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Where in the World? The Biggest Asian Elephant Gathering

in Recreation by
The Gathering at Minneriya National Park

Elephants are amazing. There’s something about their grey leathery hides, their tiny soulful eyes, their wispy mop-like tails and their playful trunks. Oh, and I love it when they run!

Given my penchant for Pachyderms I couldn’t be living in a better place than Sri Lanka, land of the Asian Elephant. There are thought to be around 2,500-3,500 wild elephants on this 65,000-square-kilometre island, mostly living in protected national parks and reserves, which are connected via ‘elephant corridors’ – forested passageways.

 

Minneriya National Park elephant reserve

One of the world’s most significant elephant phenomena happens in Minneriya National Park – a protected 8,890-hectare reserve within Sri Lanka’s famed Cultural Triangle. Every year, from the beginning of the dry season – usually late August – groups of elephants start to congregate around the receding waters of the Minneriya Tank, a vast and ancient waterbody spanning some 4670 acres, which was built by the ‘tank-building’ King Mahasena in the 3rd century. This tank at the centre of the reserve never empties so when other drinking sources become scarce, elephants find their way here to drink, bathe and feast on the young shoots of grass that flourish on the edges of the tank as the water recedes.

This phenomenon, which usually lasts until the monsoon begins in October, is known as The Gathering. The term was coined less than a decade ago by renowned Sri Lankan naturalist Gehan de Silva Wijerathne, and since then crowds of visitors have come to observe these majestic creatures in their natural setting. As many as 300 elephants have been recorded at the tank at any one time; it’s thought to be the biggest gathering of Asian elephants in the world. Minneriya forms part of an elephant corridor that links Kaudulla and Wasgamuwa national parks, all located in Sri Lanka’s North Central region.

 

Minneriya National Park See Asian elephants at the gathering

Last September I was lucky enough to witness this natural spectacle for myself. The afternoon is the best time of day to observe the elephants, so I was at the park by 2.30pm to meet up with my driver and tracker. Jeep drivers double up as safari guides, though trackers (some are former poachers) are often more experienced at sighting wildlife. Luckily, mine spoke English.

We drove slowly, taking in the park’s scenery as our guide scanned the forest for any signs of movement.

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Blissful, Beguiling and Back in Business

in Tips by
Sri Lanka map

The first time I visited Sri Lanka there was a war on. Twenty years, 40+ visits and a beach house later, how things have changed. In 1997, tourists were restricted to the southwest corner of the island – from Bentota through Galle round to Yala National Park. Now the whole of this aptly named “island of serendipity”, is open for business, and what a delight it is to explore.

“Journeys are long although the distances are short” was the mantra of my loyal driver, Lucky, back then. And he wasn’t wrong.

To get to Colombo from the UNESCO-listed Fort at Galle (only 125km) you had to endure a 4 to 5-hour journey of hair-raising overtaking along an inadequate coast road. Traffic would grind to a halt on the approaches to Colombo, and crossing the capital to reach the airport was a war of attrition.

Now, a sparkling dual carriageway whisks you from the airport to downtown Colombo in 30 minutes and Galle can be reached in just over the hour. The delightful south-coast bays of Weligama, Dikwella, Matara and Mirissa (of whale-watching fame) are in easy reach. The Cultural Triangle, with its ancient cities of Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura, and the historic centres of Dambulla and Sigiriya, are also much more accessible thanks to a series of newly paved and widened roads.

The hill stations of Nuwara Eliya, Ella and Horton Plains are still not easy to reach by road, although the train is a popular, more relaxing alternative. But once there, the stunning tea plantations and panoramic trekking country make for a magical setting. Sit back in a planter’s chair, sip a G&T and enjoy the colonial splendour.

Take your time, slow down to Sri Lanka speed

Pasikudah, Trincomalee and the Jaffna Peninsula were pretty much off limits to all but the brave and/or foolhardy until 2009, so visiting the stunning beaches of the east coast was nearly impossible. Gravel tracks, frequent check points, mine sappers and curfews made travel long and arduous – our worst east-to-west-coast road trip took staggering 17 hours at the height of the conflict. Today, seeing 300 wild elephants watering at dusk in Minneriya National Park should be on everyone’s bucket list, as should the spice gardens around Kandy and the crystal clear waters of Nilaveli Beach running up to Pigeon Island. 

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Favourite Family Beaches on Sri Lanka’s South Coast

in Families by
Sri Lanka beach

Sri Lanka has a LOT of beaches. Almost its entire 1,300-kilometre coastline is sandy and palm-fringed, but not all beaches are swimmable.

Sri Lanka’s popularity as a surfing destination says a lot about the character of the sea. For the most part, gentle rollers wash its beaches, but there are offshore currents and some stretches of coastline are just plain wild, with foaming waves crashing onto the seashore. The Galle coast offers some of Sri Lanka’s best beaches and is a great destination for a family holiday. Read on to learn more about the most suitable (and safest) beaches in Galle for kids and families.  

Best for toddlers

If you’re travelling with a baby or toddler, you’ll be after the calmest sea. A favourite beach with local expat families is Dalawella, around nine kilometres east of Galle. The sea here filters into a shallow lagoon, protected by offshore rocks, and washes onto a sandy beach.

Wijaya Beach Restaurant is a well-known spot for great food and drinks, though it’s neighbour, Beaches, which opened in late 2016, is a better option for families. Set in spacious grounds, there are a lawn and volleyball court, a selection of inflatables for using in the sea and a paddling pool for the tiniest family members.

They also have big daybeds for hire at a very competitive daily rate, which make the perfect rest-stop for exhausted babies and toddlers. Their café-style menu is kid friendly (as well as delicious Asian tapas, expect freshly made burgers, wraps and fish and chips), and from the sunbathing deck, you have a clear view of the beach and sea. There’s also a fun vintage truck converted to a bar.

Fun for kids

If learning to surf is on your kids’ holiday wish list, Dewata Beach, close to Galle, is a convenient spot. The surfing vibe here has really taken off in the last couple of years, and this narrow strip of sand is dotted with surfers’ haunts. At the unassuming Shack café, you’ll find great food and you can organise surf lessons.

Weligama Bay – a 40-minute drive from Galle – is the south coast’s most well-known place for beginner surfers. Just before you reach Weligama beaches, the sleepy beachfront of Midigama is a hidden gem for beginner and intermediate surfers who want maximum exclusivity.

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Galle’s Outdoor Activities

in Recreation by

Located on the south coast of Sri Lanka, Galle is a destination in its own right. Stay in a luxury villa in Galle, such as the superb No. 39 Galle Fort, Ambassador’s House or Villa Pooja Kanda, and you’ll be blessed by having a wealth of attractions and activities on your doorstep.

Galle’s golden beaches are washed by a warm sea where snorkelling, diving, deep sea fishing and surfing are all possible, as well as whale and dolphin watching from November to April. The coastal interior is characterised by paddy fields and palms, and this setting is ripe for explorations on foot, by bicycle, or by canoe, travelling upriver to seek out birds and wildlife.  

Snorkelling and diving

IMAGE CREDIT: MY TOUR IN SRI LANKA

Sri Lanka’s marine life and coral reefs don’t quite live up to other parts of Asia, however it’s still an enjoyable experience nonetheless and easy to organise from Galle. Experienced divers can explore a handful of wrecks lying in deeper water. Marine life in the region includes turtles, reef sharks and coral fish, though the coral around Sri Lanka is generally in a poor condition. Dive sites are better towards Hikkaduwa, where there’s a marine sanctuary. There are a few spots for snorkelling, such as at Unawatuna, Jungle Beach and Hikkaduwa.

Surfing

IMAGE CREDIT: THAMBAPANNI LEISURE

Surfing in Sri Lanka has really taken off in the last couple of years. Many beaches close to Galle, such as Devata, Ahangama and Midigama particularly, as well as Weligama, 45-minutes’ drive east, and Hikkaduwa, 45-minutes’ drive west, are well set up for surfers of all abilities. Devata is the closest beach to Galle, and has emerged recently as a place to learn to surf; its sliver of sand is sprinkled with surf outfits. Weligama has many more surf operators and its wide sandy arc of bay is a much more picturesque setting for beginners. Many of the other locations mentioned, such as Midigama and Ahangama, suit more experienced surfers.

Whale and dolphin watching

IMAGE CREDIT: SRI SHARAVI

Sri Lanka is one of the world’s best places to see the planet’s biggest fish – the blue whale.

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Serenity in the Land of Serendipity

in Wellness by

With its gentle coastline, swaying coconut palms and serene rural interior flavoured by paddy fields, rainforest, melodious temples and hills, Sri Lanka is a superb destination to relax and unwind. Indeed, the word ‘serendipity’, meaning “to discover that you’re where you need to be”, comes from an ancient name for Sri Lanka (Serendib). Need we say more?

The island’s south coast is particularly tranquil, and historic Galle Fort, famed for its magnificently preserved 17th century Dutch fortress and surrounding sandy beaches, is a prime location for a serene Sri Lankan holiday. Stay at Ambassador’s House or No. 39 Galle Fort, two luxury private villas that lie within the fort itself, or choose peaceful Villa Pooja Kanda, which is set in rural environs well away from the tourist crowds.

Staying in your own private villa in Sri Lanka has many advantages, not least that you have such luxurious surrounds all to yourself. Wake early and practise yoga on your terrace as the sun rises, or curl up on your veranda with a book and enjoy a dawn chorus of birdsong. Arrange for an in-villa massage from a spa therapist, or a private lesson with a yoga teacher. Fitness instructors can also come to the villa for personal training sessions. Your villa stay is enhanced by a staff team, including a chef, leaving you free to focus all of your energy on the important things in life: socialising, resting, rejuvenating and relaxing.

The ancient Indian healing system of Ayurveda is practised widely in Sri Lanka. It is one of the world’s oldest forms of medical science, which works at balancing the energies of mind, body and spirit and strengthening the immune system. Many of the spas in and around Galle offer Ayurvedic treatments. Although single treatments, such as herbal steam baths,

Many of the spas in and around Galle offer Ayurvedic treatments. Although single treatments, such as herbal steam baths, abhyanga (massages) and shirodhana (flow of oil onto the forehead) are all possible, Ayurveda works best however if treatments are combined into a personalised plan. Both Amangalla, in the Fort, and Jetwing Lighthouse hotel, a two-kilometre drive north of Galle, have resident Ayurvedic doctors offering consultations, packages and complete facilities.

For more familiar international spa and beauty treatments you could head to the Galle Fort Spa (great value) or the Z Spa at The Fort Bazaar hotel. 

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