Sri Lanka is famous for its beaches, its tea growing hill country scenery, its ruins of ancient cities and its garden city of Colombo. It also has many little known attractions that are delightful to visit. Here are four of the best.
1. Henarathgoda Botanical Gardens
You’ll hardly ever see a tourist at the Henarathgoda Botanical Gardens, yet it is not only easy to reach, being the closest Botanical Gardens to Colombo (32km), but also a wonderful representation of the flora of the tropics. While the better known gardens at Peradeniya near Kandy, and Hakgala near Nuwara Eiya, are on the typical tourist trail, the Henarathgoda Gardens are just as attractive and, because so little known, offer a more pleasant discovery of exotic plants and trees.
The Gardens opened in 1876 and now consist of 15ha of well-cared-for indigenous and imported trees including descendants of the first rubber trees to be brought to Sri Lanka (from Brazil via Kew Gardens). There is also a fine fernery and an extensive plant nursery.
The Gardens can be reached from Gampaha railway station by bus (take one headed to Minuwangoda) or three wheeler taxi. A verdant contrast to the paddy fields of the area, the Gardens are located at Asgiriya, down a signposted road to the left of the bus stop (tell the conductor where you want to be dropped so you don’t miss it). While cars and pedal bikes are allowed, the Gardens are perfect for an afternoon’s leisurely stroll. They are open from 08.00 to 18.00 daily; there is an admission fee.
2. Dawson’s Column, Kadugannawa
Looming over the A1 road to Kandy at 100km from Colombo, is a slim obelisk, rather like a lighthouse stranded inland, that stretches 38m into the sky from a bluff where the railway line runs alongside the road at Kadugannawa. It was built in 1832 and a plaque at its base records that his friends and admirers erected it as a tribute to Captain W F Dawson “whose science and skill planned and executed this road and other works of public utility.”
Captain Dawson was a member of the Royal Engineers who was instructed by Governor Barnes to design and build the original road to Kandy from Colombo. He began it in 1820 and it took 11 years to build because entire hillsides had to be navigated or penetrated. Today’s A1 highway follows much of the trace of Dawson’s road.
The caretaker of the tower is happy to let tourists climb it and will unlock the padlock that secures the heavy wooden door at its base, and lend you a torch. The wooden stairs are narrow and worn and supported by a tall central column and the tower’s wall. There are 112 steps to the top where there is a narrow ledge with a railing to stop people toppling off. Going down is tougher than climbing up as it means clinging to the central pole and hobbling down one step at a time.
3. Pilimatalawa Highway Museum
Just 5km further along towards Kandy, there is a unique collection of green-and-red painted steamrollers, ancient road building equipment and old road signs in an open air museum by the railway crossing at Pilimatalawa. Entrance is free to this museum which was opened in 1986 as a monument to public utilities. A few metres down the road from it, is the original Kandy road where a grand brick bridge, now closed to traffic, bears the date 1826.
4. Lipton’s Seat, Dambatenne
Sir Thomas Lipton was the pioneer in the marketing of Ceylon tea in Britain when he bought several tea estates in the hill country in 1890 so he could export his own brand of Ceylon tea to the shops he owned in Britain. He bought Dambatenne Estate near the hill town of Haputale (1,429m above sea level) on the A4 at 184km from Colombo, and stayed in the estate bungalow whenever he visited the then Ceylon.
His favourite pastime was to ride his horse or hike to a viewpoint about 10km from Haputale and now known as Lipton’s Seat. He used to sit there and survey his tea plantations from the 360 degree view. At the top, on a rare clear day, you can see across the hills and plains of five provinces of Sri Lanka.
There is a thatched pavilion to sit and picnic, as well as a shop selling snacks and a newly built gazebo on the summit of a hill behind the viewpoint. Lipton’s Seat is a favourite of local tourists as well as foreigners, and is literally a “cool” place to meet and talk to fellow travellers.
The best way to get there is to leave your vehicle at the entrance and hike 1.3km uphill to the look out. A sign requests an admission fee of “Rs50 per soul; Rs100 per vehicle.”