Sri Lanka
Northern Explorer Small Group Tour

Sri Lanka – Northern Explorer Tour – a 15 day Small Group Tour.

Sri Lanka is a one of the most culturally rich holiday destinations in the Indian Ocean, mixing Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and Christian faiths and traditions. Colonial powers, Portuguese, Dutch and British have too left their mark.

Diverse landscapes provide habitats for world class wildlife, while white sand beaches are an off-duty playground for visitors and residents alike. Island cuisine is first class, distinct flavours providing an enlivening culinary subtext to any visit. However, it’s not all good news. Sri Lanka has suffered a succession of travails, not least a long-running civil war.

Now, for the first time in decades the Jaffna Peninsula is open to travellers. Tamil and Sinhalese families are once more learning each other’s language, and it’s noticeable that many visiting Jaffna are Sri Lankans attempting to re-connect families wrenched apart by the war.

Tourism, on all levels, is a practical way of introducing much-needed funds into local economies. Even allowing for the island’s characteristic warm welcome, more than ever visitors are appreciated. This tour of Sri Lanka doesn’t insulate travellers in an all-inclusive international cocoon. The island’s sometimes difficult past validates its reality. In fact, it’s part of the reason to visit now.

On this journey, we head to a working rural coconut plantation where we get a taste for village life.  For wildlife lovers we will safari in Wilpattu National Park, intentionally to travel to one of the quieter and lesser visited parks in Sri Lanka, where we hope to spot wildlife such as Sloth Bear, Leopard and Elephants.

The next stop is the sun-baked island of Mannar – again few tourists venture here as it is one of the most isolated areas of the country where wild donkeys roam and the landscape is dotted with Baobab trees. We then head on to the Jaffna Peninsula which was until only a few years ago the scene of a fierce civil war between government forces and the LTTE (Tamil Tigers).

War damage here is still very much in evidence but we will see how the area is recovering with a Tamil guide and explore points of interest such as Jaffna Fort and the Public Library. We also visit fascinating Delft Island where wild ponies run free. Heading back south we cross the strategically important Elephant Pass and journey towards the East Coast with its excellent beaches and we will explore the main harbour city of Trincomalee.

Back in the heart of the country we visit the incredible Sigiriya Rock Fortress; from the summit the views are unparalleled. We hope to see more wildlife and especially elephants at Hurulu Eco Park with the dry season being a particularly good time to see them in numbers.

Finally we explore Colombo with a local to soak up the atmosphere of the crazy streets, sample some local Kottu Roti and wander through Pettah Market.

Tour ratings.

  • Fitness
  • Off the beaten track 
  • Culture
  • History
  • Wildlife

Tour Pace


Tour style


Relaxed Pace

Relaxed tours are easy paced with plenty of leisure time built in. The tour will in all probability still be off the beaten track, with the occasional early start and there may still be occasional long drives. In general on a relaxed pace tour you can enjoy easy-going activities and experiences with opportunities to absorb the sights and immerse yourself in the local surroundings.

Moderate Pace

Moderate pace tours are ideal if you want a tour experience that combines activities and experiences with some time to relax. Typically you will be active and busy for part of the day but then also have time to rest and recharge your batteries. In general on a moderate paced tour there may be some long journeys involved but the tour is not an expedition or a road trip. On a moderate paced tour it will be necessary to have some early starts.

Busy Pace

A busy paced tour means that you can expect to be doing, seeing or experiencing something new almost every day, and moving on from place to place to pack in as much as possible. There may be early starts, long journeys and tiring days along the way, but you’ll return home feeling you’ve really experienced as much as you possibly could.

Pioneer Class Tours

On our Pioneer tours, you will be amongst an elite group of intrepid travellers and some of the first to explore a country that few have been privileged enough to discover. Of course, exploring such areas of the world will come with its challenges; it may mean several nights camping, long journeys by 4WD and the need to maintain a degree of flexibility for when carefully laid plans change. These are challenging tours in countries and areas that may have poor infrastructure, high levels of poverty and illiteracy. This can translate in to low standards in hotels, bad roads and poor driving standards among other issues. We try and smooth out as much of these issues as we can but you should be prepared to experience the bad with the good.

Traveller Class Tours

Our Traveller itineraries are at the core of our programme. These journeys are designed for travellers who still want to discover a land away from the tourist crowds but expect minimum standards. Accommodation will be primarily hotel based, although you could still find yourself camping, or the guest of a local family. Depending on the destination and itinerary, you’ll likely be travelling in a private vehicle, with occasional use of public transport. This is adventure travel with some of the rough edges smoothed out.


(Approximate driving time: 40 minutes)

On arrival transfer to hotel accommodation. The rest of the day is free to relax. Overnight Villa Hundira or similar. 

Please note: Early check-in is subject to availability and cannot be guaranteed.

(Approximate driving time: one hour)

Early this morning we cruise among colourful fishing vessels on the Negombo lagoon, observing coastal birds. Later, after a relaxed breakfast, we drive towards Dunagaha in Gampaha District to experience a taste of village life. Our bungalow accommodation lies on a working coconut estate, set among fragrant spice gardens. The afternoon is free to relax and explore the estate. Overnight Ambarella Lodge or similar. (BD)

After breakfast it’s time to explore the nearby villages by tuk-tuk, accompanied by a local guide. English is little understood, except by the village guide, so communication can be problematic. However, a smile goes a long way and your visit does contribute to the villages’ economy. Later we visit a pineapple plantation, a family textile workshop that uses old-style wooden looms, and a small brick factory. Afterwards we call in at a local house for a cookery masterclass, hopefully followed by a delicious lunch based on the results. In the afternoon we return to the lodge. The rest of the day is free to relax. Overnight Ambarella Lodge or similar. (BLD)

(Approximate driving time: three-and-a-half-hours)

Leaving after breakfast, we journey north to Wilpattu National Park. Compared to parks in the south of the country, Wilpattu receives relatively few visitors, ensuring a less hectic safari experience an inherently reduced impact on wildlife biodiversity. In the afternoon we take a safari in a wilderness area on the outskirts of the park. Wildlife highlights may include leopard, elephant, sloth bear and rich birdlife. Overnight Big Game Park Wilpattu (non-air-conditioned tent) or similar. (BLD)

Please note: Wilpattu National Park is off-the-beaten-track and its vegetation is denser than most other Sri Lankan parks. Wildlife is very much in residence but sightings cannot be guaranteed.

(Approximate driving time: four hours)

Early this morning, when wildlife is most active, we take a further safari in Wilpattu. Afterwards we return to camp for breakfast and then drive to Anuradhapura, the first ancient kingdom of the Sri Lankan kings and now designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Though we can’t explore the whole site, we will visit the sacred Bo Tree, regarded by experts as the world’s oldest tree, guarded by monks for over 2,000 years. Lunch is taken in a landmark colonial building which has played host to many dignitaries including Queen Elizabeth II. Later we travel back to the west coast, and the fascinating, forgotten Mannar Island, occupied by the Tamil Tigers until 2009. On arrival we explore the town, the ruined 16th century Portuguese fort and its ramparts which afford good panoramic views, and the causeway connecting the island to the mainland. Overnight Palmyrah House or similar. (BLD)

This morning, after an early breakfast, we visit Mannar’s fish market. Fishing is the island’s main source of income, and a visit to the market offers insights on this important local industry. Mannar is renowned for its dried fish, said to be the best in the country. Leaving the fishermen, we visit the ancient Hindu temple of Thiruketheeswaram, dating from 600BC or possibly much earlier. Afterwards we continue to Doric Bungalow, built in 1801 as the grand residence for the first British Governor of Ceylon. Overlooking the Indian Ocean, it is considered as one of the first buildings in the country constructed to a classical plan. Empires come and go, and elsewhere we call in at the ruined Dutch fort in Arippu, in its heyday the centre of lucrative pearl fisheries. If time allows, we walk along the beach and observe enormous mounds of oyster shells left from this time. In the late afternoon we drive to the very tip of Mannar Island and the outpost of Talaimannar. Once ferries to India departed from this point but now the village has become a base for the Sri Lankan Navy and has a slightly eerie feel. From the railway station you can walk the recently restored railway line right to the sea where a lighthouse marks the island’s farthest most extent. From here it’s only 29km to a set of sandy shoals in the Indian Ocean, the only land border between India and Sri Lanka. Overnight Palmyrah House. (BLD)

(Approximate driving time: three-and-a-half-hours)

This morning we travel to the far north and the city of Jaffna, just now starting to open up after the end of the civil war and in stark contrast to the much more touristic cities of the south. On arrival we check-in and after some time to relax take lunch at a local Jaffna home. Our local Tamil guide will assist with translation allowing a great opportunity for cultural exchange and a glimpse into the lives of an ordinary family. A special kool, traditional soup, will be served first followed by pittu, made from coconut and rice flour, usually served with crab curry, fried prawns, dhal curry and other Jaffna specialities. After time to digest lunch we explore Jaffna city by bicycle, visiting the fort, the library, Subramanium Park and other notable sites. Afterwards we’ll return to our hotel to relax and perhaps take a swim. Overnight Jetwing Jaffna or similar. (BLD) 

Please note: Let us know if you’d prefer not to cycle as we can arrange a tour by tuk-tuk instead.

We start this morning with a visit to Nallur temple. A traditional shalv /Veddi will be provided to wear when you enter the temple. The temple’s history and importance will be explained, along with the rituals followed by those worshipping. During the visit we’ll learn about Jaffna’s culture, its association with south Indian culture, the effects of migration and exile, and the scars of war. Afterwards we explore other areas in and around Jaffna including Karainagar, Casuarina Beach, Kayts Jetty, Hanuman temple, and the miniature Buddhist pagodas of Kantharodai. A memorable banana leaf lunch, in true Jaffna style, will be provided at a village home, with dishes such as fried cuttlefish, Jaffna prawn curry, toasted crab, fish masala, mashed brinjal and drumstick curry.  The rest of the afternoon is free to relax at the hotel pool or explore the city independently. Overnight Jetwing Jaffna or similar. (BLD)

Off-limits for years due to the civil war, the islands off the Jaffna Peninsula make a fascinating destination. Today we head to Delft Island where wild ponies roam and the coastline is blessed with clear waters and white sand beaches. During the one-hour ferry crossing our local Tamil guide will explain some of the difficulties and challenges of living on such remote islands. Although around 6,000 inhabit Delft this windswept island feels largely deserted. Our tour includes an abandoned Dutch fort, a 1,000-year-old temple, and a huge baobab tree. We also visit the Pigeon Hole, the Dutch Tower, and the ruins of stables used in colonial times by the British and Portuguese. Lunch is taken with an island family offering the chance to glean a few more tips on preparing traditional Sri Lankan food. The experience of visiting Delft is difficult to define but this isolated outpost that gazes out towards India leaves its mark on most visitors. Later we return to Jaffna by ferry. Overnight Jetwing Jaffna or similar. (BLD)

Please note: On sunny days it can be fiercely hot on Delft Island. Please dress accordingly. Wear a hat and ensure you are protected from the sun.

(Approximate driving time: four-and-a-half-hours) 

Today we leave Jaffna and head south via the Elephant Pass, stopping at the war memorial, a sobering reminder of the recent bloody conflict. In the afternoon we explore Trinco (Trincomalee), the main city on the East coast. The city is making a slow recovery after the civil war and the earlier 2004 tsunami. We walk in the central areas of the city and head to Ruben’s place, a renowned spice merchant whose curry mix is famous in town. Continuing, we take a stroll in the market and visit Koneswaram Temple, site of the famous lovers leap with stunning views out to the ocean. If time allows, we stop at the Trincomalee British War Cemetery. The day ends by driving to the idyllic Nilaveli Beach, our base for the next two nights. Overnight Pigeon Island Beach Resort or similar. (BD)

Optional whale watching: Early this morning we set out in search of marine mammals. If lucky we may see the thrilling acrobatics of spinner dolphins and possibly encounter the largest animal on the planet, the blue whale. Sri Lanka’s east coast is renowned for whales although, as with all wildlife, sightings can never be guaranteed. As ever, the trip is subject to weather and sea conditions. Prices are available request. Please let us know at the time of booking if you are interested in this excursion.

Those preferring to spend the day on shore are free to stroll along the palm fringed beach or perhaps idle by the pool with a good book, recharging before the final leg of our tour. Overnight Pigeon Island Beach Resort or similar. (BD)

Please note: Snorkelling trips to Pigeon Island may be arranged. Please contact us if you are interested.

(Approximate driving time: five hours)

Today we leave the east coast behind and drive towards Sigiriya. En route we stop for an authentic staple, a rice and curry lunch.  Afterwards we continue to Ritigala monastery, the ruins of an ancient Buddhist monastic complex on the lush eastern slopes of Ritigala mountain, dating back to the 1st century BC. We explore this tranquil site and absorb the history-laden atmosphere before continuing to our accommodation. Overnight Kassapa Lions Rock or similar. (BLD)

(Approximate driving time: one hour)

This morning we arrive early at the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Sigiriya. The air is still cool and large numbers of visitors have yet to appear. In lower reaches of site we explore interesting features such as the Royal Gardens and the water gardens. Then it’s time to climb the immense rock fortress itself. Half-way up we visit the remarkably well-preserved frescoes, before the final staircase climb to the rock’s summit. Breath-taking views are on offer, stretching for miles in every direction. After descending we take a well-earned rest followed by lunch at a restaurant in Habarana that captures the essence of village cuisine. Lakmal, the proprietor, takes great pride in his coconut sambol, to be enjoyed with rice and bread. Afterwards we continue to Hurulu Eco Park for a jeep safari in search of wild elephants. After the safari we head back to the hotel. Overnight Kassapa Lion Rock. (BLD)

(Approximate driving time: four hours)

After breakfast we leave for Colombo. On arrival there’s time for a brief rest before we meet our local guide, Rashan, who will show us his city. At Galle Face Green we sample street food, tasting kottu rotti, an everyday Sri Lankan meal not to be missed and best enjoyed on the street. Later we explore the evening market at Pettah which attracts vendors from all over Sri Lanka. It’s a great place to try delicious seasonal fruit. Later we walk through the crazy streets of Slave Island, a great place to observe local people going about their daily lives. Afterwards we return to the hotel for a farewell dinner at the Verandah Restaurant followed by a nightcap at the Travellers Bar, just a stone’s throw from the waves breaking on the beach. A fitting way to end the adventure. Overnight Galle Face Hotel. (BD)

Please note: Extra nights may be booked on request, subject to availability.

Transfer to the airport at an appropriate time for your onward flight (B)

Dates & Price.

Tour Notes

This group tour operates subject to a minimum group size of 3 travellers.

Single Supplement from £595.

Return flights from London to Colombo start from around £450 but there are many seasonal variations. Please contact us for a quotation.

Airport transfers are included if you are booking pre and/or post tour accommodation at the hotel mentioned in our tour dossier.

Extensions to the following alternative areas of Sri Lanka are possible:

  • South coast beaches and Galle
  • The hill country including Kandy and Nuwara Eliya
  • Yala National Park

Please contact us for a quotation for extension possibilities or a private/tailormade tour in Sri Lanka.

Mapped itinerary.

Want to see details of your itinerary on a map?

Download PDF.

Download the full tour dossier for this trip here.

Sri Lanka - Northern Explorer Tour Map

For expert advice get in touch now with our passionate,
well-travelled team.

+44(0) 191 296 2674 from THE UK
1-800-614-2967 from THE US & CANADA
1-300-956-415 from AUSTRALIA

Tour inclusions.

  • Arrival and departure transfers
  • All accommodation
  • Services of English speaking guide / tour leader
  • Meals as listed (B – Breakfast, L – Lunch, D – Dinner)
  • Entrance fees for sites listed as part of the itinerary

Tour exclusions.

  • International flights
  • Travel Insurance
  • Visas
  • Drinks
  • Items of a personal nature
  • Tips (Discretionary)

We enjoyed this trip with wonderful wildlife experiences in a number of wildlife parks, island life in the Jaffna area, whale watching, the beaches of the East coast, and the contrast of the North of Sri Lanka. The hotels are varied and each offer something different Cocktails on the roof overlooking Jaffna City followed by crab curry anyone?


Yvonne Lockett, UK