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Mon 21 Jan 2008 12:17 PM

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Hidden paradise

Despite all the bad press that surrounds Sri Lanka, Kaye Holland finds that the island formerly known as Ceylon is definitely her cup of tea.

Sri Lanka is synonymous with tragedy. A tiny island that dangles off the south coast of India, it has been plagued by civil war for the past 25 years. Despite a ceasefire being signed between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) rebels in 2002, fighting there continues to this day.

Throw into the mix the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004 which wreaked devastation and destruction on the eastern and southern coasts leaving more than 30,000 dead, and it's easy to understand why the country attracts more foreign aid workers than tourists.

The entry point to Sri Lanka is its capital, and the country’s commercial hub, Colombo

But, while the media may focus on the fracas and fighting, there is so much more to Sri Lanka than civil war and the legacy of the tsunami. The country's very name is derived from Sanskrit - the classic language of India - and means ‘resplendent isle' which couldn't be more apt.

So long as you exercise some common sense and avoid the northern and eastern trouble spots where frequent clashes do occur (which Sinhalese Sri Lankans are quick to warn you about), visitors can expect palm fringed pristine beaches, treasured temples, verdant vegetation, brightly coloured saris, school children in crisp white shirts, happy herds of elephants, and a welcome as warm as the weather. The weather is another of Sri Lanka's many attractions.

The heat is balmy not blistering - in short perfect weather to enjoy the sun without being uncomfortably hot or suffering heat stroke. Sri Lanka is blissfully affordable, boasts stunning natural scenery and delectable cuisine. Little wonder, then that Marco Polo referred to Lanka (as it's known to locals) as "the finest island of its size".

The entry point to Sri Lanka is its capital, and the country's commercial hub, Colombo. If you want to escape the hurried pace of urban life then head south where a string of beautiful beaches await. You could take the easy option, hop in a taxi (taxis in this part of the world are almost invariably a bargain) and drive straight to your pocket of paradise. An even cheaper alternative is to take the train. Sri Lanka has a system which London or New York commuters dream of - it's cheap and on time. A train journey is one of the defining experiences of Sri Lanka being rich in local colour and providing points of contact with local people.

Eating Sri Lankan styleSri Lanka has a thriving local gastronomic scene; indeed eating Sri Lankan style is one of life's pleasures. And if you find the food to be hotter than the weather, just reach for some rice or yoghurt.

A delectable breakfast of pittu (rice mixed with grated coconut and then steamed in a bamboo mould) and hoppers (bowl shaped pancakes sometimes served with an egg in the middle and always accompanied by the condiment sambol), is followed by a hearty lunch of rice and curry; the national dish. Curries are made with banana, eggplant, okra, pumpkin, plantain...the list is endless. Literally every ingredient that is grown in Sri Lanka will appear in a curry. Want a sugar hit? Wattalapam (a rich pudding made of coconut milk, jaggery, cashew nuts, eggs and spices) is where it's at. Meanwhile afternoons are all about a long leisurely cup of Ceylon tea.

If you're a fan of fruits, you've come to the right place. Topical fruits such as succulent pineapples, small, sweet bananas, guava, mangoes, papaya and passionfruit to name but a few are abundant. Western fare is available, but the local delights are too tasty to pass up. However a word of warning; preparation takes some time (often up to three hours) so order early and for breakfast it's best to get your request in the night before.

Whichever way you choose to reach the beaches, first time visitors will be enthralled by Sri Lanka's shores which feature idyllic turquoise seas and powdery fine white sands under sunny skies. Surfing types should head to Hikkaduwa; Sri Lanka's top surfing spot.

Large signs announcing the contribution of aid groups bear testimony to the destruction caused by the Boxing Day tsunami, but while you will pass some skeletons of houses, most properties have been repaired and now look as good as new. It's a sobering reality to listen to the  locals recount their experiences of the tsunami with moving eloquence and poignancy, particularly when you consider many have lost loved ones, limbs, livelihoods and their homes.

It’s a sobering reality to listen to the locals recount their experiences of the tsunami

Further down the coast is the historic city of Galle whose weighty walls protected Galle Fort from the tsunami when many places were left vulnerable. Do as the locals do and stroll around the old ramparts at sunset before pushing on to Sri Lanka's most popular beach, Unawatuna. Here local children frolic in the water while their grandmothers gossip on the stretch of sand. You can spot the tourists instantly - they're the ones quaffing cocktails and generally looking like lobsters not locals.

But if, as a tourist you can't blend in with the locals, you will at least be welcomed. Indeed everywhere you go in Sri Lanka, the sound of ‘Ayubowan' (pronounced ibo-ahn meaning ‘May you live long') permeates the air. If you're feeling active, take to the water for a spot of snorkeling or scuba  diving, otherwise just chill out or stroll along the beachfront that's free of aggressive hawkers but is home to a hotch potch of stalls selling fishermen's trousers, bright bikinis and branded Banana Republic and Gap garments at prices so cheap you'll be buying them in bulk. If you're looking to party though, you've come to the wrong place for there's no pumping party scene.

Rather, Unawatuna is a sleepy sort of place in which to rest, reflect, recuperate and in the evenings enjoy a quiet drink at one of the makeshift beachfront bars. For while tourists are beginning to trickle back three years after the tsunami, the town still remains mercifully free of clamouring package tourists as when it comes to accommodation, fab hotels are few and far between. Most are basic but clean, close to the beach and no more than a few thousand rupees.

If you want luxury, you'll have to take a tuk tuk 15 minutes east to Kogalla; home to The Fortress. Perched picturesquely overlooking the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka's most stylish and elegant hotel is a haven of tranquility. While there are things to do nearby, you'd be forgiven for lying on a lounger by the infinity pool and listening to the lapping shores of the sea. But even if you can't afford to stay here, it's a great place to go for a drink, to sample a spicy Sri Lankan meal in sumptuous surroundings or to have your dosha diagnosed at the Fortress's Lime spa.

A is for AyurvedaDuring your spell in Sri Lanka, make time to try a relaxing ayurvedic treatment.

Ayurveda (pronounced eye-your-veda) is an ancient system of medicine that uses herbs and oils to heal and is ingrained in Sri Lankan society. Under ayurvedic principles, all body types are organized into three groupings, or doshas. These are vata (air), pitta (fire) and kapha (earth and water). At the Fortess (www.thefortress.lk) you can have your dosha diagnosed by the resident Avurvedic specialist Dr Prhaba. Most people have one or two dominant doshas but all three need to be in balance to enjoy optimum health and avoid illness and disease. One way to do this is to adjust what you eat to follow an ayurvedic diet based on your dosha; another is to submit to an ayurvedic treatment.

Ayurvedic treatments last anything from one hour to one month and are priced to fit any budget. Top end treatments tend to take place in hotels and afterwards you can expect a complimentary cup of tea while you peruse the latest fashion magazines. Meanwhile budget kneading is available at the streetside ayurvedic centres that are nearly as common as rice and dal.

They're no frills joints (often involving just a mattress on the floor) but do administer highly effective treatments. All ayurvedic treatments involve the pouring of herbal oils, medicated milk and/or butter milk over the body in a special manner so expect to be stroked, soothed and lulled into a state of well oiled peace as the hot oils and herbs are rubbed into your skin.

While you can shower afterwards, for maximum results the oil should be left on for as long as possible so as to penetrate and soak into the skin and hair. Even if you don't buy into ayurveda, a quick hour long massage is guaranteed to gently (or hardily) knead your body back to functionality following a long flight.

When you're bored of the beaches, there's the UNESCO heritage listed Sinharaja rainforest to get to grips with, although admittedly it's not ideal for those averse to physical exertion. In parts, it is undeniably a steep scramble but persevere and you'll have the magnificent forest to yourself.

For encounters of the elephant kind, Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage which houses more than 90 abandoned and wounded elephants, won't disappoint. Time your visit to coincide with feeding time or bathing time when all the elephants are taken to the river
close by.

You’d be forgiven for lying on a lounger by the infinity pool and listening to the lapping shores

Tea plantations are a dime a dozen and a visit to one is a must, not only to see how the drink is produced but also to stock up on a few fragrant brews. And it's always good to catch a game of cricket - Sri Lankans are crazy about cricket.

But if you see nothing else of Sri Lanka, you really can't leave without visiting the hill capital of Kandy, steeped as it is in centuries of tradition: this world heritage site was the last stronghold of the Sinhalese Kings during the Portugese, Dutch and British rule. There's plenty to do in this pretty town - set beside a lake and framed by hills - but temple addicts will want to visit the Temple of the Tooth which houses the sacred tooth relic of Lord Buddha.

Essentially Sri Lanka is what a holiday should be; exotic but manageable - much more so than India. Yes it can be chaotic and purgatory for pedestrians but the noise and bustle is quieter than its big subcontinent sibling and as introductions to the subcontinent go, it's a gentler one. They say that size matters but Sri Lanka proves that personality is just as important.

The country is made even more inviting by its charming and hospitable people who are happy to share their world with you, having triumphed in the face of adversity. The best time to go is soon; few are going owing to the ongoing trouble but as I said at the start, providing you stick to certain areas your safety is never in doubt and you're guaranteed great deals and stunning spots that are free of crowds. Plus by spending money in Sri Lanka you're contributing to the economy of a country that badly needs it to get back on its feet. Time then, to make a trip for yourself and fall under Sri Lanka's spell.

How to get thereQatarAirways

Flights daily direct from Dubai to Colombo with an approximate flying time of 6 hours 30 minutes.

Flights daily direct from Colombo to Dubai with approximate flying time of 6 hours30 minutes.

Business Class fare- US$911 per adult return

First Class fare- US$1,940 per adult return

Sri Lankan Airlines

Flights daily direct from Dubai to Colombo with approximate flying time of 6 hours 30 minutes

Flights daily direct from Colombo to Dubai with approximate flying time of 6 hours 30 minutes.

Business Club class fare- US$785 per adult return

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