If you’re travelling deep into the southern hemisphere from the UK, there are certain places that have become shorthand for a stopover. Dubai, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur…you know the sort of post-holiday conversation:
“Was it a direct flight?”
“Oh no, we had a couple of nights in Abu Dhabi – did a bit of shopping.”
These flying visits are almost shrugged off like a free gift you don’t really want. But what amazing opportunities for travel! The best BOGOF offers in the world. You mean I get to go on holiday, twice? And it’s, like, included in the price? It’s especially exciting if you go somewhere a bit off the beaten flight path.
Sri Lanka isn’t a common place to stop en-route to Australia or New Zealand but it can be done. There have long been discussions about starting a direct route from Colombo to Sydney and the possibility is still on the table; the likelihood of it actually happening ebbing and flowing with customer demand. There are currently 15 flights a week to Sydney, most of them connecting in Kuala Lumpur.
If you do find yourself on this beautiful island while in transit then my advice is treat it as an extension of your holiday than an average stopover. If time is of the essence, head straight out of Colombo. It isn’t an unpleasant city but it is, well, just a city.
An hour’s drive out of Colombo won’t get you to the ancient cities and rainforests that make Sri Lanka such an exotic destination, but there are some less well-known attractions that give a real flavour of the country.
To the north-east, check out the elephant orphanage at Pinnawala. Since it opened in the mid-1970s this herd of orphaned and injured Asian elephants has swelled to well over 100. There are some amazing stories – I met an adult female who’d trod on a landmine during the Civil War and lost a foot. She was leaning on a wooden post when I saw her, chewing lazily in the sunshine while being hosed down by her keepers. There was a baby, all eyelashes and tufty hair, who’d fallen down a well. His mother, forced to follow the herd or risk her own life, had abandoned him. He was later found by rangers.
Beach lovers – head 40 minutes south of Colombo to Bentota. The sand is silken, its beaches look out to the Indian Ocean and the sunsets are epic. Sri Lankans know hospitality – their hotels are among the best I’ve experienced anywhere in the world. Bentota has no shortage of luxurious places to stay and I can’t think of a better place to spend a couple of nights recharging your batteries.
If you really are tight on time and the city is your limit, then Colombo is great for souvenir shopping. Between Laksala and Barefoot you can scoop a haul of souvenirs in one trip. Both stores are aimed at Westerners but it’s not a rip-off. The multitude of wooden Buddhas and carved elephants are handmade and high-quality. And being a coastal city, you can still feel the sand between your toes by taking a stroll along the pristine beach at Galle Face.
If you only touchdown for a matter of hours, make that time about one thing – food. Rice and curry with pol sambol (shaved coconut with chilli) is a truly unique taste. I expected similarities with Indian cuisine but don’t be fooled by geography – they are worlds apart. Oh, and remember to eat with your fingers…you’ll rarely be offered a fork.