I’ve always enjoyed seeing the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner traveling past – a sleek silver train hugging the California coast as it stops at beach towns from San Diego to San Luis Obispo. However, glancing at the southbound Surfliner as I was driving home from the airport, it suddenly seemed uninteresting. Where are the people sticking their heads out the windows and hanging out the doors? How much fun would it actually be to sit on a train rather than swing wide from a doorway’s handle? Yes, one trip to Sri Lanka had ruined western trains for me forever.
I had been invited to Sri Lanka by Cinnamon Hotels, the largest hotel brand in the country and the originator of the world’s only travel blogging awards ceremony, TBCAsia, held every two years. I wasn’t nominated (they still need a Family Travel Blog category!), but I jumped at the chance to see a new country – one that had been high on my travel wish list – and also to spend a week with some of the most influential travel writers/bloggers/photographers in the world.
It was an amazing trip, and I’m now hooked on Sri Lanka – so much so that when my 8-year-old told me he wanted to go to the Maldives for his next annual trip, I immediately suggested adding a stop in Sri Lanka. That will be next year. But right now, why should you head to Sri Lanka? Here’s what I loved.
I’m not talking about the tea that we drank, which was very good, but rather the tea planted everywhere. Cityscapes with buildings and concrete just don’t compare to hills and hills of tea, interrupted occasionally by colorfully-dressed women picking the tea. Absolutely stunning!
What’s even better than seeing tea everywhere? Hiking through hills of tea! Every chance I got I was running up mountains, exploring tucked-away valleys and otherwise enjoying the nature. The best hiking was in the Knuckles Mountain Range, but there are places even right outside of Kandy that are gorgeous and worthwhile. Plus there are waterfalls everywhere.
I loved the people, sites and temples. Sri Lanka has been influenced by many cultures but is unique – overwhelmingly Buddhist but utterly inclusive with some of the warmest people I’ve met anywhere. I’ve seen a lot of mediocre cultural shows around the world, showcasing interesting history and culture but too touristy to be able to be fully appreciated. The shows and dances I saw in Sri Lanka seemed more authentic – maybe because the country is still largely off the tourist radar – but hopefully they stay like that.
I had always heard that taking a train trip in Sri Lanka was a special experience, and I now understand why. The first journey we took, from Colombo to Kandy, was fun. We were in second class (a must), and able to stick our heads out the windows and hang from the doors while watching the countryside and stations fly by. But when I posted on Instagram about that ride, commenters all said the same thing: head south from Kandy and it’s even better. So I did. And they were right.
The ride south was amazing – I would put it in my top five travel experiences ever, from 80+ countries. It was about the scenery, with green and yellow-leafed tea bushes stretching across mountains and valleys as far as you can see. It was about the sliced mango with chili powder sold on the train – now one of my favorite things. It was about the exhilaration of sitting in the doorways, and hanging out of the doorways. It was about the people outside of the train, going about their lives. And it was about the people inside the train, all bound by the magic of the journey.
There were four children in my small group in central Sri Lanka. I hadn’t thought about bringing my kids along, but I loved watching these kids interacting with the people and soaking in the culture and the nature. It seemed like they genuinely enjoyed the hiking, the performances and the trains. There was even a pasta station at our hotel for pickier eaters. I wouldn’t hesitate to take my kids next time.
Places I Want to Go Next Time
Other than a day in Colombo, I stayed to the central part of the island – it’s much easier to travel deeper when you’re not trying to see everything in a week. I’d love to go back to Kandy, Nuwara Eliya and the Knuckles Mountains next time, but I also want to see Adam’s Peak, Sigiriya, Galle, the Dambulla Cave Temples and Minneriya and Yala National Parks.
Where I Stayed
Cinnamon Citadel Kandy was a perfect base for everything I did in central Sri Lanka. My room was great, and from a family-travel perspective I appreciated that they could easily combine rooms for families of 4, 5 or 6. The food was excellent – in the main restaurant, at Café C and by the pool one morning when three of us were treated to a champagne breakfast.
In Colombo I stayed one night at the Cinnamon Lakeside Colombo. The service, room, view and breakfast were all excellent.
How to Get There
I had a complicated itinerary since I was attending a conference in Minnesota just before my trip: LA-Minneapolis-DC-Paris-Colombo-Frankfurt-LA. Most flights into the country are on SriLankan Airlines. I was in business class and slept well. Entertainment and food options were good too.
Best Time to Visit
Sri Lanka isn’t a large country, but it’s large enough to have two different monsoon seasons. The best time to visit the west/south/central regions is December through March. The best time to visit the north/east is May through September. Having said that, I was in Kandy and the surrounding area in early June and the weather was excellent, with just a few late afternoon rainstorms coming through. Peak tourist season is December through mid-April so, as always, right before or after that could give you good weather and fewer crowds – not that Sri Lanka really gets crowded.