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Sri Lanka: Asia’s hidden gem

With pristine beaches, endless green countryside, year-round sunshine, 15 national parks, and over 2,500 years of history. Sri Lanka will excite even the most jaded of travellers. Finlay Renwick explores Asia’s lesser-known hotspot

Sri Lanka © Bo Jørgensen

Known as the ‘Pearl of the Indian ocean’, Sri Lanka is finally being recognised as one of the most desirable and affordable tourist destinations for 2015.

The teardrop shaped island, located just off the southern tip of India, has long been famed for its natural beauty, rich history and fascinating culture.

But with years of war and the 2004 tsunami; many were put off visiting this unique island and its abundant charms, leaving it relatively untouched by tourism until recently.

The good news is that with the civil war finally over and tourism growing, there has never been a better time to visit. The people of Sri Lanka are desperate to put the bad times behind them and are thrilled to be able to show off their incredible country to anyone lucky enough to pay a visit.

© Finlay Renwick

Sri Lankas second city

Long sandy beaches and deep blue seas may instantly spring to mind when Sri Lanka is mentioned. But before you apply that sunscreen and rush straight to the coast; be sure to explore the peaceful hill country that makes up the centre of the island.

All international flights land in the capital of Colombo and whilst it’s a city on the ascendency, with a bustling commercial centre and a vibrant atmosphere , there is not a great deal to be seen that cannot be covered in a day.

Your best option is to catch a 3 hour-long train East, to Sri Lanka’s second biggest city: Kandy, the cultural capital and your gateway to the hills.

Kandy was popular with the British during colonial rule and the architecture around the city certainly feels familiar. None more so than the iconic Queen’s Hotel. A Kandy landmark (even if you choose not to stay there, it’s well worth popping in for a quiet drink in the old-fashioned bar) which is located right by the picturesque Kandy lake.

If you’re lucky, you might even spot a traditional Sri Lankan wedding ceremony by the water. Marrying by the lake is seen as extremely good luck, with couples flocking to tie the knot there each year.

You can comfortably spend a few days ambling around the city, admiring the architecture and acclimatising yourself to the country.

Kandy is a gentler introduction to Sri Lanka than the capital, Colombo, and a place that will only serve to spark your curiousity for the rest of your trip.

When to visit?

Kandy is driest from December – March, but the city can be enjoyed at any time of year.

What to see?

Said to contain one of the Buddha’s teeth: the Temple of the Tooth is Kandy’s most well known attraction and an important Buddhist site.

Where to stay?

If you’re tired of stuffy hotels, staying in a guest house is a fantastic way of getting hotel service, but with a family atmosphere. Many Sri Lankans open their homes to travellers who wish to stay with them and get an authentic taste of local culture.

Madugalle friendly family guest house is one of the best. Located in an old catholic nunnery, the rooms are spotless and the wifi is quick. Make sure you ask Madugalle —the owner— for a homemade curry in the evening. It will be one of the most memorable meals you’ll eat in Sri Lanka, a place that is full of them.

© Finlay Renwick

Head to the hills

Catching a train from Kandy to the charming hill town of Ella is one of the absolute must-sees during your stay in Sri Lanka. But be sure to get to the station early or book in advance, as it is the most popular route in the country, and for good reason.

Grab a window seat and stare, slack-jawed in amazement, as the tracks wind through forests of skyscraper pine trees, past rolling hills and fields of tea leaves; all in impossible shades of green.

Ella itself is a charming town, nestled at the bottom of a deep valley. This is the perfect place to stretch your legs with an array of easy hikes; all with stunning views.

You might easily get lost here for a week or more, but if you’re on a schedule, you will be ready to hit the beach.

When to visit?

December – March is the dry season, but as Ella is a popular tourist destination, it will be busier and most hotels will put up their prices. If you don’t mind risking a bit of rain, then April – November will be quieter and cheaper.

What to see?

During their rule, the British set-up tea plantations here due to the favourable climate, and tea has remained a major Ella export to this day. There are plenty of tea factories dotted around the hillsides, most within walking distance of the town.

Where to stay?

Hilltop guest house sits on, you guessed it, a hilltop. Exceptional hospitality and stunning views make this well worth a few nights stay. Make sure you book one of the rooms that faces the views so you can watch the sunrise over the valley.

Guest house food in Sri Lanka is always home made and delicious, but the traditional Sri Lankan breakfast and vegetable curry are particularly special here.

Coastal dreaming

Crack open a coconut and let the days drift by in a lazy haze. The perfect way to start or finish any trip to this unforgettable island is with a visit to the up-and-coming Southern coast.

Medaketiya at the tip of the south is a Robinson Crusoe dream of deserted sands and windswept palms, jutting out towards the Indian Ocean. The perfect place to drop your tempo for a week or more.

Blue whales, sparkling lagoons and an undeveloped, rugged beauty all add a touch of mystery beyond your typical beach holiday.

Allow enough time to become sidetracked. It’s not uncommon to discover people changing their flights and plans, just to soak up a bit more Sri Lankan charm and sunshine.

When to visit?

Sri Lanka has two distinct monsoon seasons: The Northeastern monsoon season which runs from October – February and the the Southwest monsoon season which runs from May – August.

The good thing is that whilst one coast is wet, the other is warm and dry. Meaning that Sri Lanka is a great choice for year round sunshine.

What to see?

If you choose to stay in Medaketiya and fancy a day off from the beach, then Udawalawe national park is only a couple of hours drive away, with all hotels being able to organise tours.

Encompassing 119 square miles of savannah and wetlands, visiting the park is one of the best ways to see elephants and scores of exotic birds in their natural habitat.

Where to stay?

Octopus garden house is located less than than five metres from the beach in Tangalle.

The guesthouse has a beautiful garden filled with birds, two friendly dogs and the most accommodating of owners.

The coast is the perfect place to try fresh seafood and fish during your visit. Take a stroll down the beach at dusk and see which restaurant has the best looking catch. Tuna and prawns are delicious and caught fresh daily around these parts.

Finally

Finding Sri Lankan Rupees in the UK is particularly difficult. However it is easy and safe to exchange money at the airport in Colombo. Remember to take cash out with you.

Most Buddhist sites, like Anuradhapura, require visitors to cover their legs when visiting, so remember to pack a pair of trousers or a sarong, regardless of the temperature.

Whilst the people of Sri Lanka are fair and kind, it’s recommended and good fun, to have a go at bartering tuk tuk prices, although taxis run on a meter system.

Don’t forget to pack extra-strong insect repellent. Due to the tropical climate, insect bites can be an issue.

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