This ancient land still feels magical and undiscovered – and is full of unexpected encounters, writes BARBARA LOFTUS
ON MY BACKPACKING adventures, I’d always enquire among the well- travelled people I’d meet: “What’s the most beautiful country you’ve visited?” and so often, the answer would be Sri Lanka. But every time I was close to booking, there was trouble involving the Tamil Tigers. Earlier this year, I finally succumbed and booked the flights, and sure enough, the conflict intensified. But I went anyway, a little nervously, and I’m glad I did.
Since then, the Sri Lankan government has declared victory over the rebels after decades of bloodshed. The hope now is that the ending of the 26-year civil war will mean lasting peace and signal a fresh start for tourism in what is potentially one of the most attractive holiday destinations in Asia.
While the Department of Foreign Affairs and British Foreign Office continues to advise against all but essential travel to the north and east of Sri Lanka (the centre of the troubles) and common-sense caution when travelling elsewhere, for good measure I checked in with an old BBC colleague based in Colombo, who confirmed that sticking to the south, west and centre of the island – as we did – would ensure safety for travellers. In any case, it is always worth checking in with the Department of Foreign Affairs prior to travelling.
While the Sri Lankans badly need and deserve a lift right now, we could all do with a little serendipity in our lives these days. And if you make your way to this magical island of Serendib, you will find it in abundance. Steeped in the tea-warm Indian Ocean off the southeast coast of India, Sri Lanka really lives up to its name, which means “beautiful island” in local Sinhalese. Although best known as Ceylon, it was originally known by fable as the Kingdom of Serendip. And this remains the essence of modern-day Sri Lanka. It still feels magical and undiscovered, full of unexpected encounters, places and experiences.
Since the heady days of backpacking, I have to admit I’ve become very demanding. I want it all from my holidays. And as holiday time becomes ever more precious, I don’t want to just lie on the beach. I want tasty food, culture to bewitch and beguile, mesmerising natural beauty, accommodation with character and style, and, for even more indulgent moments, shopping and spa opportunities galore. And Sri Lanka has it all, except tourists – so go now.
Bone-shaking roads and nightmare traffic are on the list of authentic Sri Lankan experiences. Unfortunately, exploring this beautiful country is still best done by car and driver. My advice would be not to attempt too much, as too many bumpy rides could ruin your holiday. But have no doubt, it’s worth slogging it out to explore the country’s colonial and cultural heritage.
This ancient land is blessed with a slew of sites of amazing historical and archaeological significance. A mix of Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Christian and indigenous cultures have left their mark, and seven of these have made it on to Unesco’s list of World Heritage Sites: the sacred city of Anuradhapura, the ancient capital Polonnaruwa, the lion rock citadel Sigiriya, the caves of Dambulla, the Tooth Temple in Kandy, the Dutch colonial fort in Galle and the natural rainforest in Sinharaja.
You could spend weeks savouring these sites, but our time limits dictated we be selective, so we were whisked away from the teeming furnace that is the capital city, Colombo, and wound our way up towards Kandy in the centre of the country. This is exactly as I had envisaged colonial Ceylon as a child. Hill country, as its known, is a cool lush oasis of emerald- layered tea plantations, with fresh country air circulating pretty English villas and gardens.
The British built themselves a hill resort here, with one of the finest golf courses in Asia – Victoria Golf Club is apparently unmissable – plus excellent trout fishing and a horse-racing track. If you’re gasping, stop by the Glenloch tea factory for a history and tasting of Ceylon Tea, but if you’ve come for world heritage, the Tooth Temple will be your first stop. A sacred destination, it’s believed to house the tooth of the Lord Buddha himself. The tooth relic is removed from its shrine only once a year, during the Esala Perahera, a 10-day torchlight parade of dancers and drummers, dignitaries and decorated elephants. It may be the largest Buddhist celebration in the world.
Next up, the Cultural Triangle lies in a convenient cluster close to Kandy. The cliff-top citadel of Sigiriya is a hell of a hike, but worth it for the paintings of pneumatic women that adorn the stone, alongside poems inscribed 2,500 years ago.
Polonnaruwa is a rambling complex of ruins, but go early to marvel at the huge standing and reclining Buddhas, and mind the thieving monkeys. Anuradhapura, centred around the sacred Bodhi tree, is bursting with the remains of a once huge, ancient city, which was the seat of Sinhalese power. If your stamina is flagging, get to the cool courtyard of Kandy House for refreshments.
We eventually made it to the fortress city of Galle, on the south coast, where we spent most of our trip. The Portuguese may have come for the spices and gemstones, but the Dutch can take credit for the remarkably preserved fort, perched boldly on a headland at the edge of the city. This World Heritage Site is built entirely within walls and ramparts, and houses a microclimate of rare buildings, tumbledown colonial villas and special people.
Wandering the narrow streets is to enter a time warp – goats queuing in the post office, the clickedy-clack of lawyers on their typewriters outside the courthouse, the lighthouse keeper busy, old ladies making lace on the doorsteps. I loved it, and I loved the stunning gemstones winking at me from shop windows even more. Everyone has something to sell, but it never feels aggressive. Past the mosque and Dutch-built churches, we repaired for tea and scones in true colonial style at the Amangalla Hotel’s veranda, overlooking the sea. Later, our tuk-tuk passes the cricket ground just outside the fort, hinting at Sri Lanka’s true passion, probably the most cherished legacy of its colonial past.
While there’s no denying the still visible devastation of the tsunami, which visited this area, the people have shown extraordinary resilience and courage in rebuilding their city and their lives. We met many wonderful locals who regaled us with stories of Irish kindness and support. Boats and buildings bear the names of Irish people and businesses that donated time and money. We met a Cork family who have been coming to Sri Lanka for many years. They narrowly escaped tragedy that fateful day in 2004, but continue to spend time in the country they love, fundraising and supporting the locality as much as possible.
Geoffrey Dobbs is one of many expats making a life and a difference here. He runs a number of luxurious boutique hotels, and set up adoptsrilanka.com after the tsunami. He’s also done a stellar job enticing lovers of literature to the Galle Literary Festival. We missed it in early February, but Edna O’Brien, Thomas Keneally and Germaine Greer were part of the unique event.
This area has some of the most gorgeous and intimate accommodation, from beachside architectural icons to boutique hotels and luxury villas, that you will find anywhere. I can still hear the waves crashing onto the rocks outside my window at the Lighthouse Hotel and still feel the benefits of the Ayurvedic spa.
We felt entirely safe during our travels throughout the country, and it certainly left us wanting more. Travel experts are optimistic for the future of Sri Lanka as a destination in the long term, for it is truly magical. Better still, it’s a good-value option, from its low cost of living to eating out and affordable accommodation.
Where to stay
Galle Road, Colombo 3, Galle. 00-94-112-541010, gallefacehotel.com. A colonial seafront landmark with a newly renovated Regency wing worth staying in.
Kandy House. Ratwatte Walauwa, Amunugama, Gunnepana, 00-94-814-921394. An eight-room manor house, lovingly furnished with antiques. Enjoy the relaxing courtyard curry evenings.
The Lighthouse Hotel Spa. Dadella, Galle. 00-94-912-223744, jetwinghotels.com. The most renowned architect in Sri Lanka, Geoffrey Bawa, built this remarkable hotel on a stunning location between rocks and palm-fringed beach. Perfectly proportioned rooms, a sea-view spa, terrace drinks and food, and unforgettable sunsets. This hotel is best for a relaxing break for honeymooners and families alike.
Galle Fort Hotel. 28 Church Street, Galle Fort, 00-94-912-232870, galleforthotel.com. This friendly fort mansion has suites around its colonnaded courtyard. Buzzy atmosphere and good food.
The Sun House and The Dutch House. 18 Upper Dickson Street, Galle, 00-94-914-380275, thesunhouse.com. Two beautiful colonial homes on a hill outside Galle offering romantic accommodation and cosy furnishings. Check out the website for more boutique and beachside villa accommodation across Sri Lanka from the same owners.
Where to eat
The Gallery Cafe. 2 Alfred House Road, Colombo 3, 00-94-112-582162, paradiseroadsl.com. Not to be missed for excellent food in a stylish courtyard setting. A boutique and gallery will keep you busy between courses.
Aluwihare Kitchen and Heritage Centre. 833 Dambulla Road, Matale, 00-94-662-222404. On the way to the Kandy/Cultural Triangle area, this centre has two good restaurants and folk art for sale.
Helga’s Folly. 32 Frederick de Silva Mawatha, Kandy. 00-94-812-234571, helgasfolly.com. An eccentric but charming place to spend a evening.
Amangalla Hotel. 10 Church Street, Galle Fort, 00-94-912-233388. Don’t miss the tea and scones on the veranda of the Amangalla Hotel, inside the fort.
Where to go
Kandy/Cultural Triangle. Two days are needed to see it all, and one ticket gets you into three of the island’s most spectacular sites. Ask your driver or guide to organise your trip.
Sri Lanka has rainforest (Sinharajah in particular) containing more species than anywhere else on the planet, bar the Amazon.
En route to Kandy, visit Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage (00-94-356-5804). Best to visit at feeding or bathing time, 9.15am and 4.15pm.
Where to shop
For silks, saris and sapphires, don’t miss Laksana’s gems (30 Hospital Street, Galle Fort, 00-94-777-900170). For homeware try Barefoot (Church Street, Colombo 3, 00-94-112-580114). For beachwear and beaded bags go to Mimi Mango (Leyn Baan Street, Galle Fort, 00-94-777-513473).
This article appears in the print edition of the Irish Times