by Ken Marlow
Liz and I went to Sri Lanka at the start of 2019 to celebrate my birthday. Read our experience of this beautiful and vibrant country.
Airport to Hikka
We landed in Sri Lanka the day after we left the UK on a direct TUI flight. In all, about 10 hours in the air, leaving the cold of the UK in January and landing in 29° heat. Amazing. Prearranged taxis through hotels are pretty expensive. We paid $65 for the 2.5 hour journey down the superhighway to Hikkaduwa but it was comfortable. What a country for January. Warm, sunny and tropical.
We settled into the ride and enjoyed the tropical scenery, the superhighway and the beach views as we made our way south. On towards Hikkaduwa, our first stop.
Hikkaduwa seemed a pretty lively place - an ex hippy enclave apparently - but we avoided the hustle and bustle and based ourselves about a mile east along Narigama beach in a lovely little hotel called Sapphire Seas. We were welcomed with a smile, a welcome drink, an upgraded room overlooking the sea and the offer that any meals taken at the hotel could be had overlooking the beach. So cool.
Talking of the beach, wow! Big waves but a rip tide that was just safe enough to swim in. Guess it's always worth checking depending on conditions.
Hikkaduwa beach itself was north of us and sits on a coral reef that is bleached but still full of fish. At the point between the two beaches there is a hotel called Hikka Trans by Cinnamon and we visited the beach directly in front of that hotel to feed turtles with seaweed and spent a fair bit of time with them. Liz even tripped over one that snuck up behind her! Apparently they appear most days and have become very used to humans. There is no charge for feeding the turtles because it is a public beach and most people behaved themselves around the two enormous turtles - perhaps 500kg loggerheads? I'm not 100% sure.
Whilst with the turtles we got approached by a few boat owners trying to take us out to the snorkelling site about 150m off the coast. A bit far to swim so we went for it and I took the second oar to help get the very small catamaran out to the reef. No discount for helping to row.
Once out on to the coral the number of fish was perhaps the largest number we have ever seen on a bleached reef, certainly more than we saw in the Seychelles and a similar number to parts of the Red Sea. We saw a fantastic octopus as well as angel fish, several very large parrot fish and a dozen other species we were unable to recognise. We spent about an hour out snorkelling and paddling around before returning back to the beach and dragging the boat ashore.
This type of boat is traditional to Sri Lanka and are still used daily for fishing, getting about and the larger ones have sails.
Restaurants were a little tougher around Hikka and we struggled to find places we really liked except Cafe Ceylon. It's owned/run by a German lady who has managed to blend Sri Lankan cooking with European and has come up with a fantastic menu. Everything we had there from the tuna, rice and curry and deserts was lovely. As were the staff. Couldn't recommend highly enough. And it was where I had my 40th birthday meal. So good.
Choice of wine and beer can be a little bit limited in Sri Lanka, not just Hikka. Local beer, lion is everywhere. It seems they also brew a Carlsberg on the island but both tasted pretty average. Generally lion was cold and wet, served in a cold glass if I was lucky and it generally hit the spot. I became strangely used to it over the two weeks!
The Sapphire Seas hotel managed to turn out excellent noodles, a damn good crab curry and some amazing completely homemade spring rolls.
The day after my birthday I took my first ever surf lesson up nearer Hikka and it was seriously hard work. Later in the holiday we met a good surfer who was both surprised and impressed that I tried to learn at Hikka owing to the fierce breaks there. I just know it was bloody hard work but I managed to get up at least six times and made it all the way in to the beach four times. Not as epic as it sounds if you see the size of the waves but I was still pleased with myself.
We both decided that there are many other nice places to visit in Sri Lanka so we wouldn't rush back to that same resort but if we did we would definitely stay on Narigama beach again. Hikka itself is a bit lively for us!
Galle - pronounced Gaul - is a Dutch fort town just 15 minutes down the coast from Hikka. Although we made a mistake and visited from Mirissa when it would have made more sense to have taken a Tuk Tuk from Hikka. You lives and you learns.
By the way, we booked this whole trip just three weeks before departing and based on the rush we made very few mistakes with our itinerary.
It seems that it's a 50/50 as to whether you will enjoy Galle based on chatting to various people but it seems a bit unfair on the old town because it's really nice for a half-day trip.
The northern most point of the fort is topped by the international cricket stadium and then the fort walls reach down both sides and form the rest of the peninsular. Our Tuk Tuk driver dropped us off at the very south and we walked the wall all the way round before hitting up the little touristy shops, cafes and restaurants that crisscross the interior of the fort. Seeing inside the old colonial buildings was fascinating and several of the cafes and hotels such as the Amagalla luxury hotel are worth a quick walk around, if not an extended stop and a meal.
Some very expensive places by Sri Lankan standards but we really liked:
– A Minute by Tuk Tuk is a great restaurant with excellent reviews overlooking the water on the east side of the fort.
– Stick no Bills is a great poster shop featuring famous artwork used for Sri Lankan marketing. Beautiful printing quality and a great saving compared to buying in Europe.
– The Heritage Cafe & Bistro was lovely and the ginger lemonade was very refreshing.
So many restaurants and cafes there have good reviews and you can see why. Just useful to know that nothing is cheap in Galle.
Galle by Tuk Tuk was fantastic and allowed use to get natural air conditioning and take lots of pictures along the route. A lovely way to travel.
We also stopped off at the stick fishermen in Koggola for a few photos.
Mirissa is an interesting bay and one like nothing else Liz and I have ever seen on our travels.
Imagine a small bay of about a kilometre in length that has a 60 metre wide beach and each and every restaurant, cafe and nightclub (the nightclub’s called Salt btw) has enough room to spread tables out onto the beach so there is no excuse not to eat and drink with your toes in the sand.
The quality of the restaurants varies enormously but Zephyr stands out by a country mile. A great location, staff that care and excellent food right on the beach. We overheard a couple saying they had been there every day so far - 5 and counting! Honestly some of the best food we had in the country.
There is also a new place just opened by a young English couple three weeks before we arrived and it looks stunning. Almost the perfect beach restaurant. It's simply a shame that the food was between average and extremely poor, the prices high and the service below average. Poorly trained staff just couldn't resolve issues and we were told the ice cream had melted because it's hot in Sri Lanka. They later admitted it was because the freezer was broken but they still served ice cream that could have made us ill and lied about it. I’m sure the place can turn it around but it needs some serious work. The owners didn't seem to be receptive to feedback so we left having not really resolved the crap meal.
The only downside to the overall Mirissa experience is the volume of the music pumping out of the bars and nightclubs from 2200 through to the early hours of the morning. Bloody annoying if you aren't in town to party but we were forewarned and stayed up on a hill just to the west of the bay. We did wonder if the sound travelled more to where we were staying but there are lots of reports of it being difficult to sleep if you are staying just off the beach.
We stayed up in the Palace which was definitely in need of a bit of TLC - amazing ceiling paintings, cool grounds with peacocks and peahens - a little rustic.
The buffet food was so bad that we only ate there once in the evening and ventured out for better food the other two days. One nice surprise was that we could use the facilities at the sister hotel right on the beach. A brilliant result. The view overlooking the ocean from the heights was stunningly beautiful, the sea spanning forever, however we didn't spot any of the famous whales.
With hindsight we should have stopped at Galle on the way along to Mirissa and reduced our stay by a day simply so we could stay an extra night at the next place. But I guess it depends on how lively you want your holiday to be.
The sea was fun. Huge waves to play in but you do have to be careful. There are lots of surfers to both sides of the bay and rocks and reefs in awkward places. Very cool but not a great place for a quiet swim!
At the end of the bay was a rocky outcrop we climbed to get a great view of the surfers and allows looking back at the bay.
Apart from the difficulty of finding the Mangrove Beach Cabana it was a bloody amazing location. The difficulty in finding it was thanks to google maps not having been updated correctly by the business owner and their website having been hacked. Each of the cabanas is on the beach. Directly. Stepping out into the sand every morning from our deluxe cabana with a cool daybed and an amazing outdoor shower room / bathroom was pretty magical.
As soon as we arrive we headed a mile down the beach to a restaurant called The Lounge. Our room wasn't ready and we had heard such good things about The Lounge. A Tuk Tuk would have been easier but it was fun to walk the dunes and what is one of the widest beaches I have ever trudged. It was hard work, but….
The Lounge was worth it and the owner was a nice guy who seem to do everything from welcome guests, cook, fish, manage the bills and everything between. His staff worked as hard as he did and it was a superb meal. So good that we went back the next night to take in the lively evening atmosphere. RS.300 for the return by Tuk Tuk.
The Mangrove Beach Cabana was really just a room on a beach - an amazing place if you can’t quite make it out to your private island this month! But the sea was scary - you couldn't swim or even play around because of the rip tides. Even the tides in the natural swimming areas (barriered by coral and rocks) was fierce. You wouldn't want to muck around in there and there were very few people venturing anywhere near the sea.
The beach was clean and enormous. Really stunning.
We had planned to see if there were any turtles laying eggs on the beach and decided that we would just have a walk along the beach towards turtle point ourselves without a guide. So there we were having a quick dinner at 1930 to head off. What we didn't know (nor anyone else) was there was a turtle laying her eggs about 100 metres from where we were sitting at that very moment. But in the pitch black of the beach we didn't find this out until after dinner. Unfortunately we didn't find another turtle or any evidence of one on our walk up the beach.
Word of warning, we got stopped and told we should only be using red lamps in our torch to avoid frightening the turtles. So next time we will be better prepared. Also, apparently more turtles appear during full moons and the moon was a long way from full when we were there. Oh well, next time.
Mangrove Beach Cabana is in front of Rekawa lagoon a few miles down from Tangalle itself so yet again we have no ability to say how busy, clean, tourist friendly the main town of Tangelle is but where we were was great. If you like the quiet.
Another word of warning. Mangrove was the only hotel we stayed at that didn't take credit cards. Except they hadn't told us this and it was an expensive hotel. They were meant to have contacted us before we arrived to arrange a bank transfer or let us know about the cash situation but they didn't. It all ended well with a trip on the back of a scooter to pay by card at the sister hotel!
Ella via Udawalawa Safari
Now, we had a choice at this point because our next destination was Ella via a Safari Park called Udawalawa. The choice was Tuk Tuk or taxi? About 65 kilometres to Udawalawa and then a further 90 km up to Ella.
Now, we chose Tuk Tuk for the experience because we had suffered at the hands of some seriously crap taxi drivers. But although we couldn't honestly recommend this mode of transport to others I wouldn't change what we did. The Tuk Tuk took a a little longer and without a doubt you need a sensible, safe driver and luck that the other road users behave themselves but if that all works out it's a fun way to travel large distances. Just not as safe or as air conditioned as a taxi! But cheaper at only RS.8000 - £35 approx. There is also an expectation of a 10% tip on top of any agreed amount.
We started off at 05.00 and our driver arranged our safari on route. Once at the Udawalawa safari we jumped in a beat up old jeep. We had heard that there was a 1.5 hour queue to get in but the small convoy of jeeps disappeared as we arrived and we went straight in via a short stop for tickets.
We had also heard that this park was one of the best in Sri Lanka because the jeep drivers were well behaved, more regulated and generally there was no unkindness towards the elephants. We saw nothing to disprove these facts and had an amazing introduction to safaris. Our guide/driver pointed out everything he saw including kingfishers, monkeys, elephants (quite a few), an eagle, water buffaloes, a crocodile and dogs! Yep strays are everywhere in Sri Lanka.
Then it was onward to Ella and up a few hills that we were pretty sure the Tuk Tuk wouldn't get up. But it did! And we were treated with the sight of this waterfall near the top.
We were pretty fed up with the Tuk Tuk by the end but it was a cool journey.
Ella was lively. Unexpectedly so.
The hotel, Zion View, was dramatic, a stunning view over the mountain ranges, and with our own hammock it seemed like flying over the peaks. On top of that it was central to the town. A shame we were only there for a night, a shame the pool was a bit crap and a shame we had to leave at 0600 the next morning. No breakfast buffet for us. We would definitely have stayed an extra night in Ella if we had the opportunity to re-plan our itinerary.
The night out in Ella simply consisted of a drink in Chill bar and a fantastic curry in a tiny little road side place. Wish we had had another day in Ella for a cooking class and to hike up one of the Adams peaks. Next time. The larger of the peaks is a Buddhist pilgrimage route comprising 5000+ stairs but the view is meant to be spectacular if you can cope with starting at 0200 in the morning to arrive for sunset. Our schedule didn't allow us to attempt this or be able to fit in a cooking class.
The hotel had been pretty cool in getting us two tickets for the train to Kandy. Basically in the past anyone could by any number of reserved seating train tickets and then resell them at hugely inflated prices. Recently, the government stepped in and ensures each ticket is attached to a passport number and so now availability and price have improved. Our two tickets in 2nd class reserved cost about £5.
The train journey
The train journey was something I really wanted to do and I had read it was one of the greatest train journeys in the world. A trip through the very greenest of Sri Lankan tea fields and hills, over bridges and through towns. It was so much better than we expected. Truly great.
6+ hours of hanging out of a train window, dangling legs from an open train door, watching the world go by and flying through the countryside is a great way to travel. Guys come round all the way through with food and so much of it was nice, and cheap.
2nd class reserved gets you comfy big seats, a table and drink holder and an opening window. No one stood in our carriage - 3rd class is for standing - so we were free to walk up and down and stand in the open doors as we moved along.
For the view they say sit on the left of the train which our hotel had managed to get us. It was fantastic but the view was spectacular from both sides at different points of the journey.
The only bit that went wrong was when a local fell off the train. Yep, really. He was ok and after a 20 minute search they dragged him back on the train and we got on our way. Mad.
At the end of the very long journey was the city of Kandy but we had no time booked there. If we did the journey again we would visit the Buddhist temple of the sacred tooth - said to have a tooth of the Buddha though not something you can get a look. Instead we had a quick lunch at Devon restaurant (cheap and excellent curry) with the locals and then grabbed a cab out to Sigiriya.
The whistle stop tour continued.
Sigiriya Village hotel was nice enough. The food was pretty average or even below. in the case of the grilled sandwich The rooms were a bit damp and humid. But we were aware of all this before we booked.
The highlight were the two families of monkeys that lived nearby and jumped around the roof and pool, many with babies hanging under their bellies. A group of larger monkeys with white fluffy fur around their face also ran through, though they were bigger and a little scarier. We also had cheeky chipmunks scampering about and hundreds of fireflies that came out at night.
Everything else about our few days in Sigirya and Dambulla’s cave temple down the road from us was bloody great. Lion rock, the Buddhist cave temple, shopping for an elephant (wooden) and all but one of the meals was excellent.
Lion rock is a huge rock that originally had a palace built on top for a playboy prince. Waterways, gardens, pools and an enormous climb to the top. Really impressive. A cool extra were the monks sightseeing and letting people take pictures of them.
The Buddhist cave temple is made up of five temples built within ages old caves and contain what seems like hundreds of Buddha statues. All of them were impressive and the whole temple was an amazing first visit to a Buddhist temple.
It was cheap to get in and nice because at least 50% of the visitors were Sri Lankan's worshipping. The Golden temple at the very bottom of the mountain was very cool but the museum was disappointing.
We went on our second safari, this time to Eco Park and although it wasn't the quality experience of Udawalawa and although we saw a small range of animals we did see an awful lot of elephants.
... including a number of baby elephants.
It's was just a shame that some of the jeep drivers were gits who thought nothing of scaring the elephants and racing one another. Our driver we a little more chilled out though.
Perhaps because of this we spent a bit of time looking for a wooden elephant to take home as a memory of the holiday for our lounge. It took two trips and four shops to find one we loved but eventually we did.
We bought on faith because it still had a few days before it would be finished and then shipped to the U.K, exciting! But we had seen the quality of their work and have great faith the elephant will be amazing.
The shopping experience was interesting in itself and we had a nice Tuk Tuk driver take us to all the places we had scoped out. Each wood shop had a distinct personality but one thing they all had in common was the way you have to haggle. Hard. Otherwise you don't get a fair price. In our experience we had to almost halve the ’sticker’ price.
From here we jumped in a taxi to Negombo.
Our final stop of the trip was the Jetwing Beach five star hotel in Negombo. Negombo is just north of the capital, Colombo, and much nearer to the airport for a quick exit.
The idea was two final relaxing days before flying home. We even did half board so we didn’t have to hunt for food and it was excellent. Good food. A lovely pool. Great grounds right on the beach and perfect weather.
We saw very little of Negombo but had a great chill-out to finish the holiday before jumping in a taxi and heading home.
Thanks for reading.