Home for the holidays... in Sri Lanka

| April 2, 2018

In many ways, you’ll find the essence of Sri Lanka in the southern part of this Indian Ocean island. Venture inland and you’ll find tea plantations and a string of Buddhist temples, all of which you’re likely to share with only a handful of other travellers. Sri Lanka’s largest national parks are here, with elephants and leopards within its jungles and forests. The coast that curves out from the Unesco world heritage fort of Galle to Yala National Park contains some of the country’s finest powder sand beaches, which, in their palm-fringed glory, are also home to some superb, fully-staffed holiday villas.

Tea plantations

Tropical Modernism

Geoffrey Bawa, Sri Lanka's most influential architect, died in 2003 but left a huge legacy, ranging from government buildings to hotels and also villas. He designed Claughton House in the 1980s and, with its clean lines, a respect for the landscape and elegant simplicity, it's a classic example of his tropical modernist style. Occupying two hectares, this five-bedroom villa, with courtyards and open-sided pavilions, has been sympathetically updated – there's now a cinema room and air conditioning – but has kept its architectural integrity. The setting too, where lawns and an expansive swimming pool look down on a headland, is superb; there's direct access to a beach from the house. Dickwella, a larger stretch of sand, is a few minutes away while the surf breaks at Hiriketiya are a 30-minute drive away.

Also 30 minutes away by car but inland is Mulkirigala. Dating from the third century BC and carved from a vast outcrop, there are seven different temples across four levels. It's one of the most important religious sites in the area with reclining Buddhas and 18th-century rock paintings. Head to the highest terrace (there are four, reached by vertiginous steps) and you'll be rewarded with views across Sri Lanka's south expanse: awe-inspiring, lush.

Claughton House gardens and pool

Claughton House gardens and pool

Multi-generational Style

Back on the coast, on the other side of Dickwella, is Meda Gedara, a truly grand villa that can sleep up to 18. If children are part of the equation, this is a brilliant option. Not only does it have direct access to Visla beach but the large swimming pool has a waterslide that dips in and out of the nearby foliage. Groups with small kids will also enjoy the bedroom with six bunk beds. For added privacy, there's also an adult-friendly garden suite and a yoga sala. A driver and car is included in the rental. The chef is very skilled indeed and meals can be served in a variety of locations, from the verandas to the villa's dramatic dining room; special menus for children are no problem either.

Meda Gedara

Meda Gedara

Classic Colonial

On the southernmost point of Sri Lanka is Matara which has a thriving university. Just outside, on the quiet beach of Lakshawaththa, the 3 Sisters Talpe villa dates from Dutch colonial times, with a wide veranda and gardens. Simple and spacious, there are three bedrooms and an infinity swimming pool(unfenced, so this is a villa most suited for older children). Like the other villas mentioned, it is fully staffed throughout. And you'll be able to visit the area's main sights with ease, including the 18th century Dutch Star Fort in Matara and Weherahena where there's an underground temple, built in the 17th century to outwit Portuguese occupiers, as well as a giant Buddha.

As you head east, you reach Yala National Park. Covering over 1,200 square kilometres, serious wildlife conservation is the priority here: there are more leopards here than anywhere else in the world, sharing the landscape with elephants, monkeys, deer and jackals. You'll need a car to visit, but it's easy to get entrance tickets, and more than enough space to allow you to escape the feeling of being on a safari treadmill. The time I saw leopard cubs playing by the side of the road, then spied a herd of elephants remains one of the most striking memories of my visits to Sri Lanka. It's easy to combine it with a trip to the Sithulpawwa temple, which dates from the third century BC and has stupas with cave temples and ancient paintings.

3 Sisters Talpe Villa

3 Sisters Talpe Villa

Ocean Retreat

There aren't many villas near Yala but Ranawara is a two-hour drive away, just south of Tangalle on the edge of the small fishing village of Kahandamodara. And this seven-bedroom villa has a great deal to recommend it. On a stretch of white powdery sand beach, Ranawara lies in the middle of a 9-hectare estate that is home to monkeys and peacocks. Minimalist in style but with high ceilings, verandas and pillared walkways, guests can hear the ocean waves from the rooms and rooftop bar; there's also an infinity swimming pool and manicured lawns. It has a clear influence from Geoffrey Bawa in its

Staying here also allows you to visit the nearby Kalametiya bird sanctuary with its coastal lagoons and mangrove areas. Guests are also well placed for a day trip to the sacred city of Kataragama, a Buddhist/Hindu deity believed to reside here. The evening puja, or prayers, is a mesmerising introduction to Sri Lanka's powerful belief system.

Poolside, Ranawara

Poolside, Ranawara

Hill Station Serenity

Head inland in this part of Sri Lanka and the landscape changes. Through a series of hairpin bends you'll reach the hill station of Nuwara Eliya. I did it once in driving rain but as we went through the cloud forest the skies cleared, the temperature lowered and I arrived in a world of half-timbered hill clubs, horse racing stables and ornamental gardens, the legacy of 19th-century British colonial rulers escaping the summer heat. Nuwara Eliya has some of the best conditions for growing tea in the world; you'll be surrounded by the corduroy stripes of surrounding estates as well as a series of market gardens.

Basing yourself here allows you to make excursions to Sri Lanka's even lesser-known eastern areas and its sites. Only discovered in the 1950s, Maligawila has two giant Buddhas and its setting – hidden in the jungle – adds to the sense of drama. Yudaganawa has a stupa with paintings and frescos dating back to the second century BC. Buduruwagala features seven figures of Buddha carved into the rock face and is surrounded by unspoilt dry-zone forest with birds and butterflies.

Hill Rise is a villa set on Lake Gregory in Nuwara Eliya and is a traditional planter's bungalow with four bedrooms. The air is cool here and Hill Rise's fireplaces and sense of warmth will come in useful in the evenings. Breakfast can be taken on the terrace in the morning, enjoying the view with, yes, a leisurely cup of tea.

Tea picking, Nuwara Eliya

Tea picking, Nuwara Eliya

Combine the following excursions with a villa stay on the southern coast or in the hill country.

Tour of Galle fort, Galle
Originally built by the Portuguese and later destroyed and rebuilt by the Dutch in 1640, Galle fort played a pivotal strategic role in Sri Lanka's history between the 16th and 18th centuries. Today the fort is full of boutique shops, cafes, restaurants, galleries and characterful architecture.

Rural train ride, Nuwara Eliya
Enjoy a leisurely rural train ride between Nuwara Eliya and Kandy. Chug along at just 30 km per hour, passing copious tea plantations, waterfalls and mountain creeks. The scenery is spectacular as are the glimpses of rural life and the experience of sharing the journey with the locals.

Train to Kandy

Train to Kandy

Watch turtles nesting, near Tangalle
Turtle Watch Rekawa is a non-profit organisation dedicated to the survival of the five species of turtles found in Sri Lanka: olive ridley, loggerhead, green, hawksbill and leatherhead. Arrive after dark for a briefing about the conservation programme before gathering on the shore with a conservationist to watch their nesting rituals.

Kataragama, near Yala National Park
The town of Kataragama on the border of Yala National Park is an important pilgrimage site for Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus alike. During July and August a religious festival including parading elephants and loud drums attracts devotees from as far as Jaffna in northern Sri Lanka, who come to perform acts of penance such as the 'treading of flowers' or walking on red-hot cinders.

Whale-watching safari, Mirissa
The south-west coast of Sri Lanka is renowned for whale watching particularly during the migration season between November to March. Mirissa is a particular focus as nowhere else in the world do blue whales swim so close to the shore.

Whale watching, Mirissa

Whale watching, Mirissa

Recommended C&K tour:

Hidden Gems of the South Coast: 15 Days & 13 Nights from £4,695 
Privacy, peace and a flexible itinerary are all part of this private tour of Sri Lanka's south coast. Relax on the beach or discover treasures such as the wall paintings at Mulkirigala or Yatagala rock temples. Price per person based on six adults travelling between 10 Apr – 31st Oct 2018. Excludes optional sightseeing. 

Speak to one of our Sri Lanka experts to find out more.

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