Take the coastal route to explore Sri Lanka’s natural riches.
Once considered no more than a necessary pit stop en route to the other, more scenic attractions of Sri Lanka, Colombo, the country’s commercial capital, has come into its own in recent years. Spend a day here taking in its stately colonial structures, tidy, tree-lined roads, and rugged seafront at the Galle Face promenade. The next day, board a train from the Colombo Fort railway station to Galle. Although a recently built Southern Expressway has whittled driving time down to just a couple of hours, the train route, which hugs the spectacular southwestern coastline, is the most memorable way to get initiated. Spend two days within Galle Fort, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Built by the Portuguese in the 16th century (and fortified by the Dutch in the 17th century), the fort has a living township within ancient walls. There are museums, restaurants, entertainment areas, and even a small beach. Take your time strolling down its cobblestoned roads, and soaking in the easy pace and unique European-South Asian vibe.
On the third day, drive approximately 30 minutes further south to little known Mirissa, which offers a taste of the tropics minus the tourist throng. Stay overnight and embark on a whale-watching expedition early next morning. The mild waters off the country’s southern tip host reticent blue whales as well as sperm whales, orcas, and dolphins. Like any other wildlife sighting, whale watching depends on luck (best between Nov-Apr and Jul-Sept), but the opportunity to see the world’s largest marine mammals in their natural habitat is worth a wager.
Leave the next morning for Yala National Park, an approximately three-hour drive along the southeastern coast. The country’s second largest national park, Yala has among the highest concentrations of leopards in the world. Stay here for a minimum of three nights to spot not just the big cats but also elephants, sloth bears, crocodiles, and a number of bird species. Ringed by the sea outside its periphery, Yala offers the unique opportunity of experiencing both the jungle and the beach in close proximity. On the approximately six-hour journey back to Colombo, halt at the coastal village of Kosgoda, home to the Kosgoda Sea Turtle Conservation Project and hatchery, where turtle eggs collected from the beach are allowed to hatch in a secure environment and injured or disabled turtles are rehabilitated.
Day 1 Colombo.
Day 2-3 Explore Galle Fort.
Day 4 Travel to Mirissa; spend the day on the beach or snorkelling.
Day 5 Take a whale-watching tour from Mirissa harbour.
Day 6-8 Travel to Yala National Park; go on a safari to spot leopards and elephants.
Day 9 Return to Colombo via Kosgoda.
★ Given the compact size of the island and good roads, renting a car is a convenient way to get around. You will need an international driving licence.
★ Large groups should book train tickets in advance. The luxury Rajadhani Express offers air-conditioned comfort from Colombo to Galle.
★ Some aggressive tour operators take visitors perilously close to the whales. Be responsible and opt for tours organised by the Sri Lankan Navy, the Fisheries Corporation, or established companies like Raja & the Whales.
★ Author-photographer Juliet Coombe leads informative, 90-minute walking tours of Galle Fort. You can find her at the Serendipity Arts Cafe on Leyn Baan Street.
Appeared as “Small Wonder” in the March 2015 issue.
From Himalayan heights to the plains of the Terai, Nepal in a nutshell.
Nepal’s Trisuli River runs across the breadth of the mountain country, connecting its major tourist towns. Follow its course from Kathmandu to Pokhara, stopping midway at Bandipur. It’s a treat driving through the Nepali countryside: the paddy fields are a luminous shade of green, you’ll spot giant traditional swings built by joining bent bamboo shoots by the roadside, and the snowy peaks of the Himalayas look close enough to touch. Stop frequently to take in the beautiful vistas and watch the Trisuli thundering below. Try rafting and kayaking or just splash about in the chilled waters and then dry off on the smooth boulders of the white sandy beaches.
Riverside Springs Resort, in Kurintar, near Bandipur, is highly recommended for this. This peaceful, tiny village has been restored with a European aesthetic so the main road closely resembles a European street. It’s also a convenient base for visiting Manakamana. This revered, remote temple is located high beyond a mountaintop and is reached by a gravity-defying cable-car ride. You’ll be accompanied by devotees and bleating goats—the latter on a one-way ticket.
Resume your journey towards Pokhara and you’ll be treated to colourful bursts of wildflowers and rhododendrons. The town is the starting point for major trekking routes in the higher Himalayas and, consequently, a hub for backpackers from around the world. The city is built around a big, beautiful lake circled by mountains. A long row of lively cafés line the lakefront serving fresh fish to cheerful crowds listening to live music. Sail on Phewa lake or paraglide in the skies; there are adventure sports aplenty. There are hikes, walks and rock-climbing for those who want an easier pace. You can also drive to the numerous lakes that are located 10-15 km from Pokhara. They’re great spots for lazy afternoon picnics. For the more spiritually inclined, there are yoga and meditation classes.
As you leave the mighty mountains and follow the Trisuli’s distributary south, towards the still, sticky Terai you can watch the terrain change; it’s a superb geography lesson. Narrow gorges swell into U-shaped valleys, tricky mountain passes lead to flat lowlands, and when sal forests turn to long, brown grass (called phanta), you know you’ve arrived in Chitwan National Park. It is famous for the one-horned Indian rhinoceros but you’ll love it for another reason—getting to splash around with elephants as their mahouts bathe them.
NOTE Riverside destinations are about 4-5 hours by road from each other, leaving lots of room to juggle with the itinerary.
Day 1-2 Tour the iconic sights of Kathmandu.
Day 3-5 Travel to Bandipur, make a day trip to Manakamana, and frolic by the riverside (all these are within a 10-kilometre radius).
Day 6-7 Travel to Pokhara and enjoy adventure sports or unwind in a café.
Day 8-9 Immerse yourself in the wilds of Chitwan National Park.
Day 10 Return to Kathmandu.
★ It is easy to hire a car with a driver or a taxi. The ubiquitous silver mini vans that race on Nepali roads comfortably seat 12.
★ The mountain roads wind and twist so precautionary medicine is advisable for delicate tummies.
★ Watch out for the Mugling intersection near Bandipur. From here, Kathmandu is to the east, Pokhara to the northwest, and Chitwan National Park down south.
★ The Trisuli River has lovely stretches of gentle rapids, which are ideal for amateur rafters. For exciting white water, it is best to go from March-May or October-December.
Appeared as “Mountain To Plain, A Feast Of Terrain” in the March 2015 issue.