Sri Lanka: Exploring The Tucked Away Treasures Of This Indian Ocean Gem

Words by Annaliese Dayes

I have been left utterly mesmerised after spending 10 days in Sri Lanka. It seems such a blur as we packed in so much in so little time; we ate some amazing food, stayed in wonderful boutique properties, and were spoiled every minute of the day by the Sri Lankan people. I felt like a princess! We watched thundering waterfalls in the mist covered hills one moment, then were told to lower our voices the next as a majestic elephant walked 20 feet from our jeep.

Who knew Sri Lanka had so much to offer, retaining a sense of exclusivity, yet at a price that many can afford. For us, the true luxury of Sri Lanka was a feeling that everyone we met genuinely cared about our experience. We were the central focus, so much so that, at times, we felt as if there was no one else around.


Zylan Colombo is a calm oasis in the middle of this bustling capital city

We started our journey in the colourful, bustling capital of Colombo. As soon as we landed, we started our relatively short car journey (45 minutes) to Colombo’s thriving heart, located on the west coast of the island. On the way, of course, we had to stop and get a taste of the island in the form of the ‘orange’ coconut – something I’d never experienced before considering I used to holiday with my family in the Caribbean most summers. There was an inviting sweet taste, much sweeter than the green coconut I was familiar with and, of course, so refreshing.

We continued and arrived at our home for the next two days, Zylan Colombo. The first thing I noticed about the property was the calming surroundings despite being in the middle of Sri Lanka’s capital city. Behind its walls I felt cocooned in a sanctuary, which was the perfect way to wind down after a 10-hour flight from London. After a short rest, it was time to play and this vibrant city didn’t disappoint with so much to see, all conveniently located and accessible by tuktuk. We didn’t want to miss a thing, so we set off on a tour: ‘Forgotten Colombo on a Landy’. This three-hour adventure in an open-top Land Rover was a great way to discover the hidden secrets of the city and its best attractions, made all the better thanks to an ice box filled with beers and other cold drinks for the journey.


The incredible views from Floating Mountain Villa

After our time in Colombo, we drove four hours inland and up into the hills, with our fabulous driver Nayana, all arranged by Novaturient Holidays. We stopped for lunch at Theva Residency, a fabulous boutique property in Hanthana, on the edge of Kandy, where the staff and the cuisine were wonderful. No wonder they have a space dedicated to the over 30 awards they have won over the years.

As we continued our drive, taking in the lovely countryside of tea plantations, we encountered a massive traffic jam on the narrow and winding hill route. After 20 minutes it became evident that it was a local festival with three elephants and hundreds of dancers parading the streets. It was fascinating to see that both Hindu and Buddhist religions were being celebrated together.

We arrived at Floating Mountain Villa, which is exactly what it says on the tin. We were indeed floating in the mountains with breath-taking views that changed by the minute with the rolling clouds. Floating Mountain Villa is an extremely spacious property, and we felt like we were in a sprawling mansion rather than an intimate villa. This ambience was further enhanced by the fact we had very attentive staff. Our butler Akila not only provided us with everything we could ask for, but he was also the perfect guide for our excursions to the Ramboda waterfalls and the sacred Hanuman Kovil where we had blessings chanted for us.

The waterfalls were spellbinding. We took a ten-minute walk alongside the water that was crashing between the rocks and stopped to enjoy a picnic that Akila had laid out. After re-energising, we went downstream to enjoy the full spectacle of the twelfth tallest waterfall in Sri Lanka. The tallest on the island, Bambarakanda, is five times the height of Niagara Falls, and with four hundred waterfalls, Sri Lanka has the highest density of waterfalls in the world.


Idal Villa embodies contemporary luxury interiors

From Floating Mountain Villa we headed up to the hill town of Nuwara Eliya, just an hour away. We drove through the town, past the golf course and racecourse, and the Grand Hotel. Nuwara Eliya was the gathering spot for British planters who lived isolated lives on tea plantations and came to socialise here. We got a glimpse of the glorious residences planters enjoyed in their heyday. Ferncliff has a perfectly manicured lawn the size of two tennis courts, and cosy interiors while also preserving the grandeur of her past. The food and service were flawless.

Two hours later, we arrived at Idal Villa, near the Idalgashina train station and close to the popular town of Ella. I was immediately drawn in, from the modern chic open plan space to the lush gardens which acted as the fluffy cushion between the villa and the incredible vistas. I could have stayed at this stunning property for several days, it was incredibly comfortable and the area has myriad things to do.

We were hosted by a charming couple called Darshi and Darshana who have given up their Colombo city and corporate life to move to this remote, off-grid mountain retreat. They generate their own solar power and draw water from the ground. They buy all of their vegetables from neighbouring growers as this is one of the most fertile parts of Sri Lanka. They seem to have found the perfect life balance. They spent time with us over a glass of Sri Lankan arrack, and shared their delight at living in the hills, before slipping away to give us quiet time to enjoy the experience.

Lush gardens act as a fluffy cushion between the villa and the incredible vistas

The next morning we woke at 6am to enjoy a Sri Lankan coffee while watching the sunrise. Sri Lankan coffee is undergoing a revival with 16 new Sri Lankan brands. More information will be released in 2024 as Coffee Tours will soon stand next to Tea Tours on a Sri Lankan holiday itinerary, according to Jean-Marc Flambert, the owner of Secrets of Ceylon Collection – the marketing partner for all of the wonderful places we stayed.

We drove 20 minutes to take a 15-minute train ride from Haputale to Idalgashinna stations. The train ride gave us spectacular views as we passed the Thangamale Bird Sanctuary. Nearing Idalgashinna we should have had a view down to the sea over Hambantota but the morning mist was thick. We alighted, marvelled at the old British equipment in the station master’s room and walked a short distance to enjoy a picnic breakfast. Refreshed and re-energised, we started a 30-minute walk down to the villa, stopping along the way to visit a village home and learn how to make the Sri Lankan sweet treat called ‘kavum’ while enjoying a cup of pure Ceylon tea.


Kulu Safaris’ provide a luxury safari experience. Image credit: Viran de Silva

A couple of days later we were back on the road and I loved the fact that we drove to each location as this gave us the chance to see and immerse ourselves in the island. We stopped at various spots along the way to take in the views, listen to the water crashing down a waterfall, grab a bite to eat or drink some local tea.

The next stop was the wildlife abundant Yala National Park, located on the south east coast of Sri Lanka. Yala National Park is one of 26 wildlife protected areas in Sri Lanka and is a great location to meet some of Sri Lanka’s native animal inhabitants including the elephant, sloth beer, leopard, sambar, crocodile, water buffalo, spotted deer, grey langur and toque macaque monkeys, as well as hundreds of bird species including jungle fowl and peacock. We were very thankful to both the Wildlife Department of Sri Lanka and Sri Lanka Tourism for helping facilitate this part of our experience.

We couldn’t decide between a fully immersive glamping experience or a boutique hotel, so we decided to split our time between the two. First off was Kulu Safaris. This was my chance to immerse myself into the wildlife of Sri Lanka, which I was very excited about. Less exciting, however, was the prospect of camping! In the end, I was very pleasantly surprised as Kulu offered a much more luxurious glamping experience than I had expected.

The interior of the tents are spacious and comfortable

Kulu Safaris is a wonderful experience near the less popular Katagamuwa entrance to the Yala National Park allowing you to visit both block one and block five of the park. We were met on the main road by three of their staff, including our naturalist, and were driven into the 100-acre lakeside escape in the camp’s own Land Cruiser. On arrival we alighted to be given a welcome and an orientation. Kulu Safaris is an all-inclusive experience with a difference. The meals, drinks, camp kayaking, bird walk and guided hill walk are all included, as is one visit into the park with qualified naturalist, park guide and entrance fees.

We were keen to explore, so we opted to go straight into the jungle for the evening safari (3pm to 6pm) rather than wait for the morning tour (6am to 9am). A 20-minute drive and we were inside the Yala National Park. Within an hour, we had seen all but one of the big three – elephant, sloth bear and leopard, and then our driver slowed down and less than two feet away was a majestic lone elephant. We switched off the engine and watched. He was looking at us, and we were marvelling at him and we learned that he is known to the authorities and is being monitored as his trunk was injured in a fight.

Annaliese about to embark on the safari experience

A short while later, we stopped to watch a sambar, which started stamping his front left leg in a stand-off with a hare (it was a strange choice of foe!). Back at Kulu Safaris, we were shown trap camera footage of leopards and elephants that reminded us we were indeed in leopard country and although we were sleeping outside the actual Yala National Park in the buffer zone, at night we could still have visitors – good to be reminded that Block One of Yala National Park has the highest density of leopards in the world.

It’s the small details that make Kulu Safaris special. As we drove in from the three-hour safari, we were greeted by the staff with cold towels and a gin and tonic, which was such a welcome touch. Dinner was on the lakeside deck with the brightest stars lighting up the sky, fire torches around, and a wonderful barbecue. Breakfast the next morning was also special. We sat on top of a tree platform, 36 feet above the ground with a bird’s eye view of the surrounding wildlife and enjoyed fresh tropical fruits and delicious curry. Yes, Sri Lankans eat curry for breakfast too.

Our tent was much more comfortable than we expected. An elevated wooden platform was the base with a large canvas tent bigger than my bedroom in London, a high roof and a great hot water power shower. We had a lovely balcony to sit out and enjoy a morning coffee while listening as nature awoke.

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