EVERY year, a raft of “must visit” destinations are flagged up by the travel press.
Sri Lanka has been high up on those lists for the last few years and after recently heading to this glorious Indian Ocean island nation, I now know why.
Sri Lanka may lie adrift off the southern shores of India, but I realised instantly that it’s very much its own country, a buzzing mix of the majority Sinhalese Buddhist population spiced up with Tamil and Muslim cultures.
Swirl in the lasting legacies of the country’s colonial past under the Portuguese, the Dutch then finally British rule and it’s quite a cocktail!
Most visitors skip the commercial capital of Colombo but I recommend spending a day or two getting over the jet lag and exploring its mix of the ultra-modern and colonial past.
A guided walking tour is the best way to discover Colombo. Alternatively, hotfoot it to the south, to a swathe of beaches.
A happy compromise between city and beach is the southern charmer of Galle, which was easily my favourite Sri Lankan city, with its old core rippling out across a rugged peninsula that is washed by the Indian Ocean on three flanks.
The British legacy is really strong here, as was my base, the palatial Amangalla, originally the New Oriental Hotel.
Galle has its own beaches but you’re better off heading just out of town to Dalawella Beach – the sort of puffy white sand charmer that makes travel writers and readers of a certain age think of Bounty Bar adverts.
The sands here really are that brilliant white and the ocean really is that clear.
A coral reef protects a lagoon so you can usually swim safely here and the water is bath temperature warm. It’s best to watch out for rip tides and red flags, though, as this is still the ocean.
Away from the beaches, another key draw is the country’s national parks.
Sri Lanka is serious about conservation and boasts over a dozen bountiful national parks.
My favourite is Yala. All of the parks boast their charms, but in Yala you have an excellent chance of seeing a leopard along with spotted deer and hulking elephants.
I can recommend my Yala base, Noel Rodrigo’s Leopard Safaris, as they really know what they are doing.
Their drivers and guides are experts and have a great record for tracking leopards.
We managed to catch the rare sight of a large female scooping her two cubs down from a tree and shepherding them across the track in front of us.
The authentic ultra-local Sri Lankan food and the large tented accommodation are both spot-on, too.
Pushing further inland from Yala, the hills start to rear up on an island that sweeps from the Indian Ocean all the way up to 2,524m with the peak of Pidurutalagala mountain.
Trains are a great way of getting around Sri Lanka and the routes are especially scenic in the Hill Country. I recommend the winding journey from Kandy to Hatton.
These uplands were jungle until the British arrived and cut back swathes of indigenous vegetation to make way for Britain’s favourite tipple – tea.
It’s fascinating to see the scale of the industry here, with mile upon mile of land given over to tea cultivation, with the tea leaves still picked very much by hand.
So far, we’ve looked at areas where tourism is taking off, so there are lots of places to stay and eat that are used to British visitors.
English is spoken widely throughout Sri Lanka, too. If you want to pioneer a little, I heard great things from my excellent driver and guide Chaminda about the deserted beaches of the east coast and undeveloped northern region nearest India, around Jaffna, too.
Expect to see these areas on more lists of the best places to visit in the coming years, as Sri Lanka becomes more and more popular.
As soon as you arrive here, you will instantly see what all the fuss is about.
Robin travelled with Indian Odyssey who are specialists in travel to Sri Lanka and can organise trips around the entire country, including hotels, transfers and all sightseeing. See indianodyssey.co.uk
Qatar Airways offer flights to Sri Lanka from Edinburgh via Doha. See qatarairways.com
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