Finding a destination you can travel to for 7 to 12 days that combines nature, beaches and sustainability (on a budget!) is a struggle. When you only have a few weeks vacation from work, and want to see it all, there doesn’t seem to be that many options. Visiting Sri Lanka in September was one of my favorite vacations to date and filled with diverse culture, wildlife, landscapes and social good. And accomplished affordably.
Turns out, now is the best time to go to Sri Lanka . After the civil war ended in 2009, locals invested heavily in hospitality and tourism businesses. Although tourism was still prevalent during the civil war, the end marked an exciting rise of economic empowerment. Unfortunately, the push for competing islands such as Maldives and Bali have slowed tourism to the island way more than expected.
I’m happy to share that Sri Lanka is definitely going to give you an experience mainstream travel through Asia can’t. This includes intimate experiences with vibrant communities, accommodation that gives a damn about people and the planet, and activities that focus on building memories and impacting community. Plus it’s easy to get around the island with trains and buses - super safe and accessible.
There is so much to share about this incredible destination, but for now, here are my “OMG YOU MUST DO THIS” tips for your next trip to Sri Lanka.
About 30-minutes outside of Kandy, in the town of Digana, you’ll find the perfect escape from the city: Polwaththa Ecolodge. This beautiful and rustic property sits in a jungle oasis, straight up a hilarious 90 degrees hill from the town. When I arrived, the sun had just set and a flashlight was waiting for me so I could explore the peaceful grounds. I felt like I had been transported by a magical tuk tuk that somehow turned a crazy city into a silent sanctuary.
Polwaththa, meaning coconut estate, was purchased by Nihal’s family in 1970 with no access to water, roads or electricity. The family desperately wanted to do good by this incredible piece of land and started to plant spices, herbs, fruits and coconut trees. Unfortunately only the wildlife benefited, and monkeys tore it apart. After being introduced to a Dutch travel company, Nihal saw the potential of the property becoming an incredible spot for ecotourism and went for it. In 2009 they launched their 10 lodges and 2 homestays.
The property is exactly how Nihal puts it, a mix of “comfort, immersion and privacy.” The lodges are simple but lovely. Their balconies face the adjacent sparkly lake and are completely surrounded by newly planted trees and herbs. Lodges are spacious and include bathrooms, comfy beds and room to move-in and get comfortable. Nihal and his family make the property truly feel like a home away from home.
Their onsite chef team serves up unreal Sri Lankan dishes for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and offer organic “wild” coffee in the morning grown onsite. I loved hanging out on the restaurant porch in a hammock, reading and cracking jokes with Nihal’s incredibly friendly and silly team.
Polwaththa puts a lot of love in their work with the community as well. They offer skill development workshops to empower housewives with learning new skills, and gaining access to economic opportunity. They sell hemp and eco-friendly products made by these lovely woman in their onsite shop, with 100% of profits going back to the makers. The team is also addressing mass deforestation happening within the country by proactively planting new trees, ayurvedic plants, fruits and herbs to keep the land lush, and provide goodness to the community.
My absolute favorite morning in Sri Lanka was hanging out with the ladies of Shtree Cafe in Kandy. Sthree is a market place selling handmade, eco-friendly products made by local female entrepreneurs and community members living with disabilities. The marketplace is operated by the Women’s Development Centre which provides crisis intervention programs, community rehabilitation and vocational training. The shop features a café staffed by local women who cook absolutely delicious and traditional Sri Lankan dishes. Join in for breakfast, lunch and high tea, or try your hand at their newly launched, hands-on Sri Lankan cooking class .
My class was led by Chef Nirmala, a middle aged, single woman who supports herself through working at Sthree. Between her and Thilini, the cafe manager, and a few helpful hands along the way, I couldn’t have asked for a more rewarding (and delicious!) experience.
We started the class by shredding coconut that we used to make three different batches of coconut milk. The first batch we used in our cassava dish, the second for our lentils, and the third for our string beans. The leftover shreds were used to pack our roti dough with goodness. Unlike most cooking classes, I was actually very involved in the process, helping chop, spice and fry everything throughout. It was so inspiring to hear their stories, their love for community and the goodness they hope to bring to more local women. I was honored to have been part of the Sthree journey, even for just a few hours.
Sitting down to finally eat the delicious meal we had prepared was like jumping into a cool lake after a hot afternoon. The flavours, aroma, and freshness of the vegetables (which they bought that morning from the market) were mouth-watering. Even with a full belly I went in for a second round. I walked it off by strolling the shop. I left fueled with delicious food, inspiration, and a bag filled with new kitchen utensils made from coconut waste.
As a jungle lover, Gal Oya National Park was on my bucketlist for a while. I couldn’t wait to disconnect, and listen to the vibrant, buzzing nature of the park. Down a hidden path, about 30-minutes outside of the town of Bibile, I arrived at Gal Oya Lodge . I was escorted by flashlight to a glowing, Guinea grass roof lodge where guests were enjoying dinner. As I stepped into inside, a bouncy big dog came to greet me, turning me around as I chased after him, revealing a grand pool lit by pale light. The blue of the water put me in a trance as the cool night air lifted mist from its still surface. In the morning the sun would reveal the view from the pool, which set your eyes on a lovely hiking point called Monkey Mountain, that gives you an entire view of the national park and beyond.
Construction on the lodge finished in 2014 and was heavily influenced by architect, John Balmond, and the lodge’s three founders with Sri Lankan, Tibetan, Swiss, English and Nepali heritage. The detail of Gal Oya Lodge is unlike any other luxury property. My favorite touch is the beautiful, antique looking sinks that are made from traditional Nepali brass bowls.
Greening the lodge includes filtering grey water through sand and pebbles to keep their plants vibrant, and housing compostable septic tanks. Food waste is fed to the neighbourhood duck and pig farm, but I’m sure waste is extremely rare as it’s impossible to leave any scrap left on your plate. Their chef team is divine and I was in awe at every meal (especially when accompanied by wine and local Lion beer!).
I began my first morning at 5am for a safari into the park. Note that 5am isn’t so bad when greeted with fresh coffee and cookies in the main lodge. I was joined by Constantine, a German scientist who was staying onsite at the research centre the lodge houses. It was constructed by Tim, one of the founders, in memory of his father. The centre is funded by a UK organization and provides free accommodation, office space and equipment to scientists interested in studying the flora and anthropology of the park, which were badly damaged during the war. I was fortunate to have Constantine with me during my safari, sharing his incredible knowledge about the reptiles and endemic birds present during our morning safari.
Asanga, our guide, was also like a walking wildlife database and the loveliest, most accommodating guide I’ve ever had All lodge tours are run by members of the local Veddha aboriginal community, which Asanga belongs to. The knowledge they have to share about the ecological make up of the area and wildlife present is unbelievable. They can look at a reptile from 10 feet away and tell you exactly what kind of species it is, and where you’re most likely to find them hanging around. It was so beautiful to soak up their knowledge and see the park through their eyes.
The highlight of the morning was eating a picnic breakfast of yogurt, muesli and fruit atop boulders in the river bed flowing through the park. As I spooned my bowl of mixed goodness, I watched as monkeys played in the trees, while my feet soaked in the cool waters. Although I didn’t see elephants on safari, I did see them often crossing the roads wherever I went.
Driving back to Colombo to make my way home to India, was quite the adventure in a bus with a busted tire. Devouring fresh mango and fried lentil cakes definitely made it fly by. I had gone across the country and back in 12 days, and couldn’t believe how much goodness was being spread across the island to empower people and the planet. I simply can’t imagine why anyone would ever choosing to flop on a beach for a week or two to escape the 9-5. There is so much more beauty to take in and memories to take home from a destination like Sri Lanka.