The group flight arrives at Colombo's Katunayake Airport and we transfer to our hotel at Marawila on the coast approximately one hour north of the airport. Those not flying with the group will meet us at the hotel.
We depart after breakfast for the drive (approx 4 hours) through lush green countryside, a mix of coconut palms, paddy fields and banana plantations, through Kurunegala to Dambulla. Here we visit the magnificent Cave Temple, for some, the most impressive sight in Sri Lanka. There are colourful and very well preserved paintings and statues of Buddha inside the caves, which date back to the 1st century BC. After lunch we continue on to Sirigriya for the night. From the hotel that we usually use, we can see Lions Rock rising up from the plains (occasionally we may stay nearer to Dambulla due to hotel availability).
We spend the morning at an elephant camp at Habarana where you can take an optional elephant safari into the forest. It's enjoyable, if a little expensive, but most people think that it is well worth the money; the bird life is also generally excellent (although the number of birds is dependent on the season). Those who do not want to ride an elephant can either stay at the hotel and relax by the pool or go for a bird watching walk around a small lake. After lunch we drive to the foot of the Lions Rock at Sigiriya. The imposing 5th century rock fortress of Sigiriya rises 600 feet from the plains overlooking the surrounding countryside giving far-reaching views. Used as a safe haven from invaders, the route to the top is up a series of steep steps and gangways. From the base, where a moat surrounds impressive water gardens, we ascend 200m, passing an overhanging rock under which superb portraits of native maidens holding flowers and temple offerings still adorn the rock wall. Crowning the flat-topped summit of the rock are extensive remains of the King's Summer Palace from where there are breath-taking views of the surrounding countryside. The descent is much easier and you can cool off in the hotel pool at dusk.
This morning we have a short drive to Giritale where our usual hotel overlooks Giritale Tank - the islands early inhabitants solved the dual problem of heat and lack of water in this dry area by constructing these large tanks to act as reservoirs and cool the warm breeze. Nowadays they provide an important habitat for bird life, particularly from August to April. Today we take to bikes and cycle at a leisurely pace through a series of small villages and lakes. We should see plenty of bird life including Egrets, Brahmany Kites, Kingfishers, Bulbuls. We will have a traditional Sri Lankan lunch today in a village. In the late afternoon we return to our hotel in Giritale.
After breakfast we take a short drive to the 10th century capital of Sri Lanka at Polonnaruwa, the ancient capital of the Sinhalese. Here there are many Buddhist relics and ruins dating from a thousand years ago when Sinhalese culture reached its zenith. Polonnaruwa flourished in the 12th century, after the decision was made to move the capital from Anuradhapura so it was further away from the incursions from southern India. The ruins are therefore younger and better preserved than those at Anuradhapura. We visit many of the temples, palaces, huge dagobas (Buddhist stupas) and remarkable Buddhist sculptures. After lunch we head into the hills to the picturesque town of Kandy. On the way we stop at a spice garden near Matale where you can see various spices and herbs growing and there is a chance to stock up on massage oils, spices and Ayurvedic medicines. Just before we reach Kandy we will stop at the Aluvihare Temple. This is a long but fascinating day and we arrive at Kandy in the early evening.
Day 6 - 7
Kandy is located on a small lake and we spend two full days in and around the town. On the first day we will visit the Temple of the Tooth, which houses Sri Lanka's most important Buddhist relic. The Tooth of Buddha was taken from the funeral pyre in 543 BC and only found its way to Sri Lanka in the 4th century AD. There are literally hundreds of worshippers who visit the temple each day and in August the most spectacular ceremony takes place. Some of our trips in August should coincide with the Kandy festival, but the exact dates, decided by priests, are not known until 5 months prior to the event. We drive to a beautiful viewpoint to get a great view of Kandy and its environs, overlooked by a huge Buddha, and visit a gem museum where you can see the products of the traditional methods of gem extraction. Another highlight is the vast Peradeniya Botanical Garden with species of orchid, plants unique to Sri Lanka and others from around the world. In the evening we may have the chance to attend a performance of the athletic Kandian Dancing and fire eating. The second day is free to explore this wonderful town. The surrounding hills are wonderful, offering fantastic views of the town below and there are many handicraft stores and antique shops in which to browse. Or for those that wish we will drive to The Pinnawela elephant orphanage (optional).
Heading out of Kandy, we travel through tea plantations to Kitulgala in time for lunch; on the way we visit a tea factory where we see how a cup of tea is produced! Our hotel is beautifully located on a large river and surrounded by thick jungle; this is a great place to relax after the previous days sightseeing. You can swim in the river, relax in the garden or take part in a number of activities such as jungle walks or white water rafting. The rafting is optional and costs extra (see expenses below) and there is a choice of gentle or wild water (grade 3 rapids) depending on your preferences. (Please note that from the full moon day of December to the full moon day of May it is possible to climb Adams Peak.This would be an optional extra and you need to be very fit to attempt this. You would leave Kitulgala at midnight on day 8 and drive to the base of the peak. From here it is a strenuous 4-hour climb to the top in time for sunrise. We then return to Kitulagala to joining the group at lunch on day 9).
We have a jungle walk this morning at Kitulgala. After lunch we make the spectacular drive through tea plantation districts to Nurawa Eliya. This was the favourite hill station during the British era and situated in the cool highland air at 1890m has a very British feel to it. Known locally as 'Little England' it is dotted with British style houses, hotels and a racecourse. There will be time this afternoon to look round the town.
We have an early start this morning and take a 30km drive south to Horton Plains, a large plateau over 2,000m high, overlooked by the second and third highest peaks in Sri Lanka. The scenery is beautiful and the best way to explore is on foot. We take a guided walk through the rolling grasslands, seeing forest, unusual wildlife, such as the sambur and purple faced monkey and visit 'World's End', one of the most stunning sights in Sri Lanka where the ground drops 1050m to the plains. We then catch the train from the highest railway station in the country; within an hour and a half we drop from 6200 feet to 3600 feet. The train travels through the cloud forest into the tea plantations, the views are breathtaking. We get off at Bandarawela which is a town untouched by tourism.
Today we continue on to Ella Gap where we have spectacular views of the coastal plain nearly 1,000m. below. Almost the whole of the southern part of the island is in view and on a particularly clear day the shimmering silver of the ocean is visible. At the times of year our trips take place, the weather is normally clear in the mornings, however, as in any mountainous area, bad weather does sometimes occur which will obviously limit the view. We then head south out of the hills to Kataragama down on the plains; this is our base for visiting Yala National Park. Yala is Sri Lanka's best known National Park and is popular for elephant, leopard, bear, crocodile and wild boar. More than three times larger than Udawalawe at 97,800 hectares, this is the second largest of Sri Lanka's national parks. Its open undulating terrain made it famous for elephants for many years, but recently the park has become well known for leopard. The park, which is primarily shrub jungle with several salt and fresh water lagoons, has one of the highest concentrations of leopard per square kilometre in the world. (Please note that the sanctuary may be closed for 4-6 weeks from September to October allowing the park authorities to check the animals. We therefore go to an alternative area close by, usually the Udawalawe National Park.)
Today we leave for the coast, with its beautiful palm fringed bays. On the way we stop at Hambantota and walk to a nearby farm house where you be offered tea in a coconut shell along with a local snack. We will mix with real Sri Lankan life and take part in some traditional Sri Lankan sport activities, we will then return to our bus in little tractors used by the farmers. We have lunch (optional) at one of the houses built by Exodus for Tsunami victims; this may be one of the best curries of your trip! Continuing on to Ahangama in the afternoon we arrive at our coastal hotel and you can relax for the rest of the day.
Free day to relax on the beach or by the pool. There are also numerous optional activities that you can take part in during the day including a boat ride through mangrove swamps to a cinnamon plantation or from November to April you can go whale watching off Dondra head, near Mirrissa, which is one of the best places in the world for seeing Blue and Sperm whales. Huge pods of dolphins are also often seen playing alongside the boats.
We set off today and drive along the coastal road to the historic port of Galle, on the way we visit a turtle hatchery. Galle dates back to the 17th century, and now a UNESCO world heritage site, we visit the Galle Fort. We take the express way to Colombo reaching our hotel in the late afternoon.
If you are travelling on the group flight we will have a morning transfer to the airport for the daytime flight to London. The arrangements for those not flying with the group ends after check out.