Ancient festivals and rich wildlife enchant Emily Lambert on a sun-kissed island
WHAT does Sri Lanka mean to you? Golden sandy beaches stretching for hundreds of miles? Cool, crystal-clear waters? All that is true, of course. But scratch underneath the surface, and there’s a wealth of treasures to be found in the interior of the island, making this a hot destination.
Colourful festivals throughout the year each bring the country to a standstill as pilgrims convene for a night of festivities.
Signifying the birth, enlightenment and passing away of Buddha, Vesak is a yearly pan-Asian festival held in May and first created in Sri Lanka.
Here you’ll see the grandest celebrations, with lanterns in rainbow colours strung up along the streets of major cities, and local charities compete to create the most fantastic light displays illustrating the life of Buddha.
Don’t miss the country’s temples, either – particularly beautiful at this time of the year, when they are filled with candles, flowers and incense offerings brought by pious devotees.
A few months later in August, the summer Kandy Esala Perahera is staged around the famous Temple of the Tooth.
Every August Kandyan Dancers, Velvet robed elephants, and pilgrims form a procession through the streets of the lakeside city of Kandy – as they have done every year since 300AD.
They’re following the men parading with spikes on their backs in order to remind themselves to pay respects to the Hindu god Skanda, but onlookers are also hoping to catch a glimpse of the legendary Buddha’s tooth, which is taken around the city in a golden casket.
After immersing yourself in the country’s culture, Sri Lanka is home to the relaxing “wellness” of Ayurveda with plenty of ways to spoil yourself.
Ayurveda spas are easily found in most resorts, and provide a holistic approach derived from 3,000 years of natural treatments.
You’ll be steam-cleaned, rubbed with herbal oils and receive spine-tingling head massages after which you can pick your spot on the miles of empty beach and simply watch the sun disappear into the ocean.
Sri Lanka is an all year-round destination, and away from the beaches you’ll find something for everyone to enjoy.
If after your escapades with the elephants, brushes with ancient history and picking tea in the hills you are left hungry for more, then try some adrenalin-filled alternatives.
Sri Lanka has a well-established diving scene with plenty to explore and enjoy for serious marine enthusiasts.
The range of PADI-registered diving schools makes Sri Lanka an attractive and affordable place to learn to dive. The majority of the island’s dive centres can be found along the west and south coasts, particularly at Hikkaduwa and Bentota, which offer a fascinating range of sites.
A wealth of marine life ranging from colourful tropical fish to sharks and manta rays can be found amongst the reefs, spectacular underwater caves and a dramatic array of shipwrecks, both old and new.
Prefer keeping dry? Then the lofty rolling green heights of the hill country and peppered tea estates offer perfect hiking and cycling terrain thanks to their temperate climate and spectacular scenery.
There are many other roads and trails to be explored in the island’s forests and savannas where exhilarating trips combining camping excursions or stays in local villages, are the perfect way to get a first-hand taste of life off the beaten track in Sri Lanka.
Whale and dolphin watching is another big draw.
Located within the International Whaling Commission’s protected zone in the Indian Ocean, of the 80 species of cetaceans observed and identified worldwide, 26 are found in the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal.
Whale and dolphin watching is a seasonal activity in Sri Lanka, available on the west coast in locations from Kalpitiya and along the south-west coast from November to March.
For thrills of another kind, the village of Kitulgala, spectacularly situated amongst precipitous ravines at the edge of the hill country, is Sri Lanka’s main white-water rafting destination.
It is also famous as the location for the shooting of David Lean’s classic Oscar-winning film Bridge on the River Kwai.