This two week exploration of spiritual Sri Lanka features a mix of ancient cities, rock carvings, gilded Buddhist temples and wildlife-filled national parks. It's a busy trip, but with time to relax both at the beach and in the hills, you'll uncover the 'Pearl of the Indian Ocean' at your own pace. National Parks - Enjoy a jeep safari in search of leopard, elephant, sambar deer and other wildlife Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Dambulla and Sigiriya - Wander through ancient capitals, painted cave temples and climb the dramatic 'Sky Fortress' Kandy and the Hill Country - Explore the 'Temple of the Tooth' and the lush tea plantations in cooler climates.
Arrive in Negombo, the famous coastal town famous for its fishing industry and golden sands. This relaxing beach resort is a short distance from Sri Lanka's capital city, and is the perfect place to spot locals bringing in the day's catch and watch the sunset. You will be met on arrival at Colombo's Bandaranaike International Airport (CMB) by a local driver-guide, and taken to your hotel, approximately a 45 minute drive away. There are no activities planned today, so feel free to arrive in Colombo Airport at any time. For those booking their own flights, you will just need to let us know your flight details no later than three weeks prior to departure, in order to be met on arrival. If your flight arrives earlier in the day there is the option to head to the beach or make use of the hotel facilities which features a swimming pool and gardens overlooking the Indian Ocean.
You'll be with the same guide from start to finish on this trip, so get comfy in the vehicle for your first drive today - three hours north to Wilpattu National Park. En route, visit a nearby fishing village which uses traditional-style outrigger canoes, known as 'oruvas'. Along the way, you may spot the toddy tappers climbing tall coconut trees to collect sap from the flowers. This is used to make Arak - a local whisky-type spirit. Despite the park's location in Sri Lanka's dry zone, it boasts nearly 60 lakes and is renowned for leopard, elephant and sambar deer spottings. Go on a jeep safari this afternoon in the hope of spotting the elusive leopard. We choose to visit this park, rather than the more touristy Yala National Park further south because we believe it offers our customers a better experience. The same animals can be seen here as in Yala, however it is less busy, making our visit a more enjoyable experience for you and avoiding the potential for over-crowding this natural environment. Leaving the park, drive to nearby Anuradapura for the next two nights.
Travel eight miles this morning to the mountain peak of Mihintale. It is believed that this was the site of a momentous meeting between the monk Mahinda and King Devanampiyatissa, introducing Buddhism to the country. Exploring Mihintale involves climbing a flight of 1,840 shallow stone steps leading to the summit of the Missaka Mountain. There are excellent views from the top looking back to Anuradhapura. Return to the ancient capital in the late morning and join a local guide for an exploration of this UNESCO World Heritage Site, which is famous for its well-preserved ancient ruins. One of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world, it was founded around 500 BC. Its golden age began around 260BC, when the King and his people converted to Buddhism. The city became vast, spreading over many miles. There were hospitals for the sick, hostels for travellers and artificial reservoirs to ensure a good water supply. Of great interest are the 2,200 year-old Sacred Bo-Tree; the Brazen Palace, once a nine storey residence for monks; the 4th century Smadhi Buddha masterpiece and the Ruvanvalisaya Dagoba - a 90 metre-high dome-shaped shrine towering over the surrounding countryside.
Travelling towards Giritale this normally 2.5 hour drive will take most of the day, as you take several important stops en route. First, pause to view the magnificent Standing Buddha of Aukana, which stands 12 metres high. Sculptured in the 5th century by a master craftsman, it is still relatively isolated in its jungle setting. The next stop is Dambulla, where a great series of caves have been turned into temples dating from the 1st century BC. This World Heritage Site still attracts scores of worshippers. With a local guide, visit five separate caves, which contain a large number of Buddha images and a few sculptures of Hindu Gods. From here, drive 30 minutes to the small village of Hiriwaduna. Tuk tuks are the transport of choice here, and you'll switch out your car for a tuk tuk ride to the community's vegetable garden. Walk around and help the villagers select a choice of homegrown vegetables, which will all go into preparing your traditional Sri Lankan lunch. Watch as delicious curries and fluffy rice are prepared and try out creating a traditional spicy sambar. After sharing the meal, there is a chance to take a serene canoe ride on the village lake. From here, depart on the road once again for Giritale - your base from which to explore Polonnaruwa
This morning, explore the ancient city of Polonnaruwa, which reached its height of glory in the 12th century when it was a thriving commercial and religious centre. The city still maintains many of its spectacular buildings and monuments, with arguably the most impressive being the Quadrangle. This sacred precinct originally housed the tooth relic. It contains a superbly decorated circular shrine which is one of the most ornate buildings in the country. The neighbouring audience hall and bathing pool are also worth a visit. Close by, the curious round structure of the Circular Relic House has a beautifully preserved moonstone carved at the foot of a flight of steps. Another famous feature of this deserted city is the group of carved images of the Buddha, known as Galvihara. These four colossal figures are all hewn out of solid granite and the Reclining Buddha alone is no less than 14 metres long. Continue to Sigiriya, and in the afternoon have the option (not included) to take a jeep safari in either Minneriya or Kadaula National Park, where in search for herds of wild elephant. Your guide will be able to advise you of the likelihood of good elephant sightings at the time you are in the area. The parks are also home to a large array of birdlife, including painted storks.
An early start this morning to climb Sigiriya Rock ahead of the crowds and whilst it is cool. The ruins of this 5th century 'Sky Fortress' are one of Sri Lanka's major attractions, a stupendous sight to behold and a feat of consummate engineering skill. Built in just seven years as a fortified palace to protect the reign of merciless King Kassapa, who had assassinated his father and deposed his brother, it is seen as one of the world's best preserved examples of ancient urban planning. Unfortunately for the king, despite its impregnable reputation, he was defeated here by his brother after a reign of just 18 years. A switchback series of steps and steel stairways ascend to the top. Halfway up, tucked beneath a sheltering overhang of rock, are the famous frescoes - the Sigiriya Damsels, their colours still glowing. Before the final ascent to the summit, pass between a set of enormous lion paws carved out of the rock - all that remain of an ancient gateway that gave Sigiriya, the 'Lion Rock', its name. Once at the 200 meter summit, magnificent views can be enjoyed of the surrounding jungle and countryside. This afternoon, take the two-hour drive to Kandy.
Sitting on a plateau 500 metres above sea level and 112km northeast of Colombo, Kandy is, in climatic and cultural terms, a world apart from Colombo. Serving as the capital of the last Sinhalese kingdom until falling to the British in 1815, it is a place of cultural and spiritual importance. Buddhists from all over the world come here specifically to visit the Temple of the Tooth, the Dalada Maligawa. The costly jewelled shrine of the Holy Tooth, said to be Buddha's left canine, is kept in the upper floor of the original building. This relic was brought from India 1,500 years ago and every year, at the time of the August full moon, it is paraded round the town with great pomp and circumstance. This morning's sight-seeing includes attending the Temple of the Tooth Ceremony and a visit to the serene Peradeniya Botanical garden. Your afternoon is free to continue your exploration of this delightful old highland town. In the evening, you may have the opportunity to watch a performance by the famous Kandyan dancers, admiring their impressive costumes and graceful dances, accompanied by a thundering drum beat.
This morning, set off on a journey into the heart of the Hill Country. This magnificent region of Sri Lanka is an important tea growing area. Plantations stretch over rolling hills for as far as the eye can see, interspersed with the occasional tea-making factory. The plan is to visit Glenloch tea plantation to learn about the process of picking the leaves and creating the perfect cuppa, before continuing to Nuwara Eliya. Known as 'Little England', here you will find red telephone boxes, Victorian colonial architecture and pretty rose gardens - legacies from its era as a hill country retreat for homesick Brits and Scots. The cool climate provided a sanctuary in which to immerse themselves in familiar pastimes, such as polo, golf, cricket and fox hunting.
You'll have the option to do a trek on Horton Plains today. This unique and beautiful plateau of wild grassland and thick forest is famous for its biodiversity, with many plant and bird species exclusive to this area. During the walk, take in the thundering noise of Baker Falls, before trekking on to World's End - an awe-inspiring escarpment dropping a vertical distance of 880 meters. The hike takes approximately six hours, and although the terrain is mostly flat, to reach Baker Falls there is a long section of steps to descend which can be a little tough on the knees. If you'd rather not trek, that's no problem - enjoy a free day in Nuwara Eliya. There are large parks within walking distance of the hotel.
This morning, make your way to the hill town of Ella. You'll be driving through impressive scenery of lush tea plantations, where colourfully-dressed tea pickers will be working in groups, and past gushing waterfalls. If seats are available, you have the option to travel by train instead, winding through the mountains on a rail network that was introduced during British Colonial rule and has changed little since. Your driver-guide will help purchase tickets if you wish (and if they are available). Arriving in Ella late in the afternoon, take the opportunity to explore the town before retreating to your hotel which is perched on a hillside amongst the lush green scenery.
This morning, visit Ravana Ella Falls, one of the widest waterfalls on the island, before continuing south through the hill country to reach the plains and the small town of Wellawaya. Travelling onwards to Udawalawe National Park, it's difficult not to spot the 51 foot image of the Buddha known as Colossi of Buduruvagala, rising majestically above the vehicle along with other Mahayana statues. Udawalawe, designated a national park in 1972, covers some 31,800 hectares and is surrounded by mountains, a mix of rolling grasslands, teak plantations, rainforest and scrub. Renowned for its large herd of elephants, the park is one of the best places in Sri Lanka to see them, and is also home to deer, wild boar, buffalo, jackal and leopard. The resident bird population is also second to none, including a magnificent collection of birds of prey, chief among them the impressive white-bellied sea eagle. The afternoon is spent exploring the park by jeep and visiting the Elephant Transit Home where orphaned elephants are cared for until they are old enough to be released back in to the wild.
Continuing southwards this morning, descend through a huge region of rice paddies before reaching the coast. Travel through the small fishing port of Tangalle, home to a project supported by the Travel Foundation, where women learn to make traditional Beeralu Lace. Selling the lace helps them to become more self-sufficient. You may be able to visit if the project is open on the day of your visit, learning a little of their craft and helping to support these ladies who lost their breadwinners in the 2004 tsunami. In the afternoon, visit the pretty coastal town of Galle, where you may be lucky enough to see the famous stilt fisherman balancing precariously above the ocean. An important trading centre since ancient times, the fortifications that can be seen in Galle today were built by the Portuguese and then the Dutch from the 16th to the 17th centuries. The fort ramparts of this World Heritage Site protect the harbour and a myriad of fascinating old houses, churches and warehouses. Today, the town has a strong arts vibe, with foreign and local artists, writers, photographers, designers and poets drawing inspiration from their surroundings. Boutique shops and cafes around the town showcase their work. There is a lot to explore in the town and simply wandering its streets, soaking up its unique atmosphere is a great way to spend an afternoon. If you feel that you haven't spent enough time here on this afternoon's sightseeing tour, you have the opportunity to come back tomorrow.
Today is free to relax on the beaches of Unawatuna, or explore more of nearby Galle. For those seeking pure relaxation, local Ayurvedic massages with natural, aromatic herbal oils are highly recommended. Alternatively, between the months of December and April, you might prefer to go on a whale watching trip in the hope of spotting humpback and blue whales.
Take some time to soak up the last few hours on the beach before journeying back to Colombo for your last night- a total travel time of just a couple of hours. Spend the afternoon exploring Sri Lanka's capital city with your driver-guide. Wander around the historical 'fort' area, now the business district, whose buildings are like a slice through Colombo's colonial history and visit the Pettah neighborhood, famous for its bustling open air bazaars and markets. Visit the most important Buddhist temple in the capital, Gangaramaya, which is an oasis of calm in an otherwise frenetic city and end the trip by the Galle Face Green, an urban park along the sea front where locals gather to often play cricket and gather for other daily rituals.
Your trip ends today, and you will be taken to the airport to meet your international flight. There are no activities planned today, so you are free to depart from Colombo's Bandaranaike International Airport (CMB) at any time - it's approximately one hour from the hotel. If your flight is departing later in the day, luggage storage facilities are available at our hotel.
14 Break Fast(s) 1 Lunch(es) 1 Dinner(s)
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