You’d be forgiven for thinking that Sri Lanka only had 3 or 4 National Parks, given how extraordinary the highest profile handful are, but in fact there are 26 of them. The island is deeply in love with its natural world, and devotes thousands of square kilometres to giving wildlife more space to roam. As keen travellers, we often seek out less-visited treasures along with the headline sights: an urge to get closer to the heart of each destination that’s in Selective Asia’s DNA. This journey combines the island’s top wildlife crowd pleasers with some magnificent hidden gems. It’s ideal for a second or third trip to Sri Lanka, or a stunning first visit with a difference.
Free of the gaggle of jeeps that can crowd the main parks, you can enter a lesser-known National Park which has fewer of the trappings of human interference. The morning mist disperses revealing a land of greenery, with low-lying dense trees, waterways full of crocodiles and signs that elephants have passed through. A day of exploration in these pristine surroundings will fill your head with animal encounters and the exotic atmosphere of the Sri Lankan wilderness. The adventure continues as night falls. Your camp awaits, camp fire alight, and tempting aromas fill the air as your private chef cooks dinner on the BBQ. Far from home, you can fall asleep in relative luxury in the middle of the jungle.
Colombo has revealed itself to be much more than just the entry and exit point of a trip to the island. It’s an eclectic combination of old and new; a city of glass, steel and the suited and booted, in concert with an almost rural pace and atmosphere. Chaotic, suave, exotic, choked, the adjectives never rest in describing this city. Just when you feel you have the place nailed it offers yet more contradictions.
Our guide will help you open up the destination with its many quirks and curveballs. A visit to Pettah Market is a great way to start. Frantic traders shout out their best offers to canny buyers on a dizzying array of goods. Head to the food stalls for a breakfast of anything from egg hoppers to Portuguese-inspired stuffed pastries.
Later on, mosey down to Galle Face Green and its parade of food stalls. More locals than travellers can often be found wandering across the grass promenade, and the range of appetising morsels and heady aromas, with the backdrop of the crashing, tropical Indian Ocean, is impossible to ignore.
Head east out of Colombo and you open up a country of National Parks, wildlife, verdant tea country, and glorious beaches. There’s so much to look forward to, but before you get there you must make a stop in the holy city of Kandy. Although rarely a highlight, its status and reverence shouldn’t be taken for granted. Home to the Temple of the Tooth, Sri Lanka’s holiest of holy sites, Lord Bhudda’s tooth is held in its care and the scenes of devout worship make for an atmospheric experience.
A soft introduction to Sri Lankan nature can be had at the forest reserve just behind the temple, where a wander might reveal a monkey (or 10!) and a host of birdlife. A beautiful spot, and slightly surreal, being as close as it is to the town centre; a city jungle. We believe that Kandy has a lot to offer. There’s some enchanting boutique accommodation to choose from, giving you the option of a cooling swim and gourmet dinner before starting your journey from Kandy Railway Station into tea country.
The prettiest part of the island is surely its extensive hill country. Taking the train out of Kandy, it soon becomes apparent what a beautiful place this is. The click clacking of the rails offers a tranceful soundtrack to the unfolding landscape of lush hills, dark forest, vertiginous inclines, and plunging waterfalls.
This area is coated in nostalgia and peppered with old-world charm. Not so much faded, but rather re-invented and re-used. Days and nights here can be spent in some of Sri Lanka’s most idyllic accommodation. Grand old villas with infinity pools, clipped lawns, cinematic views, and in some cases even your own private butler.
We really recommend extending your time here if possible, to fully immerse yourself in Sri Lanka’s finest countryside. Country walks, gourmet picnics, wild swimming, and lashings of afternoon tea, all served up in the refreshing hillside air.
You can, of course, include whichever areas take your fancy on this easily-navigated island, and we’ll make sure your chosen route is realistic and achievable. If you’re looking for the best jungle adventure Sri Lanka has to offer, then there’s nowhere better than the remote Gal Oya Lodge, but perhaps you fancy a bit of beach time before heading into a National Park? If so, Arugam Bay is an obvious place to pause for some dedicated R&R. Famous for decades for its world-class surf, and still a bit of a hub for hipster nomads who come seeking waves, it could be seen as something of an acquired taste. The laid-back hippie vibe isn’t everyone's cup of Sri Lankan tea, but for those who enjoy that sort of ambiance, it’s fantastic. Walk along the rustic shoreline, re-centre with yoga and Ayurvedic treatments, and perhaps even take a surf lesson or two. Or head somewhere totally different, perhaps further round the coast - we’ll talk with you to let you know what to expect and offer alternatives. Anything is possible.
To the east of Yala lies Kumana National Park, a special place unhindered by overtourism. Perhaps a window into how things used to be? Its remote gate means that only the most focused operators call this area home, and it’s a safari with a difference. There’s no permanent presence, and instead this private journey is interspersed with nights in tents in the wilderness. There’s a hint of the extravagance of a grand expedition, and a host of staff on hand to ensure everything runs smoothly and prepare delightful gourmet food. This is a tip of the hat to basic camping, and a more formal bow to luxury-light, wilderness chic.
Being inside the park is exhilarating and a total privilege. The specialist camp is run by Mahoora, a name that Selective Asia has a long and successful relationship with. A full programme of safaris is in store. Head out to spot a plethora of exhilarating wildlife, from an array of migratory birds to elephants, crocodiles and even, if you’re very fortunate, leopards.
Uda Walawe is an often overlooked National Park, but as soon as you are surrounded by its vast sanctuary, home to water buffalo, water monitors, sambar deer, monkeys, dozens of bird species, elephants and the occasional leopard, you’ll be confused as to why it’s not higher on the tourist radar. This is a pleasing landscape of low lying greenery, with an epic central reservoir that attracts all the surrounding wildlife, the most impressive of which are the herds of elephants that this park is famous for. All efforts are made to minimize human contact with the elephants, but you can watch them being fed and bathed, and head out for a dusk drive through the park to spot a herd on the move. It’s not unusual to see whole herds feeding, bathing or just playing in the water. One for the forever memory bank.
If you are looking for something even more remote, then further west lies the rainforest of Sinharaja. This is a landscape that recalibrates the wilderness scale, offering a unique experience like nothing else on the island, and one that very few visitors get to have.
At the end of your trip, a head full of sights and experiences can be well served by a few days of quiet contemplation and indulgence. The island’s undulating coastal locations, with their swaying palms, fine sand and boutique properties, are ideal. Whether it's the unhurried south or the more developed west, you can find a coastal spot that fits in effortlessly with the season and route of your trip.
There are many delightful properties on the west coast within easy distance of the pristine city of Galle, surely one of Sri Lanka’s most beautiful cities. Its cobbled streets and colonial elegance leave a lasting impression. A bracing walk along the old Dutch ramparts in the early evening is a must, Indian Ocean to one side, red tiled roofs and white washed antique villas to the other. Locals playing cricket on the grass, and families and couples in close conversation proving that gazing at the sea is a universal activity. A night or two here before heading to the airport can round off a journey perfectly.
The guide price of £3,490US$3,990 is a per person price (not including international flights) staying 2 nights in Colombo, 1 night in Kandy, 2 nights in Tea Country, 3 nights on the sands of Arugam Bay (alternative beach preferences can easily be arranged), 2 nights camping in Kumana National Park, 1 night at Uda Walawe National Park and 2 nights in Galle; all in our favourite mid-range hotels, lodges and tented camps.
How yours looks is up to you, our tailor-made specialists work with you to create your perfect journey.