By Frederica Dunn
Where can you see the world’s largest land creature — the elephant — and the largest sea creature — the blue whale — on the same day? Sri Lanka.
Rich in history and natural beauty as well as home to a magnificent coastline and warm and welcoming people, it’s the top tourist destination of the year.
Colombo, a vibrant city with flavorful food markets, was a good starting point for our tour. An interesting place to explore is Pettah, the bustling bazaar. The city is ethnically mixed; Buddhism is the most popular religion, followed by Hinduism, Islam and Christianity.
A popular and inexpensive way to get around town is the tuk-tuk, a three-wheel motorized vehicle that can weave in and out of traffic much faster than cars and trucks. It’s a lot of fun and gives the rider an experience of local life.
Leaving Colombo behind, we headed to Yala National Park for an animal safari. We traveled in jeeps on unpaved roads throughout the preserve. Along the way, we caught sight of elephants, birds, crocodiles, sambar deer with three antlers, wild buffalo and boar. Last but not least, we spotted a leopard perched in the trees.
Outside of our wooden cabins, monkeys, boar and other animals played. Calls from 130 different bird species woke us up in the early morning.
A rooftop restaurant, perfect for a sumptuous meal, gave us incredible views of the ocean and jungle while playful monkeys turned over chairs and snatched bananas. Dinners featured rich dishes with delectable curries of meats and vegetables. And no meal is complete without wattalapan, Sri Lanka’s answer to creme caramel.
The country’s food is all about fresh herbs and spices. A favorite breakfast consists of hoppers, which are fried pancakes with syrup from the kitul palm. Another popular dish is the egg hopper, a coddled egg in a fried dosa nest made of rich flour, coconut milk and yeast. The fresh papaya, mango and pineapple are so sweet they melt in your mouth.
Shortly after leaving Yala Park, en route to the historic town of Galle, our bus broke down. Most of the vehicle’s oil spilled out onto the ground, so we disembarked and found a shady spot under the trees to wait. Everyone took it in good humor with no complaints. Cellphones were invented for this exact experience, and we had a replacement bus within a couple of hours.
We proceeded on a glorious, winding coastal drive past cliffs and dunes. Massive breakers pounded the palm-fringed shore. Our next stop, Galle, is the major city on the southern coast, boasting a lovely natural harbor.
We strolled around the lighthouse and harbor and stopped for cold ginger beer at Pedlar’s Street Cafe. The city’s old Dutch fort is a World Heritage site. Many families have resided there for generations and represent a mix of Sinhalese, Dutch Burghers and Muslims.
Continuing on the coastal road, we stopped at Mirissa, the best base for whale watching. This secluded, crescent-shaped beach is the perfect place to sit back, relax and forget about life a million miles away. Sri Lanka’s most stunning sunsets and sunrises can be viewed from this small beach.
The beaches are not crowded, and surfing is popular. Fishermen, perched on high stilts, showed off their expert fishing skills as we drove along the beach.
We boarded an old fishing boat with great anticipation. Beyond anything in our wildest dreams, we managed to see six blue whales while eating breakfast and watching the sun come up.
A short drive down the road brought us to the turtle hatchery, a spot where eggs are left in nests on the beach until they hatch. This allows the young ones to go to the sea in a natural and protective way. Turtles come ashore, lay their eggs, close their nests and return to the water.
Large albino turtles were of special interest. Their light color marks them for predators, so they are usually kept at the hatchery. Baby turtles are kept for three days in holding tanks until their bellies are completely formed and then they are released into the sea.
But our favorite stop was a visit to the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage, which cares for abandoned and wounded elephants. The elephants roam freely around the sanctuary area.
Never are you likely to see so many elephants at close range. They are controlled by their mahouts — keepers — who ensure they feed at the right times and don’t endanger anyone. A total of 85 elephants live at the orphanage, as well as 23 babies born as part of the captive breeding program.
The most popular viewing times are when the elephants are taken to the river for feeding and bathing. Most of the 60 or so young elephants become working elephants once they grow up.
Sri Lanka is an island nation with more than a thousand miles of coastline, so one does not expect to see much more than beaches. But take a short drive inland to the central highland’s mountains and see the stunning region that makes Sri Lanka famous for its tea.
Tea is as much a pastime for Sri Lankans as it is for the British, who introduced it to the country in 1867 and started the love affair that continues today.
Driving north to the highland country, we headed for Kandy. Everything is green and lush; large tea plantations hug the higher slopes. The ride from Colombo to Kandy is one of beautiful scenery over a winding road with refreshing waterfalls and historic sites.
We stopped along the way to tour the spice gardens at Matale, and the guide explained how each tree and plant is used in popular recipes. Cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, vanilla beans, cardamom and black pepper are just a few available for sale.
To the Buddhists of Sri Lanka, Kandy is one of the country’s most sacred sites. It is the home of the Dalada Maligawa — Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic of Lord Buddha.
The tooth was supposedly snatched from the flames of Buddha’s funeral pyre in 543 B.C. and smuggled into Sri Lanka during the 4th century, hidden in the hair of a princess. After visiting the temple, we attended a colorful cultural performance of music and dance.
Our last stop in the region was Nuwara Eliya, the “Little England” of Sri Lanka. It is the coolest place on the island and reminiscent of an English spring day. Evidence of the British influence abounds. There are houses designed like country cottages or Queen Ann-style mansions.
Victoria Park, in the middle of town, is a perfect place for a walk, picnic or watching rare birds. We stayed at the stately old St. Andrews hotel and sipped wine in the evening in front of a large roaring fireplace.
What vacation would be complete without local shopping? A wide and beautiful variety of batiks are sold around the island, with the most original in the west coast towns. Gems are very popular, and there are countless showrooms all over the country. Sapphires are the primary gemstone, and the government operates a free testing center in Colombo.
Beautiful beaches, animal safaris, tea plantations, ancient temples, elephants, turtles and leopards make for a wonderful and variety-filled holiday — all on one small island. And I cannot say enough about the warmth and hospitality of the Sri Lankan people. Their resilience and kindness are the nation’s greatest assets.
Despite a history of civil war and the setbacks of 2004’s tsunami, Sri Lankans are determined and optimistic. They’re proud of their heritage, eager to see you smile and quick to return one when you do.