Sri Lanka is one of those wonderful countries that packs a massive amount into a small area, and as a consequence, proves so rewarding to the visitor. You’ve maybe seen it described as “India-Lite”, a rather lazy phrase which does no favours to either country, and completely glosses over the significant differences between the two. A trip to India is at times unnerving sensory assault, transmuting into an almost spiritual bamboozlement by the time you reach somewhere like Varanasi. Sri Lanka does have its own ways of bursting through your Western bubble, though its methods are a degree more cushioned and most comparisons to India show Sri Lanka in a flattering light.
Yes, the history is there; the depths of the Sinhalese roots are a surprise to many visitors as they wonder why they haven’t heard of Sigiriya before, or appreciated the sheer scale of ancient cities like Anuradhapura. The religious devotion is there too, but with the exception of the Kataragama festival and its ghoulish cabaret of self-mutilation, tends to be more considered and inward looking, a feature perhaps of the dominance of Buddhism. And a walk through Colombos’s Pettah market is as bewildering as any boisterous Mumbai backstreet, but perhaps without the same jolting poverty.
And that’s what I was looking forward to on this trip; I grew up in the Middle East and so the swirling colours and myriad smells of a spice market are comfortingly familiar to me. Excitingly aware that plenty of new experiences awaited me in the 3 weeks that lay ahead, I was keen to see as much as possible. Everyone will have their own prompts to visit Sri Lanka – mine was close to home: my brother, a veteran of surfing holidays to Sri Lanka, and scathingly incredulous that I’d not yet been.
So, I hit the ground running –straight off the night flight into the eddying throng of Colombo. Its mish-mash of old and modern lacks the picturesque totality of somewhere like Kandy, but the inquisitive are well rewarded here, as Colombo has the best restaurants in the country, a huge range of shops and an intriguing history woven from centuries of trade and colonialism. Within minutes I was at the Colombo Swimming Club, being quizzed on England’s dismal showing at the cricket World Cup and taking solace in the first of the many curries to come.
Still, many visitors zip straight out from the airport, completely ignoring Colombo in favour of the Cultural Triangle, Kandy or the beaches that are all only a few hours’ drive away. I wanted to spend some time in the capital so after a couple of nights in Colombo I headed north to the serene rural setting of the Horathapola Estate, a lovely colonial house perched in coconut groves where life moves at a far slower pace –as fast as a buffalo-cart to be exact. I was keen to press on to the Kalpitya lagoon and the Wilpattu National park, since I had heard both were beautiful but little-visited. I was right, as I hardly saw a soul for the next few days (but I did see countless elephants, wild peacocks, eagles, dolphins and even leopard).
We love nothing more than investigating and uncovering up-and-coming areas before they become too over developed, so I really wanted to see the beaches around Trincomalee and Pasekudah where several new hotels have opened in the last year or so. Call me easily pleased, but I loved them all – evidently I am a pushover for an amazing beach, wonderful food and excellent service.
Peeling myself away from the beach, and having already seen the Cultural Triangle, my route took me down to the hills around Kandy, a hive of stunning boutique hotels, elephant-thronged temples and colonial grande-dame hotels, then lead me up by train to the tea-producing foothills around Nuwara Eliya. The row-upon-row of leaves, all the same shade of perfect green that almost sears itself onto your vision, are another of the more subtle assaults on the senses you get in Sri Lanka. Whether you like tea or not (and trust me, if you don’t, everyone here will do their best to change your mind) it’s always fascinating to see the process through from leaf to cup, and there are some truly lovely places to stay whilst you take it all in.
Apart from the leopards, crocodiles, elephants and amazing birdlife, the visit to Yala National park really stood out because of a new lodge found and are now using, the Kulu Safari tented camp which allows you to stay on the fringes of the park in relative luxury – tents are spacious and comfortable, and the service and guiding is very special.
Curving around the island’s coast back west to Colombo is a palm-fringed, achingly beautiful beach that just begs you to dip a toe in the water. As you’d expect, there are some really gorgeous hotels along here, and half way round you come to Galle, undoubtedly the island’s most interesting city. Here, in the fort, the wide boulevards lined by merchant’s mansions reminded me strongly of the European frontier ports such as Cadiz, and it’s true that Galle has a long history with the European powers – go on one of our walking tours to find out more!
And there are plenty of practical things that make a visit to Sri Lanka a joy. Everyone you meet is universally lovely. Things work. It’s great value. Travel by road isn’t a constant heart-in-mouth test of nerve. The food is out of this world. They make a great cup of tea. And the hotels – ah, the hotels. After many years working in travel, I must have stayed in hundreds of places and I’ve not been anywhere that does the boutique hotel concept as well as Sri Lanka. Give a man 7 nights at the Frangipani Tree in Thalpe and you are giving him 7 nights of sun-soaked, sand-between-the-toes bliss for which he will be ever thankful.
And looking behind the practicalities – poverty really is decreasing steadily, an impressive achievement when taking into account the sizeable hurdles that have stood in the way of all of this: The tragic desolation wrought by the tsunami in 2004, and the primal havoc that almost 30 years of civil war will stamp into a society. Yet an unquenchable strength of spirit and patience means that at last the whole island is starting to flourish, and there’s really never been a better time to go.
So, if you’re planning a trip abroad, then get the atlas out and I challenge you to think of a reason why the pin shouldn’t fall on Sri Lanka. As soon as you arrive you’ll wonder what’s been keeping you.