Culture aside, the ancient kings also shaped the natural world and among the thousands of lakes and reservoirs dotted across the country, many were created by royal edict to irrigate the land and feed the people. We loved the lush paddy fields, the coconut palms and pineapples but on an island about half the size of England, you will find 61 wildlife sanctuaries and 26 national parks. In fact, it is believed that the world’s first nature reserve was set up in Mihintale in the third century BC.
Monkeys and birds had greeted us right from the start, but we were offered an optional safari in the Kaudulla National Park, fairly close to Polonnaruwa. On this bumpy but exciting ride, our heart was set on elephants and when we reached the open grasslands on the edge of the forest, we watched dozens of them feeding in groups as dusk approached. Hundreds of water birds gathered around the adjoining reservoir then back on the road, after dark, we spotted a lone tusker, a rare sight indeed among the 5000 or so wild elephants on the island.
After the cultural capitals, our Cox & Kings tour took us south to Nuwara Eliya, at the heart of the tea plantations rolling luminous green across the hills. We stayed in the atmospheric Tea Factory Hotel where some of us set off before dawn to trek on the Horton Plains in the central highlands. In this national park rising to over 7000 feet, we spotted the sacred Adam’s Peak in the distance -one of Sri Lanka’s highest points- then started on the loop which takes you around the most scenic attractions. This begins with the mini World’s End, the first precipice, followed by the real World’s End and its 2887-foot drop and finally the Baker’s Falls, one of myriad waterfalls across the island, with a rainbow at the base of the rock. The track was rough at times through montane forest and grassland but we enjoyed looking out for birds, giant squirrels and sambar deer.
Another must-see waterfall was Ravana, right by the panoramic road which led us down to the south coast and the Yala National Park. Yala is the most popular park – expect 100 jeeps queueing at the entrance before dawn- and with just two sections open to visitors, only the lucky ones might spot a leopard or a sloth bear. We didn’t but we came across spotted deer, monkeys and elephants, water buffaloes, a crocodile, mouth wide open, and lots of birds, from wild peacocks and pelicans to painted storks, bulbuls, hornbills or the rare jungle fowl, the national bird. Bordering the Indian Ocean, it is a thrilling ride around forest, grassland and lagoons dominated by a sturdy ‘Elephant Rock’.
The next day we continued along the coast and after a brief walk around the Galle fortress, we reached Ahungalla for the last two nights and a chance to relax on the beach. You could book a trip to see the blue whales out at sea, best from December to March, or visit one of the turtle hatcheries set up along the shore. There, soft white eggs and new born turtles are protected until they can be safely released into the ocean. I popped into Kosgoda, the original hatchery, then joined a cruise on the Madu river, peeping into the mangrove, sailing under low bridges and skirting an island or two. Fruit bats hung in the trees, a water monitor dozed on the bank and bird song echoed all around.
Read about Top Cultural Attractions at the Heart of Sri Lanka
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Cox & Kings