The complete guide to Sri Lanka

This teardrop island to the south of India has a huge variety of landscapes, wildlife and culture to explore. Harriet O'Brien visits the verdant interior and sparkling coastline


LITTLE INDIA?

LITTLE INDIA?

To some extent, yes - but plenty of travellers find Sri Lanka easier and more accessible than its vast neighbour to the north. In fact, as a holiday destination this lush island off the southern tip of India has it all: golden beaches; ethereal pagodas; ancient ruins; vibrant wildlife. And it's fairly easy to reach - about an 11-hour direct flight from Heathrow.

Size matters, too. Sri Lanka is only a little larger than Ireland, so relative distances within the country are not great, yet the variation in landscapes and sights is huge: on a 10-day trip you can comfortably take in seaside, game reserves, hill stations and the country's amazing cultural interior.

ISN'T IT DANGEROUS?

Until recently, the island was largely off the tourist trail. Between the mid-1980s and the early 21st century, the northern Tamils - the "Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam" - fought a bitter and bloody war for independence with the majority Singhalese. A Norwegian-brokered cease-fire has now held for nearly two years and both sides are edging towards peace talks. Under these propitious circumstances, tourist numbers have increased sharply.

Last weekend, the uncivil war between Sri Lanka's president and premier intensified. President Chandrika Kumaratunga dissolved the government of Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe, and called fresh elections for 2 April this year. If previous election campaigns are anything to go by, political tension could be accompanied by acts of terrorism, especially in the capital, Colombo. In the meantime, the Tamil Tigers seem committed to finding a peaceful solution to the bigger question of secession (see their website, www.eelam.com).

Local opinion is that it is safe to visit the country. If violence were to flare up it would probably be contained within the northern and eastern regions dominated by the Tamil Tigers, so some travellers may prefer to avoid these parts of Sri Lanka. There appears to be little risk of danger in the main tourist areas: the southern beaches, the tea estates and the cultural hinterland. Check the current advice from the Foreign Office (0870 606 0290; www.fco.gov.uk/travel), and, if you want a second opinion, the US Department of State's website ( www.travel.state.gov).

SO, IT'S A COOL PLACE - BUT WHEN'S BEST FOR SUNSHINE?

Sri Lanka's beach life is very seasonal. The island has not one but two annual monsoons, which come from different directions and affect different regions. Colombo and other south-west coastal areas are fairly sodden between April and October, so the peak season here is from November to March. The east coast is usually decidedly damp from November until February and at its sunniest from March to October, although travel to this area is not entirely recommended. Meanwhile, inland - particularly in hilly areas - the weather is both sunny and wet all year round.

WHY GET HOT AND WET IN THE HINTERLAND?

The interior of the country is wonderful and contains some staggering landscapes: weirdly-shaped hills; lakes covered with lotus flowers; sharp green rice fields; great swathes of jungle foliage. There are also the breathtaking and very visible remains of Sri Lanka's ancient kingdoms, dating back to 500BC. Sri Lanka's so-called "Cultural Triangle" is more or less in the centre of the island and encompasses much of the country's historic heartland. It is peppered with extraordinary sites, most of which have implausible-looking names.

SUCH AS?

In the royal capital of Anuradhapura, you can find grand structures, intricate sculptures and the sacred Bo tree - originally a sapling from the very tree under which Buddha gained enlightenment. The ideal place to stay is the Tissawewa Resthouse, a creaking colonial building set in its own park-like grounds close to Anuradhapura (00 94 25 222 2299; www.quickshaws.com). Double rooms cost from US$41/about £22 per night B&B. Most impressive of all is the stunning rock fortress of Sigiriya, a 1,500-year-old citadel built into an enormous granite rock studded with caverns whose walls are covered with frescoes of ample-bosomed royal concubines. The strikingly-conceived Kandalama Hotel near Sigiriya (00 94 66 228 4100; www.aitkenspencehotels.com: doubles from $121/£66.50 per night B&B), was devised in the 1970s as an eco-resort by Sri Lanka's renowned architect Geoffrey Bawa, who died last May.

The medieval city of Polonnaruwa contains the ruins of an ornate palace as well as a magnificent quadrangle and other-worldly statues of Buddha.

These highlights of the interior are complemented by a wealth of other sights, from sublime Buddhist temples to huge statues and age-old monasteries hidden in dense forest. It would take a gargantuan effort to see them all, particularly when there are other activities on offer such as nature trails, cycling and elephant-back safaris.

WHERE CAN I CHILL OUT?

Kandy. This hill town was the 17th-century capital of an independent kingdom before the British came along and annexed it in 1815. You can get there in under three hours from the capital, Colombo, on a train that does not over-stretch itself on the long climb.

Kandy is the venue for the celebrated Temple of the Tooth: the Dalada Maligawa, an octagonal temple housing Buddha's left eye-tooth. The temple appearspositively post-modern compared to many of Sri Lanka's other sights. The tooth itself is never seen, but its outer casket is displayed during daily ceremonies when crowds of pilgrims, and tourists, crush into the frangipani-filled courtyards around its shrine.

During August each year, Kandy itself becomes packed with people who arrive for the Perahera festival when the tooth (under wraps) is paraded through the city accompanied by elephants, drummers and dancers.

Given the number of visitors who flock to Kandy, the town has a surprisingly small collection of fine hotels. Characterful, indeed eccentric, is Helga's Folly, awash with murals and resounding to the strains of Edith Piaf recordings (00 94 81 223 4571; www.helgasfolly.com: doubles from $90/£49.50). Smaller and quieter is Stone House Lodge, a gracious colonial bungalow lined with teak (00 94 81 223 2769; stonehse@sltnet.lk: doubles from $61/£33.50).

Private villa rental is also possible. Newly available for short stays is Gunfire, a property set in pleasant gardens above the temple (through Colours of Sri Lanka, 020-8343 3446: £70 per person per night).

WHERE CAN I RELIVE THE COLONIAL PAST?

Head for the hills (the train journey south from Kandy is particularly spectacular). The tea estates and the town of Nuwara Eliya retain strong vestiges of the British imperial era - the days when Sri Lanka was, of course, called Ceylon. Take afternoon tea on the lawns of Nuwara Eliya's Grand Hotel (00 94 52 222 2881; www.tangerinehotels.com), a half-timbered edifice built by Sir Edward Barnes, the British Governor to Ceylon in the 1820s and 1830s, and visit the nearby Hakgala Botanical Gardens. Stay in a country house with open fires, antique beds and hot water bottles: the St Andrews hotel, about half a kilometre from Nuwara Eliya, oozes nostalgia and chintz (00 94 52 222 3031; www.lanka.net/jetwing: doubles from $116/£64).

The British were not the only European colonisers of Sri Lanka - in the 17th century the Dutch were here, too. Although they did not conquer the whole island, they dominated its shores and the coastline is still sprinkled with their harbour forts. The most impressive of these crumbling seaside towns is Galle, in the south-west. Dutch churches, warehouses and elegant offices line the winding streets of the old walled enclave, with many now converted into museums and antique shops. A modern town, complete with large cricket stadium, sprawls beyond.

Standing on a hill overlooking Galle's old and new* * harbours are two of Sri Lanka's most exquisite hotels: the Dutch House, built for an officer of the Dutch East India company, and the Sun House, once the home of a colonial spice merchant (details of both hotels from 00 94 91 438 0275; www.thesunhouse.com: Sun House doubles from $120/£66, Dutch House from $330/£180). The only disadvantage here is that there is no beach in the immediate vicinity.

SO WHICH ARE THE BEST BEACHES?

Those undeterred by military checkpoints extol the virtues of the quiet and unspoilt east. Near the dusty harbour town of Trincomalee, the long stretches of palm-fringed sand are particularly idyllic. At the moment there is not much in the way of truly comfortable accommodation here but Trinco's Nilaveli Beach Hotel (00 94 26 223 2295; www.tangerinehotels.com: doubles from $63/£34) basks in a glorious setting, while the newly-reopened Club Oceanic in nearby Uppuveli (00 94 11 243 9049; www.johnkeellshotels.com: doubles from $39/£21) offers a degree of luxury and atmospheric elegance.

Safely in the south, the unassuming little town of Tangalle is rapidly - and as yet discreetly - becoming the beach location of choice, with turquoise seas and relatively untrodden pink sands. Eva Lanka (00 94 47 40940; www.eva.lk: doubles from $75/£41 including breakfast) is at present the only luxury hotel here, although Amanresorts is rumoured to be moving into the market. Among the cheaper options is the spotless Paradise Palm Cabanas: 22 thatched huts on stilts set in a former coconut plantation (00 94 47 224 0338; www.palmparadisecabanas.com: double cabana from €40/£27 half board).

Visitors with thicker wallets tend to prefer the private villa option and can choose from the sublime Beach House (details through The Sunhouse, as above; sleeps seven, from $475/£260 per night, including breakfast); the dramatically set Lansiya (enquiries through Colours of Sri Lanka, 020-8343 3446: sleeps two, from £140 per night, including breakfast); and the pleasingly-appointed Mahawella (enquiries to sarahjac@netnavigator.com: sleeps 10, from $550/£300 per night including breakfast).

Further west, Unawatuna Bay is Sri Lanka's most famous beach - and its most crowded. Yet even here peace and tranquillity can be found at The Secret Garden, a beautifully-designed chalet and yoga complex (00 94 11 4 721007; www.secretgardenvilla.lk: double-room chalet from $35/£19).

Longer and wider than Unawatuna, but less prettily bordered by palm groves, is Bentota beach, about two hours' drive from Colombo. Here Club Villa (00 94 34 428 7129; www.club-villa.com: doubles from $60/£33) and Taru Villas (00 94 34 227 5618; www.taruvillas.com: doubles from $145/£79) offer gracious respite from the bustle beyond. Both are well-placed for activities further afield, which include visits to moonstone mines and turtle sanctuaries and boat trips to see the wildlife along the Balapitya river.

CAN I TAKE A WALK AMID WILDLIFE?

Not to the same degree as in Africa, but there is certainly a great deal of nature out there. With two diagonally-blowing monsoons and a mountainous interior, Sri Lanka's climate varies to an extent normally experiencedacross continents. The wet lowland rainforests and the cloud forests in the highlands harbour extraordinary biodiversity.

Inland, wild elephants are much feared as ferocious beasts. There are leopard, too, as well as sloth bear and jackal. In addition, Sri Lanka has a stunning variety of smaller beasts - mongooses, kingfishers and iridescent sunbirds are ubiquitous.

There is a wide choice of game reserves: Uda Walawe National Park in the south is the best place for seeing wild elephant; Yala National Park in the west represents your best chance for spotting leopard. Serious bird-watchers should visit the Sinharaja rainforest near Galle and Horton Plains National Park, about an hour from Nuwara Eliya. For details of wildlife vacations run by Jetwing Eco Holidays, call 00 94 1 345700 or visit www.jetwingeco.com.

Those in search of less-challenging elephant encounters should head for the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage (00 94 35 22 65804; www.mysrilanka.com), north of Kegalle between Colombo and Kandy.

IS IT EASY TO GET AROUND?

For the most part, yes. The main roads are fairly good, though driving standards are poor. The most convenient way to travel around Sri Lanka is to hire a car with a driver, which is not unduly costly: expect to pay about £15 per day.

Buses and trains are much cheaper options and provide more local flavour. While buses tend to be slow and overcrowded, Sri Lanka's express trains are reasonably fast and also reasonably comfortable in the Observation salons, which are in effect first class. The Colombo-Kandy express, for example, takes three and a half hours and costs the princely sum of 200 rupees, or £1.12, in Observation class.

HOW DO I GET THERE?

SriLankan Airlines (020-8538 2001; www.srilankan.lk) has recovered from an extremely shaky start to the 21st century, when half its fleet was destroyed on the ground by a Tamil Tiger attackat Colombo airport. Its Airbuses fly non-stop from Heathrow to Sri Lanka's capital nine times a week. The airline is linked with Emirates (0870 243 2222; www.emirates.com), which means that you can very easily combine a visit to Sri Lanka with a stopover in Dubai and/or the Maldives.

For example, a Heathrow-Colombo-Maldives-Dubai-Heathrow trip in March costs £630 through discount agents such as Trailfinders (020-7938 3939; www.trailfinders.com). Many other airlines will get you there through third countries for less: for example, Gulf Air via Abu Dhabi or CSA Czech Airlines via Prague. A wide variety of tour operators offer tailor-made and package trips. Kuoni (01306 747002; www.kuoni.co.uk) offers exceptional value and has a one-week Ceylon Experience package taking in the Cultural Triangle and a beach stay from £599 including flights, accommodation, excursions and some meals.

Colours of Sri Lanka (020-8343 3446; www.partnershiptravel.co.uk) and Scott Dunn (020-8682 5010; www.scottdunn.com), for example, both arrange 10-day tailor-made tours from £1,200 per person including flights, accommodation, driver and car.

Travel and Tours Anywhere (0800 093 1411; www.ttal.co.uk) offers a range of activity holidays encompassing culture, hiking, caving, rafting, cycling, water sports and golf.

SRI LANKA AT A GLANCE

Human population: 19.4 million

Snake population: Plentiful. Most Sri Lankans, however, do not kill snakes but maintain that if you talk to them politely they will leave you in peace

Religions: Buddhism (60 per cent), Hinduism (16 per cent), Islam (8 per cent), Christianity (7 per cent)

Languages: Sinhala, Tamil, English

Highest temperature: 27.8C (Mannar Island in the north-west)

Lowest temperature: 15.5C (Nuwara Eliya in the tea estates)

Tipping: 10 per cent is generally expected for most services

Red tape: A free 30-day entry permit is issued on arrival to visiting British nationals

The writer is contributing editor to 'Condé Nast Traveller' magazine

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