Experience the very best Sri Lanka has to offer on this luxury group tour combining the principal sights of the Cultural Triangle with a handful…
Experience the wonders of Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle on this varied ten-day tour, specially devised to coincide with the spectacular Esala Perahera festival. Offering superb value for money, with a dedicated air-conditioned car, your own driver-guide and high-quality accommodation throughout, it takes in the cream of the island’s historic monuments, tea plantations and scenery.
As the full moon phase of Esala approaches, preparations gather pace in the Sri Lankan hill town of Kandy ahead of ‘Esala Perahera’ – the most exuberant festival in the South Asian religious calendar. A riotous homage to the island’s revered ‘Tooth Relic of Lord Buddha’, the event centres on a series of spectacular processions featuring lavishly decorated elephants, dancers, musicians, drummers, fire juggling monks, whip crackers and stilt walkers, all decked out in traditional Kandyan costume. Cascades of fairy lights adorn the trees and temples lining the route of the parades, which take place after dark to create a fabulously exotic spectacle.
Our tour coincides with the peak of the festivities and you’ll get to experience at least two processions. And because no journey to Sri Lanka is complete without seeing the island’s famous historic sites, the trip also includes visits to the archaeological treasures of the so-called ‘Cultural Triangle’. Marvel at the expansive views over the palm canopy from the hilltop ruins of Sigiriya, experience the mystical atmosphere of the Dambulla cave monasteries, and wonder at the giant Buddhas and whitewashed stupas of Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura, where the ‘Tooth Relic’ was originally enshrined.
Other highlights of this attraction-packed itinerary include visits to spice and tea plantations, and to a wildlife reserve where you’ll see wild elephants. A day on a powder soft, golden-sand beach rounds off your holiday on a relaxing high.
On arrival at Bandaranaike International Airport, you’ll be met by your TransIndus guide and driver and accompanied to your hotel for an overnight stay. Having spent the hot part of the day relaxing by the pool, enjoy an early evening tour of the historic ‘Fort’ area (the original Dutch and Portuguese hub), and Pettah, an atmospheric market area dotted with churches and mosques.
On your walk of Colombo's historic 'Fort' area you'll explore the busy streets, alleyways, shops and churches, picking out hidden treasures such as the Dutch mansions, the iconic Cargills Building and other evocative vestiges of the colonial era. You’ll encounter the oldest clock-tower in Asia, see the original HSBC emblem and hear the story of how and why the British Government funded construction of the Grand Oriental Hotel.
Pettah is a bustling, predominantly Tamil market district north of Galle Face Green, where you will find hawkers and traders plying their wares in a grid of jam-packed streets, each specializing in different produce. A fascinating neighbourhood for people watching, it’s also a great introduction to the island’s tropical fruits, such as wood apple and jackfruit, which you’ll doubtless enjoy in the course of your holiday.
After breakfast, you’ll begin a scenic 5-hour drive up to Nuwara Eliya , the country’s principal hill station.
At the heart of an important tea-growing region, the town is surrounded by lush valleys contoured by swirling plantations. The legacy of British times endures here in numerous ways, most noticeably in the colonial architecture. A prime example is the venerable Blackpool Hotel, where you’ll be spending the night. The views from the hotel’s airy terraces extend across tea gardens to Mount Pedro, Sri Lanka’s highest mountain.
In many respects, the Tea Country feels a world apart from the rest of the island. Less densely populated, greener, and with fresher air and crisper light, it enjoys a noticeably cooler climate (nights can be quite chilly at any time of year), while the region’s three main market towns – Nuwara Eliya, Hattan and Ella – have stronger echoes of the colonial era than any others.
Your third day begins with a visit to a tea factory and plantation, followed by one of the undisputed highlights of any trip to the Sri Lankan Highlands – a ride on the famous hill railway, which winds through misty tea groves towards the island’s heart. The rattling four-hour ride takes you from Nanu Oya to Peradeniya, from where you’ll transfer to Kandy in time for supper and your first Esala Perahera procession.
As well as establishing the tea estates that dominate the landscape of the highlands, the British also built the railway line that snakes through it. Today, the route has become one of the area’s obligatory visitor experiences thanks to the fabulous valley views it yields. We’ll ensure you’re allocated seats on the left side of the first-class observation carriage for the best panoramas.
By far the most dazzling, extravagant and visually arresting festival in Sri Lana is the one held in the city of Kandy each year. Over a ten-day period leading up to the full moon in late-July/early August, the humid night air fills with the cacophonous sound of massed drums and trumpets, as more than a hundred lavishly caparisoned pachyderms lumber through the streets by flaming torchlight. Accompanying them are thousands of musicians, dancers, fire-pot jugglers, whip crackers and acrobats, dressed in beautiful traditional Kandyan costume.
‘Esala Perahera’, as the festival is known, is part ancient fertility celebration – a grand homage to the object Buddhists regard as one of the most precious in existence: the ‘Sacred Tooth Relic’.
For centuries, the only chance ordinary citizens had to get near the holy canine (worship of the tooth was reserved exclusively for the King) was during Esala Perahera, when it was carried through the streets of Kandy. The tradition has continued ever since and is now the largest event in Sri Lanka’s festival calendar.
Spend the morning exploring the town’s Botanical Gardens. Afterwards, visit the Sacred Temple of the Tooth, Sri Lanka’s most venerated Buddhist shrine, and shop for silver, brassware and gem-studded jewellery at local crafts workshops. Your prime seats for the evening Perahera procession will be reserved in advance.
Kandy's world-class Botanical Gardens, is home to a vast collection of over 4,000 trees, palms and flowers, which include more than 300 varieties of orchid. The real show stopper here, though, is the giant Javan fig tree growing on the Great Lawn – an extraordinary specimen said to be over a century old.
Sri Lanka’s holiest shrine holds the most famous surviving relic of the Buddha, whose location was for centuries believed to determine the seat of the country’s power. Join the streams of white-robed pilgrims who file through the temple’s gates as they purchase frangipani and lotus blooms from the flower vendors, then continue through the incense-filled, lavishly decorated interior to the place where the relic is enshrined – the focus of elaborate rituals.
Visit the spice gardens in Matale (1hr’s drive) this morning, where you’ll see how cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, mace and pepper are grown, along with chocolate and vanilla. After lunch at Matale, proceed to the UNESCO-listed site of Dambulla , Sri Lanka’s largest and best-preserved cave-temple complex. Continue to Habarana where you'll spend three nights.
Sri Lanka’s largest and best-preserved ancient cave-temple complex stands on the south side of Dambulla town, carved from a huge granite inselberg faintly resembling a beached whale. Five major rock-cut grottoes were chiseled from flanks of the ‘Golden Rock’ over a period of roughly a thousand years, and these hold a treasure trove of murals and statues unique in scale and degree of preservation.
From the 4th century BC until 993 AD (when the island was conquered by invaders from India), Sri Lanka was ruled from a succession of visually imposing royal capitals, in a region now dubbed ‘The Cultural Triangle’. Consisting of spectacular fortified palaces, huge dagobas, giant, serene-faced Buddhas and massive water tanks built to irrigate the surrounding fields, the ruins of these great urban centres are mostly scattered across a semi-arid plain dotted by dramatic outcrops of brown granite.
You’ll be exploring the historic highlights over the coming days but for your first outing we recommend a leisurely safari in one of its trio of national parks. Taking into consideration the times and places of the latest sightings, your guide will decide on which is likely to be the most rewarding.
An early start is recommended to beat the heat on this full day of sightseeing in the Cultural Triangle. It begins with a visit to the great fortress-palace at Sigiriya, which you’ll scale for a superb view of the central plains. An even larger complex of ancient palaces and temples takes up the afternoon as you tour the ruins of ancient Polonnaruwa.
An hour’s drive from Habarana, a huge column of rock rises abruptly from the plains like a vision from ‘Lord of the Rings’. It’s a striking sight and a place of great historic importance due to the presence on its flat-topped summit of a 5th-century fortress, dating from the reign of Kashyapa (477–495AD). Landscaped gardens, royal apartments, ramparts and cisterns were added to the complex, approached via the ‘Lion Gate’ from where a flight of rock-cut steps leads past a series of famous murals depicting voluptuous ‘Cloud Maidens’ before cutting steeply up to the summit. The effort is rewarded with marvellous views. For many visitors, this is understandably the country’s top cultural attraction.
Ranged around a huge artificial lake, Polonnaruwa, an hour’s drive away from Habarana, is the most impressive and compact of the island’s ancient sites. Its vestiges – comprising finely sculpted statues, frescoes, colossal Buddha images and immense stupas – vividly convey the wealth and sophistication of medieval Sri Lanka at its zenith.
The seventh day of your trip takes wildlife as its principal focus, with a visit to the Minneriya National Park . Famous for hosting large gatherings of elephant, the park is also a birding hot spot and home to the island’s two endemic species of monkey.
Minneriya and the interlinking Kaudalla and Hurulu Eco Parks, make an excellent change of pace and scenery. At its heart of Minneriya stands the large Minneriya Tank, a huge 3rd century reservoir (for this region lies in the island’s ‘Dry Zone’). Its habitats are surprisingly varied, with forests, scrublands, grasslands and wetlands. out.
Elephants – and safaris to see them at fairly close range – are the main attraction, particularly during the famous ‘Gathering’ of August and September when hundreds of pachyderms migrate to the park to graze and bathe in its cool waters. Large herds of elephants migrate between the three parks in different seasons, so which one to visit depends on the time of year and your consultant will know which periods are most likely to yield sightings.
Time to head west and hit the beach at Chilaw, an hour and a half’s drive north of the capital, where the Anantaya Resort and Spa will serve as your tranquil seaside haven for two nights.
With a sprawling expanse of sandy beach to its fore and a lagoon to the rear, the five-star Anantaya Resort and Spa is beautifully situated and equipped with international-grade amenities, including a huge open-air pool, should you tire of the surf on your doorstep.
A full day to unwind and contemplate the wonders you’ve experienced over the previous week brings your tour to an end. No transport is provided today, leaving you free to enjoy the sea breezes and glorious situation of Anantaya at your own pace.
Time to bid farewell to the isle of Serendip. A 90-minute transfer south down the coastal highway will take you back to Colombo’s airport in good time to catch your flight back to the UK.
✓ 9 nights accommodation
✓ All internal transportation and transfers
✓ English-speaking guides
✓ Breakfast daily
✓ Entrance fees to sites and monuments listed in tour itinerary
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