We are a young couple (well young-ish — 32) from England on a two and a half week holiday. We usually travel completely independently but as there is so much to see in Sri Lanka we thought a driver was the best option. I honestly did not realize what a great decision that was until we met Ashad from Destination Serandib Ltd for the first time, and then I realized this was not just a driver but a personal tour!

We wanted to explore the hill country on a tour and then go down to the south coast and travel independently. We had a few places that we definitely wanted to visit which were; the elephant orphanage at Pinnewala, whitewater rafting in Kitulgala, to visit Nuwara Eliya and Ella and then onto our drop off point in Tissamaharama to independently do a safari, stay a few days then travel down the south coast.

As you can see from my account below, because we took a tour with Destination Serendib we packed a lot more in then we actually expected. Our tour included transport in an AC comfortable car, a double room in non ac room (on our request) and breakfast, but the best thing it included was the wealth of local knowledge, friendliness and good fun we had with Ashad.

Ashad took us on a tour himself and we had a fantastic time. We were thoroughly looked after and we got to find out more about Sri Lanka than if we had travelled independently. Ashad speaks excellent English and knows his country very well. We had decided on what we wanted to see but Ashad managed to pack additional things into our tour at no additional charge, and just to ensure we saw everything that Sri Lanka had to offer.

Day One

Ashad met us at the airport for our 4am arrival. We went straight to Tropic Inn house which was spacious and clean. We had a couple of hours sleep and arranged to meet Ashad again at 12pm. Ashad took us round Colombo, round all the things we had read about and wanted to see along with additional places that he thought we might enjoy. He dropped us at places and waited for us until we were ready to leave. This ensured that we packed into a few hours what we would have struggled to see in a couple of days if we had travelled independently. After our mini tour of Colombo we were hungry so we stopped off for snacks of samosa and rotis at a local place. Then we returned back to Mount Lavina said goodbye to Ashad for the night and enjoyed a night on the beach at a lovely restaurant that Ashad had told us was good.

Day Two

Next morning we wanted to go to Pinnewala elephant orphanage. We had planned to set off to get to arrive for the noon feeding, however Ashad suggested that if we set off at the much earlier time of 6am instead of 11am then we will have time to pack much more in. This was completely correct and again for no additional charge just to ensure we got the most out of the trip. We went to the elephant orphanage early and spent leisurely time watching the elephants bathe in the river. Ashad wanted to know where we would like to eat, we asked for him to suggest a place and on the way to Kitulgala so he stopped at a local place that he knew which served fantastic Sri Lankan food. This was a place that we would never have had the opportunity to go to had it not been suggested. It was cheap and the food was amazing, the best curry we had while we were in Sri Lanka!

Then we made our way to Kitulgala. We had planned to do whitewater rafting the next morning; again Ashad suggested that we do it in the afternoon instead giving us more time the following day. He arranged the whitewater rafting and we had a great time, rafting down a beautiful river with a backdrop of tropical mountains, all arranged quickly and effortlessly by Ashad. We got to the accommodation, White Lotus Villas in Kitulguala which were little bungalows in the jungle. It was a remote place and which we would never have found independently as it is not listed in either of the bibles (rough guide or lonely planet) and does not have a web site.

We wanted to have a few drinks at the hotel and being on a budget we needed to keep the price down. Ashad arranged for the guys at the hotel to go and get some beer for us, I think we were charged an additional 10% for them to get it for us and keep it cool and serve it all night. The food for dinner was fantastic. A rice and curry banquet. Far too much food, as there was loads left over but it was great as we could try different foods and were able to ask Ashad what they were and how they were made etc. This set us up for the rest of the trip as we knew what we liked and were told about possible alternatives we could try during the rest of our trip.

Day three

The next day we left Kitulgala to stay in Ella but we went through Nuwara Eliya on the way and various other magnificent locations such as tea plantations, a beautifully preserved English chapel, tea factories and waterfalls. Ashad was more than happy to stop where we wanted and was only too happy to answer our multitude of questions wherever we went. We drove until late and although the roads in the hill country are rather dangerous we felt safe in Ashad’s hands. We stopped during the day to buy some provisions such as roti, samosa etc which Ashad treated us to as he knew we would arrive late in Ella and might not want to go out to eat. We stayed in the guest house (Garden View) where the staff heated our food and gave us complimentary arrack (coconut whiskey) etc and played games and chatted all night.

Day Four

On Ashad’s suggestion we rose early to see the sunrise, unfortunately it was rather cloudy but our first daylight image of Ella made the early start truly worthwhile- it is spectacular. Our guesthouse was quite high up and so had wonderful views over Ella Gap. After returning to bed for a couple of hours we got up and had another wonderful breakfast whilst enjoying the views and then headed off to climb little Adams peak. This took around 2 hours to give you enough time to sit at the top and truly appreciate the views.

We then set off to Tissamaharama again stopping at interesting points on the way. Tissamaharama is a long drive from Ella, and Ashad was heading back to Colombo the same night (a further 5 hour drive from Tissamaharama), but at no part of the day did he rush. He took his time and showed us all the interesting places on the way. Tissamaharama was to be the end of our tour and I had booked accommodation independently there. When we called to confirm our booking we were told that they were full and that they did not have our booking. Apparently many places in Sri Lanka have the facility to internet book on their web site but they do not really truly know how to make the booking system work (this happened to us again further down the coast). Therefore we were effectively homeless for the night. Ashad took us to a place that he knew which was clean with really friendly staff, who made us a lovely complimentary cup of tea whilst we discussed our options. We really wanted to stay in a place with a pool to relieve the south coast heat, so we found a place in the Rough Guide which Ashad called the hotel for us (incredibly thoughtfully he did not want me to use my English mobile as it would be too expensive). Ashad called it for us and was able to get us a local rate rather than the tourist rate (2500 rupees as opposed to 3800 charged to tourists). He drove us there and came in to check that the standards were good etc. He then took additional time to arrange a great Yala safari for us (we had a tracker, driver and guide — other trips just provide a driver) and ensured that we met the guide prior to him leaving us to make sure we were happy. He also arranged a lift from Tissamaharama to Tangalle three days later with someone he knew and a very reasonable rate. He then left us around 10pm for his grueling 5 hour trip back to Colombo. We were really very grateful for all this additional assistance.

As we travelled down the south coast independently we met a few travelers who had drivers round the hill country and it was very clear that we had a much better experience with Destination Serendib tours. We heard tales of drivers driving like lunatics, stopping at places where you are expected to buy additional things (the driver will get a 20% commission on anything you buy), and some drivers do not speak great English and some drivers will charge you per KM. It is important to point out that the additional places we stopped at along the way on our tour with Ashad were not the usual places that drivers can take you to on Sri Lanka tours. These were places that he believed that we would be genuinely interested in, one such place was a beautiful and perfectly preserved English chapel in the middle of the tropics, no fee — just a really interesting place.

Ashad told us all about the country, not from a local tourist board point of view but genuine account ‘warts and all'. We were able to find out more in those four days about Sri Lanka than we did in the following two weeks. We felt safe and well cared for, nothing was too much trouble!

When we left Ashad and it was like saying goodbye to our Sri Lankan Dad. Like any protective father, Ashad sent us text messages for the rest of our journey to ensure we were OK and enjoying our trip.

I cannot recommend Destination Serandib tours enough, Sri Lanka is traditionally a 5 star destination, and budget tours are hard to find. The only aspect which made me feel that our tour was budget and not 5 star was the accommodation. It was basic but clean with extremely friendly staff and great food — much better than any 5 star resorts which in my opinion have no character! If you want a real taste of Sri Lanka — then I would highly recommend Destination Serandib tours. If you are a little fussier on accommodation and want a 5 star hotel — I believe Ashad can also arrange this. In fact I truly felt that while we were with Ashad, there was not much that he could not arrange!

A big thank you to Ashad at Destination Serandib Ltd for providing us with an excellent tour and we hope to meet up again soon.

If anyone would like to contact us regarding our experience on a Destination Serandib tour then just ask Ashad for our email address, we would be more than happy to give any further information. Prior to booking we were a little uncertain of what to expect from the tour, and it would have been re-assuring to speak to someone who had experienced one of the tours.