For a small country, Sri Lanka has so much to offer, from game drives in the national parks to world-class surfing beaches, from ancient Buddhist sites to misty tea plantations.
Most visitors arrive by air in Colombo, so after a day or so settling in and perhaps sleeping off jet-lag, it is time to explore a charming, friendly, picturesque country. The choice of where and what to see is, naturally, very personal. Some visitors may well opt to lie on a beach for their entire stay, which is fair enough, but a bit of a crying shame, when there is so much waiting to be explored.
You could do worse than start your trip by visiting the major historic sights, which are essential to understanding the religious and historical psyche of the country.The rock temples of Dambulla and the stunning frescoes of Sigiriya are both breathtaking – the latter both literally and metaphorically, since it involves a steep climb up to the top of Sigiriya rock. A piece of advice – visit Sigiriya early in the morning, so that you can puff your way up the steps in relative cool.Relative is the key word here, since we are talking about a tropical island.
The ancient kingdoms of Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura are a dreamer’s, a poet’s and a photographer’s delight. Tumbled masonry, columns, stupas, and ancient, enigmatic Buddhas watch over you. Trees and creepers lend a certain abandoned feel to the sites, as you wander around unhassled by anyone, monkeys playing in the branches above you and Buddhist monks kneeling quietly in contemplation.
Kandy, a pretty temple town, in central Sri Lanka is home to the Temple of the Sacred Tooth. If you are planning a trip there in July-August, you will be lucky enough to witness the Perahera, one of the world’s most amazing religious processions ever.
After days exploring the marvels of all these ancient cities, it will be high time to move onto cool, misty Nuwara Eliya, which at nearly 2,000 meters is pleasantly chilly and delightfully time-warp-ish. You will need sweaters even if you visit in the middle of summer: the hotels usually have fires lit in the evening, and will give you a lovely cozy hot water bottle at night.
Nuwariya Eliya has to be the absolute epitome of a hill station, even down to framed photographs of the Queen in seemingly every room of the grand old Hill Club. When you see an oil painting of Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana in pride of place over a large fireplace that you know for sure the clock of fast-paced twenty-first century living has definitely stopped.
From the tea-planation-striated hills you drive south, losing altitude as you head for the beaches of the southern coast. Sad vestiges of the 2004 tsunami remain as reminders of how this little island suffered, but the beaches and the pretty fishing villages seem to have recovered.
Galle is a delight, an absolute revelation, a beautiful gem, the epitome of living history, but completely natural and welcoming. Within the fort walls there lives a thriving community – Montessori schools, picturesque antique shops, children playing cricket (what else, in Sri Lanka?), families out for an evening stroll along the fort ramparts, a whole bustling world, encased in a 17th century fort.
Colombo is your passage out of a dreamy holiday mind-set and back to the realities of modern life – in other words, shopping. Lots and lots of it, in shops filled to bursting with export quality clothes. Colombo is clean and chic and has just the right mix of lovely old colonial buildings and smart new districts.
Wherever you travel in this delightful country, you will be greeted with gentle smiles and genuine kindness, with people always ready to chat about cricket, which is (consider yourself warned) a national obsession.