Against a backdrop of smiling people and gentle chaos, Sri Lanka boasts ancient history, as well as modern all-inclusive beach resorts. But focus on the accessible wildlife - you won't be disappointed
The street vendor shakes his head, a strange hybrid of up, down and side-to-side. Does he mean 'yes,' or 'no'? Perhaps it's a sign of mild resignation. Whatever, our gentle haggling is finished and he’s now the owner of 300 of my rupees. I’m now the proud owner of a baseball cap, decorated with a resplendent lion motif.
Of course, there are no lions in Sri Lanka, other than on the national flag - and the baseball caps. But there is plenty of other wildlife in this beautiful land. It’s waiting to meet you, and certain to provide you with a few surprises. Whether it's mongoose mating in the car park, or monkeys stealing the shower gel from the hotel trolley, it won’t always show up when and where you expect it.
Train travel in Sri Lanka - while fun - requires time and patience, maybe more than you can spare in a fortnight’s break. And the wildlife hotspots are not easily reached by public transport.
While the Sri Lankans drive with a rather gentle, restrained madness, self-drive cannot really be recommended for a stress-free holiday. Potholes, wandering animals and slow vehicles should deter you from getting behind the wheel. If your budget allows, however, hiring a car and driver will let you relax and give you real flexibility, with the additional bonus that you have a captive native - the driver - to interrogate about fascinating Sri Lankan life. He'll collect you from the airport, and take you from hotel to hotel and all points in between. After all, this beautiful country, recovering from the recently-ended civil war, deserves your full attention. Arrange your chauffeur before you leave home, perhaps through www.travelcounsellors.co.uk (ask for Manoj Boteju). Based around the destinations below, he'll create a tailor-made, animal-orientated island-tour for you.
And now for some animals...
To guarantee that you see the big beasts, there are a number of recommendations to consider. Yala National Park, in Sri Lanka’s southwest, will get you close to elephants, jackal, deer, crocodiles and an abundance of birdlife - all from the safety of a Land Rover. Fortune and persistence may be rewarded by an encounter with a leopard or sloth-bear.
Get your driver to take you to the beautifully-located Yala Village Hotel, on the edge of the park, where the animals roam the hotel grounds. Accommodation is in individual chalets, costing around 15,000 rupees for two people. After dark, you have to call for an escort to take you from your chalet to the restaurant for dinner. While there’s not much chance of you becoming dinner yourself, being trampled by a wild elephant or charged by the ubiquitous wild boar would definitely stop you reaching the delicious buffet. Post-meal, and safely back in your hut, you may be kept awake by the scratchings and screechings of beasts unknown. Keep your windows shut.
If you haven’t pre-booked a safari or two, the hotel can organise National Park trips and bird-watching walks. (You won’t stroll far without meeting a green bee-eater, painted stork or crested eagle). Although you have to pay the fixed fees for entrance to Yala National Park, you can try to team up with other hotel guests, as this will share the costs of the jeep and driver. And you can haggle – gently, please.
Evening entertainment here is restricted to a dip in the pool, a game of pool, or a naturalist’s talk. No wild life, only wildlife.
…. and some more animals
But you don’t even have to pay National Park fees to enjoy Sri Lanka's rich fauna. As you tour the island, serendipity will ensure you will encounter beautiful kingfishers, monitor lizards, water buffalo and fruit bats: you’ll see these for free. But in Central Sri Lanka, a night safari at Sigiriya, organised by Sigiriya Hotel (doubles 8500 rupees) will show you wild elephants grazing, as well as civet cats, deer, owls and wild boar. And keep watch for that elusive leopard. Back at the hotel, you can sit in the lounge bar and drink one of their award-winning cocktails, or gawp at the towering Sigiriya rock-fortress from the swimming pool. Hotel locations really don’t come much better than this.
….and then some more
For elephant close-ups the orphanage at Pinnawela is justifiably famous, but for an alternative, less-crowded site, direct your chauffeur to the lesser-known Elephant Transit Home at Udawalawe. Here, you can watch the baby elephants being fed their milk through metal funnels. (And judging by their tantrums, some feel they aren’t fed quite enough.) If staying in this area, the eco-friendly jungle retreat, Kalu's Hideaway (double room 13,000 rupees) has a Jacuzzi and pool, and is small enough to make you feel special. They also organise trips to the nearby National Park, and even to caves to meet the local bat population!
….and now for a well-deserved rest
So, after nearly two weeks armed with your camera, playing the big game hunter (but shooting only photos), it’s nearly time to go home. With a few days before your flight, why not chill out on a beautiful beach, enjoy the sun and indulge yourself at one of Sri Lanka’s West Coast resorts? All international flights arrive and leave from Colombo International Airport, so Negombo – being the resort nearest to it – would be the logical choice for some downtime.
Further south, however, Bentota has a better beach, and the Serendib Hotel Bentota (doubles 11,000 rupees) is slap-bang in the middle of it. Get yourself a relaxing ayurvedic massage, swim in the pool, or shop for tasteful handicrafts nearby. For a change from the hotel buffet, simply cross the single railway track to The Golden Grill restaurant (tel. +94 34 2275455) and indulge yourself with fresh lobster or swordfish steak.
If you have time for a day trip from Bentota, take a tuk-tuk to Lunuganga, (www.lunuganga.com) the former home of the late Geoffrey Bawa, Sri Lanka’s famous architect and style guru. Here, amidst beautiful surroundings, admire the artistic interiors, watch the estate workers tend the rice paddies and, as you enjoy an unhurried tour of the gardens, perhaps you’ll catch a last glimpse of a kingfisher or a water monitor lizard.
After all, having just spent two days on the beach, surely you'll be missing that wildlife by now?