Sri Lanka is a medley of the Indian subcontinent’s greatest hits. History: tick. Tea plantations: tick. Religious monuments: tick. Jungle, crocodiles and elephants: tick, tick, tick. In an area the size of Ireland, ancient sites jostle with pristine beaches and natural beauty is interrupted only by the clicking of a smartphone as filter-free photos are uploaded onto social media. So it’s a canny addition to Thomson’s increasingly extensive list of long-haul destinations — a chance to opt for something more adventurous than the Balearics without losing the security and ease that come with booking a package holiday.

I started in the middle. The city of Kandy is a three-hour drive from the international airport in the capital, Colombo, and is billed as the cultural centre of the island. A must-visit is the Temple of the Sacred Tooth, an incredibly ornate complex dating back to the 16th century and apparently housing one of Buddha’s actual teeth.

Sri Lankan package – in pictures

Fishermen on stilts

Kandy is also an ideal base for exploring the tea plantations that made Sri Lanka such a key outpost of the British Empire, and which still churn out 1,000 tons of tea each day. The Loolecondera plantation is Sri Lanka’s oldest, founded by Scotsman James Taylor in 1867, and to the casual observer not much has changed since then.

Tea pickers in the hills

The if it ain’t broke” principle seemingly applies to everything, from the drying and grading of tea right through to health and safety, with beautiful Edwardian machines sorting the leaves inches away from the barefooted women reloading the industrial-era behemoths. The entire operation takes place in a vast wooden building, untouched since the 1920s.

On the return journey to Kandy, bats with four-foot wingspans soared ominously overhead as twilight fell over the tranquil Royal Botanical Gardens. The avenues of exotic trees and world-renowned collection of orchids could have absorbed me for hours — but falling bat guano the size of tennis balls proved something of a mood-killer.

The Kande Viharaya Temple

The beach was calling and so the next morning, bucket and spade in hand, I headed to the glorious south-west coast, with Thomson on-hand to arrange hotels, transfers and expeditions. Galle is perhaps best known for its international cricket stadium but the old fort town, established by the Portuguese in the 16th century, also sports an excellent selection of restaurants and hotels.

In the heart of the old fort you will find The Fort Bazaar, a converted 17th-century townhouse that is now both a boutique hotel and an award-winning restaurant, serving a menu inspired by the multi-ethnic trading port influences of Galle’s history.

Standing on the coast outside the port I could see the sea teeming with fishermen. Fishing on stilts is the timeless Sri Lankan method of catching dinner; no sou’westers, gale-force eights or Nigel Farage whingeing about EU quotas here. Loinclothed fishermen balance on sticks in the water, trailing their lines.

A tuk tuk

It’s harder than it looks — a fisherman gestured the international sign language for do you fancy a go?” so I shinned up, clinging on for dear life with my bit of string dangling forlornly in the water. No fish were forthcoming.

Inspired to see more of Sri Lanka’s wildlife I thought I might have more luck at Udawalawe National Park, a three-hour drive inland. Soon I was bouncing through the bush in a safari vehicle, binoculars in hand, with Attenborough ringing through my subconscious.

Apart from brushes with the bun-eating zoo variety back in the UK, I’d never come across an elephant before, so watching as a mother and baby elephant walked within feet of us was rather special. The park offers plentiful opportunities to see wildlife other than elephants too, including crocodiles, buffalo, leopards and peacocks.

Getting close to nature always feels best when there’s somewhere reassuringly man-made to retreat to afterwards. Thankfully, Thomson’s impressive new hotel, the Riu Sri Lanka in Ahungalla, rises from the seashore like a modernist iceberg, offering visitors as many mods as they can con, from swim-up bars to childcare and kids’ clubs. Amusements cater for every kind of traveller: I sampled a little local culture by attending a traditional dance performance from a visiting troupe but there was also Hi-de-Hi!-style entertainment laid on for those who don’t like to feel too far from home.

That’s the beauty of booking an exotic package holiday. Yes, there are elephants and tea plantations, giant bats and stilt fishermen but at the end of the day there’s the familiarity of a rep trying to corral guests into doing karaoke and a comfortable plane-ride home. It’s the definition of the best of both worlds.


Thomson ( offers 14 nights at the Riu Sri Lanka on an all-inclusive basis from £1,352.35 per person, including flights departing from London Gatwick and transfers.Entry to the Temple of the Sacred Tooth costs £8. A tea plantation tour costs from £50 per person. An Udawalawe guided safari costs from £70 per person.