With most island destinations, you don’t have the opportunity to experience different climates, archaeological heritage sites, beautiful beaches and sprawling jungles all in one trip. But that’s what sets Sri Lanka apart, it’s one island where you can see it all.
We recommend hiring a Mercedes Vito, which you can do inhouse at any Resplendent Ceylon resort, so you can relax in comfort and take in all the sights and sounds on your journey.
Here are three road trips you can enjoy whilst you’re in Sri Lanka.
Tea, Safari and Sea: Hatton- Nuwara Eliya-Ella – Yala – Weligama
Start your road trip by heading to the hill country soon as you land. From the airport, make your way to Hatton, where you can stay at Ceylon Tea Trails. The drive to the highlands is renowned for the panoramic view of valleys, waterfalls and forests, so make sure you pack your camera with you. At Ceylon Tea Trails, you can relax by your private pool, take in the beauty of the surrounding tea plantations and take a tour of the Dunkeld Tea Factory. Hatton and surrounding highland forests are known for having leopards, so guests at Tea Trails can visit the Leopard Project and learn more about the elusive highland leopards.
From Hatton, you can drive through the picturesque town of Nuwara Eliya. With its colonial influenced architecture, Nuwara Eliya is often referred to as “Little England”.
After Nuwara Eliya, head to Ella. Ella is a small hillside town that has a strip of hip restaurants and cafes. After grabbing a bite to eat at Cafe Chill or one of the other restaurants, you can go on one of Ella’s famous hikes. Little Adam’s Peak and Ella Rock are two hiking paths that boast equally stunning views.
Next, you can head out of the hill country and into the jungle. Yala National Park is one of the most popular parks in Sri Lanka, known for the range of wildlife you can see. From elephants, leopards to sloth bears, Yala has it all. Stay at Wild Coast Tented Lodge, where you can go on a personal safari experience with one of the in house rangers. After a day on safari, you can lounge by your private pool or enjoy sundowners by the Indian Ocean.
Finally, head down to the coast to experience some of the best beaches in the world. Sri Lanka has many beachside towns, but Weligama is one of the most popular. Known for being one of the best beaches for surfing, Weligama is also known for having abundant sea life, especially blue and sperm whales during their migration around the southern tip of the island. Take the Ocean Safari experience, guided by a Cape Weligama naturalist who will give informative commentary on the whales, their migration patterns and behaviour. There is also a possibility of seeing other marine wildlife such as dolphins, turtles, types of fish and birdlife on the excursion. Stay at Cape Weligama to have a panoramic view of the Weligama bay and enjoy the privacy of your private pool. From Weligama, you can head straight to the airport by the Southern highway.
Southern Coast: Weligama – Yala
If you’re constrained for time, an option would be to concentrate mainly on the south coast, where you can start your trip by heading from the airport to Weligama. The drive to the south coast begins on the Southern highway, which is a quick and scenic route, as you pass vivid green paddy fields and lush vegetation The drive to the south is beautiful, as you drive through colourful beachside towns, which each have their distinct personality, that pop up all along the azure coastline.
You can choose to stay on the highway up until Galle, but we recommend you exit from the highway when you reach Ambalangoda. Ambalangoda is a small fishing village which is renowned for its traditional arts and crafts, especially wooden masks and puppets. The traditional masks and puppets are hand-carved and hand-painted and are used in traditional dances and performances. You can stop at any of the many roadside shops to get your mask or puppet.
Afterwards, you may stop at the Tsunami memorial, which is located between Ambalangoda and Hikkaduwa. This particular stretch also includes the Seenigama temple, which has significant cultural significance for those living in the area.
Hikkaduwa is a popular beachside town with lots of cafes and restaurants. Hikkaduwa is also known for snorkelling, which you can do at the Hikkaduwa National Park and explore the coral reef. The drive between Hikkaduwa and Galle also features some scenic viewpoints, fishing villages and more.
Galle is the crown jewel along this stretch, and the old city of Galle is a must-visit, especially to explore the Galle Fort, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Face of Galle Fort is a hosted walk, organised by Cape Weligama, where you will learn about its ancient history and about the people who call it home. Galle boasts an amazing array of architecture, with Dutch-colonial buildings, ancient mosques and churches, grand mansions and museums. As you wander its cobbled streets, you’ll pass cafes, boutiques and restored hotels.
As you pass Galle, you’ll come by the town of Unawatuna. Unawatuna has become one of the most popular strips of beaches because of its selection of restaurants and cafes, right on the coconut fringed beach. Grab a Lion beer, Sri Lanka’s homegrown beer, and indulge in any of the delicious, fresh seafood on offer. Always ask the chef what the catch of the day was, that way you are guaranteed a meal that’s fresh out of the ocean.
As you complete your drive, stay at Cape Weligama, where you can experience surfing opportunities and take in the abundant marine life, such as whales and dolphins, on your Ocean Safari.
From Weligama, you can head on towards Yala National Park, where you can stay at Wild Coast Lodge. The drive towards Yala, you will see the landscape change significantly. The palm trees give way to drier shrubs, golden sand to red earth. On the drive, you will pass through the town of Hambantota, a major port and a town that has seen significant development.
From Hambantota you pass through Tissamaharama, a town that boasts amazing landmarks built by ancient Sri Lankan kings. The Tissa Wewa is a huge artificial lake, by Devanampiya Tissa (3rd century BC), and the Yatala Wehera, a Buddhist stupa in Tissamaharama, built 2300 years ago by King Mahanaga.
After Tissamaharama, head straight to Wild Coast Tented Lodge and get ready for your safari experience. Our in house rangers are there to answer any questions you may have on Sri Lankan wildlife and what to expect on your safari.
After the completion of your stay, head back to Colombo via the Southern highway, which will take you straight to the airport.
The Cultural Triangle: Dambulla -Sigiriya- Kandy – Hatton
This third road trip is for the history buff. Sri Lanka has a large number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites and they are worth a visit. From the airport, you can start your journey by making your way to Sri Lanka’s central provinces, as this is where the main cultural and historical sites are.
Your first stop should be the city of Dambulla. On the drive there you pass through many quaint villages and towns, one being Kurunegala. As you approach Kurunegala, you will see how the landscape changes, as flatter landscapes give way to large rock formations. It is these formations that ancient Sri Lankans used as places of worship or palaces.
On your drive, you will spot vendors selling their wares on the side of the road. We recommend stopping to pick up some traditional curd and treacle, served in clay pots. What makes Sri Lankan curd unique is that it is made out of buffalo milk, which gives it its signature tangy, sour taste. Treacle is a sweetener, similar in texture to honey, but is made from the kithul plant.
Once you arrive in Dambulla, you can visit the cave temples at the Golden Temple. This temple is an important holy site to Sri Lankan Buddhists, and dates back to the first century BC and is filled with intricate paintings and statues of the Lord Buddha, bodhisattvas and other gods and goddesses.
Whilst you’re in Dambulla, you should also visit the Sigiriya Rock Fortress. First used as a Buddhist monastery in the 3rd Century BC, Sigiriya was turned into a royal fortress by an ancient Sri Lankan king Kashyapa in 477 AD. Sigiriya is an impressive sight to behold, and at the top of Sigiriya, you can see the ruins of the king’s royal palace, as well as panoramic views of the surrounding countryside.
Your next UNESCO World Heritage Site should be the city of Kandy. As you drive towards Kandy, the landscape changes once again, as winding roads lead you up into the highlands. The drive presents amazing views of the sprawling hills and deep valleys below, so make sure you are camera ready.
Kandy is a town surrounded by hills, known for its beautiful architecture. But what Kandy is most known for is the Sri Dalada Maligawa, the temple of the sacred tooth. Completed in 1545 AD, the temple houses the relic of Lord Buddha’s tooth. The temple is an important religious landmark for Sri Lankan Buddhist, and every evening, the priests perform a ritual to honour the sacred artefact.
From the ancient city of Kandy, take a trip higher into the hills on the picturesque road to Hatton, for a relaxing stay at Ceylon Tea Trails. On this drive, the landscape again changes, the hills are now significantly covered in lush, green tea fields and towering cloud forests. The temperatures are now cooler, as you head to some of the highest altitudes on the island.
After a relaxing time at Ceylon Tea Trails, taking in all the highlands have to offer you, you can make your way back towards Colombo.