It's small. but it's got it all

With its unmissable scenery, wildlife and ancient sites, Sri Lanka is back on track for tourists, says Juliet Clough. The reason? Political troubles are finally receding
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The Independent Travel

'Peace and cricket, that's what's done it." Niaz Maharoot manages Helga's Folly, in Kandy, a hotel whose eccentricities speak volumes for the confidence growing within Sri Lanka's tourist industry. Let's hope he is proved right in his prediction that this year will be one of the best seasons ever for Sri Lanka's hoteliers.

'Peace and cricket, that's what's done it." Niaz Maharoot manages Helga's Folly, in Kandy, a hotel whose eccentricities speak volumes for the confidence growing within Sri Lanka's tourist industry. Let's hope he is proved right in his prediction that this year will be one of the best seasons ever for Sri Lanka's hoteliers.

Early in November, I found them poised to receive not only devotees of the imminent test cricket series against England, but an army of visitors. "Bookings for 2004 are up 30 to 40 per cent over last year's" reckoned Sarath Wickremasinghe, the manager of the chic Saman Villas at Bentota - a figure echoed by the Taj Group.

Nearly two years after the signing of a formal ceasefire between the government and the separatist Tamil Tigers, international tourism seems at last to be prepared to overlook Sri Lanka's political troubles and allow the country to step into the upmarket gap left by the Bali bombing. Two big highways are under construction; Sri Lankan Airlines is opening several new internal flights and international hotel groups are making heavy investments. Angsana Resorts and Spas, a sister brand to Banyan Tree, has taken over the delightful Deer Park near Polonnaruwa. Tea country guest houses and historic seaside villas are being expensively converted.

On 5 November, the day I left the island, all certainties wobbled once again. In her Prime Minister's absence abroad, President Kumaratunga, widely believed to feel that too many concessions were being made to the Tigers, suspended parliament, dismissed three members of the cabinet and declared a state of emergency. But this was lifted two days later and, two months on, the blip appears to have had little effect on the projected boom in tourism.

Which is all to the good: Sri Lanka packs in a bigger share of sheer gorgeousness - more dazzling archaeological sites, more lavish scenery and ravishing beaches, more elephants, more leopards, more almost everything - than any small island (it's about the size of Ireland) has a right to claim.

More interesting hotels, too. The recent building spree has resulted in high levels of comfort and considerable contemporary style. Overlooking the sea at Bentota, Saman Villas has the champagne-on-arrival, the open-air bathrooms and the frangipani-on-the-pillow considered de rigueur in contemporary Serendipityland. "Too much effing good taste," grumped one of my travelling companions, a celebrated photographer, confronted with the lazily revolving fans, the old Dutch furniture interspersed with witty contemporary takes, the designer fabrics and bathroom fixtures which grace the Sun House and the 18th-century Dutch House. I could see what he meant but, hey, I'm not proud: lead me to it.

It's inland Sri Lanka, however, that has my heart. "India designed by the Swiss" observed the photographer. Here is the same green profligacy that you find in Kerala, only more so. Cathedral-sized bubbles of rock swell up from a lavishly clothed landscape, its trees noisy with birds; its waterways stalked by pelicans and herons. Butterflies flop like silk hankies through air scented with incense, wet tea, gardenias and ripe-to-bursting fruit.

What's missing is the hassle. Compared with India, Sri Lankan roads are miracles of sobriety, their most dashing drivers pilot motorised rickshaws sporting rackety names: Strange Boys, Innocent Bird or All That Glitters. Beggars are fewer and eventually leave you alone; the same, glory be, goes for the salesmen.

"Give me your hand, Madam," said an idler at Sigiriya: "You are a heavy person". I'm a what? The tone was of spurious concern, the message ill calculated to appeal to one who reaches neurotically for the Weight Watchers cookbook the minute the scales creep over 8 stone. Only my heart felt heavy; it was already doing the lumbering somersaults which only the vertiginous endure.

For, ahead loomed a cheesewire-sliced precipice, 590ft (180m) high and studded with metal ladderways, some of them connected by superannuated London Underground spiral stairs.Citadel of a 5th century playboy king, whose good-time girls still frisk across the rock face, as fresh as the day they were painted, Sigiriya occupies star position in the cluster of World Heritage sites at the centre of the island.

At Polonnaruwa, a group of schoolgirls, looking good as gold in their white dresses, drifted barefoot through the ruined temples and pavilions of the old capital. Their teacher, the Rev Beragama Anananata Thero, a Buddhist monk, asked me to take a class photograph. "If people want to know about Enlightenment", said my guide, Gamini Mendis, "this is where I bring them." We contemplated three colossal stone statues of the Buddha, their serenity enhanced by the rippled effect of layered granite and not at all disturbed by the crowds of irreverent monkeys.

The same sense of tranquillity reigns at the cave temples of Dambulla, where the roofs billow softly as canvas, decorated with a thousand Buddahs, looking down from the biggest rock painting in the world. "These people are lazy" said Gamini, severely, when I asked him to translate some of the prayers written on the rags hanging from the nearby bodhi tree: "They think a tree can remove their troubles without any effort of their own".

Views of both Sigiriya and Dambulla form part of the backdrop to the Kandalama Hotel, one of the last works of the Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa, who died in May. Set against an overhanging cliff, the building salutes the drama of the landscape, blurring the distinctions between outdoors and in by allowing living rock to thrust through the floors, by draping one of its three pools over a cliff and by cloaking the facade in so much greenery as to make it almost invisible from across the ancient reservoir on which it sits. Bawa's airy Lighthouse Hotel at Galle, which provided the best meal of the week, exuded both style and family-friendliness.

The Elephant Orphanage at Pinnawela looks after more than 60 deserving cases. Ranging in age from whiskery infants to venerable tuskers, they form the largest group of captive elephants in the world. We timed our visit for one of the four daily bathing sessions when the whole gang have a bit of a revel in the river before swaying majestically back to their feeding stations. The sight of a baby elephant siphoning up the first of seven giant milk bottles in five seconds flat is one to cherish.

In Kandy, Sri Lanka's last pre-colonial capital, I took a morning walk past some of the whitewashed pavilions and colonial mansions which ring the artificial lake. Stork-billed pelicans roosted in the rain trees; red flowers fell on police cadets, exercising a cohort of alsatians.

It was the first of the month. At the Temple of the Tooth it's the day for pilgrimages, for fresh beginnings, for babies, flowers and patience. Content to sit quietly among the pilgrims, enjoying the drums, the clouds of incense, the heady scent of lotus, I was lucky to be passing the golden doors of the shrine at the very second they flew open, revealing to the surging crowd the jewelled caskets which house Sri Lanka's holiest relic.

Helga's Folly embodies everything that is flossiest about Kandy. Wax gutters from gothic candlesticks; beds come swathed in mosquito netting and gold sari fabric; murals of dubious quality loom from walls hung with mildewed family photographs and newspaper cuttings detailing the doings of Helga's Kandyan forebears. According to one of these, Vivian Leigh had an affair with Peter Finch here and Larry left them to it; perhaps he felt like a breath of fresh air.

The flavour of the Raj lingers most tenaciously in the tea country around the resort of Nuwara Eliya, in the highlands southeast of Kandy. Complete with golf course, mock Tudor hotel and a sprinkling of double-fronted villas, Nuwara Eliya looks a bit like an escaper from Godalming. Even the weather played its part, growing wetter as we climbed towards tea slopes quilted from horizon to horizon in rumpled, chenille-effect green.

I talked my way into the Hill Club, the old planters' hang-out, now reputedly colonised by the Colombo jetset. Heritage, or a strongly developed sense of the absurd? Either way, the Hill Club stoutly holds its ground, backing its insistence on jackets and ties and Men Only in the bar with all the props: an elephant foot umbrella stand, hunting prints by "Snaffles" and a crested chamber-pot in a glass case. "Ladies shall wear suitable attire, befitting the attire of gentlemen" thunders a prominently displayed notice.

A 1930s industrial building, silent for 20 years and recently converted into an award-winning hotel, the Tea Factory at Kandapola offers a light-hearted contemporary take on the same theme. I liked the respect shown to the building's past: the 1936 steam generator puffing like a wounded beast in the cellar; the two giant wooden fans which once cooled the withering lofts, now creaking over the central atrium. The hotel has a tiny tea factory of its own; a railway carriage parked out back serves dinner to incurable nostalgics.

Leaving the hills for the southeast coast, the road leads through the Uva Valley, gothic mountain country, its gorges opening on to blue distances stretching all the way to the sea. In November the banks streamed with morning glory and wild sunflowers; purple-faced monkeys perched in the rhododendrons; tree ferns reached for the sun from jungle-choked valley floors. By the Rawana Falls, children sold lumps of quartz, pink and cloudy yellow, like Turkish delight.

The lakes, lagoons and low scrub of Yala National Park support one of the highest densities of leopards in the world. No, I didn't see one. But I saw elephants wandering across the sunset, against the murmur of the Indian Ocean. And I saw a peacock dancing, flaunting his Lalique-style assets in front of a dowdy and unimpressed-looking female.

She would never have made it into the Hill Club.

The Facts

Getting there

Juliet Clough travelled to Sri Lanka as a guest of Abercrombie & Kent (0845 0700 615; www.abercrombiekent.co.uk), which offers an 11-night trip to Sri Lanka including direct flights, accommodation on a b&b basis, transfers, sightseeing and entrance fees from £1,235 per person.

Where can I get more information?

The Sri Lanka Tourist Board, 22 Lower Regent Street, London SW1Y 4QD (020-7930 2627; www.srilankatourism.org). The Foreign & Commonwealth Office says "The vast majority of visits to Sri Lanka are trouble-free" but advises caution and says that the north and east should be avoided. See www.fco.gov.uk.

What should I read?

Footprint: Sri Lanka by Edward Aves, priced £13.99

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