Smaller than Ireland but with five times the population, this south Asian country offers nature, history and culture in abundance – oh and an epic train journey too.
Something no one tells you about Sri Lanka is just how green its landscape is. Being nearly 10,000km from Ireland, it was nice to take comfort in this similarity, especially given my ‘solo’ travel status for the first time in my life.
Another bonus when travelling alone is that it’s also small and easy to manoeuvre around. In fact, Sri Lanka is smaller than Ireland, although it has five times the population.
The first port of call on my trip was Sigiriya, an ancient fortress that is a rock star in its own right. Getting to the top isn’t easy — a number of rigid staircases must be conquered that are challenging on the glutes but worth it.
The climb presents the most incredible views of green landscapes and clusters of trees throughout the journey to the top.
An impressive feature of the hike is a pair of huge lion’s paws carved into a bedrock that greet you before making the final climb. The satisfaction of making it to the top is remarkable because it’s at this point that you have a 360-degree view of Sigiriya and also where the remainder of the ancient palace resides.
My exertions entitled me to some R&R, which I got in abundance at the luxury eco hotel Jetwing Vila Uyana, just ten minutes by car from Sigiriya. Built in 2004, the hotel is an oasis of tranquillity that embraces nature at every point. Immaculately maintained, it is bursting with wildlife and even has a resident crocodile that ventures around the wetlands around breakfast time.
With 36 villas on-site, my villa was stilted above ground with a spacious open-plan bedroom and an impressive bathroom area with a huge bathtub as well as a rain shower. Outside, there was a private balcony and small swimming pool to take a much-needed cool down and make the most of the beautiful surroundings. Vila Uyana is without doubt a honeymooners’ paradise, with staff who are incredibly kind-natured and welcoming to all guests.
A two-hour drive away is the city of Kandy, which can be described as Sri Lanka’s version of Lake Como. Beautiful and rich in culture, a highlight of my day trip included visiting the Temple of The Tooth, commonly known as the Sacred Tooth Relic. What struck me most about this temple was not just its beauty but rather the mass gathering of young people that came to worship.
It was a haven of refuge for them which is something we seldom see among the younger demographic in Ireland. Dress for the occasion though — shoulders and legs can’t be displayed and shoes can’t be worn, which is tough in the sweltering heat.
From Kandy, my next stop was Ella — and there is only one way to take on this trip, on what is often described as the most beautiful train journey in the world.
There are three types of tickets you can get: first class, second class and third class, with the main difference being you’re guaranteed a seat in first class, which is also air-conditioned.
In second and third class, you’re not guaranteed a seat but you can pop your head out the window and dangle your feet out the open door at your own risk. Having done my research in advance, I got the second-class ticket to make the most of the journey.
Getting on the train was like a cattle mart. I’ve never seen anything like it and for once in my life I was thankful I travelled light with one small bag because no other bags would have made the cut. Let’s just say it was a tight squeeze for nearly three hours of me standing and not being able to move.
Eventually though, I got a seat and could properly appreciate the views of the meandering green tea plantations, the waterfalls, mountains and dense jungle.
A few hours in, I made friends with a lovely English couple, Kelly and Jack, and we kept rotating the seats so we all had a turn to rest and take everything in.
One thing to note is the train journey should be around six hours but something you’ll learn in Sri Lanka is everything runs a bit slower, and we ended up taking around 11 hours because of multiple breakdowns. But we made the most of it and it was honestly one of the best experiences of my life.
The smiling, dancing locals made the journey memorable and worthwhile, something that anyone who has visited Sri Lanka will immediately understand. Sri Lankans tend to go with the flow and don’t let things get them down.
Had the breakdown happened in Ireland it would have been a very different outcome. Not in Sri Lanka though — we laughed, danced and sang for around five hours of the journey.
Having arrived into Ella quite late, it was time to call it a night and head straight to Jetwing Kaduruketha. It was only the next morning when it was bright that I was able to appreciate just how beautiful a hotel it is.
Despite sitting on 50 acres of land, there are just 10 acres allocated to host 20 chalet-style rooms, a swimming pool, bar and restaurant at the ecoluxury resort.
The rest is home to woodland, wildlife and paddy fields that are occupied by local farmers to encourage local trade. Sustainability is key to the owners of the Jetwing group, and it’s clear this is something instilled across all of its properties.
The town of Ella has real character and charm, and is full of amazing things to do. I climbed Little Adam’s Peak, which towers over the valley, presenting incredible panoramic views of jungle-clad mountains and the town. It’s pretty well mapped out and has a paved pathway for tourists to follow and climb the many steps. The climb at Sigiriya felt mild in comparison, but it was incredibly enjoyable and the views at the top are epic.
We followed the trek down to the spectacular Nine Arch Bridge, sometimes known as the ‘bridge in the sky’. Standing at 80 feet, this man-made structure is a spectacular masterpiece.
On a good day, if there’s no breakdowns, this is where the Kandy to Ella train passes, and we were lucky enough to see one chug by. It’s amazing to stand on the tracks and take in the surroundings — as you look up you will see dense forest slopes with houses perching out.
Afterwards we made our way back up and sipped on a green juice in one of the hilltop cafes and waited for another train to pass through. It was surreal.
Almost three hours away is the surfing paradise Arugam Bay and another eco-friendly hotel, Jetwing Surf. Living up to its name and location, it is the coolest place to stay. It’s mapped out in such a way that circular wooden huts are dotted around the property all facing towards the sea. Not only are they stunning to look at but inside they are incredible with a beautiful woven pitched roof and woven walls that give the ultimate beach vibe look.
The bathrooms have both inside and outside showers and even have seashell taps and lamps — the attention to detail is faultless. The property itself has an outdoor restaurant that looks out to the sea and also features a rather impressive circular pool too, in which I was surprised one morning with a floating breakfast.
Admittedly, it was at this point that I really felt like Bridget Jones with the beautifully presented breakfast all to myself in a romantic setting surrounded by families and couples. Needless to say, I ate it — the fruit, banana bread and pancakes were divine, much like most of the food in Sri Lanka.
A highlight of my stay here was meeting Len, a neighbour of the hotel who has a villa next door. Although from the UK, Len is like part of the furniture at Jetwing Surf and brought me out on a tuk tuk safari that was completely off the beaten track.
Some 15 minutes from the hotel we ventured into paddy fields and spotted huge crocodiles that had me terrified but filled with adrenaline at the same time. After seeing the crocodile enjoy its prey I ran back to the tuk tuk and we set off again.
As we moved through the paddy fields, we came across a herd of elephants which isn’t unusual, given it’s Sri Lanka. After around ten minutes of watching them, they started bathing in the water which is an incredibly rare sighting to see, especially given they had spotted us.
It was a magical moment and to this day I still remember the silence and stillness of the evening as we watched them close by.
Something that’s always been on my to-do list is learning to surf and where better to learn than Arugam Bay. Surfing looks cool but it is not for the faint-hearted. I’m sure I gave onlookers a giggle at my inability to stand on the board without falling. However, perseverance is everything and within the hour I found something of a rhythm and managed to ride a few waves without falling.
From nature to adventure to history — Sri Lanka has it all. If the latter fascinates you, the city of Galle is a delight to explore on foot and is home to Galle Fort, a Unesco World Heritage Site. Built by the Dutch in 1663, it is the largest fortress in Asia built by Europeans and to this day it has working offices and courts on site. When wandering through Galle, expect to see Dutch colonial buildings, ancient mosques and churches, and quaint cobbled streets lined with beautiful cafes and restaurants.
While there, I stayed in Jetwing Lighthouse and I only wish I could have had another night or two. The design of the hotel resembles the makings of Galle. From land, the building portrays a fort, and from the sea it looks like a ship. It was so therapeutic to walk along the curved part of the beach and watch the waves crash over giant boulders.
The bedroom I stayed in was paradise and reminiscent of an old classic movie. The furnishings are both luxurious and timeless, with bold exotic pieces balanced perfectly with timber accents to dress the room.
Before heading back to Colombo to end the trip, there was one more thing to tick off my bucket list: exploring Mirissa, an incredible beach destination.
While there, I visited Coconut Tree Hill, perched high over the ocean with palm trees scattered about, making the perfect photo opportunity. Afterwards, I headed back down to the beach, went for a surf lesson, chilled and enjoyed a few cans of Tiger, Sri Lanka’s signature beer.
The final stop of the trip was an overnighter in the capital, Colombo. After two weeks trekking around, it was time to chill in Jetwing Colombo Seven, a contemporary high-rise hotel that is one of the city’s hotspots for people to gather. A modern hotel, the vibe is very slick and cool but the standout feature is the rooftop infinity pool that showcases breathtaking views.
While there I explored some nearby cafes and markets and did a walking tour of Independence Square. Built to commemorate the country’s independence in 1948, it serves as a monument, a park and a walking area for those visiting.
All in all, Sri Lanka is the dream destination for anyone who wants to explore a country that has access to the Indian Ocean. Not only does it have incredible beaches and resorts, but it’s a real gem, rich in culture and history, for those who want an action-packed holiday balanced with some muchneeded R&R.
How to get there: I flew business class with Emirates and didn’t sleep a wink for fear of missing anything. The latest movies are available on ICE, the airline’s in-flight entertainment system. The food on board was exceptional and featured local Irish produce on the menu outbound from Dublin. Business class passengers can enjoy up to 40kg of baggage, which was handy, given the length of my trip. Emirates operates a daily flight from Dublin to Colombo via Dubai with economy class starting from €1,026 and business class from €3,878. See emirates.com.
Where to stay: Accommodation was with the eco-friendly Jetwing Hotels group, Sri Lanka’s largest family of hotels and villas. Visit jetwinghotels. com to book now.