Sri Lanka’s vast ancient ruins, wild elephants and white-sand beaches – not to mention its excellent value for money – have long been a magnet for the adventurous and experience-hungry. Take a train through tea country, visit the seasonal surf towns, or navigate the streets of the capital Colombo, teeming with honking tuk tuks. And be sure to stay in one of the best resorts this lovely Indian Ocean idyll has to offer. Here’s our guide.
You come to east-coast Pasikuda for the beach: a 3km stretch of open sands, home to this fine resort. Splash out and book the Beach Villa or two-bedroom Bay Suite, both with 24-hour room service and private plunge pools. And visit the underground spa, beneath the vast infinity pool. May to September has the best visibility in the bay for snorkelling, when you can dive to shipwrecks from World War II. You won’t find much in terms of local restaurants nearby, but the impressive 800-year-old ruins of Polonnaruwa are just over an hour away.
Here’s a strategically sound place to base yourself if you’re keen to explore Sri Lanka’s so-called cultural triangle, between Kandy, Polonnaruwa, and Anuradhapura. For us the highlight is the riot of colour that adorns every rock facet of Dambulla Cave Temple, the largest complex of its kind in Sri Lanka, with golden buddhas that may date from the first century BCE. At Jetwing Lake, modern rooms manage to be fancy yet minimalist, with warm woods and floor-to-ceiling windows focused on the mountain and lake. Watch the sky turn purple at nightfall from the furnished balcony, or cool down in the 71m pool after visiting the elephants in Kaudulla National Park.
Want to camp without the inconvenience of actually camping? Stay at this cluster of individual conical thatched ‘beehives’ that protrude from the hillside on stilts, and wake up in the clouds. The seven luxury chalets have each been designed with attention to detail: windows look out over the tea plantations and mountain ranges from five different districts of Sri Lanka – you can sightsee without even getting out of bed. Explore the village of Beragala in the Sri Lankan highlands, mountain-bike over the ranges or duck under the nearby Bambarakanda and Diyaluma Waterfalls.
Anantara resorts don’t mess around when it comes to luxury: check out the towering open lobbies, a grand beachside bar like two upturned sea urchins, sunken ponds, infinity pools, freestanding tubs, and wine humidors even in entry-level rooms. With fine dining, a spa, and wellness packages of Ayurvedic treatments, this is a place to unwind. But do venture out to the wildlife reserves: Yala (leopard spotting), Udawalawe (elephants), and Kalametiya and Bundala (birds). The beach is a key turtle-nesting ground. Nesting occurs year round, but April to July is the best time to see them.
You stay at Jetwing Kaduruketha to slow things down – swim under a natural waterfall among paddy fields, and watch peacocks stroll under the mango trees and pepper plants. Modelled after a traditional village, this eco-minded hotel in the southern countryside is handy for the Buduruwagala rock carvings. Otherwise you’re here to draw breath. There’s a large infinity pool, a small Ayurvedic spa and yoga; also bicycles to zip about on. Eco philosophy means rooms of bamboo walls and perforated door sashes for natural illumination and ventilation. The hotel only uses 4ha (10 acres) of its 24ha (60 acre) plot, to conserve wildlife. And rice served comes from surrounding fields, to support farmers.
The distinctive chequerboard pool of this beachfront property is one of its most striking features. Designed by celebrated Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa, inspired by Dutch 18th-century design, the pitched roofs and line-of-sight from its 75 rooms towards the ocean make a breezy, stylish base from which to explore the resort town of Bentota. Located on Sri Lanka’s southwest coast, around 90 minutes from Colombo, the town is well set up for excursions out to sea for whale watching, and inland to Yala for leopard spotting.
With its beach, Negombo is a popular alternative base to the clogged capital Colombo; an easy 20-minute drive from Bandaranaike International Airport, it’s an obvious stopping point, even if just for a night. This Jetwing property delivers the beachfront escapism you want after a long flight. The massive pool abuts the sands, edged by shaded day beds. There’s a gym and a spa, restaurant and bar, as well as bedrooms with floor-to-ceiling windows looking out to sea. Family rooms include a living room, while suites have balcony jacuzzi baths. Maybe you do need more than a night after all.
The Dickwella Resort juts out to sea on its own narrow, rocky peninsula. Which makes it a great spot to check on the day’s surf. It’s a quick five minute drive to neighbouring Hiriketiya Bay, where the horseshoe-shaped cove breaks waves suitable for beginners and intermediates. Start your morning with yoga or a fishing trip, book a diving excursion, or borrow a canoe to explore the cove. If you’re travelling with kids, the family suites feature two king beds.
These decadent lookouts, set amid spice and tea gardens, hover above the hills 10 miles (16km) beyond Kandy. Opened in 2018, the cluster of five-star bungalows seeks to help you unplug from the pressures of daily life. Individually designed, some feature plunge or infinity pools. Others have hot tubs so guests can make the most of the far-reaching views of the Knuckles Mountain Range. Decor mixes contemporary and antique, including concrete cast bathtubs, and natural stone. There’s a spa, and you can take that wellness break a step further with a rejuvenation program of yoga, tailored meal plans and meditation. The restaurant fuses international and Sri Lankan, with in-room dining available all day. Wake up early to birdsong, and catch the sunrise over the mountains.
Visitors intent on following the well-worn trail from Colombo – to the south, with slow train journeys through tea country – often miss out on this north-eastern section of coast. That’s a mistake. Walk the beach and you’ll wander past lively but tasteful beach bars, neon-lit temples on the sand and fishermen tugging their nets ashore in formation. Jungle Beach, further up this sandy stretch on a quiet spit, was created to look like a luxurious tree house, and has rooms spread across 49 thatched chalets. Upgrade to the Jungle Cluster Villas, especially good for groups, which have private bamboo-fringed pools.
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