Sri Lanka is a country that had always been on my wish list so when I was kindly offered the opportunity for an educational visit by tour operator, If Only… in conjunction with Turkish Airlines, I was beside myself with excitement.
I wasn't disappointed.
This was my first time flying with Turkish Airlines and I was very impressed. We were privileged to fly Business Class on the way out. The lounge, spread over three floors at Istanbul Airport, was incredible, with so much choice before, great service on the flight itself with lie-flat seats, and a good selection of food and drinks.
After arrival at Colombo, we had a short drive to the seaside town of Negombo for our first night. Negombo is considerably more relaxed and prettier than Colombo - ideal to recoup after a long journey and to prepare for your trip ahead. We stayed at the lovely Jetwing Beach hotel right on the beach.
The next morning was very special, spent at an elephant orphanage watching the baby elephants playing in their own environment.
In the afternoon, we visited the ancient ruined city of Anuradhapura - Sri Lanka's first capital. Among the ruins is the spectacular Ruwanweliseya Temple, an imposing 100m tall, 77m wide and almost 100m in diameter.
Our next resort was the unique Ulagalla, a boutique hotel nestled in a sprawling 58-acre lush green garden in the middle of the cultural centre. Village cycle and tuk tuk tours, horseback riding, archery, kayaking in the local lake and kite making are all services offered by the hotel. In the morning, our collective bafflement about the noise during the night was answered when we discovered it was monkeys playing on the roof!
We had an early start the following morning to enable an ascent of the ancient rock fortress and Unesco World Heritage site, Sigiriya Rock, before the sun became too hot. It really is a spectacle and amazing to climb if you are up for it!
Next on the culture list was the Dambulla Caves - a series of five caves which were later turned into a magnificent rock temple. The frescoes on the walls and ceilings go as far back as the 15th century.
Our home for the night was the Cinnamon Citadel Hotel in Kandy, set on the river with a great pool and terrace area, perfect for some downtime and to explore the city. Kandy is dominated by its scenic lake and the Temple of the Tooth which houses Sri Lanka's most sacred relic.
The following morning, we set off on a lengthy ascent to Hatton, in the heart of the tea growing region. It was lovely to be away from the more touristy areas and observe school children playing, local ladies picking tea leaves and some beautiful waterfalls.
We were totally spoilt at our next accommodation, the Ceylon Tea Trails, a collection of five colonial-era tea planter’s bungalows, impeccably restored, offering a taste of gracious living with butler service and gourmet dining.
Yala National Park was our next adventure, a natural habitat to several animals including wild boar, elephants, bears and leopards, one of whom we did spot in the distance through our binoculars. We stayed at the Jetwing Yala, a pleasant four-star hotel with a good pool area, great for some cooling down and relaxation. Safari drives are very rewarding but also tiring with early starts.
The next day was a welcome slower-paced one, featuring two very special properties. Firstly, a site visit at the newly opened Anantara Peace Haven in Tangalle, a beautiful hotel in a fantastic setting, perfect for peace and tranquillity, followed by an overnight stay at the stunning Cape Weligama with simply breathtaking views across the infinity pool out to the Indian Ocean.
Our final day was spent visiting the southern capital of Galle, a lovely city with lots of quirky shops, cool cafes and several trendy boutique hotels. It is an old trading port and retains its historical Dutch influence along with ancient mosques, churches and museums.
The prime beach resort of Bentota was a welcome last stop for our final few hours before the journey home. It has several recommended hotels including the Taj Bentota where we spent the afternoon enjoying its beach, choice of restaurants and spa.
Sri Lanka really does have everything, and I was well and truly sold. I have booked several clients since and always encourage moving about to ensure seeing a broad section of the country. It has beaches, nature, wildlife, culture and mouth-watering curries with its people the kindest and happiest I have ever come across.
I will be back.