Places Visited: Colombo, Dambulla Caves, Sigiriya, Polonnaruwa, Kandy, Anuradhapura, Tricomalee
Experience the wonders of Sri Lanka’s Cultural Triangle on this varied, nine-day group tour. Offering superb value for money, with world-class luxury accommodation throughout, it takes in the cream of the island’s historic monuments and scenery, and yields a vivid taste of the local Sinhalese Buddhist culture.
Marvel at the expansive views over the palm canopy from the hilltop ruins of Sigirya. Experience the mystical atmosphere of the Dambulla cave monasteries. And wander among the giant Buddhas and whitewashed stupas of Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura, the island’s ancient capitals. Other highlights of this attraction-packed itinerary include visits to a nature reserve where you’ll see elephants in the wild.
For the duration of your tour you’ll be based at one of our favourite hotels in Sri Lanka, the five-star Cinnamon Lodge in Habarana. Close to a major crossroads at the heart of the island, this fabulous resort is perfectly placed for explorations of the archeological sites comprising the so-called ‘Cultural Triangle’. Most of the monuments you’ll visit require no more than 40 minutes’ driving to reach (although to get Kandy and the East Coast you’ll be on the road for a longer).
The lodge has all the facilities you’d expect from an international-grade five star, including a luxurious spa and large open-air swimming pool. The rooms – in double-storey, colonial-style blocks scattered around immaculate tropical gardens – are spacious and light, with high ceilings and traditional pan-tiled roofs.
Departure dates are designed to coincide with school holidays. The hotel you’ll be staying in has excellent facilities for younger travellers, with a dedicated kids’ play park in addition to a large open-air pool, bicycles for hire and tennis courts. Fully trained staff are also on hand to keep an eye on your children should you wish to cut loose for spa session or supper à deux. Crucially, the location of the hotel, at the heart of the cultural triangle, means that journey times to and from the sights are manageable for the majority of children.
Cultural Holidays Family Holidays
- Group Size 4-16
- Internal Travel Transportation by air-conditioned vehicle and chauffeur-guide
- Accompanying Guide English-speaking chauffeur-guide
- Accommodation 7 nights
- Meal Plan Breakfast daily
Itinerary for The Heart of Sri Lanka
Fly overnight from the UK to Colombo.
On arrival, you’ll be met by your TransIndus team for the transfer inland to Cinnamon Lodge, Habarana. Spend the remainder of the day recovering from your journey, perhaps venturing out around late-afternoon to explore the hotel grounds and facilities.
Built on a ground plan replicating the layout of the nearby ruins of ancient Ritigala, Cinnamon Lodge oozes retro-colonial chic. Its terracotta-roofed buildings are handsomely whitewashed, with architectural features picked out in traditional, Portuguese-style ochre. Deep, pillared balconies and verandahs provide plenty of cool outdoor space to relax in. All of the rooms and suites are air-conditioned. Meals are served in a beautiful, open-sided dining hall – ‘Ehala’ – whose sumptuous buffets feature a wide choice of European as well as Sri Lankan dishes. We particularly enjoyed the ‘Naughty Room’ – a chilled annexe devoted solely to sinful desserts!
Following a leisurely breakfast, you’ll be briefed on the timetable for the coming week at a Welcome Meeting hosted by your TransIndus guide. Afterwards, savour the morning sunshine with a stroll around the hotel grounds, where grey langur monkeys and Toque macaques may be spotted amid the foliage. The afternoon will be taken up with a visit to Dambulla, Sri Lanka’s largest and best-preserved cave-temple complex.
Located on a huge granite inselberg, Dambulla occupies a wonderfully atmospheric spot, with views extending over the tropical canopy to distant Sigiriya and beyond. Adorning the interiors of the caves is an astonishing horde of 2,000-year-old murals and statues – unique in scale and degree of preservation. The mysterious, sculpted faces of the deities, and swirling reds and golds of the murals create an enchanting atmosphere.
In the morning, the group will visit the archeological site of Polonnaruwa, an hour’s drive away. Following a guided tour of the monuments, we’ll return to Cinnamon Lodge for lunch and spend the rest of the afternoon at leisure, enjoying the pool, spa treatment or one of the activities on offer in the hotel’s Eco Centre, which include guided birding and monkey spotting walks.
Set in an area of gently undulating woodland, Polonnaruwa is the most spectacular of Sri Lanka’s many ancient ruins. From the 11th to 13th centuries, a succession of kings developed an immense city here, ranged around a huge artificial lake. The finely sculpted statues, frescoes, colossal Buddha images and immense stupas surviving here vividly convey the wealth and sophistication of medieval Sri Lanka. Nowhere else on the island will you encounter ancient buildings fine as those enclosed within the walls of the Quadrangle, where the Tooth Relic was once enshrined, or statues as magnificent as the four great Buddhas of the Gal Vihara.
Optional excursion: if you feel up to more sightseeing in the afternoon, sign up for a trip to the nearby Minneriya National Park where, in the summer months, between 50 and 300 wild Asian elephants congregate in a vast herd – one of Asia’s most compelling spectacles. The great gathering occurs around a huge reservoir, enfolded by a mix of forest, scrub, swamps and open grassland. During the hot season the waters of the tank recede leaving in their wake fresh shoots and mud which the elephants enjoy.
In the morning of your fifth day, you’ll be invited to visit a local family home to help prepare a traditional Sri Lankan meal as an offering for local monks. Once the food is ready, accompany your host family to the village temple to present the offering.
In the afternoon, another optional (but highly recommended) excursion takes you to the UNESCO-listed fortress-palace at Sigiriya. These spectacular 5th-century ruins rest on the top of a towering rock outcrop that can be scaled by means of steep staircases and catwalks. Along the way you’ll pass the much photographed wall paintings of curvaceous apsaras, or ‘heavenly nymphs’. Featured on innumerable publicity images for the island, they are believed to have been modelled on the real-life queens and princesses who once lived in the palace on top of Sigiriya rock. Marvellous views across the countryside of the Cultural Triangle are your reward for the climb, for which you’ll need a bit of a head for heights!
Today you’ll drive south through the lush mountains of central Sri Lanka to Kandy, the island’s second city, where the Sinhalese Buddhist population took refuge from colonial invaders in the 16th century onwards, bringing with them the Tooth Relic that’s now enshrined inside the great temple here.
First port of call in Kandy will be the Royal Botanical Gardens of Peradeniya. Originally established as a royal retreat in the 14th century, the park is famed for its world-class collection of orchids, palms and, the real showstopper, a giant Javan fig tree.
After lunch, we’ll continue to the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, Sri Lanka’s most important Buddhist shrine. Pilgrims dressed in flowing white robes file through the complex throughout the day, carrying lotus blooms and frangipani flowers. The resident monks will demonstrate the traditional Thevada ritual offering for the group, accompanied by temple musicians. Time permitting, we’ll also visit the adjacent royal palace and National Museum, whose exhibits include an intriguing collection of traditional Sinhalese water clocks.
The seventh day of your trip is a rest day, but more energetic members of the party may wish to undertake an optional excursion to Anuradhapura, the greatest and most resilient of all Sri Lanka’s ancient capitals.
Founded in 377 BC, Anuradhapura thrived for over a thousand years until its destruction by Indian invaders in 993AD. Today, its vestiges retain great appeal for both tourists and Buddhist pilgrims, thanks to the impressive ‘dagobas’, or stupas, rising from its midst. Sri Lanka is dotted with these bell-shaped, whitewashed memorials, but the largest and most impressive are found here. One, the Jethawanarama, was at the time of its construction in the late-3rd century AD almost as tall as the two great pyramids at Giza! The most revered monument on the site, however, is of more modest proportions. Enclosed within tiers of gold railings, the Sri Maha Bodi, or Sacred Bodhi Tree, is believed to have been grown from a cutting taken from the one under which the historical Buddha achieved enlightenment. The original, in Bodh Gaya, India, perished many centuries ago and worshippers from across the world have travelled here ever since to venerate its gnarled old off-shoot.
In the morning we’ll drive across the island to the east coast city of Trincomalee, and after a tour of the town’s historic sites will spend the afternoon on one of the island’s loveliest beaches.
Your first stop in Trinco will be stately Fort Frederick, originally erected in the 17th century by the Portuguese to guard the town’s impressive harbour, which served as the lynchpin of Dutch, French and British colonial trade in the region. Crowned by the whitewashed Koneswaram Temple, nearby Swami Rock is no less spectacular. From the terrace of the shrine, you can gaze over the dramatic expanse of white sand and blue water sweeping north, where the local Cinnamon resort occupies a prime position. This will be your venue for lunch, and the hotel where any clients who have opted to extend their tour will spend the next few days. Before heading back to Harbarana, there will be time for a refreshing ocean dip and laze on the beach in front of the resort.
Check out after breakfast, then board the coach for your transfer to Colombo airport, where you’ll catch your flight back to the UK.
The Cinnamon Lodge at Trincomalee, featured on Day Eight of this tour, is among our resorts of choice on Sri Lanka’s east coast, and the one we generally recommend to clients wishing to extend their stay to enjoy the island’s beaches. Extensively refurbished in 2017, the hotel is modern and luxurious, and enjoys a perfect location on one of Asia’s loveliest tropical bays.
Several other beaches lie within easy reach of the resort, including Nelaveli, a short drive north, which novelist Carl Müller once described as ”peach perfect . . . with a creaming sea of dreamy blue and a lagoon like a sculpted topaz”. Passikuda, a classic curve of shallow, translucent water and golden sand to the south, is equally beautiful, while Coral Island, just up the coast from Trincomalee, is the island’s best snorkelling site, its reef teeming with multi-coloured fish.
The seas off Trincomalee are also one of Asia’s top whale hot spots. Boats depart daily for a stretch of sea six miles offshore where blue and sperm whales are regularly sighted. March–April and August–September, when the whales migrate around the island, are the best periods.
Group Tour 9 days from £1195 per person
✓ 7 nights accommodation
✓ All internal transportation and transfers
✓ English-speaking accompanying chauffeur-guide throughout
✓ Breakfast daily
✓ Entrance fees to sites and monuments listed in tour itinerary
tour prices for The Heart of Sri Lanka
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Places and Experiences in this tour
Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital and international gateway, is a large, modern metropolis with roots as a medieval port. Its streets were laid out by the Dutch in the 1600s and expand...
Vaguely similar in feel and, like Sigiriya, a World Heritage Site, the temple complex at Dambulla has drawn Buddhist pilgrims since the 3rd century BC. Such astonishing longevity ...
In the very heart of Sri Lanka, a massive flat-topped, sheer-sided rock rises abruptly from the plains. It is a striking sight and a remarkable one due to the presence on its summ...
Standing alongside the shimmering expanse of a vast artificial lake, Polonnaruwa is the most compelling of Sri Lanka’s ancient capitals. From the 11th to 13th centuries, a success...
The prominence of Kandy, Sri Lanka’s highland capital and second largest city, rests on its role as repository of the famous ‘Tooth Relic’ of the Buddha, one of Asia’s most sacred...
Anuradhapura, the vast Sinhalese capital that endured for nearly a millennium from around 377 BC, remains a sacred city simply because it was Buddhism’s initial home on the island...
Blessed by one of the world’s finest natural harbours, Trincomalee (or ‘Trinco’ as it’s commonly known) was contested for centuries by European powers. Its strategic importance on...
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