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Rail & Road to Jaffna

Sri Lanka is very close to our hearts, and we’re drawn back to its shores again and again. We’ve honed and expanded our knowledge of the Sinhalese south, and over recent years have broadened our horizons into the less-explored north too. It’s a land of beautiful islands, wild horses, temples and forts. Aside from the scars of war, the area is pristine and offers a wonderful experience to those who make the extra effort to get there.

At its heart, the vibrant city of Jaffna offers an eclectic experience of elegant Dutch-style villas, tree lined streets, huge Hindu Temples, mosques and churches. While it suffered immensely during the country’s civil war, large parts of the city are completely intact, and many damaged buildings are being slowly rebuilt, bringing new life to this off-centre destination.

Mud House
food market

Northern Sri Lanka feels completely different to the south. The population is almost entirely Tamil and their links to India are as strong as they are to Colombo.

The operations director at our Colombo office explains it perfectly: ‘It was an easy call when it came time to add the north to our itineraries. Our team first visited Jaffna a few years back, just as it was opening up to tourists. There was so much to offer, with the history, culture and amazing food. We were keen to show everyone a different part of our beautiful island, and bring much-needed investments and jobs to a community that needed our support.’

Busy, vibrant and on the up

Capital cities are always an experience, wherever you are in the world, and Colombo is no different. You get a sense of a country’s power, its politics, and sometimes an instinct as to where things are heading. Sprawling and growing, Colombo’s suburbs extend for 40 miles. A diverse collection of ramshackle and glass-fronted, broken and fixed, demolished and newly-built, it has an atmosphere of pace and change and is memorable for its sense of what might come next. Stay right in the middle of things in a city-centre hotel, or opt for one just outside (think shaded tropical gardens and revitalised period luxury).

Wherever you base yourself, there’s plenty of excellent food to discover, including the world-famous Ministry of Crab restaurant, which we reserve for clients as often as we can - it’s outstanding. As evening falls, wander onto scenic Galle Face Green to get a taste of the city’s street food as you’re buffeted by a warm Indian Ocean breeze. Markets, Colonial churches, a bit of bling, smart shopping districts, politics, and a lot of cricket; take your pick of delights in this ever-changing city.

Total sustainability

From Sri Lanka’s biggest settlement, head out to the evocatively-named Mud House. This handmade, lovingly crafted eco resort is a collection of striking, open-sided eco-bungalows set over 60 acres of total wilderness. The Mud House* has been enjoyed by both us and our guests many times over the years and, although it's definitely unusual, and certainly not your average idea of luxury, it makes for an exhilarating, relaxing escape from modern life. The huts and lodges are spread out between the trees and by the water. Each one is unique and literally constructed from materials collected from the environment around you. Think thatched roofs, mud walls, and sections open to the elements; rustic in the extreme. Run with love and commitment by its local staff, it offers lifetime memories, including wildlife spotting, cycling down dusty tracks, wild swimming and boating. The utter darkness of the night skies is disturbed only by candles and bonfires, and there’s the bonus of delicious dining too. 

* If The Mudhouse isn’t right for you, there’s a range of other options nearby. Travelling a little further north, for example, brings you to the majestic Wilpattu National Park which offers all the ingredients for a very special stay.

The North

After passing through the gateway city of Vavuniya, reminders of the tragedy that befell Sri Lanka in the not-too-distant past start to become apparent. The civil war ended in 2009 and the scars among the people and landscape are still relevant and fresh. Any visit to this part of the island will include moments of reflection on the war and its legacy, which may define the region’s recent history but not its future or even where it is today. Pass through the old military checkpoint at Omanthai and the Tamil Tigers wartime capital of Kilinochi, and continue onwards. 

Jaffna is a really special place. It rewards those who immerse themselves within its streets, and expert guides will ensure you get the most out of it. Like much of Sri Lanka, Jaffna was fought over by competing colonising powers, and the Portuguese, Dutch and British influences combine headily with the overriding local style. The city has slowly but surely picked itself up over recent years, painstakingly restoring war-damaged buildings, and a surprising amount still stands, including the Dutch fort, ruined palace, and some intense religious sites.

The islands and peninsula

Until the north opens up a little more, Jaffna is the region’s main draw, but it’s surrounded by a peninsula and scattering of windswept islands with a number of interesting sites to explore. Small villages, archeological excavations, and the tiny desert village of Manalkadu with its sand-dune-reclaimed, ruined 17th-century church are all intriguing to discover. These islands have a sense of being truly apart from the comings and goings of modern life; a complete remoteness which is both calming and poignant. A lovely way to enjoy the islands in the right season is on a luxurious catamaran. A day's cruising takes you deep into Palk Bay and the fascinating Delft Island with its wild horses, allegedly the descendents of horses set free after the Dutch occupation.

Beach, jungle or both 

Down the coast from Jaffna, near Kalpitiya, is Wilpattu: Sri Lanka’s largest National Park. This is an area of total adventure and a contender for Selective Asia’s favourite wildlife destination of all. A two-night stay here is perfect and often the highlight of any trip to the island. All manner of spellbinding wildlife is present in the park including the extraordinary Sri Lankan leopard. We love to arrange nights under canvas with expert guides, gourmet dining and stories to tell. This is much more than just camping, with the finesse and ambiance of a classic adventurer’s expedition. Fine wine, teak furniture and expensive linen. 

South of the verdant National Park on the north west coast, the remote Kalpitiya Peninsula offers sleepy, luxurious coastal bliss in hotels that are both comforting and rustic. Relaxing days at leisure can be spent just enjoying your surroundings, swimming, reading and eating. When the conditions are right, this stretch of coast becomes a world-class kite surfing destination. When the weather is calmer, you can take a boat out to see the dolphins that gather in the bay; an unforgettable experience.

Where to next? 

As a tailor-made operator, we create your trip exactly to your personal parameters, rather than prescribing anything (though we will enthuse at length about why we recommend particular favourites!) The details are decided by your budget, time and most importantly your desires and preferences. The above route showcases a diverse collection of experiences to give you a taste of how a trip to this region might be shaped, but there’s always room for flexibility and adding extra. At this stage, you might decide to head back to Colombo, stay in a lovely hotel, and enjoy a bit more of the city experience (high-end dining included). Or, you might opt to unwind in a chic hotel in the countryside, spend a few extra days in the foothills of Kandy, or head further into Tea Country. The choice is, of course, yours.

A note on cost…

The north is by some distance the lesser travelled region of Sri Lanka and this, in our mind, is what makes it so special. Either side of a recommended 4 nights based in Jaffna exploring the peninsula, there are near endless combinations and suggestions that we can make for your overall trip. For the 12 night suggested at a per person price of £2,490US$2,790 (not including international flights), we would typically combine Jaffna with 4 nights shared between Kalpitiya and Willpattu with a strong focus on wildlife throughout your stays, 2 nights at the Mudhouse or a nearby alternative and 2 nights in the capital of Colombo.

How yours looks is up to you, our tailor-made specialists work with you to create your perfect journey.

What's included in your Selective Asia holiday

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