The multi-coloured dream country

When planning the itinerary for Sri Lanka, I had clear in my mind that I would have liked to soak myself in a mix of culture, wildlife and beach, opting for small guest houses or home-stays. I also wanted to avoid some of the most touristy locations (even though some of them must – inevitably – be included in the itinerary), which is not an easy job since Sri Lanka is a relatively small country. To do this, I decided to choose – for example – Anuradhapura instead of Polonnaruwa, having read on plenty of blogs that the latter was a particularly busy site (and being smaller than A’pura it feels a lot busier); I opted to sleep in the jungle for a couple of days to fully disconnect; I chose a couple of home-stays and a more secluded beach in Tangalla area (Marakolliya), to avoid lines of sunbeds and beach crowds. If I had had more time on my side, I probably would have like to go up to Jaffna and east to Arugam Bay…but life is all about choices and I am absolutely pleased with our whole trip. Sri Lanka truly exceeded our expectations. Just one stop that – insight – I would have probably avoided or arranged differently is Mirissa (which I will detail better in my next post), despite being an absolute must for whale and dolphin watching.

As far as pre-booking accommodation, though it’s not a thing that I would do normally, I think it’s quite important if you want to maximize your time in Sri Lanka. Do not expect to find the same amount of guest houses that you may find in any touristy street of South East Asia (Thailand or Cambodia for example), where you just have to knock one door after the other to get a good rate and a decent bed. In Sri Lanka it can involve more money and a lot more time to actually find accommodation on site and it’s not always cheaper. In some cases, we had to use booking.com since we needed to be as flexible as possible with the reservations; in other, we booked directly with the guest-house/home-stay and got better rates 😉

DAY 1 – COLOMBO

We landed at Bandaranaike Airport around 3:20 PM, on a Qatar flight with a couple of hours stop-over in the amazing Doha airport that makes even Heathrow T5 look old-fashioned. We had arranged an airport pick up through the owner of the place we booked (Airbnb); the drive to Colombo took almost 1,5 hr due to bad solid traffic, which seems to be quite normal in Colombo) and unfortunately once arrived the Airbnb room turned out to be a bit of a disappointment and definitely the only unwelcoming owner of all the Airbnb experiences that we had in the past (mainly in the US) and of all the Sri Lankan people that we met throughout our 2 weeks. Anyway, got over that quickly, had a refreshing shower and left our room for a bite to eat at the Green Cabin, a nice and reasonably priced restaurant with an outdoor garden just a 10 min tuk tuk ride from where we were. Loved my first Sri Lankan rice and curry! After dinner we walked all the way to the Galle Face Green, a sort of vast green area that locals use to chill out and relax; we got the first glimpse and breeze of the Indian Ocean, walked through the evening food stalls and then got a tuk tuk back to our place. We were trying to become tired so to sleep all the way through until next morning and beat the jet-lag.

If you are planning to catch a train the following morning, I suggest you sleep near Colombo Fort area to avoid a really early start; Colombo traffic is terrible and you don’t want to start your onward travel missing a train.

***Before you leave the airport: buy a Sri Lankan SIM card at the Mobitel counter at the airport arrivals (at the same place where you can pick up your train tickets, if you pre-book them with visitsrilankatours.co.uk). We chose the 500 rps SIM card (with no data – but you can get data for 1200 rps) and we used it almost daily and still had over 300 rps credit when we left. We used it to phone to the guest houses to confirm our arrival (some of them will offer free pick up), arrange pick ups with tuk tuk drivers, phone different drivers to get the best price for a private car etc. Plenty of local kids and teenagers that we met asked us our phone number just to keep in touch and I have the feeling that by the end of our trip half of the Sri Lankan population had my number 🙂 ***

DAY 2 – COLOMBO to ANURADHAPURA

We had previously booked 2 tickets on the observation car on the 6:25 AM train from Colombo Fort to Anuradhapura; as we had already picked up our tickets at the airport, we just needed to be at the train station a couple of minutes before the train departed. The train pulled in, we got onto our seats, got “comfy” (comfort is really a big word here) and enjoyed the bumpy journey – just over 4 hours (buy drinks at the station since on the train they are ridiculously expensive – for us tourists).

Amazing country side and great scenery = travel mode ON.

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Through the countryside, on the way to Anuradhapura.

 

We arrived in Anuradhapura New Town (which is not particularly attractive but it’s where all the services are) with a torrential rain that didn’t look like stopping any time soon. After checking into our room (Sacred City Resort, a clean new guest house just off the main road…don’t get put off by the work in progress look on the outside; the rooms are spotlessly clean and the owner is lovely and really helpful), we decided to take a bit of a gamble with the rain and visit Mihintale, almost 30 min tuk tuk drive to Anuradhapura. Worth the effort since when we got there it stopped raining and we could visit the site with a decent weather. If you have a spare afternoon in A’pura, it’s a good destination: the views are stunning (I am sure on a sunny day they would be even better!) and almost no tourists at all. It’s mainly a local pilgrimage site and it is particularly nice to wander around shoes-less with very few fellow tourists around.

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Mihintale

DAY 3 – ANURADHAPURA OLD CITY

We had decided to leave early – immediately after our rice and curry – to get to Anuradhapura Old Town by bike (just a 15 minutes cycle from the new town) and spend all day visiting the site – which is vast. We rented the bikes in our guest house and off we went. There is this lovely feeling of cycling in the Asian sun, taking in the smell of the blossoming frangipani trees in the morning breeze, amidst the school kids waving at you and you feel pervaded by a sense of extra freedom mixed with a massive dose of enthusiasm. You are not really cycling: you are floating in a new country, amidst new colours, new smells and new noises. And that couldn’t be more exciting! N.B.: put plenty of sun cream on to not spoil the excitement: despite having plenty on we managed to burn our hands/arms in the first Sri Lankan sun which was definitely hotter than it looked. 😦

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Cycling around…while getting burned 😦

The entrance fee to Anuradhapura for foreign visitors is steep ($25), this is a fact. Is it worth? For the experience that we had, absolutely yes. In some areas and in some temples we were almost the only Western tourists and the majority of the time we cycled on our own without meeting a soul (except monkeys and beautiful peacocks), getting lost among ancient ruins. Apparently going all the way up to Anuradhapura (in reality it’s just 4 hours train from Colombo) is a detour that most people with only 15 days in SL don’t take, but the “effort” is that, once there, you truly feel a minority; we were trying to stay aside, almost hiding to not disturb the hundreds of pilgrims that flocked the grounds. As in many other places in the world, you do realise that whereas you are there merely to visit a site, hundreds of thousands of people make the journey to Anuradhapura (or any of the other pilgrimage sites in Sri Lanka or anywhere else in the world) only once in a lifetime and their experience should be most important than our pictures. Often in Sri Lanka I kept my camera switched off, feeling that it would have been an intrusion to take any pictures.

Particularly moving was the evening puja (a daily religious ceremony). I haven’t seen anything like this before and I guess it will take me a while before seeing it again. I will not spoil the surprise by posting any picture, as it was a big surprise for us: try to be at Ruwanwelisaya around 5.30/6.00 PM and enjoy the amazing mix of music, dances and the procession itself. We spent from 8.30 AM until 3 PM in the park, got back for a bit of chill out and around 5 PM the owner of our GH kindly drove us back, just on time for the puja.

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Not sure those flowers were meant for them…!

 

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Pilgrims at A’pura

DAY 4 – ANURADHAPURA to SIGIRIYA (via DAMBULLA)

A bit of planning was involved in this stop. I wanted to do 2 things in Sigiriya: 1) climb Sigiriya rock early in the morning (which is again a steep $30 for foreigners) and 2) climb Pidurangala (just 500 rps), which is the rock just opposite Sigiriya rock, during the sunset. Now, this took a while to be planned since we also wanted to visit Dambulla Caves temple on the way. We decided to take an AC bus from Anuradhapura to Dambulla (1,5 hr), get a tuk tuk to the caves (just 10 min), dump our backpacks somewhere, visit the caves and then get a tuk tuk to Sigiriya, where we had booked an home-stay.

The visit to Dambulla caves and the Golden Temple worked perfectly since we left our backpacks with the police on site (for free) and we could visit the temples easily (we didn’t pay anything to enter but I suspect that was a one off for some unknown reason). It’s a bit of a climb up the steps, particularly in the heat of the day (we were there around 12 PM) but nothing hard – just mind the monkeys that looked particularly hungry 🙂

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Having a yummy lunch on lotus flowers!

We spent a couple of hours between the Cave Temples and the Golden Temple and then got a tuk tuk to Sigiriya (700 rps). We had a bit of an argument with the tuk tuk driver: he called our home-stay for directions – despite we clearly showed him where it was on our map, he claimed it was fully booked and didn’t want to drive us there so we demanded to be dropped off at Sigiriya bus station (which is basically a cross-road). No issue with us since we were only 5 minutes walking from there and since we had previously contacted the home-stay to confirm the booking and our arrival time. Quite proud of myself too since I had printed out all the maps to reach our accommodations from the drop off point to show them to the drivers so…no cheating please! 🙂 Always contact your accommodation prior to arriving asking how much (roughly) you should pay by tuk tuk from the bus/train drop off (unless they can arrange a free pick up).

Anyway, got to our place (Camellia Home-stay) and were absolutely delighted to have booked it. They only have one room and they made their best to make us feel at home – and they absolutely succeed! The room is simple (no AC) with a private veranda looking over their lush gardens, in a lovely country side setting that made us forget almost immediately the noises of Anuradhapura New Town. We settled in, had a chat with the owner’s son (Nihl) and then arranged our onward movement. Since it was baking hot we decided to try our luck and knock on a couple of luxury hotels in the area to take a quick dip at their pool. Absolutely recommended to refresh from the journey and recharge the batteries before the Pidurangula hike. We chose the Sigiriya Hotel for a very simple reason: it was the cheapest to offer a pool entry ticket. But it also turned out to be the one with best views!

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Not a bad view from Sigiriya Hotel!

A dip in their pool is only 400 rps (vs the 1200 that we had been asked at the Sigiriya Village) and absolutely worth it!

We got back to our room around 3.30 PM, quick shower, got the bikes prearranged at our place and rode to Pidurangala. The bike ride itself is stunning through the countryside; I would suggest leaving Sigiriya not later than 4 PM to have enough time to cycle there (20 min), climb up (40 min) and enjoy the gorgeous sunset. The climb up is not too hard, except the last bit but perfectly doable (the locals suggested we could do it with our flip-flops, but I’d strongly advise against! 🙂

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I know…I need to work on my climbing skills! 🙂
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Sigiriya rock in the background

We stayed on the top of the rock until the very last ray of sun was gone, enjoying the stunning views and particularly the lack of tourists (no more than 20 people up there) and then cycled back like nutters to avoid coming back in the pitch black. A torch (which we had left in our home-stay!) could be useful if you are planning to head back to your accommodation in the dark.

We ate at our place (a delicious Sri Lankan rice and curry freshly prepared by the mama!) and went to bed early surrounded by the relaxing and peaceful sounds of the countryside.

DAY 5 & DAY 6 – SIGIRIYA to POLWATHTHA ECO-LODGES (1 hr from Kandy)

If you are planning to climb up Sigiriya rock, be ready for an early start – otherwise I would say don’t even bother, taking into account the crowds of people that were entering the site when I left (mainly Japanese, Chinese and American tour buses). We woke up early (6 AM – my boyfriend kept asking me at which point of the trip he would have been allowed to stay in bed later than 6 AM!), had a massive breakfast and got a tuk tuk to Sigiriya rock, getting there at 7.15 AM. I had planned to climb on my own since my boyfriend doesn’t particularly like heights (and I wouldn’t recommend it if you are afraid of heights or suffer vertigo) so I paid the entrance fee and off I went (bring water with you).

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Steps up.

Sigiriya rock is impressive both by size and shape; the gardens are beautiful, with the lotus flowers waking up in the morning sun. In my opinion, the views from the top are not as impressive as from Pidurangala but still very nice on a clear day. The problem is that just after 8 AM Sigiriya gets absolutely packed with tour buses which means hundreds of people climbing up – most of them shouting (not sure why, since there are clear signs reminding that loud noises can provoke hornets’ attacks). I took my time at the top, wandering around and taking a few snaps but when it started to get too crowded I decided to leave. Quite rightly as you can see from the crowds entering….

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Tourists entering Sigiriya at 9.30 AM.

Got back at Camellia Home stay at 10 AM, quick shower (needed after the climb) and we were ready to go. We got a tuk tuk back to Dambulla and then an AC bus to Kandy, arriving there in 2,5 hrs. Now, the great majority of people that we had met before or after Kandy, stayed downtown; not sure why but thank God we didn’t. I didn’t particularly enjoy Kandy except for the walk around the lake, the bakeries, the Temple of Tooth and a couple of things more. I didn’t enjoy at all the masses of tourists, the touts, the rip-offs and the noise/contamination. Having said this, plenty of people stay in Kandy and like it, I suppose it’s quite personal, as anything else.

We arrived in Kandy, took the 654 local bus in the square between the clock town and the market towards Digana Village (40 rps – 45 minutes ride), got down at the KM 14, where a jeep was waiting for us to drive us to our next destination: Polwaththa Eco Lodges. They are located just over 15/20 minutes drive from the main road where the bus leaves you, in an absolute idyllic setting in the middle of the jungle. If you want to switch off, that is my best recommendation and I can’t recommend it enough. They offer different types of accommodation, including some more on the expensive side; we choose the cheapest one, at $57/night half board and we found it perfect. I am not saying that it’s super cheap but 3 days/2 nights there felt like a unique experience. I have been an early bird all my life but waking up at 5 AM with the all jungle residents waking up with you is a complete different story. We spent the great majority of the time outside our mud hut, just enjoying the views, exploring the jungle around the lodges, finding animals hiding in the vegetation (screaming when it was a big one!) and playing with the local dogs.

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Our mud-hut
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Just outside our mud hut…
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Not sure I can think of a more peaceful setting…

The staff of the Eco lodges was absolute amazing (all Sri Lankan young guys, with very good English); they offer a half board package (which is a must since they are right in the middle of nowhere) and food was truly delicious (and in huge portions), possibly the best we had in Sri Lanka. One of the reasons we decided to stay in an Eco Lodge was to go on a trek; though I usually prefer to go on self organized hikes, this time was a bit different: having only 15 days in Sri Lanka, we wanted to try to get to know as much as possible and talking to local people is always the best way to do it. The staff at Polwaththa Eco Lodges organizes plenty of very informative treks at very reasonable prices; we chose a 12 km one, through the local villages, the tea plantations and with amazing views over the Knuckles Range. We finished the trek with that great feeling that comes when you feel you are learning stuff apart from enjoying yourself.

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Walking through the tea plantation
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Saturday morning class at the Temple
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The Knuckles Range in the background

DAY 7 – KANDY  

After spending a few hours in the morning bird-watching outside our mud hut (if someone – a few years ago – would have told me that I would have become a bird watcher fanatic I’d have laughed out loud!!), we packed our bags, got drop off at the main road and got on the 654 local bus heading to our next stop. Since we still hadn’t visit the city yet, we decided to stay 1 night a bit closer to Kandy to be able to visit what the city had to offer. We stayed at the Romance Hills Hotel (20 min by bus outside Kandy), a stunning new small hotel managed by a super friendly chap with great views over the countryside outside Kandy. And with the first amazingly comfortable bed in Sri Lanka 🙂

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Romance Hills Terrace

Since our room was not ready yet, we left our bags and got a tuk tuk to Peradeniya Botanical Gardens (you can get there by public transport, but we were a bit short of time). Just a few Km outside Kandy, they are a true oasis out of the town madness and definitely worth spending a few hours.

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Bring a sarong, some food and drinks and have a picnic in one of the shaded corners of the park (just avoid the trees where the fruit-bats hang around since it might be a quite unpleasant experience!).

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We got back from the gardens in the late afternoon and decided to eat in, since the following morning we would have had to wake up early (again!).

DAY 8  – KANDY to ELLA 

Kandy is the 2nd city in Sri Lanka and the main reason why it’s so famous and packed with tourists (both locals and foreigners) is because it is the home of the Temple of Tooth that houses the relic of Buddha’s tooth. Though there has been some discordance among non Buddhists over whether the tooth is actually here, I think that we are really not in a position to doubt since other religions get excited for a lot less. Sacred relic aside (which obviously is why thousands of pilgrims flock the town throughout all year and particularly during the Kandy Esala Perahera Festival in August), the compound where the temple is hosts other interesting temples and the Royal Palace itself. Once again, if you are planning to visit, go early. Our plan was to visit the Temple in the morning and then catch the 12.31 PM train from Peradeniya (a short tuk tuk ride from Kandy downtown) to Ella (the journey itself deserves a post). We arrived at the Temple of Tooth by 8 AM which in my opinion was a bit too late since at 9.00 AM the place was already packed with tour buses and hundreds of tourists pushing on the internal stairs. 3 pujas are held throughout the day and we were there at the one of 9 AM but I suppose the 6.30 AM one would have been a lot better and far less crowded (but if you have experienced the Anuradhapura one, is nothing compared to it). Particularly nice is the area just outside the Temple, dotted with dozens of stalls selling flowers for the offering (for inviting they look, you are not allowed to smell them since they are Buddha offers).

The monks saffron robes, mixed with the hundreds of pilgrims (the great majority all wearing white outfits), it’s quite a striking image if compared to how we attend religious celebrations or processions back home.

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If only from a chromatic point of view, I can’t help thinking that lotus and jasmine flowers, white and saffron colours are a far better combination than our chrysanthemums with black and dark outfits. (Sri Lankan people also wear white at funerals and the graves of the people who have just passed away are adorned with white ribbons).

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TO BE CONTINUED……. 

 

 

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Escape to Sri Lanka, a paradise for the senses.

I had got to the end of January thinking that I had been missing Asia for far too long and I decided to book a trip to Sri Lanka with my travel buddy Roger. Mad decision taking into account the moment we were in (just about to relocate) but definitely one of the best decision EVER. Now that I have been back in Europe for a couple of weeks I can say it was one of the best short trips (only 15 days) that I have ever organized in such a short time (less than 2 weeks). We came back at the beginning of March, after 15 days of rice and curry, with memories full of bright colours, the head inebriated of freshly cut flowers and incense fragrances and with a bit of suntan too 😉

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I have not been to India yet (on my to do list!) but my travel buddy, that went there not too long ago partaking in a rickshaw challenge, said that Sri Lanka is not too different in smells, flavours and colours, with the big advantage that being such a small country makes it quite easy to move around – a lot easier than the vastness of India. Unfortunately, in 15 days I haven’t been able to reach some of the areas that have been recently developing tourism, recovering from the destruction of the civil war and that would have surely deserved a visit. Still, what I saw was beautiful and the 15 days in Sri Lanka were an absolute delight for all our senses (smell in particular).

A few things to take into account when it comes to planning your journey:

Transport

Sri Lanka is a pretty small country and some of the destinations that you will probably visit are reachable using their railway system. The best source of information for train journeys, how to book tickets, which seat to choose etc is, as always, The Man in Seat 61. Booking Sri Lankan trains can be a bit tricky and on some trains (Kandy-Badulla, for example) it needs to be done in advance if you want to get a good seat (that to me meant only a window seat with the option to open the window itself for the fabulous views). I have used Visit Sri Lanka Tours (English/Sri Lankan agency) on 2 train journeys and I was absolutely happy with them. I booked my tickets while in the UK (paying with Paypal) and I collected them as soon as I arrived at Colombo airport. Easy! You pay a small commission (of course) but it saves you the hassle of not knowing whether you will get a good seat and it allows you to plan your onward travels.

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Train from Colombo Fort to Anuradhapura

For all the other locations not covered by railway, you have a few options: 1) local buses without AC 2) local buses with AC  3) private or shared car 4) tuk tuk.

Do take into account that local bus drivers are nuts; though they don’t drive as bad as Laotian bus drivers (just as an example), they do drive extremely fast and it seems that the bigger the bus, the faster it goes, whizzing through villages packed with school kids, markets, traders etc making the whole experience a bit nerve-racking. Whatever transport you choose will depend on 2 main factors: price and distance. In our travels, we have always preferred local transport (less comfortable but much more fun!) but this time having only 15 days we realized that on some occasions it was vital to be able to cut short our travel time, having more time to visit whatever our next destination offered. For this reason, we opted for a private car on 2 occasions (Ella/Kataragama and Mirissa/Colombo Airport) and it was the best choice; more expensive than the local transport (and without that local feeling) but definitely worth it to save time. Also, take into account that having your own private transport allows you to stop and visit something else whilst en route, and that’s a big plus when it comes to discovering a country. Whatever means of transport you will choose…barter, barter, barter is the general rule for every transport (except local buses and trains). It’s not impossible to obtain a fair price that makes everyone happy.

Plenty of tourists choose to hire a car with driver for their whole time in Sri Lanka and that is not as expensive as some may think but you will need to shop around before choosing your driver (or use one agency that will dramatically inflate the price); though it can be a good option (particularly if you have got kids and if you are travelling in a group) and offer you more flexibility, although you will surely miss out on some fun experiences!

Accommodation

Sri Lanka has accommodation for all budgets. It’s not as cheap as South East Asia but in the end with a bit of research we were able to find decent accommodation at a decent price (pre-booked, to save time). We found that home-stays offered the best value accommodation with a true Sri Lankan experience (around $15-20/night with breakfast).

Most guest houses and home-stays offer meals, eating in is a good option for at least 2 reasons: 1) food is always fresh and made from scratch and 2) you get to know your hosts better.

Taking into account Sri Lanka’s lush nature and wildlife, it’s worth trying to go off-the-beaten track for a couple of days, sleeping in the jungle or remote settings being surrounded only by nature and its noises… and its residents :-). These experiences will need a bit more investment (both in time and money), nothing astronomical but absolutely worth every single penny.

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Back to the jungle at Polwaththa Eco-lodges, 1 hour outside Kandy.

We visited Sri Lanka in the second half of February and we had AC only in a couple of rooms. If you are on a budget it’s not a must but if you struggle with heat and humidity (especially coming from cold winter), maybe it’s something to factor in. All the rooms we stayed in except 2 (that my boyfriend chose) were generally pretty basic (standard bed, small table and chair), very clean and all came with mosquito net.

Food

I was a bit unsure whether I would enjoy the local cuisine as much as I did in SE Asia, but I turned out that I loved their curries so much that I had it for breakfast (including deep fried fish curry at 7 AM), lunch and dinner. They can be very spicy but (hopefully!) they will tell you if the dish you have ordered is mind-blowing and you’d better opt for a milder one.

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Breakfast rice and curry, Sacred City Resort in Anuradhapura.

In the most touristy locations (Kandy, Ella) you can easily find Western food but personally I stuck to Sri Lankan food during our entire trip and only had one cappuccino over 15 days and the effects where…let’s say…catastrophic, so I quickly went back to my Ceylon tea and fresh fruit juices. My body was no longer used to milk and diaries (apparently I had no problems at all in eating tons of curd…!!) at the point that, once back in the UK, it took me over a week to get back to normality, eating and drinking the usual huge quantities of cheese and milk. Panic over.

Sri Lankan food is reasonably priced and with $10/12 a day you will eat well (sometimes a lot less). It’s worth having breakfast in your home-stay for a couple of dollars since – in most cases – you will eat so much that you will skip lunch. Also take into account that sometimes a rice and curry portion could be enough for a couple of people if not more (portions are huge) so unless you are particularly ravenous you could easily share one.

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Good size breakfast to keep you going at Camellia home-stay in Sigiriya!

Fresh fruit is plentiful and absolutely delicious; the most common you will find will be papaya, mango, pineapple, guava and watermelon, usually squeezed in refreshing juices.

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Watermelon juice with a view, Tangalla.

Throughout our 2 weeks in Sri Lanka we didn’t have any problem with food and we tried as much as we could; one thing that we avoided was the buffet food (you don’t know how long food has been sitting there) and the so called short-eats, a sort of Sri Lankan snacks. Restaurants and bakeries arrange trays of these baked and deep fried goods and when you order they leave the tray on the table; you choose what you want and then the tray goes back half empty to be restocked. I am sure they are delicious but they go through several hands before going straight to your mouth so, unless your body is ready, if you want to try what short-eats are, just go to a proper bakery and choose a bit of everything. Safer and equally yummy.

To get to know more about Sri Lankan cuisine, have a look www.seriouseats.com, plenty of information on what to expect from Sri Lankan food and mouthwatering pictures.

Hospitality

Sri Lankan people are absolutely lovely. Particularly in the destinations off-the-beaten track, they will need your smile first to feel comfortable to approach you and talk – which it seems they can’t wait to do. Once they overcome their initial shyness, that’s done: their English might be broken but they love to practice, kids and elderly with no difference and they will try their best to communicate. Thinking what their country has gone through in the last decades, it is still quite striking that smile is what you see more often on their faces (both Sinhalese and Tamil). Smile, in the end, keeps the world moving.

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Schoolgirls in Sigiriya
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Tamil woman during a festival in Ella
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Preparing the flowers offer at the Temple of Tooth, Kandy.

Nature and wildlife

Apart from the amazing pagodas, cave temples, pilgrimage and spiritual sites, religious celebrations etc, Sri Lanka is possibly one of the most striking destinations I have been so far with such a stunning nature (including some amazing unspoilt beaches) and wildlife.

As soon as you leave the big cities (e.g. Colombo and Kandy) and just take a stroll or a bike ride on any side road, you will find yourself surrounded by amazingly colourful birds, beautiful bright butterflies, lushly green vegetation and any time is the right occasion for an unexpected encounter. We have been to Yala Natural Park but some of the most amazing animal encounters happened outside the park: an elephant crossing right in the middle of the road while en route from Ella to Kataragama, shining bee-eaters whizzing through our path, a crocodile chilling out in the lake just outside our nature resort, dozens of bright peacocks just a few meter from us, giant fruit bats in a city park, hungry monkeys on our way to the cave temples….everywhere you turn, there is something amazing to watch.

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And above all, her majesty….the blue whale, a few hours off Mirissa coast and undoubtedly the most shivering animal encounter I ever experienced.

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What else? Get a good guide, surf the travel forums and you are ready to go!

Get ready to be gobsmacked! 🙂

 

 

 

 

 

Off to the island without traffic lights.

I am currently in Tuscany, where I thought that by this time of the year the weather would be definitely better than in the UK but – apparently – it’s not! I’ve been here for a week and the first 5 days it rained every day, with no exception. In the last couple of days (after a lot of swearing) weather got a bit better and we have finally be able to see some blue sky and sunshine. Still, while I patiently wait for the weather to settle and get reasonably warmer, I can’t help thinking about sunshine, crystal water and powdery white beaches….!

Can’t go anywhere at the moment (just been back from Sri Lanka and still desperately trying to make my tan last a few days more before going back to greenish) but – if I could – I would probably book now a reasonable flight to one of my favourite island in Europe: Formentera (actually, since the island hasn’t got an airport, you will have to fly to Ibiza first and then take a ferry to reach it).

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The smallest of the Balearic Islands, Formentera is only 20 km long and it’s just 6 km from Ibiza. It is – with no doubt – the best crystal shallow sea I’ve ever seen in Europe and since my first time in 2008 I went back a couple of times (always for maximum 4-5 nights), including one of them on my own. It didn’t use to be particularly expensive (except in July and August) but for a few years prices have unjustifiable sky-rocketed and sometimes you end up paying ridiculous money for a far too overcrowded place, which is a real shame but I suppose everyone wants to enjoy it and word spread pretty quickly. Just to give you an idea of how bad it gets: in summertime Formentera population goes from 11.000 to 35.000. That is: 35.000 people, roughly 12.000 cars and not a single traffic light. But, if you have not been yet, it’s absolutely worth a trip – with a bit of advance planning.

Let’s assume that you are (wisely) planning to visit before or after the peak season. As soon as you get off the ferry from Ibiza, you get the feeling that you’ve arrived in a magical place: the sea breeze, the emerald and blue water and the powdery sand scream just peace and relax. Leave back the real world for a few days.

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In the 1960s Formentera was a worldwide recognized hippie destination (with real hippies back then…) and still is considered more chilled and natural than its big sister Ibiza. Now, in peak season, Formentera is basically Italian’s land and a large number of restaurants and cafes are Italian owned and operated (which basically means that beaches get over populated with men in skimpy slips and speedos that should be forbidden anywhere and women wearing all the same bikini, same hair style and same selfie-ready pose). Nothing wrong with it but I think it has undoubtedly lost a bit of its original soul (and that has been confirmed by people living there for many years). Anyway, the good thing is that Italians generally go on holiday between the second half of June until the second half of September so, if you can avoid this period, you will almost be “safe” (though you will miss a bit of the Italian…charm! :-)) and enjoy the island a lot more. I am Italian, nothing wrong with my compatriots…I just can’t stand large loud groups of Italians on holiday 🙂

I would say that 4-5 nights is an excellent beach break; Formentera is small and in a few days you can visit some amazing beaches and calas (small bays) without getting bored. Here is a list of my favorite ones but there are plenty more to discover on your own:

  • Playa Ses Illetes. I have been an early bird all my life, even on holiday and I still remember driving like a lunatic with my little red Panda 4×4 to enter Ses Illetes Park before 8:30 AM (when the park guardians charge the entrance fee). Not so much for not paying the entrance but to enjoy the beach on my own. Stunning. If you get there early enough you can walk a long way before meeting anyone. From the north end of Ses Illetes, you will see Espalmador, a tiny paradisiac island just off the mainland. You can either walk there during low tide (with precaution) or get on a ferry from La Savina port. No services here, so get plenty of water and food if you plan to spend the day.
  • Cala Saona: breathtaking. In peak season, it gets very busy and, as you will see, it’s not particularly big so get here early and then move onto a wider beach in the afternoon.
  • Playa del Arenal: possibly my favourite beach. Beautiful sandy and flat beach with crystal water.
  • Es Migjorn: perfect for long walks. Some areas are still quite natural and wild and less spoiled than other beaches.

Remember to always check the wind before settling on a beach: since Formentera is such a small island, it literally takes minutes to drive over to a more sheltered side, in case it’s too windy.

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Formentera at its narrowest point.

Some tips if you are planning a trip here:

  • I may sound repetitive but visit out of the peak season (mainly avoid between mid-June and mid-September) to enjoy this island at its best, unless you are prepared to pay top prices for accommodation and car rental, having to fight for a space for your towel.
  • It does get very hot during the day and it can be quite cool and breezy in the evening, so be prepared.
  • Many beaches haven’t got any service (sunbeds, shower, toilets, food…) so pack sun cream, hats, water, food. It’s worth spending a few Euros on a cheap umbrella to protect you from the sun rather than getting burnt, unless of course you’re a Brit and prefer to get burned from day 1! 🙂
  • Book well in advance, particularly accommodation. The island is small and everyone wants to get a good spot at a good price.
  • Rent a small car or even a moped, if you are confident. Leave the big cars for the city; no need to show off with fancy big cars since parking can be an issue and some roads are quite narrow.
  • Ferry from Ibiza to Formentera. There are a few options: the fastest one takes 30 min (around EUR 27 one way), the slowest one (Aquabus) takes around 45 minutes but it is exactly half price plus is not such a bad thing to sail in these waters enjoying the sunshine.
  • Formentera is world renowned for being a top nudist destination. This doesn’t mean that you necessarily have to wander around with your bits and pieces in the air… but it does mean that there might be a few around you doing it, so… just be prepared! It’s not (always) a bad thing!! 😉
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House with a view near Cala Baster
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Discover the most secluded “calas”
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Sunset

Trendy, arty and sunny….that’s St. Pete.

If you are coming to Florida, St. Petersburg (or St. Pete, as they call it) should be on your list for many reasons. Trendy, arty, young and a few steps from some amazing beaches. I visited St. Pete during the summer of 2014 and I immediately loved it. Accomodation in St. Pete is not cheap and we had to look around to find something in a decent area not too expensive. Taking advantage of a very good last minute rate around $80, we stayed at the Hollander Hotel, not far from downtown. Their TAP bar was always very busy and with a great atmosphere (live pianist on one of the evening that we were there was truly impressive) and their Sunday brunch with a proper Bloody Mary station was excellent too.

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Hollander Hotel room

They are not far from downtown but for those that do not wish to walk, they do offer a buggy service but we walked most of the time. B&B in general seemed particularly expensive and quite old fashioned with the exception of the Watergarden Inn at the Bay: we wandered in to ask information and it looked absolutely lovely (and beyond our budget!). If you are in the mood of splashing out, I think that The Birchwood on Beach Drive could be a good choice. St. Pete is trendy and fashion and this place has absolutely got it all.

Once the accomodation is sorted, it’s time to concentrate on the big attraction of St. Pete: Salvador Dalí Museum. I am a Dalí fan, I loved Figueres and Cadaqués and this had been on my top list for a while. This impressive museum that includes some of Dalí’s masterpieces is the result of over 25 years of collecting by Reynolds and Eleanor Morse (patrons and friends of Dalí for decades).

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Dali Museum in St. Pete
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Dali Museum interior
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The Hallucinogenic Toreador, 1968-70

Get the audio guide and take your time; it’s a great museum, the collection is truly impressive and absolutely worth the entrance fee. St. Pete has got plenty of other museums, galleries and open art districts worth a visit. Have a look at Chihuly Collection and the Museum of Fine Arts, take a stroll around the 600 Block. For a more hippie vibe, head to Gulfport, a stylish and low key suburb a short drive from downtown. I didn’t find it particularly exciting (it was pretty quiet when I visited) but it’s true that it has retained a kind of 70s feeling with plenty of artists, craftsmen and performers still living there.

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Gulfport Casino
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Sunday morning stroll with the baby goat in Gulfport

In St. Pete, street art is pretty interesting too and worth a drive around to spot some nice murals.

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Once you have done your good bit of sightseeing and driving around, don’t forget that St. Pete is nicknamed the Sunshine city and with an average of 361 days of sun a year, it’s easy to understand why. You are a short drive from some amazing beaches, such as St. Pete Beach, Treasure Island and the paradisiac Fort de Soto Park and, once there, you completely forget you are next door to a big city. Or not?

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Treasure Island, early morning

The evening scene is very good too. Plenty of busy restaurants, lively bars and independent cafes for all budgets. The best scene that we found was on Beach Drive and Central Av./3rd St. N where plenty of options are lined up for everyone’s taste (and pockets). The Canopy rooftop on Beach Drive NE (that’s the bar of The Birchwood hotel) is a great choice for some nibbles and cocktails: buzzing atmosphere, live music and great views of St. Pete are the perfect match!

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Rooftop setting at The Canopy

Up to now it sounds like the perfect city to live. Unfortunately, safety is a big issue here and St. Pete ranks very high in violent crime in Florida. During our stay, we didn’t have any problem at all in walking around the city and driving to different neighbourhoods but you can’t help noticing that, as in many US cities, you just need to take the wrong turn to end up in a truly rough area. Some streets are very dark and poorly lit and I wouldn’t have felt safe in walking during the night outside the main spots where all the action is (Beach Drive). So, as always, the best advice is to keep your eyes open, stick in the busy areas, get a cab back to the hotel and enjoy the city safely!