Almont Travel Inspiration

An Eight Day Road Trip through Sri Lanka

Spellbound by sun, surf, safaris, and Ceylon tea on this Southeast Asian island.

“My Zoom meeting finished early; I’ll come catch another wave,” I overheard the girl at the neighboring table say, presumably to her surf buddy on the other end of the line. She wore her blonde locks in a salt-frizzled bun and shoved her laptop into a tote that read “Create Your Own Sunshine.”

We hardly needed to. The Sri Lankan sun beamed down on my shoulders, while a whisper of sea breeze rustled the leaves overhead. From my seat at a cliffside café in Hiriketiya, a buzzy south-coast surfers’ hideout lined with coconut trees and candy-striped umbrellas, I looked out over a Rothko of blue on blue: a cloudless sky on top, the Indian Ocean below. After almost two years cooped up at home in Bangkok, it was exactly what I needed.

I last visited Sri Lanka in February 2020, right before the pandemic forced the world into lockdown. I fell in love with the country all over again: the welcoming people, the spectacular landscape, the giddy fact that I could eat breakfast “hoppers” – lacy coconut crepes served with curry and sambol – with my bare hands.

I’m far from the only one to fall under its spell. “Sri Lanka’s diverse scenery and serenity make me want to return time and time again,” says Virtuoso travel advisor Elli Beck, who last visited in 2019. “There are gorgeous beaches on the one hand, mountains and beautiful lakes on the other – all sprinkled with wildlife sightings, tea plantations, ancient fortresses, and lots of hiking trails.”

On an island a bit larger than West Virginia, Sri Lanka packs in a lot. Yet it doesn’t hit travelers with sensory overload like its northern neighbor, India, often does, and it delivers more mental stimulation than a sun-and-sand break in the Maldives to the southwest. So for my first post-lockdown holiday, I took an eight-day road-trip adventure, organized with the help of The Fabulous Getaway, one of Virtuoso’s on-site tour connections in the country. The route, a leisurely loop from Colombo along the south coast and back through the Hill Country, provides an excellent way to sample Sri Lanka’s highlights.

Chris Schalkx
After landing in Colombo, it’s best to set out for Galle the same day. Roughly a two-hour drive from the capital, Galle’s seventeenth-century fort, National Museum, and former hospital (now home to a cluster of trendy restaurants) stand as relics of the country’s Dutch colonial past and provide a more walkable and less hectic setting to recover from long flights. Kids play cricket in the shade of twisting rain trees on its Court Square, while the odd peacock looks on from branches overhead. A tangle of lanes weave from its fortified corners past bistros and galleries in fixed-up godowns (warehouses). On my last visit they heaved with tourists, but this time, young Sri Lankan couples, dripping in jewels for wedding photo shoots, outnumbered visitors.

From Galle, it’s a 30-minute drive east to Ahangama, a palm-tufted beach town where waves teem with surfers at dawn, and where stilt fishers take over at sunset to catch herring and mackerel with rods made from the spines of toddy palm trees. Away from the main road’s buzzing tuk-tuks, frangipani-scented lanes snake inland to rice paddies and patches of untamed jungle. Here, nine-to-five escapees from Colombo and expats from abroad have transformed gingerbread-trimmed villas into yoga salas, vegan bistros, and surf boot camps.

Ahangama clings to its cusp-of-discovery vibe, reminiscent of Bali or Australia’s Byron Bay before they became boho boomtowns. “People here haven’t broken the law yet,” Colombo transplant Ravi Bandaranaike explained over Lion lagers in the lush garden of Trax, the café and music venue he and industry friends from the capital city opened last year. The comment was in reference to the Sri Lankan law against high-rise construction. Elsewhere along the south coast, he said, local authorities have succumbed to bribery and the profits of overdevelopment. Sure, Ahangama’s community of downward-dog-stretching, wave-chasing – and now, remote-working – residents has grown exponentially over the past five years, but there’s still a welcome absence of souvenir kitsch and megaresorts.

Chris Schalkx
The straight shot from Ahangama to Tangalle takes a couple of hours. Realistically, plan for at least half a day – to stop for fresh coconuts from roadside stalls, for rice and curry at holes-in-the-wall overlooking the ocean, for walks on some of the countless caramel-colored beaches strung along the coast like shells on a surfer’s bracelet. One don’t-miss recommendation: Dondra, a quiet settlement on the island’s southernmost tip, where a nineteenth-century lighthouse stands sentinel on a rocky headland and stealthy macaques nab fruit from front yards, and where a troupe of friendly fishermen invited me on a day out at sea. (I still regret declining.)

Roughly ten miles east at Smoke & Bitters in Hiriketiya, London-born Sri Lankan Don Ranasinghe shakes up cocktails from house-made orgeat, calamansi liqueur, and chai rum infused with cardamom, clove, and cinnamon from his neighbor’s backyard. (Along with Botanik in Colombo, it was the first Sri Lankan bar to make it onto Asia’s 50 Best Bars list.) Five years ago, Hiri, as the beach town is affectionately called, was still a whisper in surfers’ circles. Now, coworking spaces and boutiques have opened, and it feels a few years ahead of Ahangama on the Bali-Byron curve.

Sri Lanka’s southern coast lays claim to two Aman resorts: Amangalla in Galle channels the town’s colonial past through antiques and stately dining rooms, while Tangalle’s beachfront oasis of Amanwella takes a more contemporary turn. Its villas, with designs inspired by the tropical modernism movement that blossomed out of Sri Lanka, come with private pools and airy bedrooms, where guests (at least this one) can watch fireflies light up the surrounding palms as they doze off to the roar of restless surf. Tangalle is do-nothing territory; there’s a bird-rich lagoon and nature reserves, but people really come here for the beaches. Guests at Amanwella needn’t look far: The resort hugs a crescent of near-deserted sand, with a private beach club serving Mediterranean-tinged lunches and homemade ice cream beneath skinny coconut trees.

Chris Schalkx
While beaches are the main draw in Sri Lanka’s south, Yala National Park, roughly 50 miles east of Tangalle, attracts travelers for wildlife and day-trip safaris. Sri Lanka’s second-largest wildlife reserve occupies much of the island’s southeastern plains, an expanse of low-slung jungles and boulder-strewn grasslands where dirt tracks are often more potholes than road – I had to cling to my seat to avoid being launched through the Toyota Land Cruiser’s canvas roof.

“Buffalo,” said my guide, Sunil, nodding at a herd in the distance. He spotted a family of wild boar hidden in the jungle fringe and crocodiles lurking in its murky ponds, and pointed out a crested serpent eagle almost invisible in a treetop ahead. Suddenly, Sunil slammed on the brakes: An elephant mother and her tuk-tuk-size bambino emerged from the thicket just a trunk’s length ahead of us – two of some 300 Sri Lankan elephants that roam the park.

Pre-pandemic, they’d be tracked by a handful of Jeeps (on busy days, up to 700 safari vehicles passed through the gates). Now it was just us and them, in blissful silence. The mother stopped, threw us half a stare, and vanished back into the bushes. The small one, however, curiously inched closer. I asked Sunil if mom could become dangerous, with us so close to her offspring. “Not really,” he said. “Unless you meet her in a bad mood.”

While our car’s shadow lengthened, Yala kept on giving: a bigger herd of elephants crossing the road, a couple of great hornbills playing hide-and-seek in a tree overhead, and, at the end of the day, the star of the park: a leopard soaking up the last rays of sun.

Chris Schalkx
Rather than doubling back along the coast to Colombo, from Yala, head inland to the Hill Country, the island’s undulating, jungle-covered heart. This is the cradle of Ceylon tea, imported from China by British colonizers in the mid-1800s and now one of the country’s main export commodities. On my last visit, I traversed this mountainscape on a rickety local train from Ella to Kandy, two charming hill stations surrounded by rolling tea plantations. The journey is known as one of the world’s most iconic rail trips, but for comfort, this time around I followed a similar route by car.

From roads as twisting as the Sinhalese script, the views are no less enticing. Around me, swollen waterfalls poured from cliffs, and plants emerged from every crack and crevice. In villages, tarpaulin-covered stalls brimmed with backyard-grown beans, chard, radishes, and curly kale. And everywhere, troupes of sari-ed tea pluckers dotted the hillsides like Funfetti on a matcha ice-cream scoop.

Pulling back into Colombo, I reflected on the week of surfing, safari-ing, and sauntering through tea plantations – a proposition few destinations can deliver. Still, so much more awaits on return visits, like chasing waves along the east coast or exploring kaleidoscopic Hindu temples up north in Jaffna. And therein lies Sri Lanka’s appeal: After three trips to the tiny island country, it seems like I’ve only scratched the surface.