observing families picnicking together in a place they find most sacred.

On the move

You can be as adventurous with your mode of transport as you wish. Gamini’s air conditioned vehicle was on hand for my entire visit. However, I also took the train from Nuwara Eliya which was a tranquil way to wind through the hills and take in the views. In towns or bustling cities tuk-tuks are a must where the beeping of horns are merely a chime to say “I’m here”. You can also cruise along the Balpitiya River, white-water raft the Kelani River or take a scenic flight from east to west. Each prospect offers its own experience and tropical views of the Emerald Isle.

Despite being lucky enough to have visited Sri Lanka a number of times my wish-list remains extensive. Having enjoyed the delicious Sri Lankan cuisine, I would love to spend time learning how to perfect these tasty dishes at home. I would love to spend more time exploring the islander’s way of life and take time out in the countryside, walking and cycling through this fascinating country finding more and more hidden gems.

Coastal resorts

The west coast beach resorts of Negombo, Kalutara and Bentota have drawn visitors for decades, while the rugged south coast with its lavish five-star resorts including Shangri La’s Hambantota or Anantara Peace Haven Tangalle Resort provide luxury escapes like no other. Then there’s the up and coming white sand stretches of the east coast and resorts like Passikudah. If you’re searching for a holiday that offers choice, Sri Lanka is perfect.

The perfect stopover en route to Sri Lanka is…

… Qatar. This magical land is where old meets new, traditional meets cosmopolitan, and where desert adventures meet world-class resorts. Qatar, in my opinion, is one of the best kept secrets; it’s a dynamic, exciting and steeped in history with an enchanting ambience that’s perfect to visit all year round."

I hope I’ve tempted you with my tales of this beautiful country and its lovely people, but feel free to visit the Sri Lanka pages for more inspiration and to decide for yourself whether your next holiday will be on the Emerald Isle of the Indian Ocean.”