New trip-planning page is live!

Top left corner (clockwise): Wadi Shab, Daymaniyat Islands, Masirah Islands, Wahiba Sands

A quick administrative note: If you’re looking to plan a trip to Muscat, Oman check out the new “Things to do around Muscat” page! It’s in the tool bar at the top next to “Home” and “About.” I’m working on adding photos, but I don’t want to bog it down. Several of the items are linked to blog posts with more information.

There are several categories: forts/castles/other neat outdoors things, hiking, primarily indoor things (museums, the souk, etc), wadis, and beaches/watersports.

Please feel free to reach out if you have any questions!

Top left corner (clockwise): Jebel Al Akhdar, scuba diving at the Daymaniyat Islands, Sa’al Stairs, snorkeling at the Daymaniyats

A Trip to Rajasthan: India for Beginners

Getting stared down in the Blue City: Jodphur

We are currently on home leave, and I thought now would be a good chance to finally blog about a trip we took last year in October to Rajasthan, India. I wasn’t planning to blog about it because what can I possibly say about India that hasn’t already been said somewhere on the internet. But, after some encouragement, I thought about it and I do have some helpful info and tips to pass along.

We’d been wanting to go to India ever since we were in Dhaka. We had good friends serving in Chennai, and we purchased tickets to visit them and got our visas, and then the terrorist attack happened. If we’d gone to Chennai we would have been “caught out,” which would have meant that M and me would not have been allowed back in Dhaka, and maybe they wouldn’t have let Nate back either. We decided we wanted to leave Dhaka on our own terms, and we knew there would eventually be an opportunity to go back to India.

Cows everywhere.

Ironically, the flight options from Oman to India are far better those from Bangladesh to India. When we lived there, you could only fly direct from Dhaka to Calcutta and New Deli. From Muscat there are flights to probably 15 different cities in India. And they’re super cheap! I was amazed by how easy it was to get there from Muscat.

We decided to go to Rajasthan because I always thought Jaipur looked like the most interesting part of the Golden Triangle (Dheli, Agra and Jaipur) and some friends said Udaipur was their favorite city in India. From there, we looked at a map, read the guidebook, and decided to also go to Jodhpur, with a one-night stop in Pushkar along the way to break up the drive.

A Jain temple between Jodphur and Udaipur, after which we got a flat tire.

This was our itinerary:

Day 1: Arrive in Jaipur
Day 2: Tour Jaipur
Day 3: Drive to Pushkar
Day 4: Drive to Jodphur
Day 5: Tour Jodhpur
Day 6: Drive to Udaipur
Day 7: Tour Udaipur
Day 8: Tour Udaipur
Day 9: Depart Udaipur

So, logistics. The first thing to know about traveling to India is that, if you’re an American, you need a visa. You can easily apply for it online and I used the app PassportBooth to take photos and edit them to the correct size, and then I just emailed them to myself. One thing to note is if you do the e-visa route, you’ll get only a double-entry three-month visa. I have no idea how to get the magical 10-year multiple-entry visa. Apparently you can’t get it even if you apply at an embassy.

We hired a car and driver for the duration of our trip through Tamarind Global. It was excellent. We had a large Toyota station-wagon that our driver kept clean and stocked with cold bottles of water. We also had a different tour guide in each city that we went to. This was the first time that Nate and I traveled with a tour guide and, I have to tell you, it was awesome. We learned and saw far more than we would have on our own, and I think people were less likely to pester us because we almost always had a tour guide with us when we were walking around town. The cost of the car, driver, and tour guides came out to around $80 a day, which was definitely worth it for us, especially with a toddler.

More of The Blue City. It was obviously a favorite of mine.

I found hotels using The Lonely Planet guidebook and online reviews. We stayed in havelis, also called heritage hotels, which are basically old houses that have been transformed into hotels. Each haveli is different, and we really enjoyed the experience.

I bought a lot of textiles. Did I get ripped off? Probably. Was it worth it? YES.

I will say this: when packing your bags, ensure you have a lot of space for souvenirs. In our case, this was textiles. We went a little overboard. Shirts, pillow covers, fabric (namely cotton, silk, silk brocade, and linen), pashmina blankets, table clothes, table runners, paper products, etc. There are so many interesting and pretty things to buy there. God help us if we ever get posted to India. I’m going to buy so much furniture and everything else.

Antiques (both fake and real) as far as the eye could see.

I’ll do a more detailed post about each of the cities that we went to, but I will say this about the trip over-all: it was awesome and went extremely well.

We were prepared for all sorts of misery. Food poisoning, pick-pockets, terrible traffic, getting ripped off, an overwhelming and constant barrage of stinky smells, air pollution, and so forth and so on. Basically every bad stereotype that you think of when you think of India. Other than a few days of bad air and maybe an hour of unpleasant traffic, our fears were completely unfounded. Well, maybe I did get ripped off on a few things, but I never paid more than I thought was reasonable.

First stop: Jaipur!

Logistics for a trip to Musandam

Along the road to Khasab

We recently got back from a trip to Khasab in the Musandam peninsula. Musandam is separated from the rest of Oman by the UAE and is located right across the Straight of Hormuz from Iran. We found that there are lots of things to consider when planning a trip to Musandam, and here I’m going to lay out all the options!

Note that this information is only for Khasab; there are other destinations in Musandam like Lima and Dibba. We didn’t travel to those places so they’re not mentioned below.

Khasab coastline near Bassa Beach

How to get to Musandam:

  • Driving: We chose to drive because we have a 4WD vehicle and we wanted to explore the mountains and other areas.  Plus we wanted to avoid the added expenses of buying plane tickets for three people and a rental car. Assuming there’s no traffic, the actual driving takes about five and a half hours. The expressway basically goes all the way to Hatta, but make sure you leave Muscat with a full tank of gas. Once you pass the Barka/Rustaq exit there are no more gas stations close to the expressway until you’re practically at the border. The borders can add an extra hour or two, possibly more. We crossed at Hatta and at Sha’am (past Ras Al-Khaimah) and the Sha’am border was, by far, the worse of the two. Hatta was a well-oiled machine and Sha’am was a mess. Friends advised us to “bring a can of bacon bits and let M run amok” on the UAE side in Sha’am.  Luckily it didn’t quite come to that, but I did tell him that if he wanted to start screaming that would be okay.

The practically-empty eight-lane expressway will take you all the way from Muscat to the border

Depending on the route you take, you might see the interesting industrial side of the UAE

  • Flying: The main disadvantage to flying is lack of transportation in Khasab. There are no official rental car companies, like Enterprise, Budget or National in Khasab. However, you might find that you don’t actually even need a car. If you book your activities (diving, mountain “safari,” dhow trip, etc) through a tour operator, they will pick you up at your hotel. While we were there we ran into a German tourist who had planned to fly to Khasab, but wound up taking a bus because Oman Air grounded all the planes that fly the Muscat-Khasab route, all of which are the seemingly ill-fated Boeing 737 MAX 8’s.
  • Ferry: There is a ferry that goes from Shinas to Khasab and back. Shinas is about 2.5-3 hours by car from Muscat and the ferry appears to take 3-5 hours (the times on the website vary so wildly it’s hard to know what’s accurate). You don’t really gain any time by taking the ferry, but you do avoid all the border shenanigans. The main problem with the ferry is that it only runs each route twice a week in the afternoon. Currently the ferry to Khasab only leaves from Shinas on Sundays and Thursdays, and the ferry to Shinas from Khasab only leaves on Tuesdays and Saturdays (current schedule with times here).  The National Ferries Company boats are really nice, and it’s not an uncomfortable way to spend the afternoon, assuming your schedule fits with theirs.

The Khasab harbor

Whether or not to camp in Musandam: All the good camping in Musandam is in the mountains. You could camp at Khor An Najd, but there is no privacy, the beach isn’t nice, and there are no discreet toilet facilities (other than the lagoon). Beach camping could be possible, but you’d be right by the main road. We chose to stay at a guest house which suited our needs just fine. In hindsight, we are particularly glad we didn’t camp because it would have been cold, wet, windy and miserable. And we would have gotten stuck up on the mountain after all the rain that washed out the roads.

How to budget your time: Seeing the fjords and the mountains are the two main must-do’s in Musandam. If you arrive in the morning on Day 1 and leave at night on Day 2, you could fully experience these two things. We spent one day scuba diving, another on a dhow trip, and our last day we went to the Khasab castle and tried to explore the mountains. If you’re flying and you want to go scuba diving, note that you’ll have to stay at least 2 nights because you have to wait 24 hours before you can fly after the last dive. There are both half day and full day dhow trips available, and I’d recommend a full day because you’ll get to see more of the fjords and there will be more time for snorkeling, swimming, etc (assuming the weather isn’t terrible).

Along the mountain road outside Khasab

The fjords of Musandam

Eating in Khasab:There’s a Lulu Hypermarket which is the perfect place to stock up for picnics and lunches on the road. We bought deli meat, peanut butter, and Nutella to supplement our guesthouse breakfasts. Most of the tour operators and guesthouses will take you to a fresh fish store where you pick out your fish and then they’ll drive you to a restaurant that will grill your fish. Novelty aside, this was not the best grilled fish we had in Khasab. Our favorite restaurant was a little Iranian place called Restaurant Wadi Qada. It was expensive (for Khasab, but standard for Muscat) but the owner tells you what’s fresh, the pomegranate juice is amazing, the food is top-notch, and the tea is great. I even liked the halwa, and I don’t usually like halwa. Al Shamaliah Grill Restaurant is another popular restaurant, with a good variety of grilled and Indian dishes. The kid’s meal is chicken nuggets, fries, and a hamburger bun. We combined that with a lemon mint drink, and M was in seventh heaven. Notably, Al Shamaliah will deliver, so if you don’t have a car you can just give them a call! There are a number of other restaurants in Khasab; these are just the ones we went to.

Call the phone numbers at the bottom of the menu for delivery!

Iranian tea at Restaurant Wadi Qada

Iranian halwa is less greasy than Omani halwa

Grilled fish at Wadi Qada

Delightfully empty aisles at the Khasab Lulu

A trip to Musandam might be a lot easier than you’d expect, and it’s definitely a part of Oman that is worth visiting. Hopefully you’ll have better weather than we did!

The Musandam coastline along the road

Camping in Dhofar (and Oman beach camping notes)

Our campsite at a random beach in Northern Dhofar before we cleaned up all the trash

For our second night of camping on our Salalah road trip, I had pre-selected a spot that another blog said was nice, but we would have arrived later than we would have liked to have time to set up camp and make dinner. Instead we drove to a beach that looked promising and not too windy, let the air out of the tires to 15 PSI, and kept driving until we found a good spot.

Once again, Nate got started on the fire while I set up the tents and M buried his plastic dinosaurs in the sand. One of those dinos is still buried, and luckily M is too young to care or realize that it’s gone forever.

The tide when out and a patch of pink shells appeared

The temperature on the beach was perfect, and I actually had to wear long sleeves and sleep inside my sleeping bag. There’s nothing like eating a yummy campfire meal and watching the sunset over the ocean, and then falling asleep with a gentle breeze to the sound of waves on the shore.

It was cold enough that I actually had to sleep inside my sleeping bag!

We’re not beach camping experts by any stretch of the imagination, but we have some wisdom to pass on to others planning to go beach camping in Oman. Here are some of our tips:

  • Bring a table. We also bring plastic bins, one for cooking gear, one for other stuff, and they also function as tables. There are no picnic tables here.
  • Buy firewood ahead of time. You can buy it reliably at the Sultan Center in Muscat (one bundle costs 2.500 OMR), and apparently at the OmanOil on the freeway by Quriyat. Do not plan on being able to find firewood or kindling at your campsite.

Beach sunset and the campfire

  • Bring an axe or hatchet to split your firewood. In the absence of an axe/hatchet, bring some fire starter.
  • Bring garbage bags. We always try to leave the campsite cleaner than when we arrived, and unfortunately in Oman you’ll find a lot of plastic garbage on almost every beach.
  • Bring a tarp or mat to put on the ground. You’ll want someplace where you can set things and they won’t get covered in sand. You can buy one of those large plastic mats at Lulu for less than 2 OMR.
  • Be prepared for late-night parties. The As Sifah beach is notorious for this. People will go to bed around 10 pm and then around 2 am the partiers will show up, playing music and making lots of noise until the sun comes up. We prefer to camp in difficult-to-access or off-the-beaten path areas for this reason.

Essential beach camping gear: beach tent + sleeping tent, plastic mat, plastic bins, cooler and water bladders

  • Embrace the sand. You’ll never get rid of all of it. It’s impossible. We keep a towel inside the tent by the door so we can wipe off our feet, but when we get home everything is still covered in sand.
  • Bring a beach tent. If it gets hot, you’ll be grateful for the shade, and if it’s windy, this is where you can prepare and eat sand-free meals.
  • Close your tent zipper fully, with both the zippers pulled up as high as they will go together (rather than pulling the two zippers together along the bottom of the tent). You don’t want scorpions in your tent!

Pork sausage and potatoes for breakfast

  • Don’t plan on finding ice anywhere after you leave Muscat. We bring a cooler with ice packs and we freeze what we can to help keep everything else cold. There is ice at the convenience store/gas station next to the freeway right by the Bimmah Sink Hole exit, and that is the only place I have ever seen ice.

Do you have any other beach camping tips? Let me know!

Al Khaluf: The Sugar Dunes

The white Sugar Dunes of Al Khaluf

The white sand dunes of Al Khaluf, also called Ras Bin Tawt or, more aptly, the Sugar Dunes, is one of my new favorite spots in Oman. It is amazingly beautiful.

The Sugar Dunes and the coast on a cloudy overcast morning

We left Muscat around 10:15 am and arrived in Al Khaluf 3:45. The majority of the drive is painfully boring, and it took a lot longer than we thought it would. But once you turn off the main road for Al Khaluf, the scenery changes into rocky dunes and the drive is beautiful.

The rocky sandy dunes of Al Khaluf

After leaving the paved road, we let the air out of the tires down to 15 PSI. We used the route in Oman Off Road to reach the dunes, and even with the GPS coordinates, it would have been impossible without the maps.me app. Luckily I’d downloaded it months ago and when we were getting lost with Waze and Google Maps, maps.me came through for us.

First you’ll drive along the Al Khaluf beach, and then you’ll have to drive inland a little ways. Eventually you’ll hit the coast again, at which point you’ve reached the Sugar Dunes. We drove along the dunes until we reached a spot that looked nice, where we pulled over and started setting up camp. We tried to angle the car a little for wind protection, and we set up the tent as close to the vehicle as we could.

We tried to use the car as a wind breaker along the beach

Nate got started on the fire while I set up the beach tent and the sleeping tent. The beach tent came in particularly handy here as a wind shelter. We could eat meals and prepare food without getting sand blown into everything.

That night I slept like crap. We had to put the fly on the tent because we didn’t want the fine-grain sand getting into everything, which turned the inside of the tent into an un-ventilated oven. Plus, it was so windy, the tent was making tons of noise, and I felt like I kept hearing someone outside our tent. We woke up the next morning and there were little fox prints all over our campsite. Thank goodness we put all our trash and food back in the car overnight!

The sky shortly after sunrise. Luckily that storm never blew our way!

After packing up our campsite we explored the dunes a bit more and then headed out. Oman Off Road said there was a neat fish farm to check out at the end of the peninsula, but it looks like it’s now defunct. And if you get out of the car there you’ll be attacked by a pack of dogs. The dogs came running at our car and kept up with us at 25 mph for several minutes, barking their heads off. So, don’t get out of the car!

We are definitely planning to back to the Sugar Dunes. Camping between the dunes and the ocean is an amazing experience, and the white dunes are just gorgeous. I kept running up the dunes to get more pictures as the light just got better and better. (Although now that I’m looking at the photos, I realize I still have some editing to do with the colors.) I’ve heard that the winter is less windy, and that seems like the perfect time for a return trip!

Sunset over the Sugar Dunes

An overnight at Ras Al Jinz

A mama turtle heading back to the sea, with a baby turtle following behind

About a month ago we visited Ras Al Jinz, a turtle nesting and research area on the eastern-most tip of Oman. Ras Al Jinz is a protected nature reserve, and it’s one of the few places in the world where green turtles nest year-round. Peak nesting season is June to August, and peak hatching season is September to November.

We departed Muscat at 10 am, and by noon we’d reached the white sandy beaches of Fins. After a nice lunch and swim, we got back on the road around 2:30. We arrived at the Ras Al Jinz turtle reserve and research center around 4:30; after we checked in, we made our way up to our tent. If you do the drive straight through, without stopping, the  trip from Muscat to Ras Al Jinz takes about 3.5 hours.

Camels along the road en route to Ras Al Jinz

There are two lodging options: eco-tents and a hotel. I can’t speak for the hotel, but the tents are pretty great.  There are tents for 2 or 4 people, and whichever tent size you pick, they are surprisingly large. We got a tent for 2 people, and there was plenty of space for M’s travel cot, plus a table, chairs, an A/C unit, television, and a minifridge.

Our tent

One strange thing about the tents: there is a long paved walkway leading up to the tents (it’s a bit of a hike), and there are signs saying you’re not allowed to drive on the walkway. But then there’s a large parking area up by the tents. We off-roaded a bit to drive up the tents, keeping to the unfinished area next to the walkway. I don’t know if a low-clearance vehicle could do it, but we had no problem in our Jeep.

A view of the tents from a nearby hill. Note the lovely parking area!

There was some down-time between getting settled into the tents and dinner, but there was space for the kids to run around and play. After spending several hours in the car, M was happy to finally be free, and Nate and I were happy with the bottle of wine and snacks that we’d brought with us.

Dinner at the resort starts at 7:00, and the price is apparently negotiable. It was a decent spread, with Indian and continental options. Nothing particularly special, but not bad either.

When you’re staying at Ras Al Jinz, you have two opportunities to see turtles: once at night, around 9 pm, and again in the early morning, around 5 am. I’ll tell you now that I enjoyed the morning viewing a lot more;  it’s also the best one for taking pictures and kids will find it more interesting too. At night you basically just get to see the turtles laying eggs, and there are mobs of people because the tour is open to people who aren’t staying at the resort, whereas the morning tour is only for those staying at the resort.  In the morning you can see the turtles in nests laying eggs, and also making their way back to the sea.

The resort and buildings are set quite a ways back from the beach, and for either viewing, plan on walking at least half a mile out to the beach on a dirt road or in the sand, tromping around in deep sand once you get to the beach, and then walking half a mile back. It’s not strenuous or anything, but it might be difficult for anyone with mobility issues.

A mama turtle digging a pit in which to lay eggs

Around 8:45 pm we elbowed our way through crowds of people and made our way down to the beach with a tour guide. The guides would message each other with the turtle locations so that we could (ideally) quietly and slowly, in a single file line, walk along the beach and see the turtles laying eggs and flapping in their sandy pits. With that many people, you can’t keep everyone quiet and following directions. If I were one of those turtles, I would have been pretty annoyed. But it was a neat experience, and definitely something I’d never seen before!

Another mama turtle heading back to sea after laying eggs

The next morning we woke up at 4:15 am to make it down to the main building by 4:55 to head back out to the beach. Poor M did not want to wake up, and eventually I told him we were going to see turtles. He leapt up and practically jumped out of bed, wide awake and ready for action!

The sun was rising as we walked back down to the beach, and we spent about 90 minutes at the beach, watching the mama turtles make their way back to the ocean. Our guide also had two baby turtles in his dishdasha pocket, which he set free on the beach. Those little guys frantically made their way to the ocean as quickly as possible, and it was one of the cutest things I’ve ever seen.

Another mama slowly making her way out of her sand pit towards the sea at 5 am

All the turtle tracks leading down to the beach

Our guides on the beach with another mama turtle emerging from her nest

After watching the turtles in the morning, we headed back to the main building for breakfast. It was a good spread, but the definite highlight was the espresso machine. I need a solid 8 hours of sleep to function, and 5 hours just won’t do it for me. Coffee with added espresso shots to the rescue!

The view down towards the beach from the main building. It’s maybe a half mile walk each way.

We trekked back to the tent, packed up, and hit the road by 8:30 am. On the drive back we stopped at Ras Al Hadd, the ancient city of Qalhat, and Wadi Tiwi. Other options could be stopping at Sur, Wadi Shab or Bimmah Sinkhole, or even checking out more of the beaches around Fins. There’s so much to do in that area!

If you wanted to make a whole weekend out of it, you could go to Bimmah and then camp at Fins one night, go to Wadi Shab and Sur on your way to Ras Al Jinz the next day, overnight at Ras Al Jinz, and then do Wadi Tiwi on your way home.

I’d highly recommend Ras Al Jinz, especially to those with children. In fact, we’re planning to go back again later in the year!

Sri Lanka: Udawalawe

Elephants at Udawalawe National Park

 

Our next stop was Udawalawe, where we had only one goal: to see some elephants!

The drive to Udawalawe from Amba was less than 2.5 hours, and within 10 minutes of checking into our hotel we saw a wild peacock, a 6-foot long snake and a hornbill. We were off to a good start!

We stayed at Eliyanth Udawalawe, which was the most expensive of all the hotels during our trip. It wasn’t particularly child-friendly, with lots of ledges with minimal barriers and other safety hazards. We generally let M run around and explore, but here we had to watch him like a hawk, and he wasn’t even allowed out on our balcony. The food also was overpriced and not particularly great.

The very pretty-but-not-kid-friendly balcony off our 2nd story hotel room

But, and this is a big “but,” the 3-hour safari that we booked with the hotel was incredible.

We had an entire vehicle just to ourselves, and the driver knew exactly where to go to see lots of elephants and other animals. We picked up a local volunteer animal-spotter at the visitor’s entrance to the park, and he was particularly good at finding animals we might not have seen otherwise.

No trombone playing either

All the safari vehicles at Udawalawe are open-air 6-seaters, basically exactly like this.

We saw loads of interesting birds, several herds of elephants, crocodiles, wild water buffalo, deer, jackals, and even a leopard!

Peacocks

Parrots, just like the ones we see flying all over Oman

This big guy was hanging out along the side of the road by himself

Crocodiles

Wild water buffalo and pelicans

Jackals

We were initially wary of how M would handle being strapped into a jeep for 3+ hours with no entertainment, but he was a champ. We put his carseat in the vehicle and he napped for about 45 minutes, and dutifully helped search for animals the rest of the time.

M happily watching the elephants from his car seat

In Udawalawe we also visited the Elephant Transit Home, or ETH. Unlike other elephant sanctuaries in Sri Lanka (which are not actually sanctuaries and chain up the elephants for profit), the ETH houses and cares for orphaned elephants and then works with the government to release them back into the wild once they are old enough to join a herd. In fact, when you go to the ETH you’ll see herds of fully grown elephants which previously lived at the ETH hanging around past the fence looking for food. The ETH is situated in the national park, and you can attend elephant feedings at 9 am, 12 noon, 3 pm and 6 pm. We went to the 6 pm feeding, figuring it would be less crowded because there wouldn’t be any large buses of tourists. I don’t know how many people are usually there, but this strategy paid off and there were only about 30 other tourists there.

A baby elephant gets his dinner at the Elephant Transit Home

Juvenile elephants having a snack

We really enjoyed visiting Udawalawe, but I think one night here is really all you need. Arrive in the afternoon, go to the ETH, and then wake up early the next morning for a game drive. In three hours we saw just about all the animals we were probably going to see without getting bored and being tired of taking pictures.

More elephants!

Our driver picked us up after we ate breakfast following the safari. Next stop: Colombo!

Sri Lanka: around Ella

View of the valley around Ella from a hike to a near-by waterfall

We woke up bright and early and hit the road for Ella at 8:30 am. It was a long day in the car.

If you look at the Google Maps route from Sigiriya to Ella, it says it should take about 4.5 hours. It’s practically a straight shot east and then south. We suggested this route to our driver and he said the roads weren’t good, and that we should go through Kandy and Nuwara Elia, which would take 6-7 hours. Yuck.

But, we decided we should probably go with what he says, given that he is the paid professional driver and it is literally his job to know the best routes. We were wrong. Turns out those roads are in great shape, he just wasn’t familiar with them. Apparently this is a common problem among drivers because the roads are in a part of the country that the opposition formerly occupied. So most drivers simply don’t even know that the roads are there.

Anyhow, we stuck with the driver’s planned route since, at the time, we didn’t know any better. Plus, we  figured we could break it up with a few stops along the way.

Our first stop was Kandy, where we went to the Temple of the Tooth. One of Buddha’s teeth is in a shrine (which you can’t see) in the temple, so it’s a pretty big deal. I thought it was meh and I was glad we didn’t opt to spend more time in Kandy.

Inside the Temple of the Tooth complex. There are several other temples and some museums also.

The bottom level of the 3-story Temple of the Tooth. Buddha’s tooth is on the second floor.

After visiting the temple we went to a hole-in-the-wall for lunch and I was certain we were going to get food poisoning. Luckily we didn’t.

Then we got back in the car to start the drive to Nuwara Elia. After we got out of Kandy and started driving up through the tea plantations, it was a stunning drive. The scenery was beautiful, with waterfalls and green tea fields stretching as far as the eye could see.

Sri Lanka hill country views during the drive to Nuwara Elia

We reached Nuwara Elia, and the driver asked if we wanted to get out. It was about 60 degrees outside, and Nate and Marlowe were in shorts, I was in capris, and we all had t-shirts on, so we said no. At this point we really just wanted to reach our final destination.

We booked a room inside a cottage at Amba Estate, a tea plantation and organic farm that offers farmstays in the mountains outside of Ella. The drive to Amba took us through some rural areas, up and down a mountain and through a valley. We finally reached Amba around 5:30 pm, and we were pleasantly surprised by our room, which had one of the best mountain views I’ve ever seen. The room was spacious and tastefully decorated with a fantastic veranda and even the bathroom had a nice view.

Amba Estate, our favorite part of our trip to Sri Lanka!

Our room on the bottom floor of the Clove Tree Cottage at Amba

The view from our cottage balcony

Once M got out of his carseat the poor kid wouldn’t sit still for the rest of the evening. We tried to take a family photo and, in it, Nate and I are smiling happily while M is in the background running in the other direction.

This path down into the valley through the tea bushes was right outside our room

We loved staying at Amba. The food was vegetarian and absolutely phenomenal, and you can do tea tours and tastings. Also, and this is very rare for Sri Lanka, Amba serves amazing coffee. They grow their own beans on the farm, in addition to tea and all the fruits and vegetables used in the food that they serve.

Amazing curries, plus pasta with butter and cheese for the kids. M was thrilled! Meals are served family style with the other folks staying at Amba.

Coffee beans growing on the farm

They provide laminated cards with directions for a bunch of hikes originating from the estate, and we spent most of our time there out hiking around the valley.

Our first morning we hiked to the top of Rawana Waterfall, and then down a little further to the second level, where Nate went for a swim. I did not because I was too scared of falling over the side of the waterfall.

Green tea, black tea, white tea, and a lemongrass infusion, all grown on the farm

After that we did the tea tour and tasting and ate some lunch, and then around 2:15 we headed out for Ella Rock. The directions said it was a 2.5-3 hour hike; we took 4.5 hours. It was not an easy hikes, especially with a 35 pound pack and baby on your back. The bulk of the ascent was in the first 2/3 of the hike to Ella Rock, which was mostly climbing up overgrown jungle paths. After that there’s a nice stretch going gently up through a eucalyptus forest.

Hiking through the eucalyptus forest. I have no photos of the other part because I was too busy trying to keep breathing and not fall on my ass.

As you approach the top, right after the path forks (go right at the fork), there’s another small fork off to the right that leads down to a beautiful cave shrine with lovely views of the mountains and valley. From here it’s maybe 15 min more to Ella Rock.

A hidden cave shrine along the hike to Ella Rock. The views from this spot were incredible!

View of the valley from Ella Rock

Ella town is on the far side of the valley

The hike down is almost harder than the hike up because it’s so steep and the path is covered in loose rocks. But we made it back by dusk, even with M demanding to be out of his pack and hiking uphill the last kilometer by himself.

With the two hikes combined, we hiked over 10 miles and climbed the equivalent of over 100 stories. It was quite the day!

The next morning we set off to explore a nearby cave and some old ruined tea processing houses, and then we relaxed in a natural pool in the river. After lunch our driver came and picked us up for our next adventure. At that point we were all ready to sit in the car for a few hours and do nothing! My legs were grateful for the rest.

I’d highly recommend including Ella on your Sri Lanka itinerary. There are so many beautiful places to explore and the temperatures are a little cooler than other parts of the country!

Sri Lanka: Sigiriya

Lion Rock

We left Trinco at 9:30, and the drive to Sigiriya, or Lion Rock, was only about 2 hours. We checked into our hotel, changed our clothes, and headed straight for Lion Rock.

After you get your ticket, there’s a museum you can explore. We didn’t spend much time there because it wasn’t air-conditioned. The grounds are full of more ruins and interesting places to explore, and there are some vendors selling wooden trinkets and other souvenirs.

The ruins and archeological sites around Lion Rock

The guidebook suggested climbing Sigiriya first thing in the morning to avoid the worst of the heat, or later in the afternoon to avoid the worst of the tourist hordes. The thing is, the climate at Sigiriya was downright comfortable compared with Oman, so we ignored the advice. We arrived around 12:15 and started the climb up around 1 pm. The climb took about an hour, with frequent water stops. It’s about 50 stories up, and it’s basically a continuous climb up lots of stairs.

The one time I was able to actually look at and take a picture of the view during the climb up without my fear of heights getting the better of me

There’s lots to see on the climb up, including cave paintings, a thousand-year old wall of graffiti, huge lion paws carved into the rock (which is why it’s called Lion Rock), and beautiful views, if your fear of heights doesn’t get the best of you on the climb. Mine did, and I reached a point where I just kept my head down and kept going up, rather than enjoying the scenery.

The paws are the only part left of the lion for which Lion Rock is named

Once you reach the top, there’s a bunch of ruins and more even better views. It’s definitely worth the climb!

Ruins on the top of Sigiriya

Stunning views from the top

After Sigiriya we went to Dambulla to see the cave temples. It’s another 25 or so flights of stairs up to see the caves. The cave temples are incredible, and there’s so much to look at. Each cave has a huge resting Buddha in it, and most of them have a bunch of other statues and paintings also, mostly of more Buddhas.

Dambulla cave temples built into the side of the mountain

Lines of Buddhas inside the cave temples

Buddhas everywhere!

A note about clothing: since Sigiriya is archaeological ruins, shorts and tank tops are fine. For Dambulla, you should cover your shoulders and your knees. If you aren’t appropriately dressed for Dambulla, they have sarongs and wraps that you can rent.

We stayed at The Nature Park Villa, which was lovely and very inexpensive. M had a lot of fun running around the hotel grounds, and we all slept very soundly. The breakfast they provided the next morning was delicious and more than enough food!

The sunset through the jungle at our hotel

I would say that climbing Sigiriya is a definite must-do on any trip to Sri Lanka. You really only need to spend one night here, and if the temperatures are too high, go visit the cave temples (only about 20 minutes away) first and then go to Sigirya later in the day. Just make sure you bring plenty of water: you’ll get thirsty on the climb up!

Sri Lanka: Trincomalee

Trincomalee shoreline

Our next stop after Anuradhapura was Trincomalee. We chose to go to Trinco because we wanted to go diving, and supposedly in June the diving is better along the Eastern side of the island. Plus there’s some interesting stuff to do, and we never say “no” to spending time on the beach!

The drive from Anuradhapura to Trincomalee is about two and a half hours. If you explore the Sri Maha Bodi and the Ruvanvelisaya Dagoba before leaving Anuradhapura, you’ll be able to leave by 11 am, arriving by 1:30 or so. There’s a hot spring you can stop at on the drive over, just outside of Trinco, and it’s an interesting opportunity to stretch your legs.

Very different from the hot spring we have near Muscat, but interesting none-the-less

There were metal pails you could fill up with water. Some people dumped water all over themselves (we did not)

We spent two nights in Trinco. The first day, after we arrived, we tracked down some lunch and checked out the beach, and we visited the Kandasamy Kovil, a Hindu temple on a cliff overlooking the ocean.

The temple is scenic and beautiful, and the views of the ocean are stunning. The history of the area is also quite interesting, as are the tame spotted deer all over the peninsula. The cliff across from the temple is supposedly the best place in the world for whale-spotting, but we didn’t see any. If you are serious about seeing some whales, there are whale watching tours you can go on, or you could bring your binoculars and hope for the best. With a 2-year old in tow we didn’t really feel like doing either.

The temple facade

Vishnu was getting a facelift

Swami Rock, whale-watching central

The peninsula is loaded with tame spotted deer

The next morning, we woke up bright and early to go scuba diving. We used Taprobane Divers, and they were great. All our tanks had over 200 bar, the BCDs much nicer than I’m used to, and our dive guide, Rohan, was very cautious and safety-minded. The dive shop is located in Nilaveli, which is about 30 minutes from Trinco. We dove at Swami Rock, which is right below Kandasamy Kovil, and at Navy Island (not actually an island) which was right off the coast near our hotel. Neither spot was that great, frankly, but all the Hindu statues at the bottom of Swami Rock were pretty interesting. The visibility was so-so and we didn’t see anything particularly exciting, but it’s always cool to dive someplace new.

We spent the rest of the day playing on the beach (Nate and M) and napping (me). The beach is lovely, and the humans, stray dogs, and cows all seem to enjoy it.

Cows along the Trinco beach

We stayed at Dutch Bay Ocean Cottages, and it was… basic. It felt like a throw-back to our Peace Corps days. Granted it had air conditioning and a private bathroom, and luckily we didn’t get bedbugs or anything like that, but we pulled up and I was like “Oh boy.” Thankfully Nate focused on the nice view from the hotel veranda rather than the lack of amenities, and he stayed positive. The hotel provided a babysitter so we could go scuba diving, though, and she took good care of M while we were gone for 6+ hours. So that’s something.

Our hotel didn’t have a kitchen, and we had to venture out a bit for our meals. We ate at a place called Beach Paradise, and the restaurant didn’t look like much, but the food was AMAZING. I had seafood with rice, and Nate had deviled prawns. It took a while to prepare, but it was worth the wait. Our other favorite restaurant was the Green Park Hotel, which is actually not a hotel. We literally ate there for breakfast, lunch and dinner. At dinner they set up tables and chairs on the beach, and it’s really lovely.

The view from our hotel

I’m glad we went to Trinco and we enjoyed our time there, but I don’t think we’d come back simply because we’d rather explore new places. We saw all there was see, which was really neat and worth the trip, but there’s definitely no need to spend more than 2 nights here.

Next stop: Sigiriya, or Lion Rock!