Formerly known as Ceylon and oft referred to as Serendib from the word serendipity – the accidental discovery of something good – the gem shaped island of Sri Lanka rises in a vast palm grove from the azure waters of the Indian Ocean approximately 32 kilometres off the coast of southern India. Just 353 km in length and 183 km at its widest point, Sri Lanka is an eclectic and addictive experience whose sights, sounds and smells nestle in the memory and goad your return like an unfulfilled promise.
The airport is approx 30km north of Colombo, the capital. A noisy, dusty, bustling place, Colombo has some surprisingly sophisticated restaurants and shops. Set onto the city’s coast line, its hotels offer respite from the heat by catching the sea breezes.
Sun seekers vacationing on Sri Lanka often head straight to the capital’s coastal hotels and to the south west resort of Bentota but Sri Lanka is so much more. Although travel in the country is painfully slow and almost invariably involves the changing of flat tyres on a monotonously regular basis, the rewards of arriving at some of the island’s jewels like the walled city of Galle and the stunning lake city of Kandy, are well worth it.
Many of the country’s finest temples and fascinating ruins lie within an area known as the Cultural Triangle in the north and a good base for exploring is Habarana in the arid bush country. Going up-country brings you to cooler temperatures, lush landscapes, colonial decadence and the tea plantations of Nuwara Eliya which is often referred to as Little England. Until 2009, Jaffna and much of the north and east of Sri Lanka were no-go areas due to its occupation by the Tamil Tigers but now places like Trincomalee have opened up to visitors and are some of the most beautiful parts of the island.
The first time I stepped, exhausted and bad tempered after an interminable journey, onto the terrace of the Blue Oceanic Hotel in Negombo, I thought I’d arrived in Paradise. My opinion hasn’t changed.
This is a country of remarkable beauty where the people are insanely happy considering the conditions in which many of them live. Ornate temples, spice gardens, stunning beaches, awesome wildlife and a rich heritage of Colonial rule combine to create an endless treasure trove amidst the palm groves. But it isn’t everybody’s cup of tea (the best in the world incidentally). It’s suffocatingly hot for most of the year; when the monsoons come they wash away much of the infrastructure; there’s a great deal of poverty and even the best hotels can fall short on standards of service and hygiene. But if you’re a real traveller at heart, you’ll be completely seduced by Sri Lanka.