Outside a tent in Haputale, 112 miles east of Sri Lanka’s largest city, Colombo, I sipped a cup of sugary tea, the morning sun warming my hands and feet. Mist blanketed the surrounding tea gardens. All was quiet except for the chattering of the birds, the faint hum of a nearby stream, and an occasional murmur from nearby hikers readying their packs for the day. I was at the Eco Lodge Haputale, a family-run campsite in the Haputale mountain range of Sri Lanka. Although the campsite also has a guesthouse, the appetite for it has shifted. “Since the pandemic began, our guests prefer the outdoors,” Viraj Dias, the eldest son of the family, told me.
The Dias family who owns it is part of a noticeable boom in interest in the outdoors in Sri Lanka. When the world went crabwise—after borders closed and international arrivals to Sri Lanka dwindled—the country’s tourism industry pivoted, courting residents like myself with new adventure offerings: kayaking trips, guided bush walks, and wildlife ranger programs for kids. After spending several months working from home in Colombo, I wanted to reconnect with nature. And I wasn’t alone. Across the country, Sri Lankans trekked through primary rain forests, snorkeled with sea turtles, strolled the island’s sprawling shores, and explored its dense mangrove forests. (Good news for international travelers: As I write this, Sri Lanka’s borders are fully open, and more than half its population is fully vaccinated.)
Born and raised in the fishing hamlet of Weligama, on the island’s south coast, Thilina Dananjaya is not new to tourism; his father opened the first guesthouse here in the 1980s. But Dananjaya, owner of Layback, a boutique hotel that focuses on surfing and yoga, says his perspective has changed in the last year. “Being confined to our homes made us more conscious about our health and the luxury of spending time outdoors,” he says.
Dananjaya and his team used the slower period to add a yoga deck, a concept store for women-made handicrafts, a new restaurant, and two spacious rooftop terraces that overlook the bay of Weligama. In November 2021, Dananjaya reopened Layback for retreats that incorporate surfing, yoga, traditional batik workshops, and Sri Lankan cooking classes. “I saw the demand and desire,” he says of the decision to increase his offerings. “People are longing for a ‘local experience,’ and more people want to retreat.”
Two hundred miles north, on the northwestern coast of Sri Lanka, Shirabdi De Silva owns the women-run boutique hotel Anawasal. It opened in 2017, but over the past 18 months, De Silva says she’s noticed a growing interest in small-scale accommodations—like hers—that allow visitors to experience the country on a more intimate level.
Set in Kalpitiya, a coastal region with 14 islands that make up the peninsula, Anawasal has three thatched-roof cabanas and two villa rooms set in a large one-acre palm garden. The ecofriendly accommodations overlook a vast lagoon with dense mangrove marshes that serve as feeding and nesting grounds to both native and migratory birds. Travelers can explore the lagoon by kayak or stand-up paddleboard. From November until April, just a few miles off the coast in Kalpitiya, visitors can see large pods of spinner dolphins twirl, riding the waves and leaping out of the ocean.
De Silva also conducts personalized yoga sessions, and nearby, the Rascals Kite Resort offers kitesurfing lessons with local and foreign instructors. (Kalpitiya is one of the top kitesurfing destinations in Asia.) De Silva and Rascals have teamed up on a new project called Lay Low, a yoga and kitesurfing retreat with new ecofriendly cabanas on a secluded island in Kalpitiya. It will open in the fall of 2022.
Water-based adventures and yoga aside, bushwalks and wildlife safaris are also on the rise. In the central inlands of Sri Lanka, the locally run ecotour outfit Bush Loft has set up wildlife campsites in some of the country’s most remote corners. Their experiences include fly camping in the grasslands of Buttala, a region frequented by elephants, as well as safaris in Yala National Park, where visitors can see Sri Lankan leopards and Asian elephants in the dry plains.
Travelers can also go it alone and independently arrange four-wheel drive safaris in the national parks with a registered tour guide and driver. Recently, on an impromptu safari to Kaudulla National Park in the north of the country, I spotted a herd of Asian elephants protecting the youngest member of their group, trunks and limbs moving in tandem. Soon after, I paused to watch a dancing peacock and yellow weaverbirds flitting in and out of their intricate woven nests, which hung from branches all around me. This, I thought—is what Sri Lanka is all about.