1. Sink your toes at Mirissa Beach
When you picture the sights of Sri Lanka, are you thinking tropical turquoise water and shores fringed by swaying coconut palms? Well, you won’t be disappointed by places like Mirissa, about an hour’s drive from Galle. It’s the perfect place for taking selfies to tease your friends back home with, as you savour a range of fish and coconut based curry delicacies on the shore, watch surfers above the waves and snorkel amongst amazing red snapper under the water line – the area known as Parrot Rock is a local favourite. Go whale-watching on one of the boats that leave from Mirissa Fisheries Harbour (tours run from November to April), but you’ll need to be up early as they set out at 6.30am! See more slices of paradise with our look at 12 of the most beautiful beaches in the world.
2. Explore colonial Galle
The architecture in Sri Lanka is astonishing, some ancient temples and towers dating back 100,000 years, some buildings exhibiting a more recent colonial influence. The town of Galle is a great place to see both the Portuguese and Dutch impact on the country. The most impressive place to visit here is the sixteenth century fort, a UNESCO World Heritage site, with large parts of its walls still stout today. During the day, wander through the streets inside the old walled town, past painted houses and sip locally-grown tea in the Royal Dutch Cafe near the lighthouse. Walk along the seafront ramparts at dusk, for the most evocative views of town and coast.
3. See the elephants at Udawalawe
Recently some of the country’s ‘elephant orphanages’ have come under some scrutiny from wildlife campaigners over conditions, but there are still places you can see elephants in Sri Lanka, happy and in their natural environment. One of the best chances to observe them is at Udawalawe National Park. It’s a bit of a trek if you’re staying at the coast (3 hours by road from Galle) but to see these rare and majestic animals in the wild is worth the trip. There are more than 200 elephants in the park and due to its relatively small size, you have a great chance of spotting one as they come to drink in the reservoir. You can organise a full or half day Jeep tour, or stay in one of the luxury lodges onsite who will sort your trip for you, such as Grand Udawalawe Safari Resort.
4. Spot sea-turtles
It’s no surprise that some of Sri Lanka’s top attractions are its turtle hatcheries; it’s home to five of the world’s seven species of turtle and one of the best opportunities to observe their magical breeding season. Visit The Sea Turtle Farm at Habaraduwa or the Kosgoda Sea Turtle Conservation Project to see every stage of a turtle’s life, from incubating eggs to huge fully-grown Green and Loggerhead Turtles, as well as the local conservation efforts in action. For a more intimate experience, head to Rekawa Beach for a rare sight of turtles laying their eggs come sundown (hatching season is November to May to glimpse the impossibly cute baby turtles making their way to the shore).
5. Pay homage to Buddha at Mulgirigala temple
Buddhism is the most widely practiced religion (about 70 per cent of the population) in Sri Lanka, so it’s not uncommon to see larger-than-life Buddha statues towering over temples in and around the southwestern cities. One of the most impressive is Mulgirigala temple, located 30 minutes inland from Tangalle. A third century monastery, here you’ll find rock temples carved out of the face of a huge boulder, giant reclining Buddha statues and beautiful paintings. A bit of a climb to the top of the temple, but the views sweep across a beautiful horizon of forested hills.
6. Take a road trip up the coast
Driving along the southern coast towards Galle, you’ll come across little islands or temples in the sea, stretches of quiet shoreline, local markets and the fishermen at Weligama (the closest settlement to Mirissa) who spend the morning atop stilts, patiently waiting for their catch. All of the colourful day-to-day life is here to see, and if you hire a tuktuk for the morning, you can see it all at a breakneck but exhilarating pace, with the wind whizzing through your hair. Ask a local what the going rate is before you bargain with your driver.
7. Safari through Yala National Park
Make sure you pack your binoculars and get out to Yala National Park, for one of the best places in Sri Lanka to see leopards, crocodiles and unusual local species like the Sri Lankan sloth bear. A very early start (think 4am!) is the best way to make sure you catch the animals out on their morning stroll before they hide away from the afternoon sun. Entry to the park starts from $15* for one day (the same as Udawalawe).
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*Published October 2016. Any prices are lowest estimated prices only at the time of publication and are subject to change and/or availability.