For more than a quarter century, Sri Lanka seems to have been plagued by misfortune. The tsunami and a brutal civil war kept tourists away. The end of the conflict in 2009 has ushered in a more peaceful era, revealing to visitors a country rich in natural beauty and cultural splendours.
In many ways, Sri Lanka is a soft entry to the Subcontinent. While the rest of South Asia can be quite manic, Sri Lanka remains idyllic, unpolluted and not overpopulated. Most of the country is still undiscovered by tourists and easily accessible.
The central countryside is filled with lush hills; as if someone has amped up the color saturation on a high definition television screen. Tea plantations scallop the landscape. Virescent mountain peaks emerge above ethereal mist. It is ideally suited for nature-loving walkers, trekkers, or even those who passively want to take in the spectacle from the window of a car.
No matter which direction one goes, the path will always end at the coast. Thick mangroves and lagoons alternate with pristine, white sand beaches, encircling the entire island. Fishermen perched on stilts are an iconic image of the country as are the thatch-roofed beach bungalows that dot the shores.
The fertile land lends itself to an abundance of produce, and the diverse cultural influences yield a unique cuisine. The street markets abound with fresh tropical fruits. In a color reversal, there are piles of bright orange ‘king’ coconuts and green-skinned oranges. Sri Lankan cooking is similar to South Indian food (beware the fiery curries), but with a more Indonesian and Malaysian influence, which is perhaps a legacy of the Dutch colonisers they once shared.
Part of Sri Lanka’s endearing charm is its ability to make palpable the varied layers of its 2000-year-old history. The temples offer solace and peace. Former colonial towns display a quaint charm. Colombo has all the modern trappings of any other global city— trendy restaurants, chic hotels and quirky boutiques. The struggles seem to be a distant memory.
WHERE TO STAY
Heritance Kandalama, Dambulla
This hotel, designed by the famous architect Jeffrey Bawa, is an architectural marvel. Suspended on a hill in the middle of the jungle, the all glass building blends the indoors and outdoors seamlessly. Do not be surprised if you have to fend off monkeys while dining in the outdoor canteen. 11, Dambulla. From AED 550 per night
The Former New Oriental Hotel (the oldest hotel in Sri Lanka) used to service the Dutch and then English naval officers. The Aman luxury chain retains the influence of the bygone colonial era— high ceilings, dark woods and antique furniture. 10 Church Street, Galle. From AED 1,836 per night
Paradise Tintagel, Colombo
This stylish boutique hotel located within a tiny residential area in the heart of Colombo was once a former a governor’s residence. The lovely outdoor garden surrounded by high walls covered in flowering vines is also home to a fabulous fine dining restaurant. 65 Rosmean Place, Colombo 7. From AED 735 per night
Sri Lanka’s must see destinations
Galle -Built on a former colonial fort, the city exhibits a distinct old-world charm. The churches and buildings may retain a patina, but the town’s cobblestone streets are full of trendy boutiques, cafes, and art galleries.
Kandy -The cultural capital of the island; the Sacred Tooth Relic is the holiest spot for the Sinhalese and said to contain a tooth of Buddha himself.
Yala National Park Perfect for animal lovers, this park is a National Geographic special brought to life. It is a relaxed place to explore ‘the big four’— leopards, elephants, sloth bears and the wild Asiatic water buffalo.
Tangalla-This stretch of the island’s coastline is regarded as one of the most heavenly. The tranquil scenery belies a not-so-distant tragedy; it was one of the areas hardest hit by the Tsunami.
Dambulla-This town is home to a series of cave temples filled with paintings and statues depicting the life of Buddha. It is one of eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites on the island.
Anuradhaphura -At the centre of this town is the world’s oldest tree, Sri Maha Bodhi. It has been cultivated for more than two thousand years by diligent record-keeping custodians.