“Better to see something once than to hear about it a thousand times.” —Asian Proverb

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Discover the South of Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka overall is quite hard to research online. But I imagine this will change very soon judging by the amount of people on my Facebook feed who have recently been or are planning to go. The next new holiday destination and I sincerely hope this will not change this little teardrop of India. One thing you need in Sri Lanka is time. Things are much slower here, not only service and trains, but also the roads. Places aren’t connected as well and even on the roads you won’t be moving much faster. I’d have loved to have travelled the east coast as well but there just wasn’t time during our 2 weeks trip. But we did the south and very much enjoyed it! That’s the thing about Sri Lanka – you have this incredible countryside with tea fields and then the most stunning whitewashed sand and turquoise Indian Ocean. Paradise in a teardrop.

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The south is very different. It caters much more to the needs of mass tourism and Sri Lanka has worked out very quickly that it has something unique to offer – great surfing spots and the Indian Ocean.  We wanted a mix of both – a chilled beach experience and some surfing. So we split our last week between 2 places: Matara and Hikkaduwa. Matara isn’t that well known and when the south is mentioned, it’s mainly Mirissa or Galle that gets all the reviews. We chose Matara purely BECAUSE it wasn’t mentioned that much and because we found an amazing little spot by the beach : 7th wave beach house. Run by a French / Sri Lankan couple and their 1 year old toddler, this is a proper surfing shack with its own restaurant. We stayed for 4 nights, right by the edge of the beach where you fall asleep to the sound of the waves and you wake up to them. All you need to do is step out of your room and jump on a surf board for an early morning session before indulging on the restaurants terrace with a surfers breakfast – omelette, banana pancakes, coffee and porridge. After having travelled a lot the previous week, it was great to just relax for a few days in a hammock, with fresh seafood and glorious sunsets on a daily basis. A super chilled place with very cool people, it’s basic, it’s simple, it doesn’t have hot water but it’s a little piece of paradise. Having spoke to a few people during out stay, we are glad we didn’t chose Mirissa as it seems to have turned into a bit of a red light district with quite a heavy drug culture.

The last leg of our journey was Hikkaduwa – a town up the west coast towards Colombo. Hikkaduwa is famous for its surf, you don’t got here with your kids for a sand castle beach trip, I myself wasn’t brave enough to go into the water. It’s the Indian Ocean at its wildest, with the caveat that I haven’t seen the east coast which is meant to be even better for surfing. The rawness and strength of the Indian Ocean is scarily beautiful and breathtaking at the same time.

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We treated ourselves a little bit for our last 3 nights and booked the beautiful Banana Leaf Apartment – an AirBnB right in the middle of the jungle. The English / Sri Lankan couple Hannah and Amila build a beautiful little oasis of 3 apartments tucked away from the hustle and bustle of Hikkaduwa in the jungle but still close enough to walk to the town through rice fields. With an outdoor kitchen and outdoor sofa area you couldn’t ask for more, watching monkeys in the morning and exotic birds throughout the day. We had some very relaxing days here with a mix of surfing, drinks by the beach and long mornings on the terrace with some home-cooked lunches. There is a well stocked supermarket and daily market in town and I immensely enjoyed the outdoor cooking. We struggled a little bit with restaurants as it is very tourist heavy so it was nice to have the ability to cook at home. But the beach front is perfect for a light seafood lunch to take a break from the sun and beach.

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“To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries” – Aldous Huxley

There are lots of travel reviews on how to travel the Sri Lankan tea country, what’s the best route, where to stay. I struggled a little as I really wanted the authentic experience and not end up in a tourist trap. We managed quite a good balance so here are my tips on how to travel the tea country authentically without missing out on the good stuff:

The Whiter Waters of Ramboda

1. Travel to and stay in Nuwara Eliya

We avoided the tourist traps of Haputal, Dambulla and Nanouya and travelled a little off track from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya. The 3 hours drive is absolutely stunning through luscious green tea fields up winding streets. We did a quick stint to a tea factory and visited a couple of waterfalls on the way. Nuwara Eliya itself sits fairly high above sealevel in the mountains and you can really feel the change in air and temperature. Bring some jumpers with you as the temperature difference to Colombo and Kandy is quite noticeable. Jumper and jeans are definitely recommendable, especially in the evening.

View from the top of the hills at Ramboda

Don’t expect a beautiful little mountain village – Nuwara Eliya is robust and convenient. It isn’t packed with colourful restaurants, bars or little tea shops. It’s very local, not necessarily the richest of villages but its people have big hearts and a lot of curiosity. It’s a good location if you want to travel to Adam’s Peak for the sunrise hike – unfortunately we weren’t able to go as I fell ill the night before but I would certainly recommend it over Sigiriya where you have to pay entry and it’s all over in an hour. It is also meant to be very over-run whereas Adam’s peak due to its off the track location still has kept some authenticity and beautiful calmness

2. Book a home-stay

We stayed with a local family at a home stay, definitely an experience I can recommend if you want to experience the real Sri Lanka and its real people. It’s the reason we fell in love with the country  – the most welcome, warm and hospital people I’ve met on my travels and they just want to make your experience unforgettable. Our home-stay was called Redwood Inn, run by a young couple just outside on the outskirts of town. They will cook you a delicious Sri Lankan dinner (just avoid the fruit salad, that was my down-fall) and the breakfast is beautiful home-made cake.

Picturesque drive up the valley to Nuwara Eliya

Restaurant recommendation: The Grand Thai

3. Take the train to Ella

Yes, you will read this in every guide book and yes everyone will say it’s the most beautiful train journey. And – they are right. I was violently ill when we attempted the train journey which definitely dampered the experience for me, but I am very grateful we did it. You will need nerves of steel. The train is delayed – always. At least 2 hours. And tickets – forget about it. Unless you book them 1 year in advance or find someone who sells them under the table, you are in the cattle class. But that’s the point, isn’t it? That’s how the locals travel so that’s how we travelled. With a 39 degree fever. But hey. 7 hours to cover 75 miles in snail pace through the winding hills of the tea country and the 100 shades of green of the tea farms. You will experience all the elements throughout this journey, one of the highest points of the trip will literally take you through the clouds. We arrived in Ella with a beautiful sunset, exhausted but very happy.

 

4. Stay 2 nights in Ella

Ella is the complete opposite to Nuwara Eliya. The main road from the train station to our hotel where all the restaurants and bars are reminds me a little bit of Thailand. Loud and colourful, some shacks, some elaborate terraces. But welcoming. What struck me was that you don’t see a single local. It’s very much westernised and all white people sitting in the restaurants. The locals have their houses higher up in the hills and further into the jungle and you tend to see them much on the main road. It does feel like tourism has taken over this little village but when you are exhausted  – and I don’t say this lightly – and you have an upset stomach, a slice of pizza really did the job. I was strong enough again to climb Ella’s Rock the next morning.

Our morning view of Ella’s Rock from our guesthouse’s rooftop terrace

5. Climb Ella’s Rock

Most people go very early to catch the sunrise, similar to Adam’s Peak. We frankly couldn’t get out of bed as we bagged a pretty good room at the Hilltop Guest House with a beautiful rooftop terrace AND an Italian café (don’t judge, Sri Lankan coffee is tought on the oh so sensitive stomach) at the bottom of the hill – bliss for breakfast with views of the entire valley. We set off at 11am and had crowds of people coming towards us on the first quarter of the way and to be honest, I can only imagine how packed it must have been at the peak at 7am so we were very happy to have left “late”. Just take plenty of water and you should be fine in the heat – the hike should take 2 hours each way. 

 


The track isn’t very well sign-posted – basically not at all. We followed descriptions from a guide book and asked some locals. Our hotel was located right at the beginning by the rail tracks, which you have to walk along for the first 30 minutes. Then take a sharp left at a little hut selling drinks, cross the bridge of a natural swimming pool and you are at the foot of the peak. The climb is quite steep and challenging, but the panorama is breathtaking. At the top, we were almost by ourselves apart from a few guards and of course some stray dogs with puppies.

 

Ella Restaurant recommendations: We really wanted to try AK Ristoro and Café Guru but unfortunately they were shut the night we stayed. But we heard very good things about these restaurants so if you go to Ella, please try them on our behalf!