One of the best news to come out of Asia in the recent past was the end of the long-running civil war in Sri Lanka in 2009. Sri Lanka is one of the loveliest islands in the region, it was known to Arab traders as ‘Serendip’, then fell under Portuguese and later Dutch and British rule, before attaining independence in 1948. In the current peace-driven renaissance the tourism sector is evolving from parochial to professional; though the journey has come way to go, levels of service are improving at an agreeable pace.
In the past, visitors to Sri Lanka have tended to keep to the south, mainly due to the aforementioned problems but also because many of the island’s finest attractions are concentrated there. The chief delight of Sri Lanka is its variety, from the beaches along the coast to the rolling Hill Country around Kandy, whose main temple is home to a sacred tooth venerated by Buddhists (who make up 70% of the country’s inhabitants) and the focus of a spectacular procession of drummers, dancers and elephants every July. Galle, built around a beautifully preserved 17th century Dutch Fort, resonates with history; and it’s along the coast from Bentota through Hikkaduwa on the west and Unawatuna, Koggala (with its serene lagoon) and the newest hot beach destination, Tangalle in the South that is still oozing in popularity.
Unique accommodation options have sprung out to meet the ever increasing need for more and more hotel beds. In the South you will find most of Sri Lanka’s private villas. Some almost rival the fort in antiquity; others are of more recent – but no less intriguing – construction, ranging from beachside cottages to highly superior residences.
Up country there are fewer but a growing number of private villas to cater to the tourists to the region; many are beautifully restored tea planters’ bungalows, remnants of the colonial era: Nuwara Eliya is popular hill station for being known as ‘Little England’; for the great outdoors and eco treks there is Bandarawela; Ratnapura forms the heart of the country’s gem industry; Arugam Bay on the East Coast enjoys a top ranking among the world’s surfing community and Kataragama hosts annual fire-walking ceremony which is vibrant Hindu festival. Wild elephants roam around Uda Walawe and the rainforest is practically untouched in the Sinharaja Reserve are more splendours Sri Lanka has to offer to visitors.
Further north, culture vultures can hop between the millennia-old ruins of
Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura and climb the famed rock fortress at Sigiriya. The ceasefire has seen other parts of Sri Lanka reawakening again, in particular beyond Trincomalee on the northeast coast. Jaffna another contrastingly different landscape was the worst hit by the conflict. It is today attracting a vast number of travelers but the infrastructure and accommodation options may still be limited. Remarkably just 3 years after the end of the war, the Jaffna peninsula contributes to 10% of the national GDP with the people of the region showing great resilience and drive towards economical prosperity.
The special joy of traveling throughout Sri Lanka is that its relatively small size allows visitors to take the best of its attractions within a couple of weeks, perhaps starting in the capital, Colombo, venturing into the interior to explore the tea country and the historical sites, and then ending with a couple of days kicking back at a beach resort.
Sri Lanka is at its most climatically hospitable between December and March, which is when it sees the majority of visitors, especially Europeans on packages, escaping the northern winter. Incidentally, every full moon in Sri Lanka is marked by a public holiday (poya), when alcohol is not supposed to be sold in hotels, restaurants or shops.
Both the island’s geography and its multi-ethnic community are reflected in the national cuisine. Spices, in particular cinnamon, initially drew traders from overseas, and they feature strongly in curries, which tend to be rather hotter than their Indian counterparts. ‘Hoppers’, a delicious crispy pancake , make a welcome appearance at breakfast buffets and an abundance of locally grown fruit – papaya, pineapple, mango among them – make refreshing juices or can be eaten at any time of day. Culinary diversity is best in Colombo: there tends to be less experience and confident with western dishes as you get further from the capital. Again though, this is beginning to change, and whatever the food, it is always serviced with Sri Lanka’s renowned charming and friendly hospitality.
Marco Polo waxed lyrical about Ceylon, as Sri Lanka was then known, describing the island as the finest in the world. Its even more ancient – Serendip – has come to imply making fortunate discoveries by accident, and now that Sri Lanka is once more fully open for business – and even more importantly, for pleasure – its fortunate discovery as an ideal holiday destination needs no longer be an accident.