The lure of leopard safaris, sprawling ancient cities, and unspoiled Indian Ocean beaches have beckoned me to Sri Lanka since its decades-long civil war ended in 2009. I finally had the chance to visit this past February, and though that month is considered high season thanks to dry, sunny days and moderate temperatures, I encountered none of the tourist hordes or bus caravans that throng Southeast Asia’s other cultural treasures like Angkor Wat and Bagan.
Make it a priority to plan your own journey there before this relatively undiscovered gem takes its rightful place at the top of travelers’ must-visit lists. Here is what you need to know.
PACK: For a sojourn on the southern beaches, all you need is a bathing suit and plenty of sunblock. Be sure to tote along more modest clothing that covers your shoulders and knees for visits to temples and other historical sites. Many hotels offer free or inexpensive laundry service, so you might not need more than a carry-on.
SLEEP: Sri Lanka will soon be home to a spate of new beach resorts, including the recently opened Anantara Peace Haven Tangalle, a former coconut plantation perched atop a cliff. Historical properties abound, however, and are fascinating portals into the country’s rich past and social fabric. Amangalla occupies two 300-year-old buildings that were once Dutch colonial headquarters in the UNESCO-listed Galle Fort. In the verdant Kotmale highlands of tea country, Mas Villa is a refined retreat in a manor house that dates back over 200 years, while Ulagalla Resort includes a 150-year-old former village headman’s mansion near the towering stupas of Anuradhapura in the Cultural Triangle.
EAT: Even high-end restaurants here struggle with Western cuisine, so go all Sri Lankan, all the time. Thanks to the myriad spices for which this island was so historically prized—including cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, fenugreek, and turmeric—the flavors here tend to be complex and nuanced. For breakfast, try egg hoppers: delicate rice-flour crepes with sunny-side up eggs fried into them that come brimming with fish curry and spicy sambal garnish. In addition to a meat dish and hearty lentil, dhal dinners typically consist of a half dozen vegetable curries, including those made with thinly sliced lotus roots, okra (here it’s called “ladies’ fingers”), and pulpy jackfruit.
EXPLORE: Sri Lanka’s beaches and cultural sites are huge draws, but the country’s national parks are home to sizeable populations of leopards, sloth bears, elephants, crocodiles, and (rather vociferous) peacocks, among hundreds of other species. Yala National Park is the best known and busiest, so if you plan a visit there, splurge on a stay at the chic new beachfront Chena Huts, where game drives are included and the guides will ensure you are among the first visitors in the park at sunrise. Up next on wildlife enthusiasts’ radar is remote Gal Oya National Park, where you won’t be contending with convoys of safari jeeps jam-packed with tourists.
SHOP: Sri Lanka is a souvenir collector’s paradise. Stock your spice rack with sets from Laksala (locations throughout the country), or buy a sampling of Ceylon’s famous teas at a historic factory like Storefield. Clotheshorses can trot home from Barefoot shops in Colombo or Galle with vibrant housewares, sarongs, and reams of fabric with patterns inspired by Sri Lanka’s landscapes.
DRIVE: Sri Lanka is small, but thanks to narrow roads and traffic congestion it can take hours to drive a matter of miles, so be sure to budget travel time into your trip. Most visitors hire a driver who stays with them for their entire itinerary. Arrange for one who can double as a tour guide through a reputable outfitter like London-based Sri Lanka specialists Cazenove and Loyd. Rates run about $500 per week, but that saves you the hassle and extra cost of hiring a guide at each place you visit, and means you can make impromptu (and informative) stops along the way.