Sri Lanka is the perfect holiday destination for people who can’t stand lying on a beach all week. Sure, there is stunning coastline – and kicking back with a beachfront cocktail in Tangalle is a must – but this Indian Ocean island is also packed with activities for energetic types to enjoy.
CLIMB THE ROCK AT SIGIRIYA
There’s only one reason tourists visit Sigiriya: to see a rock. But wow, what a rock – at nearly 200 metres high, this vertical-walled giant rivals Australia’s Uluru in terms of magnificence, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for a reason.
Sigiriya boasts not only natural splendour, but an amazing history. On our way up the rock, we discovered 1600-year-old frescoes of beautiful women, still remarkably vivid, and further on, huge lion’s paws carved out of the rock, which used to form the entrance to an ancient palace located right at the top. Although there are now only ruins left at the rock’s summit, it’s still a mind-blowing experience to climb up the (sometimes slightly terrifying!) staircases and stand at the top, wondering how on earth people managed to build on such inhospitable terrain thousands of years ago.
The experience is made all the more magical if you avoid the crowds – arrive at Sigiriya at 7am, and later enjoy a well-deserved breakfast after your climb and descent, which takes around two hours in total (we stayed at Hotel Sigiriya, which was excellent and had great views of the rock).
TREK THROUGH HORTON PLAINS
Another early start is required for Horton Plains – you have to reach the national park’s main viewing platform, World’s End, before the mist descends around 9am. Horton Plains itself is an otherworldly experience: antlered creatures emerged and disappeared through the cloud as we drove up to the entrance, and once we were inside walking through the haze-covered forests and grasslands, it really did feel like a dinosaur might just pop out between the trees and ancient rock formations.
People flock here to see the stunning vistas; Horton Plains is 2,000m in the sky, and World’s End offers a breathtaking view down the valley (although even more gob-smacking was how close some tourists would stand to the edge of this sheer cliff face in order to get a good selfie).
The trek takes around three hours, and we drove to Horton Plains from our base in Nuwara Eliya, although you can stay closer by if you wish. Just make sure you reward yourself at the end with a roti from the tiny shop by the car park entrance!
LEARN TO SURF IN ARAGUM BAY
Aragum Bay is the surfers’ paradise of Sri Lanka, and admittedly, our first thought when we arrived was ‘Oh god we’re not cool enough to be here’. That feeling quickly disappeared, however, when we met our friendly surf instructor Fawas from the Safa Surf School (http://www.safaarugambay.com), who was hugely encouraging to a couple of surfing newbies (including one who screamed every time they saw a big wave – go me!)
Our group headed out to the beginner-friendly Elephant Point and, after being briefly guided through the basics of how to stand up, we hit the amazingly warm water to try and copy all the Aussie surfer babes riding the waves with phenomenal ease. Unfortunately, standing up on the water for the first time is not such a doddle, but you can still have pretty good fun trying! Lessons cost £25 per person and last two hours.
GO ON SAFARI IN UDA WALAWE
You can’t go to Sri Lanka without seeing elephants, and with over 500 of the huge animals in residence, Uda Walawe National Park is a sure-fire way to get your elephant hit.
We stayed in the nearby Nature House (http://www.booking.com/hotel/lk/nature-house.en-gb.html), a gorgeous little guest house complete with forest-side hammocks and some of the best traditional food I tried in Sri Lanka.
The hotel also runs jeep tours to the national park, allowing you to get up close to elephants (who, it turns out, are normally eating) as well as buffalo, crocodiles, mongooses and a staggering array of birdlife. Make sure you pack your camera for this trip.
WHALE-WATCH IN MIRISSA
Once you’ve seen elephants, it’s time to go one better and see the biggest animal in the world: the blue whale. These enormous creatures live just a few miles off the South coast of Sri Lanka, and there are lots of whale-watching operators in the lovely beach town of Mirissa. We decided to go for Raja and The Whales (http://www.rajaandthewhales.com) because they adhere to global whale-watching guidelines (after all, no one wants to p*** off a 140,000kg animal).
Before we left, we were warned that the waters were “choppy” but nothing quite prepared us for the rollercoaster waves – sea sickness pills are advised! Our whale sightings were incredible, however; after travelling out to sea for an hour, we were suddenly surrounded by 10 whales, and got a close-up view of their fins and spectacular tail-flicks as they dived down for food. Speaking of eating, don’t miss the No1 Dewmini Roti Shop while you’re in Mirissa – it’s an absolute bargain and I’m still dreaming of the meal we had there!