This comprehensive trip of the 'Pearl of the Indian Ocean' covers Sri Lanka's many highlights. Discovering ancient cities, rock carvings and gilded temples, we uncover the island's rich Buddhist history and culture. Other highlights include the spectacular hill country, wildlife-filled national parks and an idyllic tropical coastline where we enjoy some down-time. Along the way, we are welcomed by generous hospitality and friendly faces at every stop.

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Why We Love It

Discover Polonnaruwa, the ancient capital of the Sinhalese and home to a number of Buddhist relics.

Chance to spend time in the cool hill stations and at tea plantations through the highlands, sampling colonial Sri Lanka.

Relax on the beautiful white sand beaches that dot the island and swim in quiet palm fringed bays.

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Day by day Itinerary

Sri Lanka in Depth

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Day 1

Negombo

Our tour begins this afternoon in the coastal town of Negombo, famous for its fishing industry and golden sands. Our hotel is just a 15 minute drive north of the airport. From its beach location, we are likely to see fishing boats bring in the day's catch. We may also be treated to a stunning sunset over the ocean.

Day 2

Negombo - Wilpattu National Park - Anuradhapura

A three-hour drive north takes us to Wilpattu National Park. En route, we will visit a nearby fishing village which uses traditional-style outrigger canoes, known as 'oruvas'. Along the way we hope to spot the toddy tappers climbing tall coconut trees to collect sap from the flowers. This is used to make Arak - a local whisky-type spirit.

Despite the park's location in Sri Lanka's dry zone, it boasts nearly 60 lakes and is renowned for leopard, elephant and sambar deer spottings. We will go on a jeep safari in the hope of spotting the elusive leopard. We choose to visit this park, rather than the more touristy Yala National Park further south because we believe it offers our customers a better experience. The same animals can be seen here as in Yala, however it is less crowded, making our visit more enjoyable and responsible. Leaving the park, we drive to nearby Anuradapura, where we will spend the next two nights. (B)

Day 3

Anuradhapura

This morning, we explore the ancient capital of Anuradhapura - a UNESCO World Heritage Site famous for its well-preserved ancient ruins. One of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world, it was founded around 500 BC. Its golden age began around 260BC, when the King and his people converted to Buddhism. The city became vast, spreading over many miles. There were hospitals for the sick, hostels for travellers and artificial reservoirs to ensure a good water supply.

Of great interest are the 2,200 year-old Sacred Bo-Tree; the Brazen Palace, once a nine storey residence for monks; the 4th century Smadhi Buddha masterpiece and the Ruvanvalisaya Dagoba - a 90 metre-high dome-shaped shrine towering over the surrounding countryside.

In the afternoon, we travel eight miles to the mountain peak of Mihintale. It is believed that this was the site of a momentous meeting between the monk Mahinda and King Devanampiyatissa, introducing Buddhism to the country. Exploring Mihintale involves climbing a flight of 1,840 shallow stone steps leading to the summit of the Missaka Mountain. There are excellent views from the top looking back to Anuradhapura. (B)

Day 4

Anuradhapura - Giritale

Travelling towards Giritale, we pause to view the magnificent Standing Buddha of Aukana, which stands 12 metres high. Sculptured in the 5th century by a master craftsman, it isstill relatively isolated in its jungle setting. Our nextstop is Dambulla, where a greatseries of caves have been turned into temples dating from the 1st century BC. This World Heritage Site still attractsscores of worshippers. Wewill visit five separate caves, which contain a large number of Buddha images and a few sculptures of Hindu Gods. After a lunch stop, we reach the small town of Giritale - our base from which to explore Polonnaruwa. Our hotel for the night looks out over a large and picturesque 7th century man-made lake. (B)

Day 5

Giritale - Sigiriya

This morning we explore the ancient city of Polonnaruwa, which reached its height of glory in the 12th century, when it was a thriving commercial and religious centre. The city still maintains many of its spectacular buildings and monuments, with arguably the most impressive being the Quadrangle. This sacred precinct originally housed the tooth relic. It contains a superbly decorated circular shrinewhich is one of the most ornate buildingsin the country. The neighbouring audience hall and bathing pool are also worth a visit. Close by, the curiousround structure of the Circular Relic House has a beautifully preserved moonstone carved at the foot of a flight of steps. Another famousfeature of this deserted city isthe group of carved images of the Buddha, known as Galvihara. These four colossal figures are all hewn out of solid granite and the Reclining Buddha alone is no lessthan 14 metreslong. In the early afternoon, we have the option to take a jeep safari in either Minneriya or Kadaula National Park (depending on the season), wherewe can search for herds of wild elephant. Your Explore Leader will be able to advise you of the likelihood of good elephantsightings at the time you are in the area. The parks are also home to a large array of birdlife, including painted storks. (B)

Day 6

Sigiriya - Kandy

An early start this morning as we plan to climb Sigiriya Rock ahead of the crowds and whilst it is cool. The ruins of this 5th century 'Sky Fortress' are one of Sri Lanka's major attractions, a stupendoussight to behold and a feat of consummate engineering skill. Built in justseven years as a fortified palace to protect the reign of merciless King Kassapa, who had assassinated hisfather and deposed his brother, it isseen as one of theworld's best preserved examples of ancient urban planning. Unfortunately for the king, despite itsimpregnable reputation, hewas defeated here by his brother after a reign of just 18 years.

A switchback series of steps and steel stairways ascend to the top. Halfway up, tucked beneath a sheltering overhang of rock, are the famousfrescoes- the Sigiriya Damsels, their coloursstill glowing. Before our final ascent to the summit, we pass between a set of enormouslion paws carved out of the rock - all thatremain of an ancient gateway that gave Sigiriya, the 'Lion Rock', its name. Once at the 200 meter summit, magnificent views can be enjoyed of the surrounding jungle and countryside.

This afternoon, a two-hour drive takes usto Kandy. En route, we stop to visit thewoodcarving centre at Naula and a spice garden. (B)

Day 7

Kandy

Sitting on a plateau 500 metres above sea level and 112km northeast of Colombo, Kandy is, in climatic and cultural terms, a world apart from Colombo. Serving asthe capital of the last Sinhalese kingdom until falling to the British in 1815, it is a place of cultural and spiritual importance. Buddhistsfrom all over the world come here specifically to visit the Temple of the Tooth, theDalada Maligawa. The costly jewelled shrine of theHoly Tooth,said to be Buddha'sleft canine, is kept in the upper floor of the original building. Thisrelic was brought from India 1,500 years ago and every year, at the time of the August full moon, it is paraded round the town with great pomp and circumstance.

This morning's sight-seeing includes attending the Temple of the Tooth Ceremony and a visit to the serene Peradeniya Botanical garden. Your afternoon isfree to continue your exploration of this delightful old highland town.

In the evening, we hope to have the opportunity to watch a performance by the famous Kandyan dancers, admiring their impressive costumes and graceful dances, accompanied by a thundering drum beat. (B)

Day 8

Kandy - Nuwara Eliya

This morning, we set off on a journey into the heart of theHill Country. This magnificentregion of Sri Lanka is an important tea growing area. Plantationsstretch over rolling hillsfor asfar asthe eye can see, interspersed with the occasional tea-making factory. We plan to visit Glenloch tea plantation to learn about the process of picking the leaves and creating the perfect cuppa, before continuing to Nuwara Eliya.

Known as 'Little England', herewewill find red telephone boxes, Victorian colonial architecture and pretty rose gardens- legaciesfrom its era as a hill country retreat for homesick Brits and Scots. The cool climate provided a sanctuary in which to immerse themselvesin familiar pastimes,such as polo, golf and cricket. We have the afternoon free to explore this colonial treasure.

Day 9

Nuwara Eliya

Today we have the option to enjoy a trek on Horton Plains. This unique and beautiful plateau of wild grassland and thick forest isfamousfor its biodiversity, with many plant and bird species exclusive to this area. On our walk, wewill take in the thundering noise of Baker Falls, before trekking on to World's End - an awe-inspiring escarpment dropping a vertical distance of 880 meters. Today's walking will take approximately six hours. Itshould be noted that, to reach Baker Falls, there is a long section of stepsto descend which can be a little tough on the knees. However, the rest of the terrain is mostly flat.

Those who would prefer not to take part in the trek can enjoy a free day in Nuwara Eliya (B)

Day 10

Nurawa Eliya - Bandarawela

This morning, we make our way to Bandarawela. We have the option to travel by train through beautiful countryside, winding through the mountains on a rail network that wasintroduced during British Colonial rule and has changed little since. Passing by impressivewaterfalls and travelling through lush tea plantation country, we are likely to see colourfully-dressed tea pickers working in groups. The train can be busy and seats are not always available,so it is also possible to travel to Bandarawela by road through similarly impressive scenery. Arriving in Bandarawela late in the afternoon, we have the opportunity to explore the quaintshops of thissmall, untouristy town, before settling down in our colonial-style hotel for the night. (B)

Day 11

Bandarawela - Udawalawe

This morning we visit Ravana Ella Falls, one of thewidest waterfalls on the island, before continuing south through the hill country until we reach the plains and the small town of Wellawaya. Travelling onwards to UdawalaweNational Park, we are likely to spot a 51 foot image of the Buddha known as Colossi of Buduruvagala, rising majestically above us along with other Mahayana statues. Udawalawe, designated a national park in 1972, coverssome 31,800 hectares and issurrounded by mountains, a mix of rolling grasslands, teak plantations, rainforest and scrub. Renowned for itslarge herd of elephants, the park is one of the best placesin Sri Lanka to see them, and is also home to deer, wild boar, buffalo, jackal and leopard. The resident bird population is also second to none, including a magnificent collection of birds of prey, chief among them the impressivewhite-bellied sea eagle. The afternoon isspent exploring the park by jeep and visiting the Elephant Transit Homewhere orphaned elephants are cared for until they are old enough to be released back in to the wild. (B)

Day 12

Udawalawa - Galle

Continuing southwardsthis morning, we descend through a huge region of rice paddies before reaching the coast. We travel through the small fishing port of Tangalle, home to a projectsupported by the Travel Foundation, wherewomen learn to make traditional Beeralu Lace. Selling the lace helpsthem to become more self-sufficient. Wewill visit and learn a little of their craft and support these ladies who lost their breadwinnersin the 2004 tsunami.

In the afternoon we'll visit the pretty coastal town of Galle passing through Koggala wherewe may be lucky enough to see the famousstilt fisherman balancing precariously above the ocean. An important trading centre since ancient times, the fortificationsthat can be seen in Galle today were built by the Portuguese and then theDutch from the 16th to the 17th centuries. The fortramparts of this World Heritage Site protect the harbour and a myriad of fascinating old houses, churches and warehouses. Today, the town has a strong arts vibe, with foreign and local artists, writers, photographers, designers and poets drawing inspiration from their surroundings. Boutique shops and cafes around the town showcase their work. There is a lot to explore in the town and simply wandering itsstreets,soaking up its unique atmosphere is a great way to spend an afternoon. If you feel that you haven'tspent enough time here on this afternoon'ssightseeing tour, you have the opportunity to come back tomorrow. (B)

Day 13

Galle - Unawatuna

Today isfree to relax on the beaches of Unawatuna, or explore more of nearby Galle.

For those seeking pure relaxation, local Ayurvedic massages with natural, aromatic herbal oils are highly recommended. Alternatively, between the months of December and April, you might prefer to go on a whalewatching trip in the hope of spotting humpback and bluewhales.

Day 14

Unawatuna - Colombo

An early start this morning to fit in a few stops on our journey back north to Colombo - a total travel time of just a couple of hours. We plan to visit a beautiful wetland reservewhere a boat trip provides us with the opportunity to spot kingfishers before spending the afternoon exploring Sri Lanka's capital city. We'll visit Wolfendhal Church, the oldest in Colombo with a name thatreminds us of a timewhen wild beasts roamed the area, and Captain's Garden Hindu Templewhich isfamousfor its constant live music and the beautiful painted images and statues on the ceiling. We'll wander round the 'fort' area, now the business district, whose buildings are like a slice through Colombo's colonial history and visit the Pettah neighborhood, famousfor its bustling open air bazaars and markets. Finally, asthe sun sets, we'll enjoy afternoon tea at the famous Galleface hotel which overlooks Galleface Green, a popular haunt with locals out for an evening stroll. (B)

Day 15

Colombo

Our tour ends this morning after breakfast. (B)

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