This article was written by Hugo Slimbrouck, our Director of Strategic Partners.
It finally happened, my slice of paradise. We talked about this trip for years but for several reasons it never happened. This gem of an island, twice the size of my native Belgium has so many assets. Tropical pristine beaches and waterfalls, temples and monasteries, the thousand shades of green countryside, the friendly smiles of the people and the excellent food experiences (spicy is an option!).
Transformational experiences are what incentive travel planners are looking for. Experiences that fundamentally challenge a person’s assumptions and preconceptions, as well as their beliefs and values, affecting how they understand themselves, others, and the world. This can be in the form of a once in a lifetime event of a truly rejuvenating paradise experience. Imagine a trip that is everything you have ever wished for, places you have dreamed of and activities you always wanted to do. But more than that, Sri Lanka is also a holistic experience. With comfortable lodges, ayurvedic spas and an exquisite ambience. A paradise blessed by the sun, the perfect escape for an affordable incentive travel experience.
With an envious cultural heritage, Sri Lanka has eight UNESCO World Heritage sites, and plenty of national parks full of wildlife. The tropical island in the sun has unique wildlife experiences wherever you go. The beaches of Sri Lanka are undeniably beautiful and not crowded at all. It’s your place in paradise! And if you wish to take to the waters, blue whales and spinner dolphins are waiting out there to entertain you. Talking about mammals, Sri Lanka has 5,800 wild elephants ambling about and the biggest concentration of leopards in the world.
May you enjoy long life
“Ayubowan“ is the traditional greeting in Sinhalese meaning “May You Enjoy Long Life.” The palms clasped together, and a gentle bow of the head accompanies the greeting, Sri Lanka’s gentle gesture of welcome and respect. It is the age-old greeting of the people, and the chances are you will be welcomed this way, wherever you happen to travel throughout the island. What may strike you most about Sri Lanka is its amazing diversity of scenery. It is possible to pass the brilliant green paddy fields, sun-bronzed beaches, ruined cities, small lively villages, near-desert regions, sanctuaries for wildlife in tropical jungles, and the hill country tea plantations, within hours of each other.
For me, the discovery started in Negombo, the closest coastal town to the airport which makes this a frequented seaside town. Jet-lagged tourists stumble out of the airport and into the warm arms of Negombo’s bustling beaches. The Negombo lagoon is a prized fishing location with most of the island’s best seafood being fished from its waters. It is a welcome place to gather some rest or energy after a long flight into Colombo.
The following morning, we set off to Minneriya National Park. This is a vast grassland dotted with areas of dense plant-life. Home to a few herds of elephants and a couple of species of deer and over hundreds of species of birds. The beauty and grace of the peacock is the most impressive one and you see these giant birds all over the island. The park also has an ancient water tank built by King Mahasena during the third century AD, some great early age engineering.
During this road trip, we visited some unique private houses and lodges which our Ovation partners at Golden Isle are offering to its distinguished guests. We had the opportunity to have a short tea break and lunch in some of them. True jewels for small incentive groups indeed!
One of them was the Notary’s House, a unique luxury six-bedroom boutique hotel set amidst large gardens and a coconut grove, conveniently located just 45 minutes’ drive from the Colombo international airport. The historic house is designed with wide-open spaces and surrounded by nature. With home comforts and great service, it is the ideal place in the countryside for you to unwind and relax at, either after a long flight or to cap of a great tour of Sri Lanka.
When travelling in group, busses are not the only option. We have often included chartered train services as well to connect two cities on the island. For larger incentive groups definitely a must-do!
Overlooking the famous Sigiriya Rock the Water Garden hotel and gardens were created to harmonize with nature. A unique and luxury property offering 30 villas with all comforts to the discerning traveller. Located in the centre of the cultural triangle it is a perfect base to discover Sri Lankan heritage and its ancient culture.
Top of the rock
Rising 370 meters above sea level from Sri Lanka’s central plains is Singyria, a majestic monolith rock that was once an ancient fortress. World-renowned for its architectural ruins that include baths, palace foundations and fresco paintings, Sigiriya is a must-see destination. It is said that you can climb up and down from anywhere. My early morning climb (to avoid the heat but also the many tourists) took me up steep staircases, fitted onto steep rock faces and a pair of colossal lion paws, carved into the rock. Only to discover the great view from the palace ruins on top of the rock.
Authentic village living & cooking
After breakfast, we did an interesting excursion to Habarana. We swapped the comfortable jeep for a traditional bullock cart ride. This maximum three-hour incentive excursion is designed for participants to experience the real traditional Sri Lankan rural village style. We rode to a rural village through lush green paddy fields and crossed the lake by kayak.
Once we were at the village, we were served tea in the traditional way. The lady of the house taught us how to make curries and lunch made to authentic Sri Lankan style by using traditional cooking methods. We walked through paddy fields to see how the local farmers protect their crops from wild animals. Highly recommended as a “must-do” activity when you are in Habarana to get a feel of the real Sri Lanka living.
Sri Lanka has a long history in spice and spice trading. Ancient time Arab traders visited Sri Lanka’s shores in search of cinnamon, clove and other spices for their healing and aromatic benefits. To date, Matale as a region is famous for pepper, nutmeg, clove and other exotic spices. Interesting was to see the ‘spices’ in their original shape in a vast spice garden. I just had to spend some money to buy (lots of) spices in the shop for my home cooking laboratory.
Candy and teeth normally do not go together but in the ancient city of Kandy they do. A residual remnant of the past dating as far back as the 14th century, the Royal Palace of the Kandyan Kingdom lies tucked away near the valleys of Kandy as reminiscence of the last Kandyan King, Wickrama Rajasinghe. Very little of the structure remains today which consisted of the Royal Court (Magul Maduwa) and the Temple of the Tooth among other displays of architectural brilliance. Seeped in ancient history that’s seen the palace burned down and rebuilt several times, it has also witnessed sacred beliefs. It is the holiest of places in Sri Lanka.
Tea for two
Tea was introduced to Sri Lanka in the colonial era by the British and the daily practice of drinking tea is now a firmly established institution in Sri Lankan culture. The serving of tea among Sri Lankan friends and family is a true mark of hospitality. To get a complete understanding as to how tea is produced, we took the high road into the hills where the famous tea plantations are.
You can take a walk in the plantation with an expert during plucking time and admire the deft plucking of the standard ‘two leaves and a bud’. We took a moment to chat with a tea plucker, snap a couple of pictures to reminisce later and then continued onto the factory floor to see the withering process and subsequent steps involved in making fresh tea. As the proof is in the pudding, we continued our discovery with a great tea tasting session at the factory. With my two tea-loving ladies at home, I had to hit the shop again.
Galle Fort & the South West Coast
A vintage postcard town straight from the Dutch colonial area, Galle is a must-see. Famous for its Dutch fort that has witnessed conquest after conquest, Galle was a major trading point in British Ceylon. Its paved streets, unique buildings and the history etched deep within its ancient architecture, speaks volumes about the island’s past and is a great place to visit if you’re interested in surfing, seafood, colonial history and island life.
The sea breeze gave us a great appetite again and we stopped for that at Tamarind Hill, a beautifully restored ancient mansion, that was once the home of the Governor of Galle during the British rule in Sri Lanka. The 12 rooms offer opulent colonial-style guest rooms with secluded swimming pool and beautiful gardens. Just 10 minutes from the Galle Fort and the beaches this is a great option for those who want to be closer to the beach and not have waves at your doorstep.
Close to Galle, we paid a visit to a sea turtle hatchery and sanctuary. In this sustainable project, one learns how to protect endangered sea turtles. Why they go and pick up the freshly laid eggs from the beaches and incubate them in the sand in a protracted environment. We were able to see the many different species of turtles like leatherbacks, greenback, loggerheads and hawk bills. Now they are all protected and released back to the sea the day they are hatched. Five out of the seven known turtles visit the shores of Sri Lanka to lay eggs and the cycle continues. Their biggest enemy is the human being, dumping plastic. Many turtles die from eating plastic bags or getting strangled in nets.
When hosting a conference or event in Galle you may want to stay at Le Grand – an iconic hotel created by world-famous Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa and situated next to the UNESCO Heritage Galle fort. The property is just 1 year old and overlooks the Forts ramparts and Indian Ocean. With 50 + rooms with suites and private pools, this is the ideal stop for small groups looking to get a bit of beach and all activities in the bustling city of Galle.
Back to Colombo
With a speaking engagement for the Sri Lankan meetings industry community, I headed back to the capital city of Colombo. We wandered amidst the hustle and bustle of Sri Lanka’s commercial capital and basked in the city’s urban lifestyle. A pot of multiple ethnicities, Colombo showcases the unity among its vibrant people. Shopping allowed me to gather some local antiquities. Whilst time was short and I needed to prepare for my talk, I did not engage in the dazzling nightlife during my stay here. But you should. We only had time to discover delicacies from traditional Sri Lankan cuisine presented in true storytelling mode by celebrity host Glen.
Our Ovation partner Paddy Paul had reserved a beautiful seaside suite for me at the grand old ladies of Sri Lankan hospitality Galle Face hotel. The meditative view I had from my hotel room window over the incoming rolling ocean waves gave me a soothing feeling for the bad news I got that night from home.
Through its Strategic Partner Programme, Ovation is pleased to work with Golden Isle Travels Ltd. Owner-managed by industry veteran Paddy Paul who brings over 30 years of global travel and tourism industry experience, the team at Golden Isle has the insight and the know-how to understand your conference and incentive programme objectives. Golden Isle Travels will help you to realize your event goals with a tailor-made programme of unique experiences. It is our quest to provide you with a travel experience to treasure.
Find out more about what they can do for you from here